The Alternative Guide To Dubai For Culture

Dubai may be famous for its palm-shaped islands, crazy-high buildings and calm, pristine beaches, but beyond the obvious holiday hangouts you will discover a destination shaped by people from all over the world. Get your culture fix by visiting the lofty galleries run by the region’s most respected artists, try out one of Dubai’s oldest traditions of pearl diving, or take to the street to explore the local food scene.

Discover Dubai's Cultural Side

Think Dubai is just shopping and sunbathing? Think again! Here are our top cultural experiences.

Visit the Design Dubai District (D3) for Emirati couture and contemporary art

This huge urban design space is the hip hangout of Dubai’s art-loving crowd. Hosting pop-up fashion stores, temporary art installations, design studies and cool cafes, it’s a brilliant place to discover local emerging talent.

Before your visit, check out the website: it’s stacked with workshops you can get involved in, from mastering the art of painting with watercolours, to learning to draw with your mouth – yes, really. When you’re not picking up a skill, peruse the shops. The Lighthouse is great for luxe home accessories while the Craft Cafe serves the best tumeric latte in the area. Find out more here: 

Watch falconry displays at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve 

Beyond Dubai’s shimmering skyscrapers is a wilder, unspoilt desert that’s waiting to be discovered. Take a trip the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, a vast and peaceful swathe of desert designed to protect and preserve the local flora and fauna. Try out desert activities, including dune bashing and camel trekking, but don’t leave without witnessing a falconry display.

Falconry is an age-old tradition in the country, and the huge birds used to play a vital role in the hunt for food. You can see the majestic birds in action, hear about their breed and characteristics from the falconer and get up-close pictures. Find out more here:

Explore the neighbourhoods on a street food tour

To really get under the skin of a destination you need to eat the local food, so loosen your belt for a brilliant tour with the foodie guides at Frying Pan Adventures. The four-hour-long Little India on a Plate tour takes you through Dubai’s oldest and most vibrant neighborhood, where you’ll sample traditional Indian curries and snacks at six local eateries.

The half-day Dubai Souks and Creekside Food Walk is a great chance to hear about the history of the spice- and textile-packed souks, while sampling traditional Indian, Arabic and Iranian delicacies. Dubai is home to a fantastic blend of cultures, culinary techniques and flavours, so come hungry and prepare to eat. A lot. Find out more here:

Gallery hop through Al Fahidi

Take a stroll through the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, close to Dubai Creek, for an insight into life before the Emirates were formed in 1971. Dubai’s Sikki Art Fair may be hosted here every March, but art lovers should head to Al Fahidi at all times of the year, ducking into the small galleries – which are located in the courtyards of the old houses – and chatting to local artists.

Swing by The Majis Gallery, which was founded in 1989. The space used to be the number one artist hangout, and is now a space lined with paintings, sculptures, glasswork and photography. Also seek out XVA to see the best of contemporary Middle Eastern art. Find out more here:

Visit super-cool Alserkal Avenue for art and workshops

For under-the-radar art make a trip to Alserkal Avenue, the hub of Dubai’s booming modern art scene. Set in the emirate’s warehouse district, the uber-cool, laid-back space is now crammed with things to see and do – from pop-up street concerts to life drawing workshops. Recent exhibitions include the colourful large-scale works of Kenny Scharf and Philip Taaffe, but if you’re not here for the art then visit for the cool independent stores.

Chocolate lovers should head to Mirzam, where dark, rich bars are made using only three ingredients: cocoa beans, unrefined cane sugar and cocoa butter. Elsewhere is The Flipside, Dubai’s only independent record shop – leave time for a browse. Find out more here:

Dive for pearls

Pearl diving is an emirati tradition that dates back a staggering 1,000 years, and although pearl diving isn’t a major part of daily life in Dubai today, you can still learn about the incredible adventures of former pearl divers, and even have a go yourself.

Tours are led by Major Ali Saqar Sultan Suwaidi, a third-generation diver, who’ll accompany you on a traditional dhow out into the Arabian Gulf, recounting his experiences as a pearl diver, and explaining why pearls have played a huge part in the region’s growth and history.

After a lunch of fresh fish and salad it’s your turn: slip into authentic Emirati divers overhauls and jump into the emerald water, diving down to scour the sandy bed for pearl-filled oysters.

Take a dip in the mountain town of Hatta

Surrounded by the vast, sun-scorched Hajar Mountains, Hatta is a refreshing day-trip from central Dubai, thanks to its humidity-free climate and magnificent mountain scenery. To really make the most of it, book onto a safari tour.

You’ll travel by 4X4 to the restored old fort of Hatta, where you can stroll through peaceful courtyards and see the Juma Mosque that dates back to 1780. After a bit of history, you head to the crystal-clear Hatta Rock Pools – fresh water springs that are carved out of the river bed. Cool off in the waterfall, float on your back and gaze up at the cloudless sky.

Read our Alternative Guides to Dubai

  • Wellness Guide: Get the Inside Track on Dubai’s Booming Health & Wellness Scene
  • Fashionistas Guide: Dubai for Fashionistas: The Best Shops, Restaurants & Experiences
  • Family Guide: Fun for the Whole Family in Dubai