Cultural Chameleon: An Alternative City Break In Dubai

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  • When we think of Dubai, our mind jumps to images of shopping malls big enough to fit fountains in, pristine sandy beaches, prices that’ll make your eyes water and of course, the tallest building in the world.

    But while most holidaymakers come to the UAE for some relaxing winter sun, it’s easy to miss the cultural and adventurous side of Dubai that I was just dying to explore.

    I spent three days in the city and found myself at the beautifully elegant Address Boulevard Hotel overlooking the Burj Khalifa. Maybe more typical of Dubai, the first thing that struck me about the hotel was the three Ferraris parked up outside – a sign of things to come. After being shown to my room, it was hard not to be wowed by the lush decor and fancy finishing touches (including an iPad which controlled everything). And with a balcony view looking out over the dark blue sky and bright white lights of the city, it kept my Instagram busy for a good half an hour.

    Address Boulevard Hotel

    After a surprisingly quiet night’s sleep – they must be triple-glazed windows to keep the booming sound of the traffic out – we were up early for a huge breakfast. I heard someone tell a friend, ‘They make the best pastries here’, and they weren’t wrong.

    With so much to see, we started the day with a trip to the very green Zabeel Park just a short drive away from the hotel. It was clear everyone is welcome at the weekly Ripe Food Market: kids, dogs and couples spent their lazy Friday afternoon picking out the freshest fruits and vegetables around. But while the vibrant market could be at home in any European city, a keyhole view through the trees reminded me of that epic Dubai skyline.

    Shopping at Ripe Market

    One thing I noticed while walking around Zabeel Park – other than the searing 27 degree heat which was apparently ‘chilly’ to locals – you can’t go to Dubai without eating ALL the food. And luckily for me, Friday is brunch-day which meant I was in for a treat when we got back to the hotel. But instead of the smashed avocado and poached egg on toast us Brits are used to, the Riviera-themed feast at the Address was a four course Mediterranean banquet.

    Not exactly authentic Emirati, this brunch (starting at £65 pp) takes inspiration from the south of France and I ate my way through tangy ceviche, a rich fish stew and a choice of 35 (yes, 35) desserts. I would definitely single out the chef’s deep-fried artichokes as one of the best things I’ve eaten all year.

    Spices in the spice souk in Dubai

    And while we’re on food, a huge highlight for me whilst in Dubai was taking a walking food tour around the quieter district of Deira with Frying Pan Adventures. Led by our enthusiastic guide Arva, the eat-athon took us off the crowded streets to learn more about authentic Emirati food.

    From chatting to locals in tiny Falafel shops barely big enough to fit three, to watching professionals make cheesy Palestinian dessert kanafeh, it was a real snapshot of middle-eastern cuisine. And obviously everything was completely delicious. Although after four hours of chatting and eating, I still had room for the Turkish delight I later found stashed in my bag. And for the baklava I managed to resist during the tour. It was hard not to, all that walking is hungry work…

    But if we thought they did eating big in Dubai, they do entertainment even bigger. This was perfectly demonstrated by aquatic stage-show La Perle – which was probably my favourite 90 minutes of the entire trip. Created by Dragone, the spectacular production is hosted in it’s very own 1,300 seat, purpose-built venue in Al Habtoor – think Cirque Du Soleil, but in water. Without giving too much away (because you NEED to see this), the incredible display features a 12 metre swimming pool, an impressive indoor waterfall and some terrifying stunts.

    La Perle

    My next and most wonderfully traditional stop, was the Golden City tour situated in the old part of town. Taking the Abra ride (water taxi) across the calm Creek to Al Bastakiya is an incredible experience in itself and I’d highly recommend it. Once arrived (looking a little windswept) here’s where you’ll find old-style Dubai markets – or souks – which have colourful bags of everything from Frankincense to saffron spilling out onto the streets. And if you’re going to take a look around the Gold Souk just a few blocks away, I’d probably bring a pair of sunglasses, because the lavish jewellery draped in every shop window is pretty blinding.

    Just a quick drive away from the souks, tucked away in Al Quoz we found the hub for Dubai’s growing modern art scene – Alserkal Avenue. Probably the polar opposite to what most people imagine a typical Dubai tourist destination to be, it would be better placed in London’s hippest borough of Shoreditch. The industrial site reminded me of an unoccupied carpark, but the expansive warehouses scattered along the dusty streets are home to galleries, cafes and a chocolate factory with more than enough free samples to keep my now-stretched stomach full for at least an hour.

    But we were in Dubai, so we had to be at least a little bit touristy. And what better way to spend the evening than eating a Lebanese dinner in front of The Dubai Fountain in the centre of Downtown Dubai? Designed to music, the incredible display shoots water as high as 500 feet (that’s a 50-story building) along the 30-acre Burj Khalifa Lake. And even if you don’t fancy watching everyone else take selfies in front of the water, there’s definitely something magical about this show.

    Cafe in Al Quoz

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    All images from Alamy, unless otherwise credited.


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