You won’t find a medieval castle in Dubai. Unless it’s for sale in a mall. Dubai sprang up out of the desert in the last century so its history is fresh and still in the making. But never fear, this Arab Emirates State is packed with culture and colour. Kirstie Pelling from the Family Adventure Project shares ten ideas on how to discover more about Dubai’s culture….
1 Visit the Dubai Museum
Set in the Al Fahidi Fort (the oldest building in the city) in Bur Dubai this compact museum is both charming and educational. Using life size tableaux it walks you through how Dubai evolved from early settlement to urban metropolis in just over half a century. Wander through a primitive house, see a traditional wind tower and dhows, learn about Dubai’s history of pearling and discover how the oil boom led to today’s skyscraper dominated city in a desert.
2 Wander the souks
From gold to ginger, pashmina to perfume, via buttons and bathroom fittings, there’s a souk somewhere in Dubai selling the very souvenir you’ve always wanted, never knew you wanted, or possibly never wanted. It’s not about the goods anyway; it’s about the banter and the barter and the bling. Few stallholders are native to Dubai and many cater to tourists but you’ll get a sense of traditional trading in Dubai before air conditioned malls. We’d only been in Deira Old Souk five minutes before we ended up in a shop, with the boys dressed in dishdash and keffiyeh.
3 Cross the Creek
This was my favourite thing to do in Dubai and by far the cheapest. In fact I found myself magnetically drawn to Dubai Creek and its atmospheric water taxis at dusk. It can be a bit confusing as there are so many abra boats ferrying commuters, but people are happy to point you to the one you want. You simply hop on and pay the ferryman 1 dirham halfway through the trip. If you have a bigger budget you can cruise the creek or marina in a bigger dhow boat. Our dhow cruise came free as part of a Big Bus Tour.
4 Watch the riverside trading
Hop off your abra or dhow and then wander the banks of the creek. As the night draws in the old wooden boats are unloading after their trips from faraway places like India and The Yemen and it’s an atmospheric spectacle.
5 Go up the Burj
You can’t visit Dubai and miss the skyline. The architecture in this city is cutting edge, record breaking and a major cultural draw. A tourist favourite is to take in the view ‘At The Top’ of the tallest building in the city; The Burj Khalifa. If you’re on a tight budget the view at the bottom is pretty good too. Visit at night when the Dubai fountains are in full flow for maximum fun. Or take a futuristic ride on the metro that cuts through the financial district to experience the city canyons like locals do, in air conditioned comfort.
6 Visit a mosque
One ‘must do’ cultural experience in Dubai is visiting a mosque. The Jumeirah Mosque is one of Dubai’s most iconic landmarks and is said to be one of the most beautiful. If you’ve a hire car and wanderlust then we recommend heading off to Abu Dhabi (about an hours drive away) to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the world’s largest mosques. “Is that the Taj Mahal?” asked our eight year old as we approached it late at night. The eighty domed brilliant white building, which can hold 41,000 worshippers, is nothing short of awe inspiring and there are free tours every day except Friday.
7 Explore an oasis town
Escape the heat by heading to the hills at Hatta, about an hour from Dubai. We enjoyed our viewpoint of the magnificent Al Hajar mountain range from a small hill park in the town. You can also visit the famous wadi rockpools. Or if you’ve more time, then the Garden City of Al Ain with its legendary camel market is worth a visit.
8 Eat Local Food
Dubai is as cosmopolitan as it gets, but there are still many cafes around serving simple local food, like the Shawarma, especially around the souks. We also went upmarket and tried camel milk ice cream at Atlantis, The Palm. Some restaurants might also bring you a shisha to smoke at the end of your meal.
9 Promenade in a mall
Malls might not sound a highly cultured experience but they are integral to the Dubai fabric and massive centres of entertainment and art. You can find the oddest things in them to; from dinosaurs to ski slopes to Egyptian statues. On a Saturday night, when the locals come out to play they are great places for people watching. Grab a mocktail and take a gander.
10 Meet a camel
You don’t have to look hard to find a camel in Dubai. We saw them on roadsides, on the sands, and even on someone’s lawn. If you come in December you can watch them racing on a stadium track. But if you really want to get close up, you need to find someone to give you a ride. Just hold on tight when the camel decides he’s had enough