Alternative Dubai: Mainstreaming the Sideshow

On your next visit to the city, let its understated corners rise to the occasion. Here's how. | By Alicia Erickson

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A model of ancient minarets near the Dubai Creek Harbour. Photo: Sriya Pixels/Shutterstock


With a skyline dominated by dizzying skyscrapers, five-star hotels, and lavish malls, Dubai is associated with a string of stereotypes that capture only one side of this dynamic city’s multifaceted personality. In one’s defence— the glitz, glamour, and extreme experiences of Dubai, such as hailing a Tesla Uber or floating on a boat down a canal to reach your dinner reservations—do make for irresistible draws.

However, the city has quite a few, subtler and understated—but no less stirring—offerings that you must not overlook. From artsy neighbourhoods boasting concept-driven eateries to rotating exhibits featuring world-class paintings and immersive digital art experiences—there’s plenty in the Emirate that’ll give you the opportunity to slow down and connect with its emerging creative corners.


Al Quoz 

Outside the hustle of downtown Dubai lies Al Quoz, an isolated neighbourhood at the edge of the desert raised from dusty, flat stretches of road. Tucked within this unassuming section of town is one of Dubai’s most intriguing and hidden pockets. As I wandered through edgy Alserkal Avenue, I wondered if somehow I had been transported to a neighbourhood in East London, Berlin, or Seattle. Rows of containers have been converted into cafes, galleries, boutiques, and co-working spaces-transforming this former industrial district into a renewed space for collaboration and creativity: a colorful enclave in an otherwise imposing and commercialised city.

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Graffiti wall at World Art Dubai; Photo: Alicia Erickson

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The Courtyard at Al Quoz; Photo: Alicia Erickson


I spent the better part of an afternoon wandering in and out of the galleries and admiring their rotating exhibits. The Zawyeh Gallery, which promotes Palestinian artists, showcased a striking exhibit by Nabil Anani, who had combined mixed media and bold colours to depict Palestine as a utopia, free of occupation. Another of my favorites was the Ayyam Gallery, which featured the experimental paintings of Thaier Hela, a Syrian artist who had relocated to the United Arab Emirates. Hela’s works of art in this exhibit explored broad concepts of existence, meaning, and finding light amidst darkness—all captured in paintings by playing with composition and layers of colour.

In between gallery hopping, take a break at one of Al Quoz’s cafes, which are a welcome change from the Starbucks and Costa outlets dominating much of the city. Duck into the dimly lit, uber cool Nightjar, and grab a cup of their flawlessly roasted coffee, which is even available on tap.

For the best place to eat in Al Quoz, walk across the street from Alserkal Avenue and head into The Courtyard, an open-air space with a maze of concept shops shaded with foliage. Take a seat in the dreamy green and white-washed Cassette, whose high ceilings, minimalistic décor, and plant-filled space will keep you lingering over a cup of coffee or fresh juice for hours. Choose from mouthwatering dishes that creatively incorporate seasonal, locally sourced ingredients ranging from portobello burgers to truffle oil quinoa risotto. This neighborhood space is as inviting as it is environmentally conscious.


Dubai Design District 

Dubai Design District, Dubai’s sleek and artsy neighborhood, hosts avant-garde art galleries and fashion boutiques alongside innovative eateries. While the district still carries an air of being curated, it succeeds in what it set out to accomplish: providing a peaceful batch of culinary and cultural experiences to pass an afternoon or evening in, tucked away from the traffic of downtown Dubai.

For a nutritious, plant-centric meal, head to the brightly lit One Life Café, which is the perfect spot to read a book or work from for the day. Akiba Dori is a fashionably hip collision of Japanese street food and Tokyo-style Neapolitan pizza that will leave you wanting to try everything on the menu. After you’ve had your fill of browsing the galleries and showrooms, grab a drink at the funky Bistro Royal and admire the art on display.

While you’re in the area, escape to Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, which is accessible by road or even a walk from the Design District. A green haven of mangroves and pink flamingos tucked within downtown Dubai, Ras Al Khor is the perfect stop if you want to find a natural space within the heart of Dubai.

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‘The Blocks’ is one of the highlights of the Dubai Design District. Photo: Kateryna Galkina/


Sustainable City

Removed from the heart of central Dubai lies the self-contained Sustainable City, which is an experiment in precisely what its name suggests: sustainability. This net-zero-energy enclave is somewhat of an anomaly in a city defined by a famous urban sprawl. Spanning the entire length of Sustainable City is a flourishing park, recognized as the community’s “Central Green Spine.” Across this green section are 11 biodome greenhouses and over 3,000 square meters dedicated to urban farming.

Lining the perimeters of Sustainable City is a buffer zone consisting of about 2,500 trees that defend against pollutants and purify the air. In the central plaza, find art studios, creative centres, music events, experimental installations with upcycled materials, weekend markets, and environmental-education workshops.


Jaddaf Waterfront

Jaddaf Waterfront stretches for several kilometres along Dubai Creek, featuring a quiet harbour and a number of creative centres. Jameel Arts Center is the standout feature of this waterfront hub, hosting compelling art exhibitions that seek to engage the public through promoting contemporary art and cultural heritages of the Middle East and North Africa. The Arts Centre, inclusive of immersive rotating exhibits exploring concepts like individuality in the digital age and the experience of seeking asylum in Kurdish Iraq, provides a space for creative entrepreneurship and dialogue.

On the exterior of Jameel, walk through the Artist’s Garden, which showcases little-known native desert plants that can be incorporated into cooking. From here, enjoy the quiet walk along the canal and then make your way to Sculpture Park, which is the UAE’s first open-air art park. The fluid geometric design reflects the rippling water of Jaddaf Creek. Throughout the year, you can explore permanent and rotating art exhibits, as well as attend film screenings and events.


And Beyond

While these neighbourhoods provide a decent concentration of creative and alternative spaces in Dubai, the city is sprinkled with surprises and creative outlets, keeping in with its thirst for innovation. Watch out for rotating art events such as World Art Dubai, and check out what is featuring at the Theatre of Digital Art, a multimedia, multi-sensory, and immersive art experience.

For one of the most thoughtfully designed and homegrown dining experiences in the city, book a table at BOCA, a modern, Spanish-influenced eatery that uses desert plants, Emirati kingfish, and an entire host of locally sourced ingredients for its innovative, upscale, and sustainably minded menu alongside a predominantly organic wine list. So, the next time you’re headed to this city of lights, forgo the crowded malls and beaches and tap into these hubs of creativity, culinary art and innovation that are slowly shifting the ethos of Dubai.

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