Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say. But Dubai came close. Up until the 1960s, when oil was discovered, the United Arab Emirates’ biggest city was an unassuming fishing village on the creek. In the few decades since then, lofty steel and glass ziggurats have shot up over the neighbouring dunes, none more spectacular than the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
Dominating the skyline, it is a fitting metaphor for the city’s towering ambitions to be the biggest and best – an ambition you can see in everything from the world’s biggest shopping centre, the Dubai Mall, to the palatial Emirates airport terminal with its huge marble columns. But there’s another side to Dubai.
Down in the souks
Down in the souks, you can easily lose yourself in the warren of covered streets and alleyways wending their way past shops selling ostentatious gold jewellery to the textile market and aromatic spice stalls heaped with rolls of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Take a boat across the creek, and pass the giant wooden dhows that still ply their trade to India, then you’ll find yourself in the old Al Fahidi neighbourhood, home to the traditional, breezy “wind-tower houses” and Dubai’s wealthy merchants until the end of the 19th century.
Today, the sand-coloured buildings have been restored and play host to art galleries and cafés. Stop by the shaded courtyard of the XVA Art Hotel for a glass of crushed-ice mint lemonade. Also in the neighbourhood is the Mawaheb From Beautiful People – an arts project where the resident artists are adults with special needs. Mawaheb is Arabic for “talented”, and it’s a great place to spend an afternoon.
The arts and craft vibe isn’t confined to the Al Fahidi, however. In the park, you will find stalls selling textiles and jewellery, while young Emirati families in their long white robes and black abayas stroll past on weekends. But the beating heart of Dubai’s art movement is to be found in the warehouses of the Al Quoz. Tucked away in this unassuming industrial estate are over a hundred artists’ studios and galleries, the Wild & the Moon juice bar, and Dubai chocolate-maker Mirzam. Visit and watch how the cocoa beans are carefully crafted into chocolate bars flavoured with saffron and other spices.
Where to stay and eat
But don’t fill up. For a real taste of traditional Emirati cuisine head to Al Fanar. It is part restaurant, part wax-work museum, and recreates the Dubai of the 1960s – complete with life-size camels. The food includes dates in peanut sauce followed by machboos deyay (chicken cooked in stock with yellow rice), and bowls of legaimat (fried doughnut balls). You eat to the music of the fire and water jet displays in the creek outside. When it comes to food, Dubai enjoys mixing a little of the old with a pinch of the new. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Dubai Food Festival on Kite Beach held every February and March, where outlets selling Lebanese shawarma wraps jostle with pizzerias, below hovering kites, while sun-worshippers line the beach.
For an altogether more riotous midday bite, The H Dubai, a luxury boutique hotel (pictured above), holds a Gatsby-esque “Hollywood Brunch” in its Delphine bar complete with flapper dancers and crooner every Friday. Thankfully, the only thing The H doesn’t bring to the party is the Prohibition Laws of 1920s America. The cocktails and wine flow freely, and… shhh… there’s even a “pork station” for guests hankering after a slice of sausage and ham. The hotel’s ornate interiors extend into the bedrooms and suites, with marble bathrooms, king-size beds and living rooms with wraparound views.
For a stay that’s closer to the action, the Rove Downtown – a trendy, affordable hotel close to the Dubai Mall – has magnificent views on the Burj Khalifa and the bright lights of the city.