Dubai’s abra is its most traditional mode of transport; not even the city’s high-tech trams and metros can measure up to the simple joy of bobbing along the 14-kilometre Dubai Creek in the modest water taxi.
So rise at six, and catch the sun ascend from beyond the minarets, older neighbourhoods, and the occasional giant ship—all for AED1/₹20. The route divides Deira and Bur Dubai. For a morning stroll hop off at Dhow Wharfage—a zone that stretches alongside the Baniyas Road nestled between the Dubai Creek and Deira. Observe the constant beat to which the sailors load and unload cargo—everything from electronics to food exchanges hands, and bright-hued dhows snooze in the waters alongside Deira’s souks.
Plan your first meal around Bur Dubai’s Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood to sample bites of food and history. The easiest and most economical way to get here is by bus or the metro. Invest in a NOL Silver card (AED25/₹510, pre-loaded with AED19/₹390) instead of the more expensive, pay-per-use NOL Red, available at all metro stations.
For a sumptuous breakfast, stop by the Arabian Tea House—the district’s culinary landmark that has garnered praise from the likes of Armenian-American chef Geoffrey Zakarian and American TV stalwart Martha Stewart. When you’re done admiring the joint’s quaint garden with turquoise benches, lace curtains, white rattan chairs and dainty flowers, turn to the Arabian menu. Break fresh tanoor (bread) and dip it in dango—traditional Emirati chickpeas (AED21/₹430). But if you’ve worked up an appetite, you might be able to wolf down an entire Special Emirati Breakfast Tray that comes loaded with the sweet-and-savoury balaleet (vermicelli cooked with cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron, topped with omelette), date molasses, melted cheddar cheese, baked beans, watermelon jam, dango, bajella (cooked broad beans) accompanied with a traditional bread of choice—khameer, chebab or tanoor. This lip-smacking meal will set you back by AED80/₹1,630, but is worth every dirham.
Al Fahidi is a portal into the Emirate’s landscape from the mid-19th century, where narrow sikkas (pathways) and traditional wind towers—constructed from stone, teak, gypsum, palm wood and sandalwood—tell stories of a bygone era. While the entry to the area is free, a visit to any of its 50 ‘houses,’ which include a string of museums and art galleries, might be subject to a fee. Check out Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (AED25/₹510) for a culturally immersive tour of the district, the Coins Museum (free entry) for its display of 470 rare pennies, or the two-storey Heritage House (free entry) for its showcase of household artefacts that locals created for life suited to
Dubai boasts glitzy malls, but only a souk can hold old-world charm. Situated at a 10-minute walking distance from Arabian Tea House, the Bur Dubai Souk—Dubai’s oldest—houses the Textile Souk, whose setting is straight out of Arabian Nights. Ornately carved wooden roofs flank the central arcade. Kaftans, abayas, embroidered fabrics, Kashmiri scarves of the softest wools, and babouche slippers in kaleidoscopic tints line the stalls; on display are also peculiarly Middle Eastern cushions and Persian rugs so otherworldly that they might magically take flight (most items can cost between AED5/₹100 and AED200/₹4,080).
2nd December Street references the date the U.A.E. was founded in 1971 at the nearby Union House, now part of the Etihad Museum (a 30-minute bus ride from Bur Dubai Souk). Located in the Al Satwa neighbourhood, between Bur Dubai and Jumeirah, the wide pavement buzzes with tourists circling neon signs of food joints that can be spotted from a mile away in the evenings. But head here during the day and you’ll have the place almost to yourself. Craving Lebanese? Al Mallah’s scrumptious shawarma (AED45/₹920) is your lunch fix. Hungry for Asian? Noodle Bowl dishes out a fine array of Malaysian and Cantonese food. Call for their prawn and chicken dumpling braised with broccoli and Chinese mushrooms tossed in mild chilli oyster sauce (AED36/₹730). Finally, make your way to Koukh Al Shay for a steaming cup of karak tea (AED1/₹20).
