The historical centre of Dubai’s expansion started at the creek, its import and export hub. This area stays true to tradition and its waterways are still very much operational. Huge dhows loaded up with goods to transport to neighbouring countries such as Iran can be found side by side with abras operating as water taxis to take passengers from Deira across to Bur Dubai. At just 1 AED (20p) for a one-way journey, this is one of Dubai’s most cost-effective tourist attractions and a very enjoyable way to see the architecture of the old town.
Dating back to the nineteenth century, the Bastakiya quarter in Bur Dubai is a heritage and cultural destination and home to one of the city’s premier galleries, the Majlis Gallery, as well as the Dubai Museum. Beautifully restored, with narrow winding alleyways and wind towers, there is also a popular Arabian teahouse, designed so every aspect is a recreation of Emirati life in the past. This incredibly peaceful and historic part of town is the perfect place to appreciate Dubai’s history.
Dubai is very much a driving city of sprawling highways, but in the old town it is possible to spend a day walking between many of the enormous old souks, people watching and sampling many of the different culinary options.
The old town is hectic, and often pungent, but it feels truly authentic and it’s hard not to be engaged with the many historical attractions.
Travel in Dubai has been transformed since the opening of the metro in 2009. With trains running underground in the old town and then on elevated viaducts, it is a great way to see the city.
But taxis are still the preferred form of transportation, and with a fleet of around 6,000 vehicles and 10,000 drivers, the roads are packed with the city’s signature sand- coloured cars. Taxi drivers in Dubai are primarily from southern Asia, typically India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, and they are known to take their breaks at cafés serving dishes from their home countries.
Areas such as Karama, Satwa and Deira are considered to be in ‘old’ Dubai, and the huge south Asian communities in these areas have made them the best spots for authentic Indian and Pakistani restaurants. Pak Sufi is known as one of the favourites because of its excellent food, convivial atmosphere and close proximity to the giant taxi headquarters. Here, dishes and daily specials are typically served spicy, and takeaway is available, as is delivery, but it’s much more fun to spend time in the busy restaurant asking for menu advice from the regulars.
Ravi’s is a Dubai institution and insiders’ favourite, known for excellent and affordable Pakistani food. Run by two generations of the Abdul Hameed family, the original Satwa branch opened in 1978, and there are now two other outposts in Karama and Al Nadha.
There is no pomp and circumstance here. The simple interior with plastic tablecloths and polystyrene cups only emphasises further the expertly prepared dishes, and it is the attention to tradition that keeps people of all nationalities and demographics coming back. It’s always packed, and stays open 22 hours a day, shutting only for a brief two-hour prep and delivery period between 3- 5am. There’s a popular family section, an outdoor area and a bustling take-away service. Clubgoers also love Ravi’s for late night/ early morning snacks.
Raw ingredients are imported from India and Pakistan to ensure authenticity, while the traditional roti flatbread is prepared onsite in a tandoor, and the huge grill cooks skewers of fresh mutton, chicken and beef to perfection. Vegetarian options include paneer (Indian fresh cheese) and the specialty lentil dhal.
The most popular dishes are the grilled chicken tikka and the creamy butter chicken, but ask anyone in Dubai and they’ll tell you everything here is superb.
The fish market in Deira has been integral to Dubai’s fishing trade since the city’s inception. It’s a bustling hive of activity and best visited in the morning when the day’s catches first arrive. There are some exotic offerings here, including baby shark and plenty of hammour (also known as grouper), a meaty white fish that is Arabia’s most popular catch. Many chefs visit the market early to pick up seafood that isn’t so easy to come by elsewhere. And although it may not be the most obvious tourist attraction, the fish market is definitely worth a visit: the Arabian caviar makes a great gift to take home.
Vendors clamour for your attention and all offer competitive prices, but it’s still worth bargaining before buying. It’s very boisterous and chaotic, but sellers are friendly and will help prepare the whole fish and seafood on request. There are porters with wheelbarrows who will help guide you around the market and transport purchases.
Adjacent to the fish market is a huge fruit and vegetable market selling endless varieties of fresh and colourful goods. There is also a meat market and for many Dubai residents, this is the place to go to beat supermarket prices and support local producers and traders.
Arabic spices have become incredibly popular around the world since chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi got everyone hooked on sumac and za’atar. Now that these spices have hit the mainstream they are available in supermarkets, but it’s still worth making a trip to the traditional Dubai spice souk to stock up on large quantities. Here you’ll find many shops and stands, all side by side, making competition fierce, so it’s a good idea to shop around and haggle a little.
The majority of shop owners are from Iran and have incredible knowledge of which spices combine and enhance dishes. They are happy to share their expertise and encourage trying new flavours. Aromatics such as cinnamon, saffron, turmeric and nutmeg form the basis of traditional Emirati foods, and regularly added to this are dried fruits such as apricots and prunes, alongside almonds and pistachios.
It’s not just cooking that stall owners can advise on, they also sell natural beauty products and special raw incenses to scent the home, or herbs with medicinal qualities to be used in teas. But the biggest draw here for any food lover has to be the saffron sellers – this is the place to buy the expensive spice at an incredible price.