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The Spice Souk of Deira in the old city centre is a good place to start your tour of Dubai. (JUMANA EL HELOUEH/REUTERS)
The Spice Souk of Deira in the old city centre is a good place to start your tour of Dubai. (JUMANA EL HELOUEH/REUTERS)

Looking for the real Dubai beyond the malls? Here’s your best bets Add to ...

The question

I’m thinking of staying on for a few days after a conference in Dubai. What is there to do beyond the giant shopping malls?

The answer

“Forget the clichés – there’s more to Dubai than seven-star hotels, mile-long malls and conspicuous consumerism,” says Gavin Thomas, author of The Rough Guide to Dubai. “From labyrinthine old city bazaars to zany skyscrapers, no other city provides as many surreal contrasts in as small a space.”

But where to start? “Begin with the souks of Deira in the old city centre. The Gold Souk is the most famous – and touristy – but also explore the Spice Souk and the Perfume Souk. Just follow the crowds, get lost and soak up the hustle and bustle.”

It’s not all about hoofing it, though. “Hop one of the old-fashioned wooden abras that ferry passengers across the creek in the heart of the old city – you’ll have great views of the minarets, markets and wind towers,” he advises.

And although an opulent afternoon tea in the sail-shaped Burj al Arab hotel – Dubai’s postcard landmark – is recommended for a glimpse of how the gold-plated other half lives, Thomas’s hidden gem tip is far less glamorous.

“Tucked in the depths of old town Bur Dubai, Hindi Lane is a fascinating mini-enclave of Indian life. Its single alleyway is crammed with shops selling colourful trinkets, astrological almanacs and fluorescent pictures of assorted Hindu gods and gurus.”

To understand Dubai on a deeper level, Thomas also suggests connecting with the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (cultures.ae). Popular with curious first-timers, the centre organizes illuminating walking tours and authentic dinners with locals.

Cuisine, of course, is a great way to dive into any unfamiliar culture. Dubai-based travel blogger Samantha Dancy (footstepsofawanderer.com) says visitors can experience much more than mall food courts.

“Piccolo Mondo Bay in Dubai Marina is a little restaurant serving Arabic food and fantastic shisha – you should try the grape and mint [in the water pipe]. It’s popular with locals and is a great place to watch the world go by from a swinging sofa seat.”

For added sustenance, she has two more favourites. “Bu Qtair is a seafood shack just off Jumeirah Beach Road. Very little English is spoken so you order by sight, then wait to be called to the next free plastic table. The food is fabulous: fish or prawns coated in a delicious marinade, mopped-up with Arabic bread.”

Prefer something spicier? Try Ravis, a no-frills Pakistani restaurant in Satwa. “I recommend the chicken handi or chicken makhani. You can also sit outdoors and watch life going by in this old part of town,” Dancy says.

Once you’re full, she suggests exploring. “Take a taxi to the Al Fahidi district [previously known as Bastakiya] and ask to be dropped off at Dubai Museum. From there, walk around the area’s restored buildings, galleries and cafés – the Arabian Tea House is recommended.”

And when you’re thirsty for unique souvenirs? She suggests cuddly camels that wail the call to prayer when squeezed, or posters that read “Keep Calm We Still Have Oil.”

Both Thomas and Dancy also recommend escaping Dubai if time allows. Desert safaris are popular, but Thomas advocates the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Al Ain for its mud-brick forts and sprawling oases. For Dancy, a scenic day trip drive to east coast Fujairah is ideal, especially for a side order of Indian Ocean snorkelling.

Wherever you explore, she adds, be aware of cultural differences. “Dubai is not as strict as other parts of the region, but make sure shoulders are covered and shorts or skirts are to the knee. Also, ask permission when photographing locals. And remember public kissing and embracing are not allowed – stick to holding hands.”

For Thomas, potentially furnace-hot temperatures are another key consideration. Noting that October to March is the optimum travel season, he cautions that “April to September temperatures soar into the 40s – making it too hot to do anything but shuttle between the hotel pool and the nearest air-conditioned mall or restaurant.”

OUR READERS WRITE

  • I’ve been to Dubai a couple of times. One thing that’s great fun is joining up with others to charcoal-grill food on a BBQ Donut in Dubai Creek, a small river that runs through the city. (The Donuts are moored at the Golf and Yacht Club.) Get out of the city to the old fort town of Hatta in the Hajar Mountains, about halfway between Dubai and the Gulf of Oman. You pass through five different desert landscapes getting there. Kathy Richardier in Calgary
  • Must get out into the desert for a dune drive, followed by a Bedouin dinner with optional camel ride. An unforgettable experience. Ken Browne
  • Several years ago the highlight of my Dubai visit was a caravan of jeeps that raced us out to the desert for an evening of music, dance, camel rides, henna painting, fabulous feasting and drinks. This oasis in the desert was even equipped with marble bathrooms! ME Herman
  • Book your Burj Khalifa visit in advance – it’s much cheaper. And have a drink at a rooftop bar at night. @NomadicBruce
  • Old Dubai is a must-see. Take a traditional dhow boat down the creek and barter with the merchants at the Spice Souk. For true insight into Arab culture, visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Find Bu Qtair, a little fish shack on Jumeirah Beach – barter for the catch of the day and eat it outdoors on little stools. @LynnGervais
  • Visit Qbara Restaurant for the future of Arabic cooking and some fantastic cocktails. Try rooftop bars like 40 Kong and Iris. Go between November and April. @EricaPettit
  • Leave Dubai and head to Musandam to camp on the beach and take a boat ride with the dolphins. @writeway2travel

Send your travel questions to concierge@globeandmail.com

Follow me on Twitter: @johnleewriter

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