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What a visit to the creek reveals about Dubai

October 19, 2014

Leaping onto the narrow timber boat, our knees buckle as it wobbles in the tide from larger craft. The motor roars and we chug across the water, the rapidly rising morning sun blinding our eyes and robbing the Grand Mosque and Rulers Court of their detail. Sweeping over to the other bank within a few minutes, we pass close to the bulging hulls of trading dhows. These wooden vessels are painted every shade of cornflower blue and aqua, and in various states of peeling and wear. They look calm and picturesque from the water but a wander along the quay revels a hub of activity with cargo being loaded, sailors staring down from wooden parapets, and noisy gatherings of men on the pavement.

The 14 lane highway that slices through the centre of Dubai and streaks off to Abu Dhabi is now the heart of the city’s communications. Flanked by gleaming high-rise towers that all flash and blink a variety of coloured lights at night, fringed by the Metro, its stations resembling shiny woodlice or a series of mirrored Thunderbird 2s, it keeps Dubai moving with an estimated 140,000 plus daily journeys.

A few decades ago the Sheikh Zayed Road was a single track where the main danger was a camel wandering into your path at night. The place where journeys were made, cargo was delivered, the business of the city was done, was the Dubai Creek. It wasn’t much to look at as a waterway being impeded by sand banks. Pearl divers took their wooden boats out into the Persian Gulf and a few Barasti huts grouped either side of its mouth. It took Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum to have the vision, in the 1960s, to dredge the sand away so that boats could glide up into the creek and moor on its banks to unload their precious cargo, and the first chapter of the new Dubai was written.

When I arrived almost 15 years ago, I used to visit shops and tailors in the areas Bur Dubai and Deira on opposite sides of the Creek. As Dubai expanded and got busier there was no need and the grid locked roads made it really difficult to get to.  It was easy to forget this part of Dubai.  I’d wander down occasionally to the Majlis Gallery or the fish market but always with a purpose. Tourist companies targeted a few spots and crocodiles of visitors with their guides jostle you in the Spice Souk.

Visiting Dubai Creek -

Arriving early, when the hawkers from the souk have barely risen, when the corridors are empty and the light is low, is like stepping into a theatre before the play has begun. You notice details that would be overshadowed in the hustle and bustle of the main performance. And with a guide like my good friend Arva, you get under the superficial skin of Dubai that so many people pelt with derisive words as though the show was found wanting.

There is far too much to relate from the two tours I’ve done recently but I learned how to spot sustainable fish at the market, the health-giving properties of scores of mysterious spices, ate the best fresh dates and munched on the most interesting lgeimat (tiny doughnuts) I’ve ever tasted. I quenched my thirst with the water of a freshly hulled coconut, strong Ethiopian coffee in a museum filled with its artifacts, and black tea shared cross-legged on the floor of a dhow with Iranian sailors. I lost count of the times I whizzed back and forth across the Creek on a water taxi or abra, with numerous interesting other passengers going about their every day lives, the slight breeze giving solace from the intensity of the sun. I also ate the best kababs known to man, but the secret for these lies with Arva…

These pictures give a tiny glimpse of what there is to discover on the banks of the Creek in Bur Dubai and Deira:

Visiting Dubai Creek -

Dubai fish market - Visiting Dubai Creek -

Visiting Dubai Creek -

A view of the Creek from a trading dhow porthole

Top tips for exploring the Dubai Creek

If you want to visit this area here are a few tips to guide your journey:

  • Take the metro. Parking is extremely limited and the roads confusing and congested. Get off at Al Fahidi metro station and walk down the D90 street in the direction of the Creek. You’ll soon reach the Al Fahidi district and see the windtowers of the buildings.
  • Visit the Majlis Gallery. In the heart of old Bur Dubai, this family-owned gallery has been established for 25 years and has exhibitions of modern, fine art as well as furniture and gifts. Worth a look to see the inside of a traditional building and it’s a calm pleasant place to wander round with some seriously collectable artworks (my walls are full of them!).
  • Take a break at Creekside. This cafe is right on the water with a clean, modern interior, terrace with a view and a menu based on Emirati traditions. They’ll give you a map to the area too – as will the Majlis Gallery.
  • Get up early for the fish market. It’s a must-do Dubai experience and is about to be modernised so do this while you can. But don’t take your fish on the metro – this is not allowed!
  • Pop into Mawaheb for a coffee. This art studio for adults with special needs loves to have visitors and the art works are something special to take home.
  • Grab a coconut. The most refreshing drink you can ask for this fruit with its top hacked off and a straw inserted. Fresh orange juice is good too; hygiene inspectors in Dubai mean that hawker stalls can be trusted however ramshackle they appear.
  • Take an abra at the stations for a couple of dirhams. Visitors will be approached and offered a private journey. You may want to do this but a jaunt across the Creek with everyone else who is taking a water taxi is just as nice (I think).
  • Have breakfast at the Sheikh Mohamad Centre for Cultural Understanding.
  • Book a Frying Pan Food Adventure. Both my recent visits (and I’m a serial food tourist) have been led by Arva. I was a willing Guinea pig for the Food Lover’s Morning March and the new Creekside Photo Walk Series – both highly recommended.

