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  • Writer's pictureNicola Chilton

50 Reasons to visit the UAE in its 50th Year - Part 3: Urban Adventures

Continuing our journey through 50 reasons to visit the UAE in 2021, its Golden Jubilee year, let's head out for some urban adventures. Assuming you've already been up the Burj Khalifa and taken the obligatory shot in front of the Burj Al Arab, we'll wander along Dubai Creek, refuel with a cup of karak, pop into a couple of quirky museums, and see what else we can find. Comfy shoes for this one, please!

21 Abra-cadabra

I still get as excited now as I did the first time I visited Dubai back in 2008 when I hop onto an abra to cross the Creek. These little wooden boats have been plying the waterways here for decades. There are newer versions these days - some with air-conditioning, some with outboard motors - but for the real deal you need to jump on one of the old ones that make the crossing 100s of times a day for commuters, traders and shoppers. Connecting Bur Dubai on the west side and Deira on the east, the crossing takes no more than 10 minutes, but it transports you far away from the glimmering towers of Downtown. And at AED1 a crossing, you could go back and forth all day. If you want to stay on the water a bit longer, you can rent your own abra for a full tour of the Creek, which gives a great insight into the different neighbourhoods that have grown up alongside. But back to that first visit...

My friend Takao and I hopped onto our own private abra and set off. It was February, so a little chilly. The boat chugged along, and as we sailed parallel to the Rolex Towers, it suddenly slowed down. We didn't pay too much attention, I continued snapping photos, and the next thing we knew the driver started taking his clothes off. First his jumper, then his shirt, then his shoes and trousers. And then he reached for a knife, the blade glinting in the sunshine. Which, to be frank, seemed a little odd, all things considered. We didn't have the time to reflect too much on our lives being cut short in the middle of Dubai Creek before he hopped over the side, knife in hand, and disappeared from view. Takao and I looked at each other in confusion and peered down into the dark waters. A few seconds later our driver resurfaced, hand first, holding some pieces of plastic which had become tangled with the rudder. With a big grin, he got back on the boat, dried himself off on a little rag, put his clothes back on, and off we went to continue our tour. Not all abra rides since have been quite this thrilling, which is probably a good thing. We did give him rather a large tip though, partly due to the relief of not having become the first tourists to be disembowelled on an abra in the middle of Dubai Creek, and also partly because the gentleman was such a hero.

22 Karak, the fuel of the city

If you have another spare AED1 in your pocket, spend it on the UAE's other great one-dirham bargain - a cup of piping hot karak. Karak is the local spiced tea that fuels the city. Whereas Italians drink an espresso to get them going in the morning, here it's karak. Made with milk, black tea, heaps of sugar, a splash of evaporated milk, and spices ranging from cloves to cardamom to ginger - or for an extra Dirham or two, Iranian saffron - you can pick up a cup from the many hole-in-the-wall tea shops across the country. Around the Creek there are plenty of options. Pick up your tea, get a couple of samosas to go with it, and find a spot next to the water where you can watch the boats go by. If you're driving along Jumeirah Beach Road, there are plenty of karak shops. All you need to do is pull up in front, honk your horn, and someone will come out to take your order and deliver your tea straight to your car window. Many of these places sell luqaimat too, a sticky, sweet type of doughnut ball covered in syrup. Recommended if you need more of a sugar boost than a typical karak can provide.

23 Al Mahatta Airport Museum

Long before Dubai became the global city it is today, Sharjah far eclipsed it on the international travel map. The UAE's first airport opened here back in1932 as a staging post for commercial flights between Britain and India. The first flight landed on October 5 from Gwadar (present-day Pakistan), and picked up passengers and mail for the onward journey to England. During World War 2, the airport became RAF Sharjah, and finally fell out of use when the new Sharjah Airport opened in the 1970s and its runway became part of the city’s road system. The control tower is still there today as are many of the original buildings, and it’s now the fascinating Al Mahatta Airport Museum. Located right in the middle of the city, it can be confusing to find as it’s hidden behind many of Sharjah’s skyscrapers, but do persevere as it’s well worth a visit. You can explore a De Havilland Comet and sit in the captain’s seat of a 1969 Vickers Super VC10, the front section of which pokes out of the museum’s wall. All sorts of vintage planes are housed in the hangar, either standing on the ground or suspended from the ceiling, and there’s a great selection of old photos from the airport’s heyday. Whether you’re an avid plane spotter, an aviation geek or just have a passing interest in quirky museums, this one is well worth a couple of hours of your time.

