Surrounded by buttoned-up consulates and bustling souks, Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood is a quiet pocket of calm and culture in Old Dubai. Previously known as Al Bastakiya, this traditional neighbourhood dates back to the 19th century, and is home to some of the oldest buildings in the city.
The sikkas (alleyways) fanning out behind Al Fahidi Street deliver a new surprise at every turn, encouraging you to lose yourself as you wander among the laneways lined with restored wind towers. Home to galleries, cafes and artisan workshops, this artistic enclave is a must for any visitor to Dubai, or for those who simply want to fall in love with this city all over again.
Here, Rashid Al Tamimi, – a senior presenter at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, shares his insider’s guide to Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood.
What makes Al Fahidi a must-visit destination in Dubai?
The area of Al Fahidi and Bur Dubai is a treasure trove of things to see and do. It is the home of the historical neighbourhood of Al Fahidi, dating back to 1859, which has the beautifully restored wind-tower houses. There is also the Dubai Museum (formerly the Al Fahidi Fort), which is the oldest building in Dubai, dating back to 1787. For those who like the experience of shopping other than in a mall, there are the traditional souks (markets) to visit, including Meena Baazaar, the Textile Souk, gold shops and the old souk leading down to the Dubai Creek, where you may catch a traditional abra (a river taxi) from Bur Dubai over to the Deira Souk. There is also the Coin Museum and the Bait Al Wakeel museum housing traditional fishing and maritime traditions.
What was the inspiration behind SMCCU and the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood?
The Al Fahidi neighbourhood is a place for those who love art and culture. There are a number of art galleries such as Majlis Gallery, XVA and the Alserkal Cultural Foundation. It was the perfect area to continue the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, a non-profit organisation. SMCCU was set up in 1998 to increase awareness and understanding of the local traditions, customs and religion of the UAE. We operate under the banner of ‘Open Doors Open Minds’ and host a number of activities, such as cultural meals, mosque visits and walking tours to engage residents and tourists visiting the UAE, offering them an opportunity to ask any questions they may have.
Where is your favourite place for a coffee in Al Fahidi?
The Coffee Museum in the Al Fahidi neighbourhood is an amazing place to stop by. Here you may sit and enjoy the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans while sipping a traditional coffee, discovering the history of coffee and viewing the many artefacts at the museum.
Where can you find authentic Emirati food in the area?
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding hosts breakfasts, lunches and dinners with an authentic Emirati menu. Visitors may try anything from a traditional breakfast dish such as balaleet [vermicelli noodles flavoured with saffron, cardamom and rose water, topped with a thin omelette] chicken machbous [a spiced rice dish, similar to biryani] for lunch, and the famous legumat, a sweet resembling a small doughnut served with date syrup.
What are some of the handicrafts people can find here?
Shoppers looking for something unique to take home have a range of options to choose from. There is the carpet shop where you may purchase a handwoven carpet, and galleries selling paintings and beautiful calligraphy prints. Or pop into the SMCCU gift shop, which offers souvenirs with an Emirati theme. We have the shumagh cloth for men, inspired by the ghutra head cover worn by Arab men. You’ll also find a variety of traditional perfumes and incenses, palm light candles, camel soap and lip balm, handcrafted leather key chains, and magnets inspired by Arabic culture. For fashion lovers, you may even purchase the traditional clothing of the UAE, from pretty embroidered abayas for women to men’s comfortable kandoras.
For more on this heritage haunt, read Annette Welkamp’s guide to the Al Fahidi art scene.