Also to visit: the souks (spice souk, material souk, gold souk, and commercial souk), the new coffee museum, other art galleries such as XVA, the new Museum district in Deira, Heritage and Diving Village, the 10 dirham shops, abra crossings, Dubai Muncipality museum, scores of tiny restaurants and kiosks selling the most delicious and diverse food and the best view of the Creek from the top floor of the car park next to the spice souk.

Top tips on exploring the Dubai Creek -

Have you visited the Creek in Dubai? What’s your favourite part about it? Is there a hidden gem where you live?

  1. daver001 permalink
    October 19, 2014 8:43 am

    It’s so easy to forget the living history of Dubai, when surrounded by so much glitz and concrete. When I first used to visit from the UK, our offices were first near Fish Roundabout and, later, on Bank Street, allowing lots of short trips into the souks both sides of the Creek. Now, apart from the occasional foray to the Fish Market, such treats are extremely rare. Too busy. Live too far away. seen it. All excuses, not reasons. Your photos make me want to rediscover the old days again and the things that used to excite like having a haircut on a back street in Ajman, buying roasted peanuts in a screw of newspaper from men lurking outside the holes in the wall and so much more. It felt like a foreign country then; today, not so much.

    • October 27, 2014 7:50 am

      I think it’s changed in this area but not so much, and the pleasure for me is observing people going about their everyday lives in a part of Dubai which, as you point out, we often forget or think we know.

  2. October 19, 2014 9:37 am

    Sally, as always, you’ve managed to capture the essence of an area, of a time, of an experience in a way that no one else can articulate. This post is beautiful, because of its photos and its words which do justice to the true soul of an area that usually has its pushy commercial face on if you don’t look in the right places. I love this line, it means so much to me: Arriving early, when the hawkers from the souk have barely risen, the corridors are empty and the light is low is like stepping into a theatre before the play has begun..

    Thank you for always supporting what we do and for translating it into evocative posts like this one. You’re so open-minded and inviting of experiences, thank you for the encouraging words and for always being willing to lend your mind and tummy to sample our new trails.

    • October 27, 2014 7:52 am

      If I’ve managed to capture a few fleeting moments of the journey of experiences and understanding that you have navigated, I’ll be happy. You have made living in this city so much richer.

  3. October 19, 2014 10:41 am

    What a beautiful post – I can’t wait to embark on my first frying pan adventure this winter 🙂

    • October 27, 2014 7:52 am

      You’ll love it Rupal 🙂

  4. October 19, 2014 10:50 am

    Really excellent set of pictures taking me on a journey through a place about which I knew nothing….before. Loved the pictures of the old dhows along the creek.

    • October 27, 2014 7:53 am

      As always, any praise of my pictures from your Roger gives me a spring in my step all day. Would love to see the dhows through your lens.

  5. October 19, 2014 10:53 am

    Oh my, you’ve really pulled at the heart strings now 😕 30 years ago we had no problem getting to Bur Dubai or Deira Side, I could get over to the gold souk on Deira side in 15 minutes in a cab from the heart of Jumeriah! And I remembr very well she the Sheikh Zayed Road was a single lane track, and all of the crashed cars that lined the road!!!!
    Thank you for sharing this and for the lovely photos, I am now going to go and hug my heart very tight xx

    • October 27, 2014 7:56 am

      Elaine, your memories have added something extra to this post. Thank you SO much for sharing them.

