Off –The-Beaten Path Experiences in Dubai:

  • Visit the Grand Mosque at Abu Dhabi
  • Enjoy the Best Seafood in Dubai at the Bu Qtair Restaurant
  • Get a Sneak Peak into a Traditional Emirati House by Grabbing Breakfast or Lunch at the Basta Art Café
  • Time Travel Back 50 Years to Dubai’s Early Days by Wandering through the Bastakia Quarter
  • Learn about Dubai’s interesting history at the Dubai Museum
  • Watch the Tradional-style Dhows Being Loaded at the Wharfage
  • Bargain for Saffron and Other Exotic Spices at the Spice Souq
  • Take a sunset stroll through the mangrove nature reserve in Abu Dhabi

A surprisingly small crowd gathered around the valet entrance of the village-sized Dubai Mall. The Burg Khalifa, the world’s tallest building and a striking symbol of Dubai’s wealth, towered overhead.  A flash bulb burst forth light, illuminating the sleekly elegant white Mercedes sports car that was the object of so much attention.  The car was not as ostentatious as the one-of-a-kind Rolls Royce behind it, but for those who understand Dubai’s car culture the “1″ on the license plate gave away the importance of this sporty vehicle. It belonged to one of the richest men in the world, and Dubai’s most prominent royal, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the United Arab Emirates’ Vice President and the ruler of Dubai.  While tourists gawked and took the opportunity to digitally capture their good fortune of seeing Sheikh Mohammed’s car, locals and expats did not give it a second glance. Rubbing elbows with the rich and famous is a common occurrence at Dubai’s malls and well-to-do restaurants.

Al Arab

The Burj Al Arab. Dubai, UAE. Photo: Genevieve Hathaway Photography

Dubai is hailed as the Montecarlo of the Middle East with malls and exotic entertainment, such as indoor skiing, as the favored past-time instead of gambling. Yet, there is a different side to Dubai for those who enjoy their travels a little less gilded and with an extra helping of authenticity. A dozen blocks away from the glass and glamor of the Dubai Mall a different Dubai was taking place.

Amongst the shimmering glamor of luxurious Dubai are local experiences – the real Dubai that the Emirati and Expats, rather than tourists enjoy. Dine on the best seafood in Dubai – far from the strip of towering high rises. This restaurant is a collection of plastic chairs on the beach cooking up today’s local catch. This diner has no marble floors, mahogany tables, fine china or well-dressed waiters.  The Bu Qtair Restaurant is legendary among locals, but absent from guidebooks. Dine there any night of the week and you’ll see a steady stream of Ferrari and Lamborghini’s pull up and order take away as the wealthy elite local this place as much as the hard working locals and expats.

This little local joint is the soul of Dubai that so many visitors miss because they are distracted by the burjkhalifa_behindsparkle of the wealthy facade.  The small restaurant is tucked away amongst homes and construction sites just down the beach from the famous Burj Al-Arab hotel.  On any night the diner is packed with expats and locals; working class folks and rich upper class alike enjoying the best fresh seafood in Dubai.  It’s a family-run restaurant, serving up the day’s catch for over 20 years.  This establishment proves that even in a place as obsessed with wealth and status as Dubai good food still sells.  Eating at the Bu Qtair is akin to joining your friends in their kitchen for some great home-cooked grub.

Compared to other cities, Dubai was built overnight. To give some perspective on the speed with which Dubai has caught up with other large cities, until 1960 donkeys and camels were the only form of transportation in and around area.  During the 1960s, the first roads were also constructed in Dubai.  50 years later Dubai boasts the largest building in the world and it is quickly becoming the world’s hub for business. With 85% of the city’s population expats and only 15% local Emirati, the city feels more pure diverse metropolis than Arab big city.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was formed in 1971 to unite the emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah Umm al-Quwain and Ras al-Khaimah.  Today, the UAE is the only federation of Arab states in the Middle East.  The federation was structured based on each Sheikh’s power and wealth. Abu Dhabi, the most powerful sheikh-dom, was named the capital and its ruler the President of the UAE.  Dubai is the second most powerful city and its ruler the Vice President of the UAE.  The ruling families are so wealthy that at any given time they can financially prop up the country’s economy.  In 2009, stock markets around the world dipped when Dubai’s debt reached $80 billion.  The Abu Dhabi government (the ruling family) stabilized the situation by paying off $10 billion of the immediate obligations.

The largest concentration of historical Dubai is in Deira.  Deira, also known as ‘Old Dubai,’ was the first area of Dubai settled, and parts of it reflect this past.  In Deira you can sip tea in a traditional Emirati home, buy saffron from the spice souq, walk around the Bastakia Quarter with its traditional Emirati buildings, marvel at the wind towers (old-school Emirati AC systems for cooling homes), and check out traditional flat bottom barrages, called dhows, being loaded at the wharfage.  Most of Dubai’s working class lives here.  And as such it’s an eclectic mix of Indian, Southeast Asian, Filipino, and traditional Emirati.  The streets here are a great place to wander.  One moment you’re walking past a small shop packed with Indians purchasing spices and then you turn a corner and see the Dubai Creek curving around the bend, docked dhows stocked to the brim with crates.

Grand Mosque. Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Grand Mosque. Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Unfortunately, very few traditional Emirati buildings exist in this city outside of Deira.  In other cities and towns in the United Arab Emirates, traditional Emirati culture still prevails.  But, the focus of Dubai has been to surpass modern and aim for futuristic.  The government and locals want to be at the forefront of architectural design and technology.  This focus on the future has left much of the Emirati history undervalued. For the moment, there are still pockets of Dubai’s past in Deira.

Intrepid and curious travelers can have a wonderfully polar experience in Dubai.  One day, marvel at the strangely futuristic, yet beautiful buildings near the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Marina.  Then the next day get lost in the old souqs of the Deira district, followed by an evening of enjoying the most genuine form of Emirati cuisine – fish from the harbor.

Dubai is the city that was imagined.  And to an extent still is being imagined.  A common saying among the expats is that “when the cranes are taken down we are moving back home.”  Dubai’s growth and ingenuity at that point would come to an end.  Anything that can be imagined can be built in Dubai.  But, that fact gives the city an artificial feeling instead of a sense of organic growth. When viewed from the air, Dubai is a cluster of futuristic skyscrappers plopped down in the desert.  It’s a metropolis of skyscrappers, sand and cranes.  This artificial nature often deters travelers seeking an authentic feeling city.  But, with a little persistence and research any traveler can find authenticity amongst the great experiment that is Dubai.

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