June 9, 2023

Lesser known Dubai

The lesser known Dubai, in today’s HT Cafe… (as always, link valid only for a week, so read now, else see photo and sigh deeply in regret for having missed the article)


Souk shopping in Dubai

In all the noise of the bargaining in the souks, I hear as in a dream the muted voice of the walking tour guide yelling at me (politely, for I have paid for the tour) for stopping yet again to photograph or just to stare. And suddenly that too no longer; the group has gone ahead, leaving me alone in the maze of narrow lanes, all smelling of cinnamon and pepper and the occasional red chilli too. Oh, but he did warn me. Several times. I am part of a walking tour, having just got off the hop-on hop-off open top bus that I took to escape the mad shoppers.

Blame it on the surprise element; I am not expecting to see so much commotion and color in Dubai, only steel and chrome. A city obsessed with being the biggest and the boldest, Dubai hides its tiny secrets well. The chaos and the colors, the smells and the sounds are tucked away in the narrow by-lanes of the old souks lined up along the creek. One minute I am standing at the entrance of the Dubai museum, and the next, as I turn a sharp corner trailing behind the group, I step into another world, another time. I walk under deep red arches and wooden lanterns that I imagine bring the lanes alive after the world outside has grown dark.

For one crazy moment, I am disoriented; I see tiny shops on either side selling incense sticks and pictures of goddess Lakshmi. And cheerful yellow marigold flowers that belong right in any shop outside any large temple in South India. Printed ads on the walls seeking Tamil bachelors as room-mates. Silks and cotton, spices and nuts, silver and gold, carpets and fragrances, all in huge careless heaps under the roof of the covered souk.

And then a short ride across the creek on an open abra, the cold wind on my face, to the assault of smells. The spice souk. The shopkeepers recognize me for what I am, an Indian, ergo not a prospective buyer. And so they turn to the Westerners in my group – just smell this, madam… Someone brandishes a tiny plastic box in the air, top quality saffron in the world… And further down, the gold souk, with over three hundred shops selling gold jewelry, the window displays twinkling, glittering, beckoning.

The souks of Dubai, for those mall-weary hordes, bored of the bargain labels and the air-conditioned conformity of shopping. Dubai, full of surprises, if you only scratch the surface.

And for those there for the shopping, Dubai Shopping Festival, the annual extravaganza, which attracts over two million visitors every year, is on from January 24th till February 24th.

Getting there and around

Emirates Airlines flies Mumbai – Dubai with special fares (starting from Rs.12000) and discounted hotel rates during the shopping festival. Other airlines including Indian have reasonable fares though only Emirates arranges for a visa along with the ticket. Inside Dubai, you can take metered taxis, many of them run by Indians and Pakistanis.

The open-air hop on hop off bus run by the Big Bus Company covers two routes inside the city and stops at popular shopping malls. Tickets are priced at AED 175 (AED 100 for children from 5-15 years) and are valid for twenty four hours. It is advisable to begin the tour after noon, so that you get the rest of the day and till noon the next day on the tour. The price of the ticket includes a walking tour, Arabian Treasures (only between October and April) which covers the souks and other local attractions, entry to the Dubai museum and an hour long Arabian dhow cruise on the creek. Tickets can be bought online at or at ticket counters at one of the larger shopping malls.

Shopping in Dubai

At last count, Dubai had twenty four shopping malls, and all of them participate in the shopping festival. The most popular ones are the Mall of the Emirates, Deira City Centre, Burjuman Centre, Wafi Mall and the Ibn Battuta Mall housing six different themed malls – China, India, Persia, Egypt, Tunisia and Andalusia. More details of the Shopping Festival are available at the official website.

For those who miss this season of shopping Dubai also hosts the Summer Surprise shopping binge every August to encourage visitors to the city during off-peak times. For more exotic shopping, visit the old souks, most of them situated by the creek in Deira.

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