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Al Fahidi Historical District, formerly known as Bastakiya, hosts the annual Sikka Art Fair and also houses museums, art galleries, craft shops and cafés Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

A sprawling area with a distinctly different feel from the city’s newer communities, Bur Dubai — or Old Dubai — encompasses Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood and Mankhool, Karama and Oud Metha communities.

For Sumaya Dabbagh, principal at Dabbagh Architects, there’s a real sense of history and soul evident in the architecture and planning that defines the succession of residential and commercial districts that sprang up around Dubai Creek.

Al Fahidi Fort on the banks of Dubai Creek dates back to the late 1700s and the Bastakiya area, now renamed Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, began to develop in the 1890s.

“This part of the city is an example of vernacular architecture,” says Dabbagh. “This is typically functional and is characterised by the use of local materials suited to the climate as well as local builder expertise, rather than the input of architects.

“It really reflects the economic conditions of the time as well as the cultural and social needs of the community. So you have narrow sikkas oriented to capture the breeze from the creek and construction materials such as coral, shell remains and lime.”

A prime example of sustainable architecture in action, the master plan that emerged for the area post oil discovery is one of her favourites. She explains: “In the late 70s the area started to grow and John R. Harris’ Bur Dubai master plan, which was commissioned by then ruler Shaikh Rashid, had complete respect for the size, pattern and orientation of the existing streets and community. They built on what was there and didn’t copy what went before, but matched the scale, using modern construction techniques with concrete and blockwork to create modern buildings in keeping with a new era. But there was still a sense of public space and community needs.”

Today, as she walks through Mankhool or Karama’s low-rise landscape, Dabbagh can appreciate the forward-thinking design when she catches a breeze between buildings or walks down a shaded alleyway.

“Although some of the really great examples of 70s and 80s architecture, like the Ramada Hotel Bur Dubai, are no longer standing, the communities are still very much alive and are as much a part of the Dubai story to be protected and preserved,” she remarks.

The best way to experience Old Dubai is to ditch the car and hit the streets for a walk through time. Says Dabbagh: “This part of the city is full of character and to wander at leisure is a great way to engage all the senses and take time to appreciate its architecture and sense of community.”

Landmarks we love

Dubai’s oldest areas house some of the emirate’s most intriguing leisure spots. Here are some attractions not to be missed.

Dubai Creek: Wander along its banks from Dubai Museum down to Al Shindagha Historical District or hop aboard an abra to the other side. If you have kids, then RISE at Dubai Creek Harbour is an experience the whole family is sure to remember. Bringing food, entertainment, edutainment and retail to an already spectacular destination, the programming is aimed at all ages.

Al Seef: Stroll, shop and dine creek side at Al Seef, an authentic reinterpretation of an Old Dubai neighbourhood. This is also where you’ll find the popular Museum of Illusions, a repository of distorted perspective and optical illusions.

Zabeel Park: A family weekend favourite covering 47.5 hectares of lush greenery, the park also has a lake for boat rides, adventure playground, barbecue areas and miniature train.

Al Fahidi Historical District: Home to Dubai Museum and the area formerly known as Bastakiya, lose yourself in its narrow lanes and quiet spaces flanked by a clutch of traditional wind tower houses. Location for the annual Sikka Art Fair, it also houses museums, art galleries, craft shops and cafés.

Al Shindagha Historical District: Set to become the world’s largest open-air museum, the peaceful Shindagha district is well worth a visit. Pop into the residence of former ruler Shaikh Saeed Al Maktoum or the Perfume House with its collection of fragrant artefacts.

Dubai Frame: For a view that’s simply unlike any other, the spectacular Dubai Frame is a now an iconic structure that ‘frames’ impressive views of Old and New Dubai — connecting the emirate’s rich past with its glorious present. Offering breathtaking panoramic views across the city, you can stroll across the luminous glass walkway at the bridge, draw shapes on interactive screens, take selfies with the most beautiful features of Dubai, enjoy a coffee 150m above ground, and be entertained in front of the illuminated dancing musical fountain.

Al Thuraya Astronomy Centre: The sky is no limit at this amazing project located inside Mushrif Park. Home to the Astro Academy, a 100-seat planetarium theatre, astronomy shop, library, cafe and UAE’s largest public observatory, this is the place to let your imagination truly soar. There is also an Astro Cinema on-site showing documentaries and sci-fi movies.

Karama street art: In 2016, 18b Street in the heart of the densely populated Karama neighbourhood was transformed by a series of colourful handpainted murals. Eight street artists unveiled 24 huge murals, including a shark, falcon and dhow, on the side of 12 blank canvas buildings as part of a city-wide street art initiative.

— Emma Procter and Claire Malcolm