Cultural Dubai



Cultural understanding. It’s why a lot of us travel, to leave familiarity behind and reach out to those who do things in a different way. Bridge gaps. Open minds.

Now think of Dubai, city of malls and towers, blingy shops we know selling bloated brands we recognise. Not exactly the first port of call for those seeking cultural understanding, perhaps?

Enlightenment can come in the most unexpected of places, my child. Take Bastakiya, the 19th-century Persian quarter of Dubai. This dense little enclave has been restored to within an inch of its life, but its high-walled alleyways retain a whiff of atmosphere – along with one of Dubai’s essential cultural stops.

I’m seated, cross-legged, on the courtyard floor within one of Bastakiya’s villas. A veiled woman stands at one end of the room. “Eighteen or twenty percent of Emirati men take more than one wife,” she is explaining, in a soft West Coast American accent. “But there’s a divorce rate of almost 40%.”

Amused tutting ripples around the seated circle. “But please,” she smiles, gesturing to the bread, dips, pasta, deep-fried pastries smothered in date syrup and more laid out in front of us. “Tuck in.”

We’re not in a private home, though this is, quite literally, a cultural breakfast. Amid Bastakiya’s lanes, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding – named after the craggy-featured Ruler of Dubai – makes a point of serving up Emirati culture alongside Emirati food.

Too many visitors – and expats – pass through Dubai, the thinking goes, without breaking through the glitzy surface. So the idea of the SMCCU emerged. It offers visits to the glittering Jumeirah Mosque, enhanced by a guide providing insight into Islamic practices. It runs tours of Bastakiya, cultural events, even classes in spoken Arabic, all designed for newcomers to get a handle on what makes the UAE tick.

This morning there are 17 of us – intriguingly, 14 women and only 3 men – seated together, from Britain, Sweden, the US, the Philippines and beyond, split roughly equally between tourists and resident expats. As we nosh, our “guide” Salamah, originally from Oregon, tells us about the etiquette of men and women sitting together on a plane, about how Islam forbids prayer between sunrise and noon in case it’s mistaken for sun worship, even about the traditional greeting between two Emirati men which involves rubbing noses and making kissy noises.

The atmosphere is jovial, with people chipping in – and nothing is off-limits: during our chinwag we touch upon Emirati attitudes to neighbouring countries, the veiling of young girls and, of course, polygamy.

It’s a cheery, thought-provoking way to start the day, shedding light on Dubai’s hidden roots. And the food’s excellent.

Cultural breakfast: Mon & Wed 10am, Dh60 per person. Cultural lunch: Sun & Tues 1pm, Dh70 per person. Advance booking essential. More info:

You can get Dubai as a stopover with the Rover RTW or Navigator RTW




Dubai airport transfers





DXB is an oddity: a major international airport that is effectively downtown. Located in Garhoud, it lay in open desert when it opened in 1960: the city has grown up around it. The cheap hotels and creekside souks of Deira are only about 4km away – great for quick, low-cost transfers, not so great for the folks living in the apartment buildings ringing the runways.






DXB has three terminals – 1 and 3 are side-by-side on the southern side of the airport; 2 is separate, on the north side. Where you arrive depends on which airline you’re flying.




If you’re on Emirates or Qantas, you’ll come into Terminal 3, the world’s second-largest building in terms of floor space – sleek, gleaming, high-ceilinged and air-conditioned.




Most other major airlines use Terminal 1 – older, shabbier and (in Arrivals at least) non-a/c.




As for Terminal 2, you’ll only end up there if you’re on low-cost regional carrier FlyDubai, or if you’re coming in on smaller airlines from – how can we put this? – less mainstream destinations, such as Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia and others.




Note that there are some oddities – for example, Air India uses Terminal 1, but Air India Express uses Terminal 2.




Onward options


Whatever you choose, be prepared to sweat: Dubai’s humidity is high day and night, and dragging bags around after a tiring flight is a recipe for a rapid wilt. Even if you’re going to watch the dirhams later on, paying extra to be whisked door-to-door on arrival has considerable appeal.






The standard Dubai cab is cream-coloured with a red roof. They wait 24/7 at ranks outside all arrivals areas – safe, metered and well-regulated by the Dubai Taxi Corporation. Drivers – invariably from South Asia – rarely speak much English, but you can usually make yourself understood.




There are also pink taxis for women only, driven by women, as well as taxis adapted for people with disabilities.




From the airport the meter starts at Dh20 in a normal-sized cab, or Dh25 in a larger vehicle, such as a people-carrier.




Sample fares are very dependent on traffic conditions – reckon on around Dh40 to Bur Dubai, around Dh50 to Jumeirah, around Dh55 to Dubai Mall or around Dh70 to Mall of the Emirates.




Taxis don’t tout for business – anyone who approaches you in airport arrivals is illegal and unlicensed.




Many hotels offer their own airport pick-up service, bookable in advance. These are handy for the lack of hassle – just look for your name on a card and then follow the liveried flunkey – but they invariably cost around twice the price of a metered cab.




