Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood
One of the oldest heritage sites in Dubai and home to many of the city’s art galleries
Stepping into Dubai’s Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood is quite literally like taking an excursion through the UAE’s history books. As clichéd as it might sound, you actually have to experience it to believe it. The entire area is a reconstruction of a village populated by wind towers and palm-fronted houses and if you take a moment to wander through the narrow lanes, taking in the bird song and enjoying the shade of the palm trees, you might just be able to imagine what life was like here before the discovery of oil.
Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, or Bastakiya as it is known locally, is home to a number of art galleries, cafés and the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. It is a place to go and learn about the history of the city and the intricacies of the culture as well as, of course, taking a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Sheikh Zayed Road.
Twice a week, the SMCCU hosts open breakfasts for tourists; they gather in the majlis area and share typical Emirati food whilst sat cross legged on the floor. It is also a chance to ask the local representative any questions they might have. Tony Adams is a Brit visiting Dubai for the third time with his wife and two children. They come to Bastakiya to experience the culture. ‘Everyone thinks Dubai is all about shopping and beaches but we like to come to this area and learn more about the Emirati way of life,’ he says. ‘After breakfast we will wander through the art galleries and then up to cross the Creek on the ferry.’
Alongside the wind towers and the pink and white bougainvillea populating Bastakiya’s alleys is Dubai’s busy waterway, The Creek. This is where many of Dubai’s first trading immigrants would exchange goods in the early 19th century, and such legacy is still alive today. Ships laden with goods from across the Gulf arrive and unload their wares on the other side near to the gold and spice souks. But all this action is a world away from the sun-bathed courtyards of Bastakiya.
In the XVA and Majlis galleries, art from across the region can be enjoyed in relative peace and the area is also home to the headquarters of the Sikka Art Fair – the only fair dedicated to Emiratis and UAE residents. The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature has also recently moved into the Dar Al Adaab: The House of Literature and there are several events held here all year round.
For the more meticulous explorer, a closer inspection will yield further gems. The Mawaheb Centre for Beautiful People is an art studio for those with special needs. The villa doors are open every day and the sounds of music and laughter flow from within. Just around the corner is the city’s Coins Museum where more than 470 rare coins are housed from different historical eras, some dating back thousands of years and the Al Fahidi Fort.
Inside the main building, there is coffee and tea for visitors and the chance to see old photographs of Dubai’s undeveloped coastline in the 1960s and 1970s. If you want a guided walking tour then the SMCCU organises them regularly for a small fee.
To round off your day in Bastakiya, you must try the Bastakiah Nights restaurant. Housed in a traditional open roofed building, you can sit inside or outside and even if the restaurant is packed, the maze of decadently decorated rooms makes you feel as if you are in your own private restaurant. It serves Arabic and Emirati food and comes highly recommended if you want to taste some traditional dishes and sweets.