The glamorous city of Dubai, located in the United Arab Emirates, is a hotspot for luxury, grandeur, and innovation. Indeed, the city is so globally well-known that it is often mistaken for an entire country. Its reputation – as a site for innovative entrepreneurs and a lavish metropolis – certainly precedes it.
Articles about Dubai will often point you to the Burj al Arab, the world’s only seven-star hotel; or the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Perhaps they’ll discuss the variety of stores in Dubai Mall, the world’s largest mall, leaving you spoilt for choice. Almost every article written about Dubai basks in its grandeur, luxury, and modernity. If that is the type of Dubai travel guide you’re looking for, see here, here, and here.
But Dubai isn’t all luxury. Before the tourism boom and the discovery of oil, the city was a vastly different place. No grand skyscrapers marked the city skyline at sunset. No giant, air-conditioned malls, filled with visitors and expats from all over the world, were anywhere to be found. Historically, the UAE was a stop along foreign trade routes, including the Silk Road to China and the British Spice Route to India.
Despite its rapid transformation from a scorching desert to a glitzy urban city in only thirty years, it still retains its traditional Bedouin charm. That is, if you know where to look.
A Brief History of Dubai
Most of the early history of both Dubai and the UAE is defined by peaceful farming. Around 2500 BC, the native Bedouins set up a date palm plantation and began to successfully use the ground for agriculture.
The earliest mention of Dubai was in the Book of Geography, written in 1095 by Abu Abdullah Al Bakri, an Andalusian-Arab geographer. In 1580, Venetian pearl merchant Gaspero Balbi recorded the significance of the area for its pearl trade.
At the time, peoples’ livelihoods depended on fishing, pearl diving, and boat building. This was in addition to providing accommodation for traders passing through to sell textiles, gold, and spices. The area now known as Jumeirah was once a caravan station, part of the trade route connecting Oman to Iraq.
In 1793, the Bani Yas tribe became among the most politically powerful and settled in Abu Dhabi. Thus, Dubai became a dependency.
By the 1960s, oil was discovered in the UAE, and the recent development of the nation – in particular, Dubai – began. The late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum began to rapidly transform the city, from a small group of settlements near the creek to a modern port and metropolitan hub. Major projects planned and accomplished during the time included the setup of the Jebel Ali Port and Dubai World Trade Centre, alongside widening of the Dubai Creek. Shortly afterwards, more ambitious projects like the construction of Burj Khalifa and Burj al Arab were completed. This launched Dubai into international fame and solidified its reputation as a lavish city.
Learn More About Emirati Culture
The next few locations are places you can visit if you’re interested in understanding and learning about native Emirati culture, customs, and heritage.
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) organizes programmes, tours and events promoting cultural awareness. Its main focus is the preservation of Emirati culture and customs, which is most evident in its hospitality. At the SMCCU, traditional Emirati meals are made and served to guests throughout the day. The centre is also known for its open-mindedness. Guests are encouraged to ask as many questions about Emirati heritage, religion, and tradition as possible!
Al Bastakiya District
With its simple, modest architecture, Al Bastakiya is a relic of Dubai’s Bedouin heritage. The area was first established as a marketplace at the close of the 19th century by rich merchants from Bastak, Iran. The Grand Mosque and lively old souks remain today and tell of the city’s rich origins. Don’t forget to stop by one of the many restaurants lining its cobbled streets for a slice of date cake and a cup of Arabic coffee (known as “gahwa”).
For visitors interested in art, Al Bastakiya also has a lot to offer. XVA is one of the most prominent Middle Eastern galleries, doubling as both a showroom and a hotel. Its speciality is contemporary artwork created by modern Arab artists. Combining the region’s artistic flair with its antique charm, the Majlis Gallery is another unmissable spot. Being Dubai’s oldest art space, this gallery is known for bringing talented regional artists to the forefront of the international stage. It also has a reputation for showcasing high-quality art from around the world.
