Old Dubai: six things to see in the district saved by Prince Charles

You mean there’s a Dubai without giant skyscrapers and Ferraris? Well, sign us up…

As much as many of its inhabitants would like to think, Dubai doesn’t begin at Downtown and end with the Marina. Also: there are parts of it without skyscrapers, 12-lane highways slicing it through the middle, and rows of shops you’d have to sell your first-born to afford to even step foot into.

While it’s hardly Petra, or even a bean on the Grand Bazaar, this is by and far our favourite part of the city. For the most part, it’s quiet, relaxed and almost devoid of selfie stick-wielding tourists.

Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood (more popularly known as Al Bastakiya, or just Bastakiya) dates back to the 1890s, which is hardly impressive if you’re from anywhere other than New Zealand, where that still ranks as pretty old. From what I’ve been told, it was largely destroyed half a decade ago to make way for new buildings – as is the way with rapid urbanisation in somewhere like the UAE. The houses that did remain were left to languish, and were used as housing for labourers or storehouses. The last nail in the coffin came in 1989 when the Dubai municipality ordered the demolition of the remaining bits of Al Bastakiya.

And this is where two very important Brits come in.

Rayner Otter, a British architect, had been staying in the area – and after carrying out significant restorations on the building where he was staying, grew attached to the suburb. Rayner started a campaign to save the area – but this was no simple door knock and flyer affair. The Brit went straight to the top, to the monarchy even, when he wrote to Prince Charles asking him to step in.

Upon Prince Charles’ visit to Dubai later that year, the man-who-would-be-King asked to visit Al Fahidi, and explored the area with Rayner himself. It was during that wander through the streets that Charles suggested the suburb should be preserved. The Dubai Municipality agreed, and the demolition was canceled.

Little over 25 years later, the cultural significance of Al Fahidi finally dawned on Dubai Municipality, and they ordered the restoration of the area’s buildings and lanes. Thus, the area’s new-found makeover and hipster-cool status.

So, there’s one for anyone who ever questioned the role of Charles in the monarchy. We’ve got him (and Rayner Otter) to thank for the best part of Dubai, thank you.

While I wholeheartedly suggest you just go for a wander and get lost in the rambling alleys for an hour or so (it’s realistically not that big), here’s five things to look out for on your wander.

1. The Street Art

Much like other cultural capitals (we are by no way implying that Dubai is a cultural capital, but this district could certainly pass as somewhat of an artistic hub), you’ll spot giant murals around here almost around every corner. Because of the buildings’ stony exterior, it stands out even more than it would in say Melbourne or Christchurch, so it’s almost startling when you happen upon one.

I’m particularly fond of these though, because they incorporate things like the abaya, and other aspects of Middle Eastern culture.

2. Coffee Museum

Like coffee? Like it enough to learn about the origin of beans, the history of the grinder, and the countries that produce the liquid life-giver? Okay, so you might not be so keen on the history lesson of it all, but this little nook was a surprising highlight in our tour of Bastakiya. It’s full of ancient caffeine-related artefacts, walls full of information, and coffee itself. There’s even a coffee-expert on hand giving tastings and talks on the humble cup of Joe.

Plus, upstairs there is the most hipster coffee bar in the area (and we don’t say that lightly, because this entire district is hipster enough as it is). Complete with creeping indoor vines, flat cap-wearing barista, and variations of coffee you’ve literally never heard of, this has all the hallmarks of a new opening on Flinders Lane. We’re not really sure what all the theatrics are about (as pictured above) but we’re sure it’s probably why the coffees from here taste so good.

Even better? Entry is free.

3. Art Galleries

As with all good New Age suburbs, they tend to come part and parcel with some form of equally-as-hip art scene. Bastakiya certainly doesn’t disappoint on this front.

There are random little art galleries and shops down almost every alleyway. Most will offer free entry, and some even feature some affordable pieces to pick up if you’re truly that enamoured with the area. And it’s not just oil on canvas types, our highlights were the light and shadows shows, and some truly hilarious Dubai-ified posters and cartoons. It’s hard to pick our favourite one, because there are many (and we also don’t remember any of their names).

4. Make Art Cafe

Point three actually leads right on to point four, because this delightfully bohemian cafe doubles as an art gallery, too. The setting is what really draws you to this place, it’s basically just an enclosed courtyard with a canvas roof, and peppered with trees and other things that will confuse you as to whether you’re outside or in a cafe.

Order an acai bowl and a flat white (which is literally the most hipster dishes we could think of, and seems like we are pigeonholing them. But they do extremely good food and coffee here too, and not just their most boho dishes) and watch the people from the street stream in to wander through the small rooms around the outside of the courtyard. They’re chocka full of great art and souvenirs, and more than warrant spending some time perusing after you’re meal.

If it’s a cool enough day, head to the rooftop for a bit of wind in your hair and a viewpoint over the district. You’ll probably be alarmed to realise you can’t actually see a lot from Floor Two, as opposed to Floor 32, but the fake grass, booths with power stations and cosy nooks up here make it a perfect spot for an afternoon of remote work or a catch up with mates.

5. A one dirham Abra ride

See, there are cheap things to be had in the city of ostentatiousness! For just a singular coin, you can jump onboard an abra – no, not of the Pokemon kind, neither of the ‘abracadabra’ variety – a traditional boat made of wood, in popular use in places like the Madinat Jumeirah (where you’ll pay a lot more than one dirham for a ride, we’ll tell you that much…).

There will always be drivers parked up on one side of the Creek ready to shuttle passengers over to the other side, so just look for whatever one is loading. Though there’s not much to see in the way of amazing buildings or architecture, it’s a beautiful way to see the less-f*cking crazy end of Dubai.

6. The Souks

Yes, I’m sure they’re in every tour guide you’ve seen, and on TripAdvisor, and explained to you by your hotel staff, but I only mention them because that’s literally the point of the abras – taking you from one side of the Creek (textiles souk) to the other side (Gold and Spice Souk).

Though they’re good if you’ve never stepped foot in a souk before, I’ve been told that they’re largely just a tourist gimmick now and even most of the locals prefer to go to an actual supermarket than shop here. If nothing else, it’s an interesting place to take in the sights and smells, stare at some hideous gold jewellery you’ll never be able to afford (or hopefully want, because they’re hideous), and see how many celebrities you get labelled as. This, as well as just throwing merchandise at you and hoping you catch it (no backsies!) or attempting to fashion a scarf into a noose and strangle you with it as you wander past, is the best game they’ve got at selling you mostly Chinese-made souvenirs.

I got Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez and Mariah. For the record, I’m pasty-white, blonde-haired and about as European as they come.

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