On its surface, the city looks like an ultra-modern adults’ adventure playground with its mega-malls, man-made islands and twinkling Marina Walk. There’s no denying it’s one of the consumerist capitals of the world. But if you want something a little different out of your trip to Dubai, there are a few unexpected highlights. Here are are a few alternative things to do in Dubai.
A city with a population comprised of 71% expats and an overwhelming number of glassy, modern buildings, Dubai can feel a little devoid of tradition or national identity. But it can be found if you know where to look.
Sitting near the creek’s edge in Bur Dubai is the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, where some of the last remaining houses from the mid-nineteenth century have been restored.
A stark contrast to the architecture that’s so commonplace in Dubai today, the buildings are all an earthy brown hue, with few windows and small, wooden doorways. Each has its own wind tower, which was used to funnel cool air into the structure – a natural form of air conditioning, if you will.
Take a stroll through the tight alleyways and it can feel a little bit like a ghost town – few residents in Dubai have reason to come here – but duck in and out of the galleries, cafés and curio shops that now occupy the old buildings and you’ll find plenty of intrigue in a pleasantly relaxed setting.
You can tour the area with an Emirati from the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding and then sit down for a traditional Middle Eastern breakfast to learn about UAE culture, old and new.
Along with its eclectic mix of nationalities, it’s only natural that Dubai also harbours an impressive range of world cuisine. The best doesn’t come in swanky hotel restaurants or from Michelin-starred chefs, though. Instead, you’ll find it in Deira.
Deira is one of the older and more intriguing neighbourhoods in Dubai, with a mix of Middle Eastern, Indian, Pakistani, Somali and even Filipino residents making their mark on the area.
Take the Middle Eastern food tour with Frying Pan Adventures and you’ll taste fresh, expertly spiced Palestinian falafel, see how feteer (Egyptian-style pizza) is made and no doubt gawp at the alarming amounts of butter that go into ultra-sweet kunafa (a Palestinian cheese pie with kataifi noodle pastry on top doused with sugar syrup). It’s the most delicious way to understand this city’s diversity.
Almost miraculously, in the rather unassuming industrial neighbourhood of Al Quoz lie some of the city’s most creative people: Alserkal Avenue is the art and design (and hipster) hub of Dubai.
What used to be an enormous marble factory is now a network of warehouses containing world-renowned galleries showcasing new and rising stars of the Middle East’s art world, colourful design shops, performance spaces and even a small chocolate factory, where you can see the product being made from pod to packaging.
New exhibitions and events are opening all the time, and even if there’s nothing special going on, the Avenue makes for an interesting morning’s exploration. Top it off with a healthy lunch from one of the light and airy cafés that wouldn’t be out of place in London’s Shoreditch or New York City’s Brooklyn.
When city living gets a bit too much, there’s only one place to go: the desert. Just an hour’s drive south of the city the skyscrapers disappear into the distance, and all that remains are sand dunes and blue skies.
The Dubai Desert marks the edge of the Empty Quarter – the largest contiguous sand desert in the world – and it’s the perfect place to find some peace after a few nights in the city. Take a Platinum Heritage overnight safari and you’ll ride a vintage Land Rover over the tracks in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve to watch the sun set over the ocean-like waves of sand dunes, before a Middle Eastern feast of slow-cooked lamb, chicken and camel meat in a traditional style Bedouin camp.
In winter you can see wild falcons swoop above the sands while oryx and gazelles graze on the few parched plants that survive there, and come nighttime, those blue skies turn to star-speckled sheets of mesmerising darkness. Nothing could feel more opposed to that built-up metropolis most people imagine when they think “Dubai”.
Dubai’s most famous landmark is undoubtedly the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building at 830m high. But it’s not the highest you can get in this part of the UAE. One of the most memorable ways to get your head around the vastness of that desert that begins just south of the city is to float gently away from the Earth in a hot air balloon and watch the sunrise illuminate the endless dunes.
With no engine and only the occasional interruption by the four flamethrowers above your head that give the balloon its lift, it’s one of the most gentle and serene ways to experience the desert. Plus, in true Dubai style, Balloon Adventures has the world’s most experienced crew – with more flights between its four pilots than any other team – and they fly the biggest balloons on the market.
Don’t forget your camera – the balloon’s steady flight can turn almost anyone into a Planet Earth-worthy videographer.
Explore more of Dubai with the Rough Guide to Dubai. Featured image © Latn Black. The author flew with Pegasus Airlines, which operates double daily flights from London Stansted and daily flights from London Gatwick with onwards connections to Dubai, and was hosted by the Millennium Plaza Hotel. For further information on Dubai, go to visitdubai.com.