New arrivals are occasionally hoodwinked by limousine operators, who hang around beside the taxi ranks, trying to entice customers into their luxury Audis and BMWs. They generally offer no starting fee and fixed prices. If you don’t mind paying a premium – say, Dh100 to Bur Dubai, or Dh180-200 further afield – then live the dream and hop in.






The Dubai Metro  is a wonder: clean, smooth, fast and efficient. The stations, platforms and trains are all air-conditioned and everything is signed in English.




Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 have stations side-by-side on the Red Line. From either take a train towards Jebel Ali to head into the city – they run about every 5mins – though bear in mind you’re only allowed to carry two suitcases per person, one large, one small. If you’re laden with more, take a taxi.




Every train has special carriage at one end, half of which is ‘Gold Class’ – reserved for those who pay extra – and half for women and children only.




First metro departs the airport around 5.55am (Fridays 1.05pm; no service Fri mornings). Last metro departs Sat-Wed around 11pm, Thu & Fri around midnight. Approximate journey times are: to Bur Dubai 10mins, Dubai Mall 25mins, Mall of the Emirates 40mins, Jebel Ali 1hr.




The citywide public transport card is called Nol – there are Gold, Silver and Blue options for locals, but the best for visitors is a Red Ticket. A single journey costs Dh4.50 for one zone (from the airport to Deira), or Dh6.50 for two zones (from the airport as far west as Dubai Mall/Business Bay), or Dh8.50 beyond that. Alternatively, buy a one-day city-wide pass for Dh14.




The big drawback is that onward transport connections from metro stations aren’t great: a network of “metro feeder” buses does exist but you need a PhD in urban planning to figure it out. Still, riding the metro to somewhere near your hotel, then hailing a cab to cover the last mile or two is a skinflint’s dream.






There are some from the airport, but they system is complicated. And they rarely go where you want. On balance, why bother?


Which option is right for you?


Pre-booked private/hotel transfer


Best for: high-rollers


Pros: zero hassle, door-to-door personal service


Cons: expensive




Best for: almost everyone


Pros: minimal hassle, door-to-door, modest prices


Cons: traffic delays, occasional miscommunication with drivers




Best for: frugally minded and/or adventurous souls


Pros: inexpensive, plunges you direct into the city atmosphere


Cons: generally leaves you a walk or short cab ride from your hotel





Best Dubai Museum


What’s the best museum in Dubai?


You could try the Dubai Museum, a display of historical bits and bobs in the 18th-century Al Fahidi Fort. Pop into the fine old Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House, or the old Ahmadiya School across the Creek.


Or maybe even absorb Dubai’s history retail-style, thanks to the “edutainment” on offer in the Ibn Battuta Mall.


But it’s all a bit ho-hum.


In truth, the best museum in Dubai isn’t in Dubai at all. Instead, jump in a taxi for the short drive north (roughly Dh50/£8 on the meter) to the neighbouring city of Sharjah.


Desperately underrated and under-visited, Sharjah may be “dry” (you can’t buy or consume alcohol here) but it is crammed with interest.


Dominating the Corniche is the golden-domed Museum of Islamic Civilisations. It’s a strong contender for the ‘Best Museum’ gong, with its stunning interior and extensive displays on medieval science, as well as superb galleries of textiles and ceramics upstairs.


A short walk away, Sharjah’s pedestrianised Heritage Quarter holds a clutch of restored courtyard houses, each holding museum displays. Drop into the Naboodah House, built by a 19th-century merchant family, try the fine Heritage Museum, the three-floor contemporary Art Museum and the beautiful Calligraphy Museum, then roam the lanes of the fine old Souk Al-Arsa covered bazaar alongside.


But the best of the lot? Sharjah’s wonderful Al Mahatta Museum of aviation.


For most of its history, Sharjah was bigger and more important than Dubai. It had the Gulf’s largest port – and also its first airport, a desert airstrip built in 1932 as a staging-post for British Imperial Airways, which flew planes between London and Australia, stopping frequently to refuel along the way.


Have a look at the route map – with Sharjah marked – and think your way into what RTW flight meant back then. And take 15mins for this glorious 1937 newsreel film “Air Outpost” on life in Sharjah when a plane came in.


Those original 1930s airport buildings – once in open desert, now crammed into the roaring city centre streets – form the museum. You enter beside the glorious Art Deco-style control tower, crossing the courtyard where those early RTW passengers lodged.


But it’s the main display hall that will grab you – tall, white and echoing, with real, full-size vintage planes hanging from the ceiling. I won’t bore you with names and serial numbers, but just look at it! And again. It’s pure Indiana Jones. The most evocative room in the UAE.


Go and sniff the engine block of the 1953 Gypsy Queen. Get into the cockpit of the gleaming silver Comet. Gaze over the old maps and air charts. Press the button to start the working Pratt & Whitney engines, vintage 1941.


It’s a real link with a tangible past, firing imaginations, feeding knowledge. Pure catnip for travellers. I loved it.






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