See the history of Dubai hiding in plain sight in old Dubai. Bastakiya, which is also called Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, is a preserved quarter of old houses standings as the last remaining specimens of Dubai’s bygone days. Today, they are full of small museums, art galleries, cafes, and guest houses that tell stories from history and cultural heritage.
History of Bastakiya
Bastakiya is located in Bur Dubai, a predominantly residential district since the rise of Dubai. During the late 19th century, after a plague decimated much of the city’s population, Deira became the leading marketplace, and Bur Dubai was where they built their houses. There developed a few yet smaller souks in the area nonetheless.
When was Bastakiya built?
The buildings in Bastakiya are over a century old. It is believed to have been built around 1890 by Sunni Iranian merchants who settled in Dubai, running away from persecution in their homeland. They were originally from the place called Bastak in Iran, which later became the name of the quarter where they lived.
During its prime days, the Bastakiya consisted of 60 houses separated by narrow and winding lanes. After the 1950s, after the newfound economic growth of Dubai, immigrant workers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh inhabited these houses. Some of them even became warehouses. But after a few decades, the government of Dubai decided to protect them as a mark of its heritage. They were then restored to their former shapes in the early 2000s before opening it for the visitors.
Some decades ago, there was a larger cluster of buildings that extended from where the Dubai museum is today to the present day entrance of the Bastakiya. Some of them were demolished during the 1980s to build office buildings that are there today. That was before tourism became a thing in Dubai. Nobody was interested in preserving a bunch of dilapidated houses on the verge of collapsing.
Wind towers that tower over the buildings were the mark of the houses of the rich men in those days. These towers helped to cool the interiors of the houses in hot weather. Much like modern-day air conditioners. But these were relatively expensive to build and those who cannot afford them build Arish houses to cop the summer heat.
Another distinctive mark of these houses is the dark brown wooden doors braced with bronze handles.
Things to do in Bastakiya
The XVA Gallery showcases the work of Arab artists. This is an art gallery, a cafe, and a hotel all at the same time. The restaurant here serves vegetarian dishes of middle eastern heritage, although that is a rarity. The rooms in the hotel provide a beautiful view of the courtyard. So if you want to stay in the same buildings the local Arabs did a century ago in royal style, XVA is the place to go.
The building housing the majlis gallery was a house of Mira Abdulla Amiri. Established in the 1960s, it was the first-ever art gallery in Dubai. Before becoming an art gallery, it was a guest house to host important guests from the neighboring regions like Oman and Bahrain. Instead of using the walls to hang the artworks, the walls of the majlis gallery itself are the canvases. They have the contributions of a variety of artists over many decades.
It is a beautiful building with walls adorned with Arabic calligraphy. Built in 1954 by Sheikh Habib al Haji, this is a prime example of the traditional Arabic architecture in Bastakiya. This was handed over to the Culture and Tourism department of Dubai in 2005 from the original owner.
Dar Al Nadwa
This two-story building functions as the main auditorium in Bastakiya. There will be something happening here every day during the winter months.
Architectural Heritage Society
A centerpiece that shows the elegance of old Arabic architecture in Bastakiya. It was established in 2003 and has been preserving and documenting the urban heritage in the UAE. The building itself dates back to 1936 and contains various elements of traditional architecture. Since its renovation and reopening in 2003, it also doubles as the headquarters of the Urban heritage society.
Sheikh Muhammad Center for Cultural Understanding
This is an initiative by the government of Dubai to build understanding and tolerance between different cultures. The center will provide visitors with traditional clothes and cuisine of the UAE and try those garments and enjoy the traditional dishes. This one is not free, though. You have to either book through their official website or book with a tour provider to participate in the cultural programs by the SMCCU.
They offer different packages depending on the time of the day you want to visit. You can choose between cultural breakfast, brunch, lunch, and evening tea. This is a great way to experience the traditional aspects of Dubai, along with traditional tastes.
