Dubai is so much more than five start hotels and shopping malls. While most might be impressed by the endless glamour and high-rise buildings, that never really appealed to me and I wondered if Dubai was something more than that. I wondered if Dubai has soul.
As Visit Dubai invited me on a press trip to explore ‘the other side of Dubai’, I knew this adventure was for me! This is actually what I wanted to see and I knew my audience would be interested to know if a more authentic and traditional Dubai still existed!
And I’m happy to report back that it does. Dubai has a lot of soul.
This was my second trip to Dubai and one of my many trips in the Middle East, so I decided to write down my 20 best tips for your first time in Dubai here:
As mentioned, our mission was to explore the roads a little less travelled in Dubai and to really learn more about the Arabic and Emirati culture through traditions and cuisine. As most of the experiences where to remember for a lifetime, I wanted to share my favorites with you for your next time in Dubai!
1. Frying Pan Tours – a Middle Eastern food pilgrimage
No better way to get to know a culture than through its food and Dubai is especially interesting for that. What makes Dubai especially interesting is that it’s home to not just Emirati cuisine but cuisine from all over the Middle East as people have moved to Dubai from all over making it a very international destination to live and travel.
Frying Pan Tours takes you to a very local neighbourhood far from the glamour to enjoy some of the tastiest treats of your lifetime from a local Iraqi fish to the greatest Israeli falafels.
Our guide was a lovely Indian woman who had moved to Dubai with her family many years ago.
Frying Pan Tours doesn’t publish the name of the restaurants they take you to, so trust me when I say that you should just book a tour with them for your next time in Dubai.
2. Sunset cruise on a wooden Abra boat
Abra is a wooden boat taxi used to cross Dubai Creek. There are several companies offering dinner cruises and such on the creek for sunset, but for a more authentic experience I recommend trying to book yourself a private abra for a 30-60-minute sunset cruise by yourself or with your travel partner.
Abra is a normal taxi and normally there are easily 15-20 passengers and the trip costs only 1 dirham. To book a private one, you’ll have to pay 60-120 dirhams.
3. Learn about the Emirati culture with Emirati Kashtas
I’m not usually the joining a tour kind, but prefer just exploring new cities on my own. But this time in Dubai we did two tours with guides in groups and they were just top notch!
Emirati Kashtas offers cultural tours into the Emirati life in Dubai. With only 15% of the locals actually being ‘locals’, it’s interesting to learn how different are the lives of the Emirati and the rest of the people living in Dubai are. From what our guides told us, the 15% are pretty well spoiled and taken care of by the Sheikh what comes to education or even needing to get a divorce.
We sat around for coffee with our two local guide ladies and got to ask questions about their culture and everyday life and learned SO MUCH about relationships, religion and such.
We also took the ‘Authentic Walking Tour in Old Dubai’ and got to see sights a bit off the beaten path.
4. Sheik Mohammed Centre of Cultural Understanding – breakfast or lunch full of culture
On your first time in Dubai, I recommend starting with a meal at Sheikh Mohammed Centre of Cultural Understanding for a little cultural understanding of the Emirates.
You will get to enjoy a very traditional breakfast or lunch and even try to wear the traditional clothes and to learn a lot about the everyday life in Dubai and the other Emirates.
They hosts were also really open for questions, so if there is something you are wondering – this is the place for it.
5. Make a day trip to Hatta mountain area
Hatta is a mountain area near to border of Oman and still a destination not that well known by the international tourist. Hatta is a 1,5-2 hour drive from Dubai depending on the traffic.
The mountain area offers routes for hiking, mountain biking and canoeing. There is also a little adventure park for the kids in the family.
For those wanting to stay longer in Hatta, there is a really cool camping area with unique camper vans to enjoy some time in the wild nature.
6. Al Serkal Avenuel – art galleries and cafes
Alserkal Avenue is a warehouse area near Al Quoz and its growing into an artsy hip area of the city with cool cafes, art exhibitions and cultural events in the evenings. During the day the area seemed almost empty, but perhaps it’s like most of Dubai and comes to life in the evenings.
I especially recommend dropping by Cinema Akil to see their cool movie theater that only shows Arabic movies. But there is also a cool cafe called Project Chaiwala in the lobby where you’ll get to enjoy some Indian street snacks and a cup of deliciously authentic chai.
Also don’t forget to drop by Mirzam chocolate factory for some good coffee and cakes!
7. Stay at Al Seef for a local feel
Al Seef is a new cultural area that resembles old Dubai with its architecture. Al Seef is right next to the souqs of old Dubai. The area itself feels traditional with a modern touch and good restaurants and souvenir shops.
We stayed at Al Seef Heritage Hotel Dubai, which is a high-quality hotel but with a special kind of luxury. The rooms are separated around Al Seef in several different buildings. The hotel felt very authentically Arabic and as the birds would sing at sunrise, it was almost like a fairytale.
Have you been to Dubai before? What do you think about it?