Holidays & Travel

Why there’s more to Dubai than glitz and glamour

Sarah Marshall reveals how to get the best of the much-loved Middle Eastern metropolis.

Al Fahidi
Al Fahidi (Dubai Tourism/PA) Al Fahidi

Once upon a time, Dubai was little more than a small fishing village backed by endless dunes and miles of desert wilderness. Those humble beginnings barely seem possible given the futuristic metropolis that stands today: gleaming seafront promenades, the tallest skyscrapers in the world and shopping centres filled with everything from countless stores to larger-than-life aquariums and even ski slopes.

Dubai’s bold reinvention often divides opinion with many dismissing it as all style and no substance. But despite the glitzy façade and the popular belief that it’s nothing but Instagram fodder and retail therapy, there’s real soul and magic to be discovered – for those ready to seek it.

The natural starting point is Al Fahidi, the historic neighbourhood in Old Dubai that offers a fascinating glimpse into a bygone time and the commercial origins that sparked the city’s remarkable growth. Centred around the Dubai Creek, where old abras (wooden water taxis) ply the waterway, the atmospheric alleys and fragrant markets are a world away from the sterile and sometimes soulless malls found elsewhere in the city.

Al Fahidi
Al Fahidi (Dubai Tourism/PA) Al Fahidi

There’s culture, too. Meaning ‘meeting place’ in Arabic, the Majlis Gallery houses paintings, ceramics, glasswork and photography by artists near and far, including many Emiratis. Dar Al Khatt is an institution dedicated to beautiful Arabic calligraphy, while the Coins Museum houses a rare collection of 500 coins from as far back as the 7th century.

More modern-day jewels are on display in the glittering Gold Souk located nearby. Trade of this precious metal began in Dubai in the 1940s and remains one of the world’s biggest and most important gold markets. Other much-loved shopping hotspots in Old Dubai include souks specialising in spices, perfumes and fabrics.

This is prime people-watching territory. Among the shops and stalls, this historic covered arcade is a bubbling melting pot of local culture, with men hauling carts and women in traditional dress browsing for bargains.

The Majilhis Gallery
The Majilhis Gallery (Marjilhis/PA) The Majilhis Gallery

Stop off for a tangy glass of mint and lime juice or cup of gahwa (traditional coffee) at the Arabian Tea House, where billowing lace curtains, turquoise benches and white rattan chairs create a world away from Starbucks. It’s also a good place to sample classic Emirati dishes, such as tahta laham (spiced shredded lamb served between layers of white rice and finished with caramelised onions and dried raisins) and traditional cakes and sweets.

It’s an exciting time when it comes to food and drink in Dubai. The city is rapidly emerging as one of the world’s great culinary destinations, with celebrity chefs and Michelin stars descending on the desert city in their droves.

While homegrown British talents Heston Blumenthal, Jason Atherton and Gordon Ramsay all have a presence in the form of their grand and glitzy restaurants, the real excitement lies elsewhere.

The Arabian Teahouse
The Arabian Teahouse (Dubai Tourism/PA) The Arabian Teahouse

“Dubai’s restaurant scene has moved away from one dominated by celeb chefs and imported concepts to a flourishing homegrown, independent dining scene with locally-based chefs as the star players,” says resident foodie Samantha Wood, founder of restaurant review site FooDiva.



“We have a multi-cultural melting pot of every cuisine under the sun here and thanks to investment in local farming there’s also access to lots of native ingredients.”

One such place is the Orfali Bros Bistro in the Wasl 51 district. It’s the passion project of Syrian chef and local TV personality Mohamad Orfali, who, along with his two brothers, has delivered an eatery that’s big on the produce it uses across its pioneering Middle Eastern menu which changes seasonally.

Standout dishes include the shish barak a la gyoza – tasty dumplings filled with Arabian sausage and yoghurt alongside delicate flavours of pine nuts and mint. You’d be silly not to save room for pudding. But the sweetest bit of all? The cost. With a three-course dinner setting you back around £40, it’s cheap and very cheerful.

Dubai offers epic adventures just beyond the city limits. The desert beckons and with it experiences quite unlike any other. The options are as varied as they are enticing. Choose from quad biking in the dunes, sunrise hot air balloon flights and evenings filled with belly dancing and stargazing.

Camel riding in the desert
Camel riding in the desert (Bab Al Shams/PA) Camel riding in the desert

Those tempted to linger a little longer should make an immediate beeline for Bab Al Shams. Located just 45 minutes from the city centre and close to the Al Marmoom conservation reserve, this legendary property has just reopened after a 10-month renovation with results that offer a taste of modern Arabia at its most impressive. Beyond the tall towers flanking the entrance are shady courtyards and 115 rooms as slick as they are soothing, with tones of soft browns, rich creams and brushed golds alongside dramatic velvet headboards. But none of that comes close to the sweeping dune views also on offer.

And full marks go to the big bosses for offering exceptional value for money when they could so easily have cashed-in. Guests are spoilt with complimentary camel rides and displays of the age-old Emirati passion of falconry.

Non-guests are shown some love too, with pool passes available from £144 per person allowing all-day access to the stunning pool and an hour’s massage at the spa. And there’s not the faintest bit of Dubai bling to be seen…

How to plan your trip

Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com) fly from London Heathrow to Dubai from £464 return.

Doubles at Bab Al Shams start from £230 per night with breakfast. Visit babalshams.com.

For more information on the destination, visit visitdubai.com.