Through the labyrinth
Discover the charms of old Dubai as you lose yourself in the maze of alleyways that is Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood – a tribute to the emirate’s past
Visiting the quaint quarters of Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood feels like taking a step back in time. Gone are the record-breaking skyscrapers that dominate the emirate’s skyline, replaced instead by traditional structures fashioned out of stone, rustic courtyards and wind towers. Intertwined narrow alleys and cobbled pathways – punctuated with creek views – fan out in every direction, inviting you to lose yourself in Dubai’s beating cultural heart.
For a glimpse of life in the emirates as it was years ago, there is no substitute for a visit to Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. But it is not only its traditional architecture that offers insight into the region’s past. Peppered throughout the labyrinthine district are museums, art galleries and kiosks that showcase traditions practised in the days gone by. And it is here that visitors can discover the nation’s humble beginnings and gain a deeper appreciation for the local way of life.
Built with traditional materials such as stone, gypsum, teak, sandalwood, palm fronds and wood, the architectural structures found in Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood span decades, from the early 19th century to the 1970s.
As you meander the lanes, you’ll notice that most of the buildings have been ingeniously recreated to mimic the days of old. But they seamlessly blend in with the original structures left behind. Feel free to explore at your own leisure and pop into the museums, galleries, cafés and arts and crafts shops lining the streets to make the most of your visit.
Previously known as Al Bastakiya, the district has always played a crucial role in the country’s economy. Its prime position along Dubai Creek, with the Arabian Gulf, only metres away, allowed international trade to flourish in the region, transforming the UAE from a humble fishing and pearl diving village to a global metropolis, known for its record-breaking structures and penchant for luxury.
Even today, this cultural sanctuary is a status symbol and occupies a strategic position adjacent to the diwan of Dubai’s ruler. Winding through these streets tells a story of the nation’s past that joins the dots to its present, an immersive tale that can only be truly experienced with a visit to this fabled district.
One of the original cultural centres in the area, this informative space allows visitors the chance to delve deeper into local customs. The centre offers a variety of interactive activities including one-on-one sessions to connect with its Emirati hosts. Events are also held with the aim of sharing knowledge about the history of Dubai and its people. One of the most popular experiences offered here is an authentic Emirati breakfast or lunch, served in a traditional majlis-style set-up, while a local host talks about the region’s culture.
/ Dubai Museum, Al Fahidi Fort
A short walk from the cultural centre, the Al Fahidi Fort, which is the oldest structure in the emirate, is home to the Dubai Museum. Built in 1787, it was once a monarch base. Following renovation a few years ago, the fort reopened in 1971 as Dubai Museum – the same year the United Arab Emirates was formed. Housed within are galleries that shed light on the region’s history and heritage with recreations of everyday life in the emirates before the discovery of oil. Explore historic local houses, mosques, souks, date farms, desert fauna, marine life and the practice of pearl fishing, a stark contrast to the Dubai that the world knows today.
/ Coffee Museum
Gahwa or coffee shares inextricable links with Emirati hospitality and a journey into the region’s traditions wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Coffee Museum. A hub for all things coffee, you’ll find everything from early bean grinders and brewers on display while also enjoying tastings. Settle down for a refreshing brew at the museum’s coffee shop and grab a front seat at the counter to learn about the various stages of preparation from roasting to grinding and brewing. With films, demonstrations and tastings, it is the hub for all things coffee.
/ The Majlis Gallery
An architecturally stunning building once known as Villa 19, The Majlis Gallery is steeped in history. Believed to be Dubai’s first art gallery, it was founded by expatriate Alison Collins. When the neighbourhood was just a sleepy creekside trading post in the late 1970s, Collins and her husband made the fabled Villa 19 their family home. A decade after moving in, Collins’ love for art transformed the home into a creative hub, attracting crowds wishing to see visiting artists selling their work. It has since become a showcase for new and established artists, featuring an extensive collection from ceramics to sculptures.
/ XVA Gallery Dubai
Nestled within XVA Hotel Dubai, the art gallery has championed contemporary Middle Eastern art in the region since 2003. While enthusiasts will find themselves immersed in the artwork and installations on display as part of the gallery’s rotating exhibitions, the space’s unique setting is equally worthy of your attention. An ode to the area’s natural surroundings, the trees, which blossomed in the building’s internal courtyards, have been retained to reflect the district’s old-world ambience.
Take home a souvenir
Meandering through Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, you’ll find all manner of treats and trinkets on offer. From miniature souvenirs such as bespoke calligraphy prints to something a little more elaborate, like a handwoven carpet, you’ll find plenty to take home with you. For something a little more traditional, incenses, perfumes, camel soaps and local costumes can also be found.