Old Dubai architecture, Dubai, UAE

One Day in Dubai Itinerary – How to Discover Dubai’s History, Culture, Heart and Soul

Our one day in Dubai itinerary takes you on a discovery of Dubai’s heritage and culture in its historic heart, which for us is the soul of city, Old Dubai. Focused around the atmospheric Al Bastakiya quarter, dating to the late 1800s, and Shindagha, the area of earliest settlement, our itinerary will show you the Dubai beyond the shopping malls and luxe hotels.

It’s the start of winter in Dubai, when the weather is cooler (a maximum average of 25 °C / 77 °F and minimum average of 14 °C / 57.2 °F) when the city walkable. Tomorrow is also the United Arab Emirates’ National Day, celebrating the union of six emirates – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, and Umm al-Quwain – on 2nd December 1971 to form the UAE. I therefore thought it timely to share my one day in Dubai itinerary, taking in the history and culture of Old Dubai.

Dubai often gets criticised as a city that has no culture and history; a city that is soulless. Which of course isn’t true. Anybody who tells you that didn’t get past the shopping malls and five star hotels, and certainly didn’t do any research.

Dubai has a long history and rich culture, but it’s intangible. It’s not visible in ancient monuments, though there are certainly ancient artefacts in museums, but rather in the cultural heritage and traditions of oral storytelling, poetry, song, and dance. There’s evidence of settlement along Khor Dubai (Dubai Creek) dating back to 8,000 BC. In 224 AD, the Persians arrived, although it wasn’t until the 7th century that the tiny settlement of barasti (palm frond) huts started to expand with the arrival of the Umayyads, Islam and Arabic language.

Dubai has always been a port although its strategic location between Europe and the Far East and its silk and spices wasn’t fully appreciated until the 16th century on when the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British grappled for control of trade routes. It wasn’t until 1833 when the Maktoum branch of the Bani Yas tribe shifted from Liwa Oasis to Dubai Creek that Dubai began to develop into a thriving trading port and the settlement of barasti huts started to sprawl further around the inlet.

Even after that, as nomads they continued to spend their breezy winters in Dubai fishing and pearling, then packing up at the start of the blazing summer to move inland to the cooler desert oases at Al Ain. Aside from Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1878, and the Persian courtyard houses in Bastakiya, dating to the late 1800s, it wasn’t until after the discovery of oil in 1966 and the formation of the UAE in 1971 that construction of modern buildings began along Sheikh Zayed Road. And it didn’t stop.

We lived in the UAE full-time from 1998 until 2006, so we witnessed Dubai’s meteoric rise. We then periodically dropped in from time to time over the years to update our guidebooks and write stories. Terence is to blame for first writing in one of our early guidebooks that Dubai was the “city of superlatives”, responsible for the fastest, biggest, tallest, highest, and craziest projects – the breathtaking architectural wonders and mind-blowing engineering feats that drew visitors away from the heart and soul of Dubai to gawk at sail-shaped buildings, indoor snow parks, cloud-piercing skyscrapers, and dancing fountains.

This one day in Dubai itinerary takes you back to where it all began. Based on the itineraries that we used to create for family and friends who visited for holidays and on stopovers during the nearly eight years we lived in the UAE. After doing our one day in Dubai itinerary they tended to fall head over heels for the city. Hopefully you’ll become a little smitten too.

One Day in Dubai Itinerary

Check in to a Heritage Hotel

The best bases for following our one day in Dubai itinerary discovering the history and culture of Dubai are Old Dubai’s boutique hotels in traditional courtyard houses in Shindagha and Al Bastakiya in Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood.

XVA Art Hotel is the loveliest hotel, home to one of Dubai’s oldest contemporary art galleries, with seven rooms designed by local and regional designers and artists, from Karim Rachid to Zayan Gandour. It’s on a narrow lane in the heart of the Bastakiya, a stone’s throw from Dubai Museum, which brings the city’s history to life, and Al Fahidi Fort, which houses the museum and is the city’s oldest structure. Prior to its construction everything was made of barasti.

Orient Guest House is located in two splendid merchant houses with wind-towers, on another breezy lane, not far from XVA and two minute’s walk to Dubai Museum. The 11 rooms are decorated in a traditional style that melds Arabian and Indian influences and are furnished with four-poster beds and brass studded wooden chests. There’s a lounge decorated like a majlis (traditional meeting room), with striped Bedouin cushions and Persian carpets, a courtyard café and rooftop terrace with old quarter views.

Barjeel Heritage Guest House is in a grand gypsum and coral house located next to the Heritage and Diving Village at Shindagha, which begins at the mouth of Dubai Creek and sprawls along the waterfront. It’s the oldest part of Dubai. The rooms are furnished in the style that Sheikhs and wealthy merchants might have decorated their homes.

If you don’t find anything there that you like, check our recommendations for hotel stays in Dubai during winter and if you’re thinking of heading out of town, see our dreamy Dubai desert escapes.)

Early Morning Walk

Kickstart your one day in Dubai itinerary with an early morning walk around Old Dubai and the former trading village of Al Bastakiya in Al Fahidi Historic District, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Bur Dubai. Start at 7am or 8am and you’ll see a side of Dubai that few tourists see as the local and expat residents start their day. There will be little open so no need to visit anything yet: just walk and enjoy the early morning breezes.

There aren’t hundreds of historic buildings in Dubai – compared to cities such as Damascus and Cairo – because Dubai’s people are of Bedouin heritage. If they weren’t nomads who pitched goat-hair tents, they were fisherman and pearl divers who lived in barasti huts, while the Persian merchants from Bastak in southern Iran, who settled in Al Bastakiya in the late 1800s, built homes from sand, coral and gypsum. None weathered the harsh climates well.

