Al Bastakiya: A Cultural Tour of Old Dubai

Just when it seemed like things had eased up and we were beginning to find our rhythm in the new normal, the second wave of COVID-19 sent us retreating back into our burrows. Were you just about to make travel plans? Perhaps you had already made them and had to cancel at the last minute. You’re stuck wishing you could close your eyes and be transported to a foreign land.

Well, sometimes the magic carpet you need is right in your neighbourhood — literally.

The Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood popularly known as Al Bastakiya or Bastakiya Quarter is a treasure trove of history nestled between Dubai Creek and Bur Dubai. The oldest standing residential area of Dubai, it is populated by century-old sand-coloured buildings reminiscent of pre-federation Old Dubai. Al Bastakiya is now a popular tourist destination as it houses museums, cafes and art galleries, all showcasing the rich history and cultural heritage of Dubai. Spending a few hours in this neighbourhood is sure to stimulate your senses and satisfy your cravings for the new.

Brief History

The town of Al Bastakiya was primarily built in the 1890s by Persian merchant immigrants from a town called Bastakiya in Iran. Fleeing persecution in their native homeland, these merchants settled in the area, encouraged by tax breaks and other incentives offered in the region. Following renovations of some of the buildings in the 1980s, Dubai government decided to preserve the area as a heritage site, and extensive restoration work was done in the early 2000s before the site was opened up to visitors.

Things to Do

A tour of this historical district offers a welcome break from the glitzy glass, concrete and steel for which Dubai is known. Travel through time as you walk through winding narrow lanes and alleyways, exploring historic architecture made of coral, mud, gypsum and palm wood. Look up as you walk, and admire wind towers – the “air conditioners” of the past – fitted on old houses. Wander through heritage museums and art galleries soaking up in the Emirati history and culture.

Worthy of note amongst a host of cultural attractions, is the Al Fahidi Fort, home of the Dubai Museum. Built in the 1700s, the Fort is regarded as the oldest building in Dubai. It originally served as a defence post as well as office and residence of the ruler of Dubai. In 1971, it was converted to the Dubai Museum and now houses ancient artifacts and relics of the old way of life. Another place worthy of note is the world-famous Grand Mosque. Originally built in 1900, it was demolished and rebuilt in 1960 and then further rebuilt in 1998. With a capacity of 1,200 worshippers, the Grand Mosque has become a centre of attraction to both Muslims and non-Muslims around the world.

If you’d really like to get immersed in the culture of that era, you should definitely go by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. The centre offers a range of activities, from traditional cuisine to conversations with local Emiratis. You can get a full cultural dining experience, sitting on Bedouin-style carpets (I did mention a magic carpet) and pillows as your Emirati host answers questions about UAE culture and customs.

Speaking of food, the district houses a number of restaurants serving a variety of local dishes. You can start at the Arabian Tea House to sample an impressive variety of Arab teas as well as authentic Emirati cuisine. And in the evening when the weather is cool, relax and have dinner in the open-air courtyard of the Bastakiya Nights restaurant. Alternatively, go down to Dubai Creek a few minutes away and book a dinner cruise on a dhow to enjoy live entertainment as you eat, against the backdrop of the setting sun.

Shopping is also a fun thing to do, as there are many shops in Al Bastakiya where you can purchase antiques, artefacts, gift items, souvenirs for friends and family, etc. In addition, the historic architecture of the town makes for an impressive backdrop, so go along with your camera (or whip out your phone camera) and capture stunning, breathtaking photographs for your amateur photography collection or just great selfies for Instagram!


The town of Al Bastakiya is easily accessible as it is well connected by public transportation, however, the easiest way is by the metro. The nearest metro station is Al Fahidi, and from there the town is a walking distance. Entrance into the Neighbourhood is free, as is access to many of the available attractions. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, however, requires pre-booking and a fee to participate in the cultural dining and other activities, so visit their website before you go.

Bastakiya Quarter is open to visitors year-round from 9am to 6pm, but in terms of weather, the best time to visit is in the cooler months of November to April. Another useful tip is to plan your visit to coincide with one of the many arts and cultural festivals that take place there, so you have even more fun events to experience.

In summary, Al Bastakiya is a great place to go to escape the humdrum of city life for a few hours and soak in some culture; you are guaranteed to have a magical experience.

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Dania Nwizu is a creative entrepreneur based in Lagos, Nigeria. She spends most of her time writing, telling food stories and walking on water.

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