In the middle of the desert city flourishes a man-made jungle inspired by the Amazon rainforest—The Green Planet. Located in City Walk (a 30-minute bus drive from 2nd December Street), the four-storey glass biodome sprawls across 60,000 square feet and houses more than 3,000 species of flora and fauna. Head here in time for sunset, and tune in to the symphonies of bird calls and a waterfall. Crane your neck and take in every detail of the 82-foot tree model at the centre that lends the place its tropical charm. Follow any of the in-house biologists and they’ll help you feed some red-bellied piranha native to South America or touch the nearly 20-foot-long Burmese python—if you dare. Let this be a lesson in learning about ecosystems and species found the world over. (www.thegreenplanetdubai.com; online ticket AED89/₹1,820, on-site ticket AED120/₹2,450)
Dubai’s best dim sum are pleated at Din Tai Fung. The 1970s Taipei chain was voted one of the world’s top 10 gourmet restaurants by New York Times in 1993, after which it branched out to 136 franchises worldwide, including three in Dubai. Hop off at Downtown Dubai’s uber chic retail destination—The Dubai Mall, and queue outside the Taiwanese joint. Without second thoughts, call for their famed chicken xiaolongbao—six golf-ball sized buns stuffed with soup and minced meat (AED30/₹610). Next, slurp the braised beef noodle soup (AED58/₹1,185) that feels like a hug for the hungry soul, and sample ice cream flavours that hit a home run: mango, sesame, peanut, vanilla with red bean, or matcha green tea with red bean (AED16/₹330). If you aren’t too knackered, go for a night stroll around the promenade that rings the Burj Khalifa Lake. The venue is dotted with fancy eateries packed with diners. But every half-an-hour, all movement comes to a halt and phone screens light up the streets as they capture The Dubai Fountain show, the world’s largest choreographed fountain spectacle.
If you’ve fancied living in a creative space, it does not get better than Al Fahidi’s XVA Art Hotel. Artist Mona Hauser refurbished the former home of the Seddiqi family (who owns the Rolex franchise in Dubai), into a boutique hotel with a café, three wind towers, two courtyards, and a chic lounge. (www.xvagallery.com; doubles from AED285/₹5,820, including breakfast.)
The 579-room Rove At The Park, situated in Dubai Parks and Resorts, is a good bet. Travellers can drop the kids off at the floor dedicated to table tennis, foosball and arcade games. Additional facilities include a 24-hour gym, laundromat, an outdoor pool and sun deck, and a boutique convenience store to pick up local souvenirs. (rovehotels.com; doubles from AED130/₹2,635). Shell out AED200/₹4,065 and base yourself at the property’s Downtown Dubai location, which affords views of the Burj Khalifa from its rooftop pool.
Most accommodations closer to the beach or major shopping hubs are relatively expensive. The older areas of the city such as Bur Dubai and Deira, in close proximity to the airport, have great budget-friendly options. Timing is key: plan your trip in the summer when prices are comparatively lower than the winter months.
Jumeirah Mosque (free entry) is one of the only two in Dubai that welcomes individuals of all faiths. Admire its smooth, white-stone facade, built in the medieval Fatimid tradition, and the towering twin minarets that frame the central dome. Get to the venue half-an-hour early to register for a 75-minute guided tour (AED25/₹510; all days except Fridays), which begins at 10 a.m. Consider your breakfast covered at the majlis that serves Emirati refreshments such as dates, chebab (traditional spice-and-saffron infuced pancakes), and luqaimat (sweet, deep-fried golden fritters). Wash it down with saffron-and-cardamom blended Arabic coffee served in a finjan. As you walk around the premise that holds up to 1,200 worshippers, your guide will explain Islamic holidays, cuisines, and customs, including those around Ramzan. And remember to dress modestly (women are expected to wear headscarves).
It’s not every day that you get to marvel at Banksy’s art. The England-based artist, whose identity continues to remain a secret, has created some of the world’s most famous political graffiti. The Theatre in the Mall of the Emirates is currently displaying 120 of his iconic works, which are part of a travelling exhibition titled “The World of Banksy—The Immersive Experience” (in Dubai until June 30; tickets from AED75/₹1,500). Spend an hour or two touring the 10,760-square foot gallery to see “Girl with a Balloon,” “Flower Thrower,” “Mobile Lovers,” and “Rat with 3D Glasses.” And while you’re at it, grab a quick bite of the classic New York-style burgers from Shake Shack (starting AED30/₹610), located at a kiosk on Level 1, and grab a tall glass of icy lemonade (AED18/₹365) before heading out to catch a sundowner at any of the public beaches.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.