There are nevertheless some architectural gems that have survived, many of them rebuilt from near-ruin. Wander the narrow lanes of the labyrinthine Bastakiya, where many of the splendid old courtyard houses, home to small museums, art galleries and cafés, have handsome wind-towers (‘barjeel’ in Arabic).

Close by is Bur Dubai Souk, which is also known as Meena Bazaar or, simply, the Textile Souk. Although now there’s so much more than textiles and it sprawls beyond the breezy renovated arcades on the waterfront to take in the bustle of the backstreet and alleyways. Beyond that there is another pleasant amble along the Dubai Creek waterfront to Shindagha, and the charming Dubai Heritage and Diving Villages. (If you’re planning on shopping the souks, see my Dubai shopping guide.)

Breakfast

Enjoy a traditional Emirati Cultural Breakfast at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (book ahead; begins at 10am), in the Bastakiya where the lovely staff will give you a fascinating introduction to Dubai, Arab culture and Islam over cardamom coffee and an Arabian feast. The centre also offers informative walking tours of the area.

Midday sun

Escape the heat with an entertaining dose of history at air-conditioned Dubai Museum around the corner in Al Fahidi Fort. Dubai’s oldest building, the fort was built in 1787, however, the area was settled in the Bronze Age; note the fine alabaster objects inside dating to 3000BC. Although there are records of ancient settlements here and further along the coast, some of the earliest references to this part of the Arabian Peninsula are found in the journals of ancient Greek, Roman and Arab travellers. One is to be found in Arab-Andalusian geographer Abu Abdullah al Bakri’s Book of Geography dating to 1095 while there’s another in the journal of Venetian pearl merchant Gaspero Balbi who stopped off to look for pearls to purchase in 1580 en route to Hormuz, and noted that it was a sleepy fishing and trading port. The museum boasts displays of costumes, musical instruments, weapons, and archaeological finds. Pause our one day in Dubai itinerary for lunch.

Lunch

For a light lunch, try the Arabian Tea House in a pretty courtyard house or if you’re feeling adventurous, head into the backstreets behind the Bastakiya where there’s an infinite array of eateries dishing up delicious local street food and traditional fare from around the region. See our guides to the city’s street food and where to eat and what to eat in Dubai. If you have more than one day in Dubai we recommend this Dubai street food tour, where you’ll also learn how dishes are cooked and eaten, and their context and history.

Late Afternoon

Once sated, you can resume our one day in Dubai itinerary if you’re in Dubai in winter. If you’re not, you’ll probably be hot and tired and will want to retreat from the heat and take an afternoon nap. If you’re up for more, wander down to Shindagha, where among a handful of restored old courtyard buildings, you’ll find the handsome former residence of the ruling family, Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House, dating to 1896. Here you’ll find an engrossing exhibition of black and white archival photos of Dubai during those pre-oil days when it was a village focused on fishing and pearl diving. You can easily spend an hour here.

Early evening

Pick up our one day in Dubai itinerary at the abra station, where you can catch an abra (open-sided wooden taxi boat) across Dubai Creek to inhale spices at the Spice Souk, gawk at the glittering gold at Deira Gold Souk and then get off the main souk lanes and get lost in the grittier backstreets of the covered souks where the lanes and alleyways are lined with shops selling textils, cheap clothes and shoes, and cluttered stores selling everything from sheesha pipes and plastic coffee pots to leather sandals, wooden canes and henna hair shampoo.

At the end of the Gold Souq’s covered arcade, you can cross the street and walk a block until you spot the gypsum, sand and coral walls of two fine buildings dating to the 1890s, now museums. Currently under renovation, Heritage House, a grand pearl merchant’s residence, has displays from everyday domestic life in the pre-oil years and, adjoining it, Al Ahmadiya School was Dubai’s first school, established in 1912. Inside you’ll find some fascinating old black and white photographs illustrating the early history of education in Dubai. Both are due to open in 2018.

Return across the Creek for another amble through the Bur Dubai Souk, which comes alive at night. Saunter along the water to Shindagha by the Heritage and Diving Village (also currently under renovation; due to re-open in early 2018), a recreation of the old fishing and pearl-diving village on the site of Dubai’s first settlement. This is a great place to meet locals. Emirati families can sometimes be found here in the evening, especially during Ramadan and in the cooler winter months when they get together for traditional dances, rifle-throwing competitions and reenactments of Bedouin weddings. (If you have longer than one day in Dubai, see our guide to how to experience Dubai like a local.)

Dinner

End your one day in Dubai itinerary with dinner al fresco Arabic eatery Kan Zaman next door, where you can take in the heady aromas of sheesha as you take in the action of Dubai Creek, especially enchanting at night. Alternatively, dine at Bastakiah Nights in another splendid wind-tower house back in the Bastakiya, where you can catch the courtyard breezes or, if you’re not visiting Dubai in winter, you can dine in air-conditioned comfort in the traditionally decorated rooms inside.

Tours of Old Dubai

If you’re on a super tight schedule you may wish to do a guided tour of Old Dubai. All of these walking tours take in many of the sights above and can be booked through our tour partner Viator: Tales of the Past tour and Emirati lunchWalking Tour of Traditional Dubai, a Walking Tour Through Bastakiya and the Souks, Middle East food tour and Secrets of Arabia tour.

If you do our one day in Dubai itinerary we’d love to hear your thoughts. Please do leave a comment below.

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