24 Fort Al Ali, Umm Al Quwain

Speaking of quirky museums, the Fort Al Ali museum in Umm Al Quwain is another one that’s worth stopping by. Located in downtown Umm Al Quwain (the second smallest of the seven emirates so don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it) and with a ticket price of only AED 4, the equivalent of one US dollar, you can happily spend an hour or so here. With parts of it dating back to 1768, the fort was the seat of the Umm Al Quwain government until 1969, and was also the stage for the 1929 assassination of the 8th ruler of the emirate by two of his nephews, who subsequently took control of the fort in an attempted coup. This did not sit well with the people of Umm Al Quwain. They considered firing cannons at the fort’s tower to flush the assassins out, but rather than destroying the structure they decided instead to dig a large trench, set it alight, and in this way the nephews met their fiery end. It’s just the kind of museum that I love, the type that’s small, is lovingly well kept, reveals a completely untold story, and deserves to be better known. It has a lovely grassed central courtyard, tall date palms, and a whole cast of creepy mannequins just waiting to have their pictures taken.

25 A wander along Dubai Creek

There are few places I love in the UAE as much as Dubai Creek. I discovered it on my first visit 12 years ago, and when I moved to Dubai in 2015 without being hugely thrilled at the prospect (you can read that story here), I made a point of going back as soon as possible to remind myself how much I’d liked it that first time. It has an energy all its own like all bustling waterside places do, and you can see dhows being laden with goods (fridges, tyres, washing machines) to be shipped to Iran, abras bobbing along, and the occasional yacht with swimwear-clad expats incongruously sailing by. I’ve seen a stingray leap clear out of the water here, and flocks of seagulls swooping and whirling which always reminds me of much colder climes. Some of the city’s best 1970s and 80s-era architecture is here. There’s an Indian temple outside which I always buy strings of fragrant jasmine and garlands of marigolds and roses. You can stop for a coffee and gelato at lovely Mazmi Café, right on the water’s edge, or grab a karak as you wander. There are shops full of souvenirs, from salt and pepper shakers in the shape of people in traditional dress to curly-toed Indian slippers, pashminas of varying qualities, soft wool stoles from Afghanistan, and mounds of spices that I suspect often end up gathering dust in kitchens around the world. In order to avoid running the gauntlet of the invariably infuriating shopkeepers in the “traditional souq” who always shout “Shakira, Shakira!” at me and try to drape scarves on my head, I always wander the street behind where you can see rolls and rolls of dazzling fabrics in the textile shops, in perfect peace.

26 Bastakiya, AKA Al Fahidi Heritage Area

Since we’re already by the Creek, we should continue our walk a little further into the old part of town, which I previously knew as Bastakiya but which is now called Al Fahidi. You’ll know when you’ve arrived as you’ll see the traditional wind towers. It’s not a huge area but it is a lovely change of pace, and a wander here is a delight. Some of the buildings date back more than a century and were the homes of pearl traders, and you’ll find a few cafés and art galleries in these narrow alleys, although some of them seem to have sadly fallen victim to Covid and closed their doors. Hopefully it’s only temporary. My favourite spot of all here is the Arabian Tea House, which I’ve already mentioned a few times in this blog, but it’s worthy of as many mentions as I can give as it’s just wonderful. Sit in the shade of the tree with a cup of karak and you’ll see why I love it so much. Have a wander through XVA Gallery too, a place I discovered on my first ever visit and one I chose to revisit for the Dubai Tourism video. There's usually good art to see, and there's a great (if not pricey) little boutique hidden in the back.

