A Walking Tour of Old Dubai
“Before 1833, there was nothing here in Dubai. Only camels!” Stood at the edge of the glittering Dubai Creek – with the old-world architecture of Al Seef behind you and looking across to one of Dubai’s most charismatic neighbourhoods, Deira – you could be forgiven for forgetting all about the man-made beaches and mega-malls of modern Dubai. Here, you are transported back in time to the origin story of the City of Gold. We'd just set off on our walking tour of Old Dubai, and our knowledgeable guide was keen to share a more authentic and historic side of the city, taking us from the charming heritage-steeped area of Al Seef and across the creek to the bustling souks of Deira. Read on to find out what sights, sounds and smells you can expect on a walking tour through Old Dubai, as we share our highlights and local recommendations…
Al Seef - (image: Cat Salkeld)
Al Seef(image: Cat Salkeld)
Where heritage meets urbanism. The tagline of Al Seef is spot on, as this new development (only opened in 2017!), does a wonderful job of celebrating the humble beginnings of the Dubai Creek area as a pearl-divers' fishing port, whilst seamlessly blending in modern design and excellent facilities for visitors to enjoy. As you stroll along the shady alleyways and through the open-air markets that wind along the waterfront, you’ll get a glimpse into the lives of early settlers to the area; the stone-washed buildings are worn and electrical outlets are rusty with a deliberate ‘already old’ finish, however under this historical facade, you will find well-known brands and myriad exciting fusion cuisines! On a walking tour you’ll certainly get a feel for the place and are treated to incredible views over the rooftops from a hidden spot our guide showed us, but we recommend returning after dark, to enjoy an alfresco meal along the waterfront after a day's exploration – camel burger, anyone? Alternatively, if you’re looking for a place to escape the heat, the Museum of Illusions offers over 80 mind-boggling exhibits and interactive puzzles, sure to provide fun for all the family, not to mention some great photo opportunities!
Al Fahidi Historic District - (image: Cat Salkeld)
Al Fahidi Historic District(image: Cat Salkeld)
Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood
Otherwise known as Al Bastakiya, this is where you will find Dubai’s reconstructed old town. Get lost in a maze of narrow interconnecting walkways, peeking behind wooden doors that lead to enticing cafes, art galleries and delightfully quirky museums (Coffee Museum I’m looking at you) and, looking up, you’ll notice wind towers adorning surrounding rooftops, which we learnt provided a much needed air-con system to traditional buildings. As we walked, our guide took us through more local history including the story of the Emirati Union and gave insights into modern day life in Dubai, welcoming any questions we had along the way. Our guide’s recommendations? If you love museums, you’re in the right district. The Al Fahidi Fort is the oldest functional building in the city and has served several purposes over the last 200 years, but is now home to The Dubai Museum, a must-do experience for any history buff. Need a pick me up from all the walking? Enjoy a cup of gahwa (traditional Arabic coffee) or choose from over 100 different types of tea, and relax as you experience warm Emirati hospitality at the Arabian Tea House. Once the home of a pearl-merchant, this Insta-worthy cafe, strewn with white rattan chairs under a canopy of flowers, now serves up a host of mouth-watering local specialities, from camel milk ice-cream to delicious breakfast trays – made up of cheeses, dates, aromatic rice, flat breads and fluffy scrambled eggs!
Textile Souk - (image: Cat Salkeld)
Textile Souk(image: Cat Salkeld)
Old Souk (and snack break!)
