By: Monica Kapila - Also see author's expat blog listing

Despite Dubai being the most well-known Emirate, it’s not the capital of the UAE, that honour belongs to Abu Dhabi and these two Emirates are the most visited in the region.

Much that’s written about Dubai focuses on glamorous hotels, glitzy shopping malls with ski slopes and bling galore, but turn a different corner and find another intriguing side of Dubai explored by those seeking the real deal.

The city has a huge Asian expat population but the widely seen construction workers are a recent addition to this long established community. The Meena Bazaar area of Bur Dubai is testimony to this long association with the Indian subcontinent and still thrives today. There is no better place to explore the vast array of textiles, fabric and ready made clothing from Basic to Bollywood than the plethora of shops in this tight maze of small streets many of which have been there for over 20 years making them historic by Dubai standards !

Goods often spill out onto the pavement and don’t be surprised if you’re cajoled and coaxed into just having a look. There is also a range of tailors in the same area with rates to suit every pocket, but do beware that things may take longer than promised to have made up, especially at Diwali or Eid (major Hindu and Islamic festivals where everyone has multiple sets of new clothes made and tempers are short)

Gold prices too high and you still want something shiny?  Take advantage of being in Dubai and just dip it. Try buying a silver trinket and dipping it in gold. This is easy to do in Bur Dubai and well worth it. Bring something of your own from home (has to be silver though) and have it dipped on the spot to create a brand new piece at the fraction of the price, try Royal Crown Jewellery behind Saree Palace for the gold dipping or House of Silver to buy a silver trinket. While the shine may wear off after a while the dull mat gold finish look is fine and very affordable! It’s a great idea for making a really unique present for someone too and very practical if you travel a lot and don’t feel comfortable wearing real jewellery.

And if pounding the pavements in old Dubai has made you a bit peckish then there is nowhere more authentic than the little cafes scattered around Meena Bazaar and Al Fahidi Street both in Bur Dubai. Sample South Indian vegetarian cusine at Rangoli on Cosmos Lane and try the dosas, (rice and lentil pancakes with a variety of fillings) idlis (soft steamed rice cakes served with tangy sambar daal) and vada’s (deep fried spicy lentil dumplings) Bhavana Cafe behind Choitrams supermarket is good for all manner of perfectly baked paranthas, Koki (onion and spices) is my favourite, to be washed down by sweet or salty lassie (fresh buttermilk drink) but don’t expect any frills at these street side cafes other than excellent, very reasonably priced (mainly vegetarian) Indian food.

Do wear sensible shoes and remember nothing is open in Meena Bazaar till 10 am and there is a split shift system operating in this area, so all shops are shut between 1.30 and 4.30pm. Nothing opens till 5pm on Fridays. AVOID ALL TOUTS tempting you to look at handbags, perfumes etc, just blank them and continue walking. Bur Dubai like most of Dubai is very safe but do dress sensibly.

If this Dubai reminds you of Little India, then a 10 minute taxi ride away is Dubai’s slice of New York, Dubai International Financial Centre or DIFC as it’s known is a super cool mix of upmarket art galleries with a buzzing cocktail circuit for new openings, uber trendy and ultra expensive restaurants, Zuma and La Petite Maison to name but two and plush international banking offices and an array of expensive boutiques. It’s a great experience to wander around and just people watch and have a coffee or snack. Explore the different levels and architectural styles. The DIFC is easily reached from Emirates Towers Metro station situated on Sheikh Zayed road. And if gets too hot then don’t worry the outdoor corridors and walkways are air conditioned in summer.

Despite being a resident of Dubai for more than 6 years it was only recently that I discovered the Pearl Museum, again a small gem of a morning out in the Emirate. Advanced booking is essential for this trip that takes you to the top of Emirates NBD bank headquarters in the Deira area of the city. The first chairman of the bank Sultan Al Owis donated his exquisite and huge collection of pearls to the bank which houses them museum style. To begin with you sit in a small plush cinema room and watch a 10 minute dvd that depicts the fascinating history of pearling in the UAE, detailing the lives of the workers who dived for pearls and it explains how they prepared for the long, difficult voyages as well as describing the growth of a natural pearl in an oyster.

There is a semi guided walk around the display of literally thousands of pearls many of which are shown against a red background to show their lustre. As well as the pearls themselves there is a collection of the real instruments and tools required for extracting and sorting the pearls. Pearling was a unique tradition for a whole community in the UAE that touched all facets of life. The exhibition is a wonderful and unique way of preserving a piece of history and heritage that is too easily forgotten in modern Dubai. As a bonus there is also a display of the evolution of the local currency - the dirham. Uptil 1973 it was the Indian Rupee that served as common currency.

Dubai is well known for it’s iconic buildings and bigger is best really is the motto here but take out some time to see the Real Dubai, it’ll stay with you. If you can be in Dubai for the excellent Dubai International Film Festival (December) or Art Dubai (March) then you are guaranteed excellent weather and high culture at the same time. The venue for both these festivals is the also almost iconic Madinat Jumeirah, a modern hotel, shopping and entertainment complex built in a style reflecting the old Dubai. The Souk Madinat which has all the restaurants and bars gets dreadfully busy at the week ends Thursday and Friday nights.

For really good and authentic Middle Eastern food try the Wafi Gourmet group of restaurants with branches at Wafi mall, Festival City and Dubai Mall. The Wafi mall branch has a great atmosphere with it’s open air roof top that is rolled back in the winter. Enjoy your time and discover something different about Dubai. More about Dubai Life at

About the author:

I’ve lived and worked in Dubai since 2006, and before that I lived in London. I started my working life as a management consultant for Price Waterhouse and moved to managing a small market research company before coming to Dubai. I have an MSc from the London School of Economics. I now run and write for a variety of journals such as Time Out Dubai, the Gulf News and Travel Arabia. Recently I organised an educational event for parents of teenagers in the UAE.
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