Also known as Old Dubai, this area is certainly unmissable when completing a cultural tour of Dubai. Like Al Bastakiya, this region comprises many markets – known as “souks” – restored to showcase its original architecture (from its establishment in 1850). The market contains a wide variety of goods on offer – from toys to spices and perfumes. It is the perfect blend of modern Arabic markets and their ancient counterparts.
Historically, the marketplace emerged due to its closeness to the harbour. Merchants would receive goods such as spices and clothes from merchant ships arriving from other countries. Then, they would display them to be sold in the marketplace.
The creek itself is also historically important, dividing the two areas of Bur Dubai and Deira. It was Dubai’s main connection to the world for centuries and was also the city’s backbone long before its international fame.
Don’t forget to indulge yourself in decadent spices, dried fruits and nuts, and locally blended teas at the Spice Souk nearby. Alternatively, if you’re on the hunt for gorgeous bespoke jewellery pieces as a reminder of your trip to Dubai, the city of gold, stop by the Gold Souk.
Not far from Dubai Creek and Al Bastakiya is Al Seef. This region was established in late 2017 to celebrate the creek’s humble beginnings as the Gulf’s most successful pearl diving port. The 2.5 million-square-foot development contains two sections: a heritage site featuring archaic architecture, alongside a more urban and modern space.
At Al Seef, you’ll find the same antique, cobbled pathways that Dubai Creek and Al Bastakiya are known for, a dining boulevard, and a charming marina. A stroll through the area will allow you to see relics of the region’s proud heritage. This includes ancient wind towers, sandstone buildings, and a view of the bustling souks nearby.
Al Seef also contains its own open-air market, hosting regional crafts and textiles, artwork by local artists, and even pop-ups distributing local cuisine. The area is the perfect stop for a glimpse into what life was like in Dubai just sixty years ago.
Immerse yourself in Dubai’s multiculturalism
Historically, of course, Emiratis were native to the land. Now, however, Dubai has boomed into a multicultural metropolis, filled to the brim with individuals from all over the world. ‘Dubai culture’ as we know it today is less influenced by traditional Emirati culture as it is a coagulation of the city’s various nationalities, languages, and dialects, pulled together by strings of tolerance.
The best place to explore and experience this multiculturalism is Global Village, a multinational theme park. 78 countries of the world are each granted a pavilion, where they sell delicious cultural treats, accessories, and art. Visiting Global Village is an educational and immersive experience – certainly, one you wouldn’t want to miss. The park also offers cultural shows, street food stands, and carnival rides. Alongside this, it even houses the region’s first Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum. This museum contains collections of natural, artistic, and scientific oddities.
Discover Dubai’s History
In addition to its bustling souks, colourful cultural sites, and ancient relics, Dubai offers more educational accounts of the city’s – and the nation’s – history. If you want to learn more about the traditions, experiences, and events that took place in ancient Dubai, check out the list below.
Also known as Al Fahidi Fort, Dubai Museum should be your first stop when conducting a historical tour of the city. Situated south of Dubai Creek, the fort was built in 1787 as a fort of defence and the home of the monarch of the time. Later, it became a prison for outlaws, as well as an arsenal of weapons. The late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum renovated and opened it in 1971 as an official museum. It is the oldest functional building in all of Dubai.
The museum offers visitors the opportunity to glean in-depth information about the history of Dubai, as well as insight into the process that resulted in its creation. Be prepared to get acquainted with the city’s various fascinating histories. For those interested in shipbuilding, the museum has an entire wing dedicated to the craft, which also includes details on the manufacture of shipping equipment, the experience and profession of pearl diving, and marine life in the Arabian Gulf.
Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House
For visitors interested in learning more about the lineage and history of the current royal family, be sure to plan a trip to Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House. This museum was the residence of the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum, between 1912-1958. The historical significance of the house is immense – it was the spot where the vision of Dubai as a modern, multicultural city was first created and organized. The current ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, was also raised in this house. This emphasises the importance of this historical site for any visitor interested in Emirati history.
Al Ahmadiya School
If the educational history of Dubai is something that interests you, check out Al Ahmadiya School. This establishment, built in 1912, was the first of its kind in the UAE. It is now preserved as a museum. Visitors can expect to see the old classroom layouts, the curriculum taught, and the fascinating facilities this old school had to offer its students.
Set up by Mr Matar Saeed bin Mazina in 1890, the Heritage House exemplifies local, traditional housing. To visitors, it demonstrates how past Emiratis dealt with everyday difficulties – especially the city’s hot and dusty weather. Built of coral stone, plaster, teakwood, Chantal wood, and the trunks of palm trees, this house comprises two floors.
Visitors can discover the variety of furniture, cosmetics, toys, jewellery and old household tools and utensils (such as pottery, copper, wood and glass items) used by locals traditionally.
Enjoy a Trip to Dubai’s Deserts
It’s impossible to visit Dubai without a trip to its deserts. The hot breeze, golden sands, and wondrous views are stunning, and unmistakeably characteristic of the nation. To experience Dubai’s ancient past, and enjoy a brand-new experience, explore one of the many options that Dubai’s deserts have to offer, as listed below.
One of the various activities in Dubai’s deserts is a camel safari. Sit atop a camel’s back and let the experienced trainer guide you while you observe the beauty of the desert around you.
If you’re not a fan of camels, but still want to experience a tour of the desert, consider booking a desert safari. Seat yourself at the back of a car, and hold on tight while your knowledgeable driver takes you across vast, empty sand dunes at exhilaratingly high speeds. Booking with the company Arabian Adventures will provide you with not only an exciting safari but also the opportunity to take breath-taking photos of the sunset view before being transported to a traditional-style Bedouin camp under the twinkling stars, for a feast of delicious Emirati cuisine.
Adrenaline-seekers shouldn’t miss out on this opportunity. Much like snowboarding, sandboarding involves simply strapping contraptions to your feet and gliding down sand dunes – watch out, though, because it might get messy! You can rent a sandboard at Big Red, Dubai’s most famous sand dune, or else book the experience through a company, such as Dream Explorer Dubai.
Cultural Day Trips
If you’re staying in the city long enough to want to venture out of it, here are a couple of fun day trips that you can take to learn more about Emirati culture, heritage, and history as a whole. Both items on this list are based in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital city – but, of course, they are not conclusive. For a more comprehensive list of things to do in Abu Dhabi, see here.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the most impressive and well-known landmarks in the UAE – and, particularly, in Abu Dhabi. It is one of the world’s largest mosques, capable of welcoming up to 55,000 worshippers and visitors every day.
Architects completed the mosque in just over a decade. They did this with the specific aim of embodying Islam’s ideology of peace and tolerance, welcoming individuals from all parts of the world. It is because of this that Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE, intended for this mosque to incorporate the architectural styles of various different Islamic civilizations and cultures. The mosque’s architects, themselves British, Italian and Emirati, borrowed design ideas from the ancient civilizations of Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, and Morocco.
The mosque contains 1096 amethyst-and-jasper-embedded columns, as well as gold-plated Swarovski chandeliers, 82 marble domes, reflective pools, and even one of the largest marble mosaic pieces globally, located in the courtyard. As well as this, it also features the iconic Arabic calligraphy on the walls, recounting Quranic verses. All in all, the mosque is both a picturesque site and a cultural relic – certainly, a day trip worth taking!
Qasr Al Muwaiji
Also located in Abu Dhabi, Qasr Al Muwaiji is a 100-year-old fort. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Khalifa, the current ruler of the UAE, built it as a celebration of his royal lineage. This fort, like the Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House, is the birthplace of UAE royalty. Decorating its walls are images from the country’s Bedouin past, charting its development up to the present day. It is the perfect location for history enthusiasts and culture vultures alike.
There’s never a dull moment in the city of Dubai. Whether you’re on the outskirts of the city, with the desert wind blowing in your face, or strolling through the cobbled streets of its souks, it’s evident that the city offers something for everyone. Of course, its luxurious monuments, decadent hotels, and grand skyscrapers may have provided it with its fame – but its souks, museums, and preserved historical sites offer an equally interesting trip for its visitors, reminding them of the city’s origins and the beauty of its humble, modest past.
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