27 Dazzling Diwali in Mankhool

This was a new discovery I made this year, and what a dazzling discovery it was. Indians form the largest group of expats in the UAE, so it’s no surprise that at Diwali they really light up the city. There are houses completely draped in lights in my neighbourhood, and as you drive along Sheikh Zayed Road you’ll see the balconies of people celebrating the festival twinkling and flashing. There are fireworks across the city, but for the real show, head to the Al Mankhool neighbourhood in Bur Dubai just behind the Burjuman shopping mall. Here the buildings compete with each other to see who can have the twinkliest, flashiest, most colourful lights. It’s good, friendly fun – people dress up in their Diwali best, quietly light small diya oil lamps outside in the street, or boisterously set off firecrackers and rockets (stand back as it can get rather “exciting”). When your eyes can take no more of the dazzling display, you’re only a short walk from Dubai’s curry capital of Karama, where you will eat well, affordably and deliciously. Stay tuned for a post all about my amazing food finds in this area, coming soon.

28 Getting artsy in Alserkal Avenue

The first few times I went to Alserkal Avenue I didn’t really get it. I must have gone on Friday mornings when everything was closed, but I left shrugging my shoulders like the emoji woman, wondering what all the fuss was about. I’ve been back numerous times since for the excellent art book fair, to see new exhibitions in the galleries where I've discovered artists I never knew before, to watch the Kusama Yayoi documentary at Cinema Akil, and generally to wonder who all of the impossibly cool people who work here are and why I never see them anywhere else around town. It’s also where I went to record the voiceover for the video I did with Dubai Tourism, which let me see the inside of a couple of these wonderfully industrial-chic warehouse offices. I even bumped into my favourite calligraffiti artist El Seed doing a new piece of work on one of the walls there. Time your visit well, and you could be in for a treat. Time it wrong, and you’ll be left scratching your head like I was on those first few visits.

29 Ramadan in Satwa

Ramadan is a very special time to be in the UAE. The pace slows down, it’s a time of reflection, of kindness, and the day turns upside down to accommodate those fasting. Dubai Mall will be practically empty in the daytime, and you can easily be stuck in a traffic jam at 4am. In the early evening in the Satwa and Naif neighbourhoods, thousands of male workers gather for communal iftar, the meal to break the fast, around the mosques and along the sides of the streets. It’s organised with military precision, a team of volunteers laying out the plastic sheets around which the men will sit, and placing paper plates, water, juice cartons and handfuls of dates in each place, before spooning out individual portions of biryani from huge vats. The food is provided free of charge, and the ambience is one of inclusivity and welcome – no one misses out, and there’s a space for everyone. As the sun goes down and the call to prayer sounds, millions of people across the UAE take that first sip of water, eat that first date and sit down with family, friends, or simply alone, to break their fast. It’s a very special moment, whatever your religious inclination.

30 The Dubai Water Canal at sunrise

The main urban areas of Dubai are centred on the Creek, spread out from Sheikh Zayed Road all the way down to the Marina, and run parallel to the beach. Of course there are more urban areas than these, including plenty of new residential developments growing further out into the desert, but on the whole these are the older, longest-established areas. A few years ago, the Dubai Water Canal cut a swathe right through the middle of the upscale Jumeirah residential neighbourhood, connecting what used to be the end of the Creek directly with the sea. It was an incredibly ambitious project, with houses being razed and roads being lifted to accommodate new bridges, and I like to imagine that one day, someone came along and said “pull the plug” and just like that, the water came in to fill it up. A whole new canal-side pathway was created which will one day be lined with apartments, cafés and shops, and every morning (or as many mornings as I can manage) this is where I do my sunrise walk. From Jumeirah Beach Road to Sheikh Zayed Road and back is around 5km. The sun rises behind the Burj Khalifa, illuminating the skyline with warm morning light. It was from the canal that I saw the two Jetmen leap off the world's tallest building, momentarily wondering what on earth the plume of smoke was, until I saw two tiny figures swooping away to the left in formation (a few days later I saw the news that one of them had tragically died during training in the desert). I’ve seen a fever of hundreds of stingrays (yes, that’s the collective noun) gliding gracefully through the waters as I ran from bridge to bridge to watch their journey beneath me. And we have a little community of morning walkers and runners who say hello to each other, and ask after each other’s health if we miss a day (one friendly runner gives me a “red mark” if I’m late on any particular day..!). It’s one of the best places to start the day in the city.

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