Heat, History, Color: A Guide to Old Dubai

Along the banks of Dubai Creek

The souks are labyrinthine. I press my fingers to a sand-colored wall, letting its surface cool me while I pause in the shade. Just beyond this side alley is another stretch of stores, textile-themed: glittering dresses, silks, shoes.

So far I’ve already found Chanel perfume dupes and “Viagra stones”, but Old Dubai has far more in store for visitors. This historical area of the city is nothing like the 10-lane roads, ambitiously sculpted artificial islands, and overgrowth of glass and steel that Dubai has come to be known for. Instead, it’s packed with people,  and goods that ignite the senses.

I want to lose myself in Old Dubai’s backstreets, but with only one day to spare, I cave to my fear of missing out and decide to try and take in as much as possible. This guide to Old Dubai covers the districts of Bur Dubai on the southern bank of Dubai Creek and Deira on the northern bank. If you can only spare one day in Old Dubai, make sure these things to do in Old Dubai are on your list – or join an Old Dubai tour!

**As you’ll be visiting traditional attractions, please dress conservatively when visiting Old Dubai; cover your shoulders and knees at the minimum.

In this guide

Things to do in Bur Dubai

Al Fahidi Historial District (Al Bastakiya) in Old Dubai

Explore Al Fahidi Historical District (Al Bastakiya)

Rising as Dubai’s first modern settlement, Al Fahidi Historical District (also known as Al Bastakiya) is identifiable by its traditional architecture, most notably the barjeel (windcatcher) which helps to ventilate and cool the interiors of buildings.

Within Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest existing building in Dubai, is the Dubai Museum. While modestly sized, the museum is a precious time capsule in which you can learn about Dubai’s pre-oil days. You may also happen upon the Dubai Coffee Museum, a small gallery housing information and artifacts tracing this vital crop from its origins to the drink we know today.

A Cultural Meal at SMCCU Dubai

Learn about Emirati culture over a meal at the SMCCU

The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU Dubai) tops my list for the best things to do in Dubai. Here, you’ll enjoy a communal meal together with an Emirati host who will explain the traditional customs and answer all your burning questions about Emirati culture.

“You can ask absolutely anything. There are no stupid questions or taboo questions,” declares Mr Nayef, my host for the meal, as we sip from tiny cups of cardamom-laced coffee. “For example, do you know why men’s clothes are white and women’s are black? Because we like to torture our women!” (In all seriousness, he added that it’s because black isn’t see-through: women do wear fashionable clothing that’s only revealed indoors when, say, visiting friends’ homes.)

The open communication and local traditional food make for an unforgettable experience, and I highly recommend it. You can book either a breakfastlunch, or dinner session – all of these are directly organized by the SMCCU Dubai and not a third-party tour provider.

Browse the textile souk

Dubai’s heritage as a multicultural trading hub is most evident in the Textile Souk. Clothing from the region can easily be found here, be it pashminas, kaftans, or saris; you’ll also find plenty of embroidered shoes, cushions, tapestries, and pure fabric.

Admire the Iranian Mosque

You may not be able to remember the name of Ali Ibn Abi Talib Mosque, but you’ll surely remember the intricately worked exterior of this Shia mosque, better known as the Iranian Mosque. Only Muslims are permitted to enter the mosque, but you can photograph the building as you pass by.

From the Iranian Mosque, it’s a short walk to the Bur Dubai Abra Station where you can go on to explore Deira on the northeastern edge of the city.

Things to do in Old Dubai: Ride an abra along Dubai Creek

Crossing Dubai Creek by abra

Forget the fast cars and chug across Dubai Creek the way the locals do: on a traditional abra, a motorized wooden boat that for centuries has been the essential means of transport between Bur Dubai to the south and Deira to the north. Each ride only costs 1 dirham and while queues can be long, they move fast since the abras are constantly shuttling to and fro.

If you have time to sail the entire Dubai Creek, consider a Dubai dhow cruise. The dhows are larger boats crafted from teak, and a dinner cruise usually includes some light entertainment such as photo ops with falcons and traditional tanoura (Sufi whirling) dance performances. I sailed with Rustar Restaurant Dhow and while the buffet dinner wasn’t exactly stellar, the cruise was a fun thing to do with a group of friends.

Things to do in Deira

Find real saffron and other rarities at the Spice Souk

Amid the piles of colorful spices and wafting trails of sharp incense, my most vivid memory of the Dubai Spice Souk is passing by a shopfront and seeing huge glass jars lined up against the window – one of which was labeled “VIAGRA STONES”. That might spice up one’s life, indeed.

If you enjoy cooking, the Dubai Spice Souk will be a real treat. One of the most sought-after products here is saffron, but often fake or poor quality saffron is passed off as the real deal to inexperienced buyers. The shopkeeper at one store even shows me a comparison between real saffron threads and similar-looking safflower! Make sure you know your spices and ready your bargaining skills when you visit.

Viagra stone at Dubai Spice Souk
Window display of elaborate gold accessories at Dubai Gold Souk

Be dazzled at the Gold Souk

If you’ve only ever seen gold in jewelry stores, pawnshops, or the movies, then Dubai’s Gold Souk will be a sight to behold. All along both sides of the souk’s wide central passage are shops and their surreal displays of gold jewelry. I’m not talking simple boutique windows – I’m talking wall-to-wall displays dripping with thick gold chains, bangles, and ridiculously ornate jeweled bodices. I can’t imagine who’d wear this, but there’s clearly a demand.

Inside the shops are simpler and classier pieces that make attractive investments, in more ways than one. But even if you’re not a fan of gold, the Deira Gold Souk is worth a quick stroll through.

Seeking adventure in Dubai? Head out on a desert safari for a thrilling day trip.

What to eat in Old Dubai

Mazmi Café. A restaurant and cafe with the best view of Dubai creek. They also run a boutique hotel, but each room goes for over $300/night.

Geewin Cafe Arabianized Gelateria. It’s hard to miss this humble gelato kiosk at the Deira Old Souk abra station, which is a good thing since Geewin Cafe’s gelato is not ordinary gelato – it’s made from camel milk!

Local HouseIf you’re a fan of exotic food, head to this diner in Al Fahidi/Al Bastakiya to try its camel burgers. It’s slightly tougher than mutton, but less gamey.

Camel milk gelato at Old Dubai

Where to stay in Old Dubai

Zabeel House MINI Al Seef by Jumeirah ($$)This is simply a shoebox version of the Zabeel House Al Seef boutique hotel right on the banks of Dubai Creek. While it’s slightly cheaper, its rooms are just as uniquely funky and come with luxe touches like a Nespresso machine and Smeg refrigerators. Check reviews and availability.

XVA Art Hotel ($$$)Set within a heritage building in Al Fahidi, this boutique establishment is fit for royalty with its bespoke decor and idyllic grounds. Showcasing work by the region’s up-and-coming artists and designers, XVA is perfect for the creative soul. Check reviews and availability.

**Hotels in Dubai charge substantial tourism taxes/fees (as much as ~25%) on top of the room rate, payable separately upon checkout. When you check the prices of any of the hotels above, the estimated additional charge will be displayed. My $ gauge is based on the room rate + additional charges.

Plan Your Trip

Get there: Find flights to Dubai
Explore: Go on a desert safari
Sleep: Best places to stay in Dubai

Abra boats on Dubai Creek, UAE