Strolling in Al Fahidi quarter among historic buildings, museums and bustling souks
The cosmopolitan Dubai is known worldwide for its iconic attractions and luxury hotels that welcome millions of tourists every year. Among modern skyscrapers, sparkling neighbourhoods, renowned restaurants, huge malls with shops of all the most famous brands, sky bars, trendy beach clubs and long beaches, there is still a part of the city where you can learn about the past of Dubai. A walking tour through the narrow alleys (called sikkas) of the Al Fahidi district will take you back in time to discover the history and unique tradition of Emirati culture. Al Fahidi also hosts some small but interesting museums such as the Coffee Museum, the Coins Museum and the Postal Museum of the Emirates. If you want to get the most out of this historic district, we suggest booking a guided tour through the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. The Center, founded in 1998, offers various activities including “cultural meals” to taste the traditional local cuisine. A few minutes’ walk from the Al Fahidi historical site, you will also find the Textile Souk and the Dubai Museum, housed in the Al Fahidi Fortress, the oldest building in Dubai (1787). The Museum displays the history of Dubai, its ancient heritage and exhibits objects and artefacts dating back to 3000 BC.
Let’s go together to discover the Old Dubai
Al Fahidi district
Our tour of the historic district begins at 9 a.m. from the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. A young local guide welcomes us with a beaming smile and makes us sit in the large hall of the building, formerly used as an internal courtyard, offering us a coffee with cardamom accompanied by tasty dates. After the introductions, he starts explaining the interesting history of Al Fahidi (also known as Al Bastakiya), of its ancient population of pearl merchants and fishermen and about the construction of its small houses with typical wind towers (called barjeel), a particular system that channels the air towards the houses to cool them.
Al Fahidi dates back to the 19th century, but only a small part of the ancient district now remains, renovated in 2005 and made welcoming with the opening of shops, art galleries, museums and cafes. The tour goes on outside the Center along the narrow and winding streets to the Al Farooq Mosque, where we take a seat next to the Mirhab listening to the interesting story on the Islamic religion and its five pillars. Leaving the mosque, we say goodbye to our guide and continue the Al Fahidi tour by visiting the Money Museum, the Coffee Museum and the Post Office Museum. Despite its small size, the neighbourhood is very charming and you can still breathe the atmosphere of the old days.
- Al Fahidi Fort and Dubai Museum
After visiting a temporary exhibition of ancient doors, we leave the historic district to reach the Al Fahidi Fort, a building that hosts the Dubai Museum. One of the most interesting places in Al Bastakiya is the Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in Dubai, built in the late 1700s as a noble residence. In the following centuries, it became a military garrison and finally prison. Today it is a museum that houses archaeological finds and numerous photos that show the sudden architectural change that this area has undergone over the last few years.
- Textile Souk
Leaving the Dubai Museum, in a few minutes, we reach the Textile Souk. It is a long pedestrian street covered by a wooden roof decorated with arches where there is a myriad of shops and stalls displaying colourful fabrics, fine fabrics, cashmere, silks, cotton and embroidery. Although the vendors are quite persistent, if you are looking for pashminas, keffiyehs, traditional clothes and souvenirs, this is the right place. After the souk, we head to the Bur Dubai pier to take a boat (it costs 1 dirham) and reach Deira, on the other side of the Creek. The crossing is short, and the boat (a typical wooden abra) disembark us right in front of the Spice Souk at the Deira Old Souk Abra Station.
- Creek boat tour and Spice Souk
It is still 11.30, so we arrange a boat ride along the Creek with a dock worker. Boat rental costs 120 dirhams for 1 hour. The cruise is enjoyable. You do not see any particular landscape, if not some skyscrapers and typical fishing boats moored along the banks of the Creek.
Back at the pier, we plunge in the alleys of the Spice Souk, definitely the most characteristic place of Old Dubai. The shops and stalls display a fragrant variety of herbs and spices such as cinnamon, saffron, turmeric, cumin, nutmeg, cloves, chillies and even dried fruit of all kinds. The spices, mainly from Iran, India and Pakistan, are exposed in large bags, and with their intense aromas and bright colours form a fascinating artistic composition. Spice prices are higher than in shopping malls, but among these crowded streets, you will experience the thrill of the typical bargaining of Arab countries. There are also a few apartments – warehouses where counterfeit bags of famous brands, faithfully reproduced, are sold. It is obviously illegal, so be aware of that. Walking around the Spice Souk, especially along Old Baladiyat Street, you will surely be approached by some “characters” who will ask you if you are interested in buying these counterfeit products.
- The Gold Souk
After the tour through the alleys of the spice souk, we arrive in a few minutes at the famous Gold Souk. It stretches along a pedestrian street covered by a wooden roof where an endless series of elegant shops display a myriad of sparkling objects including diamonds and jewels in gold of different carats, silver, diamonds and precious stones. In the first shop on your right, entering the Souk from Old Baladiya St., you’ll notice a huge gold and diamond ring on display. It is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the heaviest gold ring in the world. The ring was created by a goldsmith company in Saudi Arabia and weighs 58686 kilograms.
Inside the shops, you will find a display indicating the current market price of gold in the 24-karat, 22-karat, 21-karat and 18-karat denominations. Obviously, you will not be able to bargain on the price of gold but exclusively on the goldsmith’s work. Our interesting tour of Old Dubai is over. To be honest, these souks have nothing to do with those of other countries in the Middle East, but once you are in Dubai, they are worth a visit!
- Need to Know
If you want to start your tour from the historic district of Al Fahidi, the most practical way to reach it is by taxi. There are no metro stops nearby. To book a taxi you can download the Careem or Uber smart apps. The Careem app is the most used by Dubai residents. If, on the other hand, you want to reach your destination by public transport, you can download the Moovit smart App which will give you the best route and the means of transport to take.
If you prefer to visit Old Dubai with a guided tour, you can also have a look at the web platform Viator.com or GetYourGuide.com that always offer a wide choice of activities managed by the local tour operators.