With the recession behind it, Dubai (within the United Arab Emirates) is back to building opulent hotels and reigniting its reputation as a Las Vegas of the Middle East. But step away from its Guinness World Record-winning skyscrapers, and you’ll find a multicultural emirate with a centuries-old maritime history.
Bridging Cultures: A short walk from the cruise terminal, Dubai’s dual Heritage and Diving Village re-creates the traditional life of locals before the emirate’s emergence as a glitzy, pulsating hub. Explore Bedouin huts made of mud and barasti, dried palm leaves; watch potters at their throwing wheels; and view pearl diving boats that highlight a once prominent profession dating back some 7,000 years.
Next, hop in a taxi across town to the historic district of Al Bastakiya, a maze of narrow paths meandering among flat, sand-colored structures made from coral stones. These former residences of Iranian pearl and textile traders now house coffee shops and art galleries.
Bastakiya is home to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, where visitors can ask local Muslims about their customs while seated on pillows around a meal that includes lugaimat — round, sweet dough balls served with date syrup. The Dubai Museum in Al Fahidi Fort, an 18th-century military relic on Dubai Creek, is within easy walking distance. Along with viewing dioramas depicting desert life, travelers can obtain passes to visit archaeological excavation sites in Dubai’s Al Qusais and Jumeirah communities.
With a View of the Sea: The high-rise beachfront community of Jumeirah Beach Residence boasts the Walk, a mile-long stretch of restaurants, souvenir shops, and big-name retailers like Lagerfeld and Thomas Sabo.
From October through May it’s also home to Covent Garden Market Dubai, an outdoor spread of 55 artisan stalls selling hand-painted ceramic bowls and necklaces crafted from freshwater pearls. According to expat Lynn Gervais, “In the evenings the area becomes bumper to bumper with car aficionados cruising in their Ferraris and Lamborghinis.”
Sport and Spend: Start the morning with tour operator Arabian Adventures and a four-wheel-drive to Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, an hour’s drive inland from the emirate’s urban center. Half-day excursions include sand-boarding (similar to snowboarding except done on steep orange dunes) and driving a dune buggy of your own across the Arabian Desert.
Shopping’s a great way to switch gears following an adrenaline-filled morning: Dubai’s suqs, or Arab markets, are the best places to haggle for everything from pashmina scarves to gold bracelets. Start at the Dubai Spice Suq, easy to reach from Bastakiya via an abra — or water taxi — across Dubai Creek. Then swing by the Perfume Suq, where you can create customized scents from essential oils like jasmine and sandalwood.
This piece, written by Laura Kiniry, appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler.