The insider’s GUIDE to Dubai
This city of superlatives may be famed for its spectacular skyscrapers, mammoth malls and luxurious lifestyles, but what to do when you’ve ‘done Dubai’? Kate Birch explores some of the city’s less celebrated attractions
Ifirst came to Dubai in 1993 and am as guilty as anyone of bemoaning the city’s lack of variety in things to do, while at the same time being too stuck in my ways to actively search out something new. I mean, once you’ve gazed in wonder at The Dubai Mall’s incredible aquarium, swayed along to the music at the Dubai Fountain, craned your neck admiring the awesome Burj Khalifa and gone skiing when it’s 45 degrees outside, what do you do next?
This is no doubt a dilemma facing staycationers and recent arrivals in the sultry summer, as well as longterm expats guilty of sticking to the same old places. Dig a little deeper and you could find some hidden gems. Yes, some of these tucked-away treasures may take a little effort, and some may not have the same 24-carat cachet of their more ornamental
alternatives, but they are also rich in culture and character.
Hands up if you have never been to Dubai Museum? This is the archetypal example of a great Dubai attraction overlooked by residents. A genuine slice of history, Fahidi Fort, built in 1787, is the oldest structure in Dubai. From the simple courtyard, one door leads into an underground world where a video brings to life the city’s development before you are led through recreations of an old souq, desert camps, and even a pearl-diving exhibit. At just Dh3 for adults, this is one of the city’s best bargains.
Weather permitting, and just a short walk away, an abra trip across the Creek and a stroll around the souqs is not just nourishment for the soul, but for the wallet too – just Dh1 for a ride. Splash out on a private abra (from Dh60 for an hour if you haggle) or go overboard (not literally) by hopping on a dhow with A/C and edibles. The supremely kitsch Cleopatra Dhow Cruise is an absolute scream, delivering not just a buffet dinner brimming with Arabic delicacies, but a rather surreal show with magic tricks and a dressed-up dancing horse.
For a more cultural experience, lunch instead at nearby beauty spot Bastakiya. The only Dubai neighbourhood that’s more than 100 years old, it boasts a multitude of art cafés. Although Local House Coffee Shop is famed for its camel burgers and XVA Hotel & Café lauded for its tasty crêpes and original art, my favourite is Arabian Tea House (until recently called Basta Art Café), which is housed in the garden of the former residence of a pearl merchant. Sit in its leafy courtyard shaded by the branches of an enormous Narra tree, dig into its oversized salads (the asparagus and halloumi combo is yummy), sip on one of its 150 types of tea and make a mockery of Dubai’s hectic pace. If you’re there early, order the Emirati breakfast of cardamom-seasoned sweet vermicelli with egg.
You can also get a traditional Arabic breakfast, but with cool extras, at the nearby Shaikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (www.cultures.ae). Many expats avoid attractions like this, believing they’re already au fait with the local culture. But the breakfast – a Dh60 spread of spiced scrambled eggs with vermicelli noodles and doughnuts drenched in date syrup – amid a no-holdsbarred discussion on UAE culture and religion offers great insight, no matter your residency lifespan.
There are tons of charismatic dining experiences – none of them anywhere near a marble lobby – that are well worth sniffing out. Dubai institutions – Ravi in Satwa for streetwise spice (it dishes up the best butter chicken), The Chalet on Beach Road for post-beach basking (it does the tastiest rotisserie chickens) and Bu Qtair on Beach Road for its straight-from-the-shore seafood – are plentiful, but they also become victims of their own success – destinations well-trodden on the search for something fresh.
So, instead, put your hunger in the hands of a true Dubai foodie, oldtimer Arva Ahmad, who can take you on one of her backstreet food strolls of Old Dubai (take an evening tour during Ramadan) to sample its best ethnic eats. Try Yemeni meats on the Arabic tour, green chilli drinks on the Indian tour and spicy Ethiopian curries on the North African tour, all Dh350 for four hours (www. fryingpanadventures.com).
Of course it’s not just about cheap eateries. But with hundreds of hotel restaurants on the culinary circuit, how do you choose? Word of mouth is king here and I heartily recommend Teatro in Towers Rotana for its amazing early-bird deals, Pierchic’s terrace for its stunning setting and succulent seafood (catch an abra from Madinat Jumeirah), Moroccan restaurant Tagine at The One & Only Royal Mirage for its magical atmosphere, and Legends on the Creek for still having one of the best views in town. Hire Legends’ floating table – a private dining table for eight set in a pool – and dig into fabulous fusion food like lobster kibbeh and
Take time out from the pace of modern life by trying the finest salads at Bastakiya’s Arabian Tea House (below left) or fresh seafood at BuQtair (below right). But it’s not only the food that makes dining out in Dubai so special – take in spectacular views at Pierchic (this photo) and Legends (right), which overlooks the Creek