  6. October 19, 2014 10:59 am

    Beautiful photos and lovely post. Evokes memories of when I was growing up here. I still go to old Dubai regularly, though not as much as I’d like to! I’m more often in Karama and Bur Dubai than Deira, but when I do go to Deira, it’s always an adventure 🙂 I really think more expats should experience that side of town, and it annoys me when colleagues are all, OMG how do we go there, so much traffic etc… take the metro, it’s made it easier now!

    • October 27, 2014 7:58 am

      I do think it’s easier now with the metro. I used to visit Meena Bazaar and parking was always the biggest challenge even in 2000. As always, the view of a pedestrian is always the most interesting.

  7. October 19, 2014 11:19 am

    A beautiful post, Sally, and such a pleasure to read and see the photos. Thank you!

  8. Farida Ahmed permalink
    October 19, 2014 12:17 pm

    Absolutely love this thoughtful post Sally!

  9. October 19, 2014 12:49 pm

    Now that is a side of Dubai that you don’t usually see…great photos, love that last one in particular

    • October 27, 2014 7:58 am

      Thanks Helen, Single Gourmet Traveller and Farida 🙂

  10. October 19, 2014 1:43 pm

    All those people who believe that the only things one can do in Dubai are shopping, and maybe skiing with 40°C outside, should read these beautiful words of yours and watch the enchanting pictures. Thanks for sharing.

    • October 27, 2014 8:00 am

      Thanks Francesca – there’s a different kind of shopping to be had in this area. Maybe I should do a post on this alone…. I’m not a shopper but there are some real finds to be had here.

  11. October 19, 2014 3:10 pm

    The first time I went to Dubai I stayed in Bur Dubai so the Creek was not too far away and I fell instantly in love. It remains my favourite part of Dubai – a real, living, breathing city and as you say, a glimpse into what Dubai was before it became all tallerfasterricher superficiality. Taking an abra is a wonderful way to approach the Spice Souk – every visitor to Dubai should do it!

    • October 27, 2014 8:13 am

      There’s something so special about speeding across the water, wind in your hair isn’t there?

  12. therealgeordiearmani permalink
    October 19, 2014 3:26 pm

    I still think the Creek is the best area in Dubai, when it cools down I shall take a meander down and explore one Friday afternoon, thanks for the reminder 🙂

    • October 27, 2014 8:13 am

      A place to wander and potter….

  13. October 19, 2014 3:37 pm

    The creek was a major part of life when I lived in Dubai in the 1970’s and your post brought back so many great memories. The blinding light of the sun, heat so intense it’s impossible to describe, but mainly the rich lives of the people who lived and worked on and along the creek. I regularly used the abras and took visitors on private trips to get a sense of Dubai and Deira from the water, all equally memorable. Thanks for the trip down memory lane Sally.

    • October 27, 2014 8:15 am

      I’ve read your fascinating accounts and the heat must have been unbearable then with very few a/cs. I wonder what you’d make of it now – not quite so humble but still a microcosm of existence.

  14. October 19, 2014 3:59 pm

    Such a wonderful post this is Sally. It’s always admirable to read when people write about Old Dubai instead of shining malls and shimmering structures that the city is gaining more popularity of…..there’s really so much more to Dubai. In 2011, when I was all new in the city, I had set out one sunny day to see Museums, Bastakiya and the Creek, though I was 2 months pregnant and had no clue about it. It was such a phenomenal experience to walk by the Creek all alone, something that I will never forget!

    Passing on your post along with Ishita’s to my sister as a guide who is planning her visit next year 🙂

    • October 27, 2014 8:17 am

      I must make an effort to go on my own again…. I used to go more often when I had party bags to shop for when the girls were little and loved diving down the little alleyways and backstreets of Deira.

  15. October 19, 2014 5:25 pm

    Awww – these are great photos! Will miss the creek! I think my favorite has to be the one with the guy on the boat doing binocular hands. So funny and I love the composition. So cool to hear about the new Frying Pan tours! But very sad I’m not there to do them. sniff sniff! 😦 I hope the new fish market will maintain some of the vibe that it has now. I did manage to make a last visit before leaving – it’s one of my favorite Dubai experiences.

    • October 27, 2014 8:18 am

      Yes – not all progress is good progress… I hope the charm won’t be lost… although it is a working fish market. I love that pic too – just a lucky moment.

