Dubai is not just skyscrapers, modernity and luxury. Traces of its past as a small and peaceful fishing village are still visible to this day, particularly in the Al Bastakiya district, also known as Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood.
A walk through the alleys of Al Bastakiya will take you back in time, to authentic and ancient Dubai, animated by merchants and pearl seekers.
Between myth and reality: the history of Al Bastakiya
Al Bastakiya was built by a group of immigrants from the Bastak region, Persia, who had left their native homeland due to a wave of religious persecution and a desire to seek better living conditions.
The village of Al Bastakiya, whose construction dates back to the 1890s, was originally made up of 60 houses separated by a labyrinth of narrow winding streets.
In the 1980s, Dubai Municipality decided to demolish the whole area to make way for new office districts. A part of the buildings was destroyed while the remaining part was used as warehouses and homes for foreign workers.
Among these workers was a British architect called Rayner Otter, who in those years was carrying out a renovation project for the house where he was staying. Otter began a fierce campaign to try and save the neighborhood from destruction. He even wrote a letter to Prince Charles, who had a visit to Dubai scheduled for that year, asking him to visit the neighborhood.
And so the Prince once in Dubai asked to visit the Al Bastakiya district and to explore the area with Rayner Otter. He was so fascinated that he suggested to Dubai Municipality not to demolish the neighborhood. So the demolitions were stopped and in the early 2000s what is now called Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood was brought back to its original state, with its ancient buildings, its alleys and souks, and the characteristic houses with wind towers.
Things to see and do in Al Bastakiya
Take an abra along the Creek and reach Al Bastakiya. Now immerse yourself in the crowd of souks or enjoy a walk in tranquility through the tight, winding alleyways, where you can admire the ancient ocher-colored buildings made of coral, mud, gypsum and palm wood.
Learn more about the traditions and culture of the United Arab Emirates, take a look at the majestic galleries that exhibit the best of contemporary art in the Arab world, stop to taste something in one of the over 100 local restaurants or just sip mint tea in one of the many cafes.
Explore the neighborhood on foot: old houses, museums and craft shops
One of the most beautiful things to do at Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood is to explore the various traditional houses overlooking the lanes: many of these have been transformed into small museums, art galleries, cafes and restaurants. Many are spice or craft stores. This is a good place for a quiet walk around sunset.
The best way to visit Al Bastakiya is to join a walking tour with a local guide. Your guide will take you to discover the most hidden gems of Dubai’s Old Town, showing you the most picturesque corners of Al Bastakiya and the most interesting museums.
One of the best times to discover Al Bastakiya is at sunset, so you might choose to join an afternoon private walking tour with a local guide, then enjoy a delicious local dinner (included in the price).
In fact, Dubai’s Old Town is the best place to try some authentic street food, so why not join a fun and tasty Ethnic Eats Walking Tour?
If you are short on time, you might choose to join a half-day tour that allows you to see the best attractions of Al Bastakiya and then continue on to other Dubai landmarks. You can also choose the tour that includes skip-the-line entry to the iconic Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s most iconic landmark.
Visit the oldest building in Dubai: Al Fahidi Fort
Al Fahidi Fort is absolutely worth a visit: this ancient fortress was one of the few buildings in Dubai a hundred years ago and today is one of the best places to discover something about Dubai life before the oil boom. The Dubai Museum is currently located in Al Fahidi Fort and offers a vast exhibition on the culture and traditions of the people of the United Arab Emirates.
If you like art, take a look at the XVA Gallery
This is one of the best-known art galleries in Dubai and specializes in the works of contemporary artists from all over the Arab world, in particular Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and, of course, the United Arab Emirates. The gallery also houses a hotel and a renowned café which also serves good vegetarian Middle Eastern dishes. Prices are above average, but the atmosphere deserves it.
Further information about the artists and current exhibitions can be found here.
If you want to visit the XVA Gallery and the other important cultural and artistic centers of Al Bastakiya you can book a guided tour which also includes the Cultural Center, the Museum of Women and the Majlis Gallery.
Get in touch with the culture of the United Arab Emirates at the Sheikh Muhammad Center for Cultural Understanding
Most tourists who visit Dubai ignore its more human and real side: the culture and traditions of the people of the UAE. The Sheikh Muhammad Center for Cultural Understanding is a non-profit organization that organizes many activities: from Arabic language courses to visits to the Jumeirah Mosque.
Among the various activities, they organize delicious cultural lunches and breakfasts where it is possible to taste typical local dishes and learn more about the local culture (reservations required).
The small coffee museum allows you to learn more about the coffee making and roasting process. The museum displays various equipment used in the various stages of preparation of the blends and a cup of traditional coffee is offered at the end of the visit.
My favorite places to eat in the Al Bastakiya neighborhood
Enjoy a Traditional Lunch at the Sheikh Muhammad Center for Cultural Understanding
This is not just a lunch, in my opinion it is one of the best experiences you can have in the Al Bastakiya neighborhood.
The cultural lunch is a rich buffet of typical local specialties, which is served in the traditional way while the guides tell stories and anecdotes about the culture and traditions of the Emirates.
It is a unique opportunity to get in touch with Arab culture and live a truly authentic experience.
Arabian Tea House Restaurant & Café
This charming café is located in what was once the home of a wealthy pearl merchant.
They serve delicious typical meat and vegetable dishes from Arab and Middle Eastern cuisine. There is a huge choice of vegetarian and healthy dishes, but also a nice selection of typical Emirati meat and fish dishes served with generous portions of spiced rice. Also try the grilled dishes. To drink I recommend you try fresh camel milk.
You can also drop by in the late afternoon to try one of their delicious teas.
Alcohol is not served. Main courses: 60-70 AED. Often you have to wait to find a table.
How to get to Al Bastakiya
Al Bastakiya district (Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood) is located between Dubai Creek and the Al Fahidi subway station.
Otherwise, the best way to get to the Persian district of Al Bastakiya is by metro: take the green line and get off at the “Al Fahidi” station.
The easiest and most fun way to get to Al Bastakiya and get around the main attractions in the area is with the double decker Hop On Hop Off buses. The routes pass right in front of all the main attractions and a bus stop is right in the heart of Al Bastakiya.
The Al Bastakiya area deserves to be explored on foot, as it is full of interesting things to see and picturesque views.
In the area do not miss: the Dubai Museum and the House of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum. On the opposite bank of the Creek, visit the Deira neighborhood and its Gold Souk. In the evening, don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy a romantic dinner cruise on Dubai Creek.