Restaurants in Bastakiya
Arabian Tea House
Even though coffee has been the most popular recreational drink in the Arab world, tea also had its place. The Arabian Tea House offers 50 varieties of teas along with traditional Emirati cuisine. This restaurant has its entrance on the Al Fahidi street and is easily accessible.
This restaurant is in the oldest building in Bastakiya. You will know you are somewhere around this restaurant when you smell the aroma of hot kebabs. Unlike the cafe in XVA, which specializes in vegetarian dishes, kebabs are the signature items here.
The restaurant has an open-air courtyard in the center of the building, which is a refreshing place to enjoy the food. Evidently, from the lavish design, this used to be a mansion and is larger than other buildings in Bastakiya.
Hotels in Bastakiya
The hotel that also has an artsy side to it.
Orient guest house
This is a traditional Arab villa repurposed to a high-end business hotel in Bastakiya. The two-story buildings had been restored to its former glory along with others.
Best time to visit Bastakiya
The timing of Bastakiya is from morning 9 am to evening 6 pm. The best time to visit it is during the afternoons during the winter months. This is also a quiet place right next to the creek and
Do you need to book in advance to visit Bastakiya?
No, you don’t have to book in advance if all you want to do is to see around Bastakiya and visit the art galleries and museums. But the Sheikh Muhammad Centre for Cultural Understanding requires you to book beforehand to participate in their cultural dining programs. You also have to pay a fee depending on the package and number of people.
Entry to Bastakiya is absolutely free. You can walk around and explore the alleys free of cost. Many of the attractions in Bastakiya are also free, as well. These include the coin museum, XVA Gallery,
Location of Bastakiya
Bastakiya is on the Bur Dubai side of the creek on Al Fahidi Road. The entrance of Bastakiya is right next to the Al Fahidi roundabout, where Al Fahidi road and Al Hamriya Street meet. The old-looking buildings of Bastakiya contrast against the modern concrete structures, and are hard to miss.
Another advantage of it is that the location is well connected by public transport. Less than a kilometer away is the Ghubaiba bus station and Al Fahidi metro station is about five minutes by foot. Or if you don’t want to switch between the red and green metro lines, you can walk five more minutes to the Burjuman metro station.
Other attractions near Bastakiya
Being in the heart of the old Dubai, there are plenty of attractions near Bastakiya.
On Bur Dubai side, there are:
Dubai museum – the oldest and most comprehensive museum in Dubai, located in Al Fahidi fort.
Al Seef – which is just opposite to the main entrance of Bastakiya. Al Seef is a modern mall that follows the traditional architecture similar to those in Bastakiya.
Textile Souk – remanence of the marketplace in Dubai during the early 20th century.
Shindagha Museum – One of the best museums in Dubai.
House of Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum – This was the palace of the ruler of Dubai between 1912 and 1958. Today it functions as a museum displaying the household items used by royalty. It also has old photographs and artifacts.
Dubai dolphinarium – watch the performances by dolphins and colorful birds
Abra – take an abra ride to Deira
On Deira side:
Gold souk – the oldest and the busiest gold market in Dubai. Also one of the best places to buy gold.
Naif museum – this one is a part of the naif police station, which was the first of its kind in Dubai. The naif museum curates the history and development of the police force in Dubai.
Spice souk – See the colorful varieties of spices in the old market area of Dubai.
Sikka Art Fair Dubai
Bastakiya becomes host to one of the largest cultural and arts festivals in the country every year. Leading artists from the UAE and the world share their love for the craft here. Art exhibits, movie screenings, poetry competitions, and more take place as part of the Sikka Art Fair in Dubai’s heritage center.
Sikka is a great place for aspiring artists to interact with established artists and attend their workshops. There happened to be sixty workshops in 2019 along. That’s more than enough to satiate the creative side of anyone.
During the festival season, the whole Bastakiya will be lit up and decorated with colorful banners. This historical place becomes a center of eclectic modern art. The festival lasts for a full ten days. Sikka is held under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Latifa bint Muhammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum. So plan your Bastakiya visit to coincide with Sikka Arts Fair if you are an art aficionado.
Sikka festival dates for 2020 is from March 19 to 29.