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Old Dubai: a quick visit

While I didn’t do any shopping in Dubai, I did manage a quick walk around the Bastakiya District: also known as Old Dubai.

a streetscape in Old Dubai
a streetscape in Old Dubai

Dubai was originally a small port that made its living from pearl diving, fishing and trade, especially with Iran. Besides the nomadic Bedouins, who lived in tents, the populations who settled here lived in palm-thatched mat huts.

Traditional architecture in Old Dubai

Early in the 20th century, Persian merchants prospered in Dubai, building the neighborhood called Bastakiya or, more recently, the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood. Their more substantial houses generally had two floors, made of adobe and built around inner courtyards. Many also had open balconies or roof spaces that, like the courtyards, allowed the women and their families privacy and a cooling breeze in the heat of summer.

A unique feature of these houses was their barajils, wind towers. Square structures rising well above the roof, they are cleverly designed to channel the breezes down into the living spaces below: early air conditioning. If you’re interested in the details of Dubai’s architectural history, this blog gives a clear explanation.

a wind tower on a narrow street in Old Dubai
a wind tower on a narrow street in Old Dubai

The Bastakiya neighborhood fell into disrepair. In the 1970s, many traditional homes were torn down to make way for the modern city of today.

Fortunately, the rest of the old houses were saved and bought by the government. Since the turn of the 21st century, renovations are ongoing in the interest of preserving local heritage, as well as to attract tourists.

For lots more things to do in Dubai, read this post: One Day in Dubai: what to do? 

Art galleries in Old Dubai

The first art gallery in Bastakiya came about due to the efforts of Alison Collins, founder of Majlis Gallery. Collins leased a dilapidated traditional home, renovated it and moved in, inviting artists to display their work at regular “soirees.” Eventually she and her family moved out to turn it into a showcase for local artists. Its tree-shaded courtyard alone is worth the visit.

the tree-shaded, art-filled inner courtyard of the Majlis Gallery in Old Dubai
the tree-shaded, art-filled inner courtyard of the Majlis Gallery in Old Dubai

Wandering the narrow streets of this neighborhood reveals more galleries. One interesting one is Mawaheb from Beautiful People, which provides a safe environment for adults with special needs to express themselves through art. Visitors are welcome to have a cup of coffee in the courtyard and watch the artists at work. The quality of many of the works on display impressed me.

paintings in the Mahaweb from Beautiful People gallery in the Bastakiya section of Old Dubai
paintings in the Mahaweb from Beautiful People gallery in the Bastakiya section of Old Dubai

Museums of Old Dubai

I could only spare a couple of hours. For that reason, I didn’t get to see the many small museums housed in Bastakiya and the neighboring Shindagha area of Old Dubai. I spotted many:

  • The Dubai Museum is the most visited and well-known, and is housed in the Al Fahidi Fort, which dates from 1787. It covers all aspects of Dubai history, culture, and natural history.
  • Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House is the only one I managed to visit, and is a beautiful example of traditional Dubai architecture, but grander in scale than most of the Persian-built homes.
one side of the enormous courtyard in Sheikh Saeed al Maktoums House, a museum in Old Dubai
one side of the enormous courtyard in Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House
  • The Jumaa and Obaid Bin Thani House is near the Sheikh Al Maktoum House. Besides being one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, it now holds an exhibition of Arabic calligraphy.
  • The Coin Museum, in another traditional house, is a must, I would think, for any coin collector visiting Dubai.
  • The Camel Museum, near the Sheik’s house, is filled with information about camels and their place in Dubai’s history.
  • Dubai Coffee Museum sounds to me like a coffee shop with a few rooms of information about coffee.
  • The Diving Village covers Dubai’s maritime, pearl-diving and fishing history.

I stopped into the Heritage Village not far away (I think the Diving Village and the Heritage Vllage may be parts of a single organization), staying just long enough to buy a khameer bread from a woman dressed in traditional Bedouin gear. At busier times artisans create traditional crafts for tourists and demonstrate the original way of life of the inhabitants of Dubai.

woman preparing my khamer bread with egg and cheese in Heritage Village in Old Dubai
woman preparing my khameer bread with egg and cheese in Heritage Village in Old Dubai

This list of sites isn’t even complete, and doesn’t include other small museums and historical houses in other areas like Deira, across the Creek. As you can imagine, you could easily spend many days exploring the history of Dubai in depth.

Have you visited any of Dubai’s historical sites or museums? What would you recommend as a “must-see” for the next time I go there?

Old Dubai: a quick visit
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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments!  Read more…
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Hi Rachel! Old Dubai looks fascinating. I think it must be much more interesting than the ultra modern city it has become. I love your shot of the art on display. The canvas of the woman is most intriguing. Thanks for hosting this week. #TPThursday

I’ve flown via Dubai but never stopped because it didn’t appeal to me. I love the look of the old district though. I’m happy that you pointed out the wind towers – what a good idea in their climate.I like the initiative to bring artists with disability into the spotlight.How interesting is the traditional Bedouin face covering! I’ve not seen the face piece before.

Rachel, I think this is a very refreshing post about Dubai. We tend to read and see pictures of th emodern areas of the city (which looks nice, I cannot deny it). But, I would like to stroll thru the old areas you have presented in here. I didn’t know there were so many small museums. It would be nice to stop by a couple of them.

Bastakiya is my favourite part of Dubai. Love the old wind towers – and there’s a garden cafe there which serves the best breakfasts and juices. Also really enjoyed visiting the cultural centre there. Much more to Dubai than shopping.

Old Dubai looks brilliant and so much more interesting than the big brash new Dubai. We are stopping here on our world cruise, so you’ve given me some great ideas for things to do and see that might not be at once obvious.

I loved old Dubai – so much more interesting than the new bits! The old souk is worth wandering around and I liked taking the water taxi across the Creek to Deira.

I’ve visited Old Dubai and especially enjoyed the art galleries. Did you happen to see this guy when you were there?, https://youtu.be/ewWQ3hRiqMQ

Thanks for introducing me to Old Dubai. This looks more like the “Real Dubai!”

Thanks for an informative post about old Dubai, which is not what usually gets covered by travel bloggers. Thanks for the posting!

I had just assumed that anything old had been bulldozed to make way for the modern skyscrapers. I’m glad that they are preserving some of their heritage. I wonder how those wind towers would measure up to today’s air-conditioning. I guess it was better than nothing. How was the bread?