  16. October 19, 2014 6:03 pm

    A wonderful place! So much to discover…



  17. October 19, 2014 10:15 pm

    Beautiful, beautiful, so utterly beautiful. It’s a shame that I couldn’t go – Li’l Z decided to act funny over the weekend. I can’t wait to join Arva. One of the most beautiful posts in your blog.

  18. October 20, 2014 10:45 am

    We visited the creek but I wish I had had this guide. You saw so much more differently to the tour we did which was awful. Mind you it was Ramadan so there was very little activity anyway. I love the fresh orange juice stalls though. We slipped by so many but they were closed. It would be lovely to go back. I like the look of the coffee museum too.

    • October 27, 2014 8:20 am

      What a shame that you had a bad experience. I’ve seen tours in action and the people are herded around at speed – it all looks a bit dispiriting. The coffee museum is excellent.

  19. October 20, 2014 2:18 pm

    Great post – really interesting I love reading about places. I’ve never been but would love to go there one day.

  20. October 20, 2014 2:24 pm

    lovely to see a different side to the culture of Dubai being presented and such wonderful pictures and words. Thanks for sharing this- would love to visit some time!

    • October 27, 2014 8:20 am

      Thanks Jan and Nazima – I hope you get the chance to visit this varied and vibrant city.

  21. October 20, 2014 2:27 pm

    Stunning pictures, looks so atmospheric. If I ever make it to Dubai I shall be relying on you as my tour guide!

    • October 27, 2014 8:21 am

      It would be a pleasure 🙂

  22. October 20, 2014 4:35 pm

    What an interesting post and so many photos which capture your own take on Dubai, making me think I would love to visit. I would certainly want to sign up for the frying pan adventure to get a glimpse into the food life out there.

    • October 27, 2014 8:22 am

      It would take me 10 posts to explain just one Frying Pan Food Tour – every one has been superb and totally different. With so many cultures making their homes in Dubai there are so many different cuisines.

  23. October 20, 2014 6:08 pm

    You have written this so captivating, so vivid I can smell, feel, and sense it all, from bobbing across the creek to strolling down the souk. I close my eyes after reading a sentence, and I’m there. Thank you for that, as you know I do miss that place. You bring it back to my senses.

    • October 27, 2014 8:40 am

      I would have loved you to be on this tour – you would have adored meeting the sailors. Seriously

  24. Salim permalink
    October 21, 2014 9:26 am

    Great cultural live insight on Dubai beautifully written accompanied with great photos! I just loved it!! Big thank you Sally!!!

    • October 27, 2014 8:40 am

      Salim – such a lovely comment from you has made my day.

  25. October 21, 2014 9:50 am

    I have been to the fish market but we arrived too late to get anything. What a real pity. Good tip about not being able to take fish on the metro – in Italy that would not work. Loved the spice souk the most when I was in Dubai a very long time ago 🙂

    • October 27, 2014 8:41 am

      The key is to get there really early… 8.30 was just right and some fish was still being delivered, some fish so fresh their gills were still moving.

  26. October 23, 2014 1:00 pm

    Those images look absolutely amazing – the tips are perfect. I’m always scared and a bit intimidated when going somewhere new but really appreciate the tips as there might be a Dubai trip in my future!

    • October 27, 2014 8:42 am

      It’s such a safe place to visit – just maybe a bit bewildering.

  27. Sally Edwards permalink
    October 24, 2014 8:31 am

    Beautiful photos and writing. I love this part of Dubai and that there is always something new to discover no matter how many times you visit. Will definitely make another one soon after reading this

    • October 27, 2014 4:29 pm

      This is so true Sally… and many thanks for the kind words.

  28. October 27, 2014 10:29 am

    What a stunning & very informative useful post, dear sally! Excellent as usual! 🙂 xxx

    • October 27, 2014 4:30 pm

      Thanks Sophie – really appreciate your kind comments.

  29. October 28, 2014 3:26 am

    Coconuts and frying pan adventure, really liking the sound of that Sally. I am in Dubai from Friday and will be snooping around your site for tips x

  30. October 30, 2014 12:47 pm

    Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing! I have friends heading over soon who were asking a bunch of questions, and forwarding them this is way easier than pretending I know much about the place! Thank you!

  31. November 25, 2014 9:10 pm

    I love this part of Dubai. This is also what I knew of Dubai when I came here 10 years ago and always advise people to go and visit. I love the Majlis gallery and their silver jewelry-sorry i know this should not be about shopping:) Thank you for the pics.


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