It’s tempting to sum up Dubai as a city of gargantuan shopping malls, glossy neofuturistic skyscrapers, and undulating desert dunes, but that’s just one side of the city, which at its heart is a story of dreams, ambition, and a culture that sits comfortably at the crossroads of many others.
One of the best ways to experience the many layers of Dubai’s transformation—from a fishing and pearl-diving village to a regional hub of commerce, technology, and culture—is to explore the city’s neighborhoods. Each reveals a fascinating chapter in the city’s narrative. Some are known for their architectural marvels and minarets rising over low-slung villas, while others are hidden-away art districts or beach-side locales located near swanky marinas. Read on for the three neighborhoods every visitor to Dubai shouldn’t miss.
Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood
Go for: Heritage architecture and souks
To get a sense of life in the emirate until the 1970s, take a walking tour of the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood on the banks of Dubai Creek. Wander the narrow alleys between nearly 50 mid-19th-century houses, once inhabited by eminent pearl-trading families and now populated by museums, galleries, cafés, and boutique hotels. Built from coral stone, teak, sandalwood, and palm fronds, the well-preserved architecture offers insights into the traditional Emirati way of life. Notice the spacious courtyards and majilis for gatherings, narrow, high windows for privacy, and stately barjeel wind towers that keep the buildings cool in the warm climate.
“When you want to feel the undercurrent of old Dubai, Al Fahidi is the place to go,” says Tanya Rehman, a Singapore and Dubai-raised banker, entrepreneur, and walking tour guide at Frying Pan Adventures. “You can walk everywhere and actually see the sky because there are no skyscrapers—just a buzzing community and people going about their day.”
Learn about the art of Arabic calligraphy at Dar Al Khatt Al Arabi and admire contemporary art by regional artists at the XVA Gallery attached to the boutique XVA Art Hotel. The nearby Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Centre for Cultural Understanding offers dining experiences where visitors can learn about local customs and society from Emirati hosts over a hearty feast. (Just remember to book in advance.)
Take a break from walking at the Arabian Tea House, a charming courtyard café located in a former residence dating to the 1920s. Nibble on crispy sambosa stuffed with cheese and sip milky karak tea while hiding from the afternoon sun under a canopy of leaves. Then, head toward the old Textile Souk, passing by the Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in Dubai. Built in 1787, it was once the seat of the ruling Sheikh of Dubai. Afterward, hop on an abra, a wooden boat that ferries commuters across Dubai Creek to the souks of Deira to sample nuts, dates, and spices. “These bazaars were alive before the takeover of indoor malls and are still going strong,” says Rehman.
Go for: A contrast of old and new Dubai
Jumeirah 1 is a residential beachfront neighborhood that sits along the Arabian Sea. The coastline here has undergone many transformations to keep up with Dubai’s changing cityscape. However, some things remain the same in this neighborhood—one of Dubai’s oldest—where five times a day, the adhan, or call to prayer, resounds through the quiet streets between low-rise, cream-colored villas with elaborate gates and bougainvillea-covered walls.
At the Etihad Museum, learn about the UAE’s history from the late 1960s through the unification of the seven emirates with interactive exhibitions, photos, and films. This is also the site of the Union House, where the constitution of the UAE was signed in 1971. A striking piece of contemporary architecture, the building is shaped like a manuscript as a nod to the constitution, with seven columns that represent the pens used by each of the rulers.
From there, a pleasant, 15-minute walk that passes low-rise villas, teahouses, and quiet roads leads to the Jumeirah Mosque, whose twin minarets rise above the surrounding area. “There is a calming magnetism about Jumeirah Mosque that residents love,” says Nada Badran, a travel show host on CNN Arabic, and founder of Wander with Nada, which offers walking tours of Dubai’s neighborhoods. “It’s a seemingly ordinary mosque among many others in the city, but its style, layout, and decoration can tell us a lot about the inspiration and period in which the mosque was constructed.”
Built of white stone in the Fatimid architectural style from Syria and Egypt, the mosque opened its doors in 1979. An important cultural landmark, it’s featured on the 500 dirham note. Open to non-Muslim visitors during guided tours (twice daily except Fridays), the interior reveals intricate designs in blue and yellow, calligraphy on the walls, and arched columns. In the majilis, formal sitting areas, guests can ask questions about Islam and learn about religious customs over Arabic coffee, dates, and luqaimat, or sticky sweet dumplings.
From there, head across the street to La Mer, a lively beachfront development where walls covered with brightly colored murals with regional pop culture references offer plenty of photo opportunities. Shops and kiosks sell beachy caftans, jewelry, and sunglasses, and kids can bounce on an inflatable playground while beachgoers laze around on the sandy shores. There are plenty of restaurants and cafés, such as Zouzou for succulent Turkish kebabs, Sikka Café for Emirati-meets-Indian cuisine, and local favorite burger joint Salt.
Go for: Art and creative community
The industrial area of Al Quoz was once perceived as drab. But over the past two decades, creativity, entrepreneurship, and cultural exchange have come to thrive in this neighborhood of art galleries, independent theaters, boutiques, cool cafés, multipurpose venues, and coworking spaces that are located in and around former factories and warehouses. Al Quoz is ideal for discovering homegrown brands, talented regional artists, and community-led cultural events.
Begin at Alserkal Avenue and explore such galleries as Elmarsa for art from the Arab world, Firetti Contemporary for modern and multidisciplinary works, and Lawrie Shabibi for contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa. For workshops, artist talks, and photography exhibitions of the thought-provoking, cultural discourse-sparking kind, visit Gulf Photo Plus.
Fuel up with seriously good coffee at Nightjar Coffee, a homegrown café and roastery. Popular with creative types, the café also serves cold brews on tap and an eclectic menu of dishes like scrambled eggs with paratha and meatballs from pasture-fed New Zealand beef in tomato sauce. Watch international film and documentary screenings at the independent Cinema Akil. At the Flip Side, a favorite of vinyl lovers in Dubai, browse records by regional and international artists. Lucky visitors might catch one of the in-store live music sessions with local DJs.
A 10-minute walk away, the Courtyard is an art and community hub founded in 1998 by architectural advisor and renowned photographer Dariush Zandi. Design studios, galleries, cafés, and boutiques occupy the 10 buildings with their beautiful facades, all clustered around a spacious courtyard with a central fountain. Much of the construction was done using repurposed materials, such as recycled windowpanes and metal bars, and a lighting fixture made from water pipes. Venture into Courtyard Playhouse, an independent theater and performing arts training center established in 2013 that hosts comedy, improv, and theater.
>> Next: Essential Tours in Dubai
Natasha Amar Natasha Amar is a travel writer and blogger at The Boho Chica, and currently lives in Dubai.