At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking Dubai is all neck-craning skyscrapers and multi-million-dollar yachts. Yet, beyond the shiny facade of this ultra-modern emirate lies the bustle and rugged beauty of Old Dubai. At its heart is the Dubai Museum, housed in the historic Al Fahidi Fort. An essential stop for those who are keen to delve beneath the surface of this Middle East metropolis, Dubai Museum offers a snapshot into the heritage and culture of this fascinating destination.
The History of Al Fahidi Fort
Believed to be the oldest existing building in the city, Al Fahidi Fort was built in 1787 at the southern end of Dubai Creek. Over the past 230 years, the coral-and-mortar fort has served as a royal palace, fortress, weapons arsenal and prison. It was transformed into a museum in 1971 by the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, with an additional underground museum added in 1995.
What’s on Show
The history lesson begins before you set foot inside the museum, as you spy a traditional wooden dhow (fishing boat) and antique cannons mounted near the entrance. Once inside the fort, Dubai Museum is split into a series of halls surrounding a central courtyard. A spiral staircase leads to the underground galleries, the first two of which are filled with old maps and videos depicting the rapid transformation of Dubai.
Up until the discovery of oil in the 1960s, Dubai was a sleepy coastal village sandwiched between the desert and the Arabian Gulf. Pearl diving, date farming, goats and camels were the main stock and trade of the nomadic Bedouins who called this region home. Those pre-oil days are brought to life here, with full-scale dioramas depicting scenes of 1950s Dubai, including a souk (marketplace), mosque, date farms, a Bedouin tent and a desert oasis. Audio tracks and video installations add to the atmosphere, filling the gallery with the chatter and clang of craftsmen and traders.
A visit to the astronomy and natural phenomena wing will provide insight into the ways in which the roaming Bedouins used the night sky for guidance, while the marine wing celebrates the city’s seafaring heritage. To delve further back in time, browse tombs and a skeleton from the Al Qusais Archaeological Site, an ancient Bronze Age settlement unearthed 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) east of Dubai. There’s also a folklore wing that tells the classical tales of this region, and a monuments wing filled with pottery, weapons, art and antiquities from trading partners in Africa and Asia.
The most affordable way to reach Dubai Museum is via public transport. Catch the metro or bus to Al Ghubaiba or Al Fahidi stations, then walk 10 minutes to the museum. If you’ve started your day at the Gold Souk or Spice Souk on the north side of Dubai Creek, catch an abra (small wooden boat) across the water for 1 dirham (around 30 cents), then wander through the Textile Souk to the Museum. Taxis are readily available, and there’s a limited number of carparks at the museum if you choose to drive.
Need to Know
The Dubai Museum is open from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday to Thursday, and 2:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Fridays. Entry is 3 dirhams (around US 80 cents) for adults and 1 dirham for children aged 6 and under. Allow one to two hours for a visit.
What to Do Nearby
You’re right in the heart of Dubai’s most fascinating neighborhood, so allow extra time to explore Al Fahidi Historical District, also known as Al Bastakiya. Time your visit to coincide with a Cultural Meal at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. One of the most enriching experiences on offer in Dubai, these breakfasts and lunches offer the chance to share a traditional Emirati banquet with locals, all while asking questions and learning about the UAE way of life.
Behind the Cultural Centre, a maze of alleyways is home to artisans selling textiles, calligraphy and enamelware, plus the stunning XVA, home to a gallery, arty boutique hotel, and chic courtyard café (don’t miss the frozen mint lemonade and insanely good Arabic vegetarian fare).
Or, pop into the Arabian Tea House Café near the Al Fahidi roundabout, where you can dine under swathes of fabric in the atmospheric courtyard. Sip glasses of sweet shay (tea) and snack on dips, salads and grilled meats served with freshly baked Arabic breads.