A Different Side Of Dubai

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.

dubai-media-one-hotel

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.

dubai-alserkal

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.

dubai-alserkal-wild-and-the-moon

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.

dubai-alserkal-wild-and-the-moon (2)

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.

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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.

dubai-alserkal-jam-jar

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.

dubai-alserkal-the-junction

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

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41 thoughts on “A Different Side Of Dubai

  1. I’m so pleased to read about another side of Dubai and one I didn’t know about. But then Dubai is getting so enormous, spreading like lava over the sands and the sea that one wonders where it will stop. I shall make a point of stopping off here on my next visit.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. graffitiguru

    Wow, definitely not what I would have expected…Dubai’s been on my list for a few weeks now and I’m not sure when I’ll be able to actually go, but hopefully soon 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Dubai is truly mesmerizing and astonishing, Dee. You obviously had a wonderful time there. I went there last year and I had an unforgettable time. Did you get the chance to explore the Hajar Mountains? The rock climbing there is unforgettable!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was only in Dubai for a couple of days, so I didn’t get to explore as much as I’d like.. And I just read your post on Dubai and the Hajar Mountains – they sound incredible! I’ll have to keep that hike in mind for next time, as long as it isn’t too hot.

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    1. Yes, hats off to that marketing team! They’re also promoting a lot of arts events and festivals, which is a great way to get people to return for repeat visits.

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  4. Lori

    Dee, I love your post about Dubai. While I only know about it from what I have seen on TV or read online, you vividly describe a whole other side. You provide great details and anecdotes that are both fun and informative. Maybe one day I’ll visit. Coming from the western United States would prove too difficult.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much, Lori! I’ve been to Dubai twice now, and was so excited to hear about this part of the city.. It would indeed be a very long trip from Oregon, and a completely different climate too.

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  5. Thanks for the post! I am trying to decide if I should go somewhere in Morocco or visit Dubai this December. Both are appealing in different ways. I recently heard from someone that went to Dubai that they have more than shopping to offer. Some of those overnight camping trips in the desert look cool. Have you done that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Tara! I’ve only done camping trips in the desert in Egypt, but never tried in Dubai.. It’s an amazing experience though for stargazing and racing some dunbuggies.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. We have never been to Dubai and it is good to know that there is a whole hipster area of blossoming art galleries and art culture. When and if we do get there, we will be sure to check it out. Thanks for the list of places at the end of your post!

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for the information. A week trip must be a good choice for a traveller to Dubai. All popular places are nearby and this is what I like the most. You can enjoy your full time without wasting much on travel.

    Liked by 1 person

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