To most people a visit to Dubai involves shopping at malls, staying at luxury resorts, or visiting the tallest building in the world. Dubai is now home to more than 400 skyscrapers and a record number of malls.
Neither fancy malls nor high-rises fascinate us, so Dubai was never on our wish-list. But a couple of our closest friends live in Dubai – never ones to miss an opportunity to spend time with our most-cherished mates or explore a new place, we booked impromptu flights to Dubai and we were off.
That was when the mall troll reared its ugly head. Dubai’s most popular activities, we were told, include skiing inside a mall (Mall of the Emirates), skydiving inside a mall (iFlyDubai, Mirdif City Centre), and a fountain show outside a mall (The Dubai Mall). Next came a flurry of superlatives to describe Dubai’s premier attractions – tallest building, highest restaurant, and largest choreographed fountain system. Superlatives are all well and good, but at Bruised Passports, we like to get our hands dirty when we visit a place. This was not going to do.
Burj Khalifa- the tallest building in the world
Can you guess what we did when we got to Dubai? We steered clear of the over-priced sheesha pipes at Souk Madinat (another mall, what else?) and tried our hardest to discover the ‘real’ Dubai. What did we find?
Contrary to popular conception, Dubai sightseeing is not just about hopping from one mall to the other, but exploring what the real Dubai has to offer. There is a world full of colour, exotic spices, friendly people, and scrumptious food just waiting to be discovered. Here are our top 5 offbeat haunts in Dubai:
1) Spice Souk
Spend a leisurely morning chasing the drifting smells of aromatic spices – you can find everything from turmeric and chilli to vanilla, saffron, and exquisite potpourri blends here. Make sure you pick up a box or two of local dates. They’re sweet to a fault and make the perfect gift for friends back home.
If you’re up for a laugh, hop over to the neighbouring Gold Souk and check out the garish jewellery in show windows
Just some dainty jewels 😉
2) A Sheesha Bar in Karama
Karama is one of our favourite areas in Old Dubai. Its market is jam-packed with sheesha bars, shawarma joints, and local bakeries.
Our thoroughly adorable friend Croy (hey munchkin, if you’re reading :-)), who has grown up in Dubai, helped us discover a real gem in the area – La Casa is located in Oud Mehta, near the Lamcy Plaza. On the face of it, La Casa is a traditional sheesha bar, but there is something special about it. The entire café is divided into little seating-areas, each of which is equipped with its own couch, television, and playstation. All around people can be seen chatting, cheering their favourite soccer players on television, or working furtively on their laptops. The service is impeccable- try one of their sheesha-pipes or their local Arabic tea. Once you are there, you will not want to move. It is easy to see why La Casa is popular with the locals- cheap prices and the laid-back vibe make it tough to resist.
If you can’t find La Casa, there is no shortage of sheesha bars in Oud Mehta. Try another one- who knows you might come out with a story to tell!
Colourful sheesha pipes
Traditional Arabic tea at La Casa
3) Shawarmas in Karama
When you manage to peel yourself away from La Casa, visit one of the local shawarma joints in Karama. Our favourite is the Al Reef Lebanese Bakery and Roastery. Their shawarma rolls are achingly perfect- we went back for seconds and errr thirds.
That’s the thing about Dubai- as soon as you step out of the malls, local food gets progressively cheaper and better tasting.
4) A quiet stretch of Jumeirah Beach
If all that food has left you too full to explore the city, spend a lazy evening unwinding at Jumeirah Beach. The public stretch of the beach is extremely crowded throughout the day – we suggest driving out of the city centre to find a quiet spot. If you’re lucky, you might have a stretch of the beach all to yourself- stick around till sunset, it is spectacular.
A quiet, shell-laden stretch of Jumeirah Beach
Sunset at Jumeirah beach
5) Sand Dune Bashing
The other place to experience a truly memorable sunset is the Arabian desert. If you’re an adventurer at heart, you must go dune bashing in Dubai. A number of companies conduct tours (we booked our tour with Arabian Night Tours). The company’s representatives pick you up from your hotel and drive you to the desert. Once in the desert, the tyres of the vehicle are deflated, and that’s when the real fun begins. The vehicle will trapeze over sand dunes, small and large, to offer a dizzying experience. Dune bashing is definitely not for the squeamish at heart.
This is what one can expect from Dune Bashing
Vid in the Arabian Desert at sunset
If you, like us, have a voracious appetite for exploring new places then walk around Dubai, interact with local people, examine its intricate mosques, discover its delicious food, or go for an abra boat ride at the Dubai creek. Choose an itinerary that involves an introduction to its rich culture and evocative history- whatever you do, don’t settle for a run-of-the-mill meal at a restaurant chain inside a mall. If you fancy taking some day trips out of Dubai or just going on mesmerising drives in the desert, you should rent a car from Hertz, who have excellent service and cars that are in good condition. Well, a drive around in a super car will complement the opulence of Dubai quite well, we think 😉
What to Wear in Dubai
There is a lot of material online that suggests women should dress conservatively in Dubai. For most part, this is a fallacy.* Dubai is the fashion capital of the Middle East, so dressing dowdily to ‘cover up’ is not an option. As a rule of thumb, opt for relaxed bohemian cuts, flat sandals, and glamourous accessories to survive the Emirati sun while looking stylish. Check out Savi’s outfit suggestions for Dubai for more information.
*If you are there during the holy month of Ramadan, it best to dress as modestly as possible.