The emirate city may be known for its luxury and shopping, but it has a lot more to offer. And now it’s increasingly promoting itself as a cultural destination in an effort to bring in new visitors.
“What do you buy for someone as a souvenir from Dubai?” a friend asked over dinner at Dubai Marina Mall.
“Something expensive!” came the reply as our table burst into laughter.
We were munching on mezza at Abd El Wahab restaurant surrounded by high-end boutiques and a man-made lake. Looking out over the glittering skyscrapers of Pier 7, my friend’s punchline made perfect sense. The emirate city has long been known for its luxury shopping and glittering excess – and we were in the heart of it.
But the “City of Gold” is hoping to change its image as a hub of high-rises and mega malls. In an effort to attract 20 million tourists per year by 2020, Dubai is eager to bring in a broader market and show it’s got more to offer than bling. It’s a move from being a city you “must visit” to a city “you must experience,” Issam Kazim, the CEO of Dubai’s tourism promotion body, told Arabian Business.
These days, Dubai is marketing itself as a cultural destination and highlighting its burgeoning art scene at Alserkal Avenue.
I set aside an afternoon during my visit to Dubai to visit this hipster haven and browse the artist studios, trendy cafes and theaters.
My trip begins with espresso and sandwiches in Emirates’ plush executive lounge at Cairo International Airport, where you can charge your phone as you watch planes land and take off.
The five-hour Cairo-Dubai flight feels like your vacation has already started. The airplane seats include a full-body massage and the entertainment screen has an endless amount of movies and TV shows.
Once I arrive in Dubai, I take a taxi to Media City – an ultra-modern hub of immaculate skyscrapers with views of the marina. The taxi zips down a highway that (compared to Cairo) is blissfully free of traffic jams. I feel like I’m inside a movie set. Everything is glistening and stretching towards the sky, with none of the weather-beaten facades you’d expect from a hot city built on sand.
I check into Media One Hotel, which boasts wonderful breakfasts, comfy beds and panoramic views over the water. The infamous Palm Jumeirah is nearby, the tree-shaped island full of glitzy hotels, and the turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf glisten in the sunshine.
The next day, I head for Alserkal Avenue – a compound full of warehouses in the industrial zone of Al Quoz that have been re-made into shops, galleries and cafes. Despite the dozens of magazine articles that have been written about this cultural phoenix, my taxi driver has trouble finding the place.
It is mercilessly hot and the streets are empty as we ride past gray concrete blocks and storehouses. Finally, we turn into a compound where I spot a few discreet shop and gallery signs.
The first gallery at Alserkal opened in 2008, and others gradually followed with an expansion in 2015 that doubled its square footage to some 500,000. Alserkal Avenue is now a mix of industrial, business and creative spaces, housing some 60 cultural venues. During Ramadan it also hosts month-long exhibits, events and workshops.
I begin my visit with lunch at the chic Wild & the Moon, a food and juice bar that launched as a superfood cantina in Paris before expanding to Dubai. Inside, I grab a seat on a bench of reclaimed wood and gulp in the cool, refreshing air. The decor is minimalist with high ceilings, exposed pipes and dangling potted plants.
I order a creamy latte and a magic budwig bowl that’s a mouthwatering mix of ground almonds, spirulina and banana. It’s indulgent, refreshing and vegan. I also love the acai bowl topped with banana slices and granola. Light yet nourishing, this is the perfect power lunch for a hot afternoon.
Next, I head to eL Seed’s studio, nestled in a warehouse nearby. eL Seed is a French-Tunisian artist whose work I first came across in Cairo, where he painted a massive piece that covered nearly 50 buildings in the city’s trash collectors’ neighborhood to challenge Egyptian prejudices about that community.
His other work is just as brilliant: bright, colorful murals that play with classical Arabic calligraphy in a decidedly modern way that reinvents the artform.
I browse the works-in-progress that are leaning against the studio walls, and I ask eL Seed what he thinks of Dubai’s image as a shopping city.
“People who think that haven’t seen this side of Dubai,” he says.
I grab a few stickers with eL Seed’s beautiful calligraphy (his original art is way out of my budget) and head out into the sizzling heat.
I make a stop at The Jam Jar, attracted by the bright paintings decorating the entrance. This community arts space aims to boost appreciation for the arts in the UAE, and regularly hosts workshops, youth programs and events. I browse the massive studio, full of easels, paint jars and colorful canvases.
Before heading back, I take a look inside The Junction, a 158-seat theater that puts on plays like A Streetcar Named Desire and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. An old-fashioned popcorn machine stands at the entrance, and the walls are decorated with bright theater posters.
I finish my tour and walk back towards the main street, gulping down water as I look around for a taxi. It’s quiet and takes awhile before one appears.
And although Alserkal has created a buzz with the city’s art lovers, it still feels like a hidden gem tucked between rows of warehouses. In a city full of dizzying luxury and record-breaking shopping malls, it’s also proof there’s more to Dubai than the stereotypes.
IF YOU GO:
Media One Hotel • Plot No.1, Al Falak Street, Dubai Media City • +971 4 427 1000
Wild & the Moon • H77, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz • 800 WILD (800 9453)
eL Seed • Warehouse 75, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz (open by appointment only) • +971 55 773 7626
The Jam Jar • Unit H74, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz • +971 4 3417303
The Junction • Unit H72, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz • +971 4 3388 525