Our last stop on this side of the creek was the Old Souk (or Textile Souk), a spot well known for its clothing, textiles and scarves – all sold at the best prices. Our guide was brilliant at pointing out his recommendations for quality souvenirs and, before we arrived, had prepped us on how best to bargain with the local merchants, as well as giving us an idea of what we should be paying for certain items. As we entered, it was an immediate assault on our senses; the calls from the merchants trying to entice us over to their stores, the heady scent of burning incense that filled the air and the kaleidoscopic array of coloured silks and intricately patterned cottons stretched out in all directions. After some shopping (and expert haggling, might I add) we stopped to take a minute to absorb the atmosphere, and give our feet a rest, while our guide ordered us some souk snacks! With a population of over two million expats coming to Dubai from the Indian subcontinent, it’s safe to say you can find deliciously authentic Indian cuisine no matter whereabouts in the city you are. So, sat on little plastic stools and people-watching to our hearts' content, we chowed down on crispy (and completely stuffed) samosas and a relaxing cup of Karak Chai Tea – just what we needed to refuel for the next part of our tour!
Dubai Creek - (image: Cat Salkeld)
Dubai Creek(image: Cat Salkeld)
Flowing between Deira and Bur Dubai, no trip is complete unless you’ve enjoyed the views from the waters of the Dubai Creek! The Creek itself was the key to Dubai’s existence, as it was the obvious spot to set up a seaport back when trade started roughly a century ago. Even to this day, you can spy traders in their ancient wooden dhows laden with produce as you head down to the water's edge. You get a real feeling of old meeting new here, with traditional Abras (small wooden water taxis) ferrying passengers between the souks of Deira and the historic district on the Southeastern bank, alongside luxury yachts and impressive skyscrapers – and there are a plenty of ways to experience it. Join the locals and hop on an Abra to make the short crossing for the bargain price of just 1 Dirham per way (roughly 20p) or, if you are looking for something a little more special, book on to a sunset Dhow cruise. This way you can sit back and enjoy the spectacular colours glistening off the water and surrounding buildings as the golden hour takes over, before savouring a variety of Emirati dishes and enjoying traditional dancing and music whilst you sail leisurely past the sights. It truly delivers an Arabian night to remember...
Spice Souk - (image: Cat Salkeld)
Spice Souk(image: Cat Salkeld)
Spice & Gold Souks
Hopping off your Abra at Deira, you immediately spot vendors unloading an array of goods from their boats, and excited to find out what was in the many burlap sacks and various boxes, we followed our guide (and our noses) to the nearby Spice Souk. A foodie’s dream, the explosion of colours and aromas hits us as our guide started introducing us to the mountains of spices and herbs on offer, from cardamom and saffron to frankincense and sumac, explaining the various health benefits and uses of each – some of which may surprise you! As we strolled, we discovered tiny shops packed to the brim with overflowing baskets of these culinary delights, as well as teas, oils, nuts and more and, the great news is, you’re encouraged to try everything. We were greeted by vendors handing us chocolate-covered dates (my new favourite treat!) to sample and were passed jars filled with eye-watering peppermint or flowery incense to smell. And, with everything looking so enticing, it’s impossible to resist bagging up some delicious treats to bring a little Middle Eastern flare to the kitchen back home! Lastly, we took a short walk over to the Gold Souk (the largest of its kind in the world), where the shop windows literally glowed from the brilliant shine of whatever lay behind the glass. From lavish pearl earrings and diamond-encrusted necklaces, to elaborate dresses made of gold chainmail and the world's largest solid gold ring (weighing in at a crazy 64kg), visiting this souk is certainly a spectacle not to be missed, whether you intend to make a purchase or not. With pricing and quality regulated by the UAE government, you are guaranteed to find the perfect new addition to your jewellery collection and at the best price nonetheless.
Gold Souk - (image: Cat Salkeld)
Gold Souk(image: Cat Salkeld)
Having reached the end of our tour, it was time to say goodbye to our guide, who after walking and talking with him for the last few hours, already felt like a friend. His local knowledge and eagerness to share his views and culture with us was humbling, and his love for the perfectly nicknamed City of Gold had been contagious. This hadn’t been my first visit to Dubai, but after a walking tour through these older, charismatic neighbourhoods, I made my mind up that it wouldn’t be my last. Keen to explore the hidden gems we discovered en route further, it seems I’ll be returning time and time again to uncover more of what makes this wonderfully juxtaposed city so special...