This tourist paradise is known for its magnificent urban architecture. But there is a lot more to discover. Enjoy a local’s viewpoint of the city, as Alisha Roy guides us through the lesser-known experiences of this Middle-Eastern hotspot
There’s no point following a map. Sure, a packaged tour might point you towards the popular tourist spots, but imagine how refreshing it’d be to explore lesser-known sites of this tourist heaven. Most travellers visit Dubai to see the 2,716.5-ft-high Burj Khalifa, said to be the tallest building in the world, and other popular sites, and miss out on so many other hidden sights and experiences here, of which only the city’s residents are aware. Allow me to show you a side of Dubai – a far more exciting, engaging and unforgettable one.
Burger by the ocean
Take La Mer for example, which is among the most beautiful locales in the city. Nestled in the Jumeirah neighbourhood, La Mer is Dubai’s answer to Hollywood’s dreamy beaches. If it is not for men in white kandoras (a traditional ankle-length garment) and women in black abayas (a traditional robe), you can easily mistake this for a beach in Miami and not in the Middle East. This well-maintained cove is fringed with palm trees, a white shoreline and boasts water sports. Since the sun shines bright and hard on Dubai, I begin my trail to acquire a tan with a cool cosmopolitan drink, which isn’t cool enough for the bartender. His smirk suggests that he had expected a more challenging recipe. This ‘I can do better’ attitude have propelled the city’s dining habits into cults. Two such are the resident’s penchant for burgers and burqinis (a swimwear that covers the entire body except for the face, palms and feet). I stroll to a nearby trailer for a mini burger topped with sliced jalapeno and melting cheese. Leaving the laid-back morning behind me, I walk to the promenade where I hail a cab to Al Seef, a lesser-explored heritage district of the city.
Like an open-air studio, each section in Al Seef houses multiple galleries that appear as windows into Dubai’s artistic soul. While one sleek space is outfitted with classic dial-up phones and century-old typewriters, another lane exhibits Middle Eastern photographers’ brilliant shots on large canvases. For creative inspiration, explore Al Seef’s Arabic and French cafés or exotic fashion boutiques. I join a small group gathered around a bunch of actors enacting a short play before I act on my lunch plans. An offbeat lunch awaits me in the next leg of my journey at a tad more bustling spot. I head to the Union Metro Station as I have a train to catch to my next destination. Commuting by train is a convenient way to go around this bustling neighbourhood.
A visual metaphor of New York’s Times Square, the Union station has a plethora of screens and billboards that scream for attention. It doesn’t matter where I go as a wave of metro-riders carry me to the exit. The path ahead is a test for the sole (and soul). There have been umpteen times when I have had to ditch my favourite pair of heels because of the sheer amount of walking
involved here. I walk down the bright lanes of Naif souk; a palette of Nile-greens, camel-yellows and earth tones transcend this high-rise into the fictional city of Agrabah (think Disney’s 1992 Oscar-winning movie Aladdin). Naif is unlike any Emirati bazaar, which usually boasts good air-conditioning and dramatic interiors. Instead, Naif, with its shops, cafés and foot traffic, is Dubai for locals. Teeming with shoppers, this is one of the city’s most popular go-to spots for every retail need. The narrow lanes here have the finest of fabrics on display – from light-catching silk scarves to crisp cottons. I taste a few dry figs and chocolates heaving from the stores. Eateries, squeezed in between the shops offer aromatic kebabs and freshly-brewed milk tea.
I take the metro to Al Ras station, one of my most favourite stops, as it dazzles me with its yellow lights and Prussian blue tiles. The vibrant Al Ras is a refreshing visual break from the conventional steel-and-glass stations. My next stop is the Waterfront Market at Deira, a busy sea-facing neighbourhood. The covered market in Deira corniche (waterfront promenade) has been trading since the early 1990s. I come here on winter weekends to not just get groceries but also to enjoy the blue expanse of water. The market houses dedicated kiosks for everything: meat here, and fruits and vegetables there. Fish from local waters and dates take up an entire section. You can buy ‘salman’ (as salmon is called by the vendors here) fillets, organic raw milk and fresh mussels too. I recommend the tendered, spicy joints of Aussie lambs to make a warm brew on a winter night. While you can bookmark a page about the perfect Dubai in a guidebook, turn a new page and walk the narrow roads criss-crossing the city. So, whether you are a traveller with a carefully-planned itinerary or one with a weakness for the road less travelled, Dubai caters to both.
Do not forget to drop by Al Ghurair Centre, a stone’s throw away from the Waterfront Market. It is often hard for the senior residents in Dubai to imagine Ghurair, in the middle of Deira, transform from a shopping-only area to a cultural hub. Cinema, graffiti and football are popular at the centre. Try delicious savouries and sweet treats from the Japanese bakery Yakitate here.