Family fun in Dubai: Education and culture

Top tours include everything from chicken tikka kebab and tandoori roti food tasting to taking to the waters of Dubai Creek

By Sam Lewis
Published 30 Dec 2015, 08:00 GMT, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 13:04 BST

01 Eyewitness: Foodie tour

My guide Farida is at my elbow, waving me to follow her and a handful of other visitors close on her heels as she weaves down the warrenous alleyways of Meena Bazaar, the centre of Old Dubai's Little India quarter, at night. Neon-lit shop fronts selling glittering saris and cheap electronics flash by until we hop into the doorway of Rangoli restaurant, where the chef is ladling pani puri, the quintessential Indian street food, on to a plastic plate.

Farida pincers one of the fried, crispy hollow balls between two fingers, pokes a hole in the top with her fingernail and fills it with lentils, chickpeas and a spoonful of spicy chilli water before popping it all into her mouth. "It bursts like a water balloon — delicious! But wait too long and it'll fall apart," she coaches us, as we start tucking in.

Our next stop is Sangeetha, famous for its 'tiffin' (light meals). We're ushered through to a smart stainless-steel kitchen to watch the chef whip up a topi dosa (a hat-shaped crispy crepe) before learning how to pour Madrasi filter coffee in long flourishing streams. Fired up on caffeine, it's back into the streets, where we grab a glass of freshly pressed sugar-cane juice and tear chunks off a chicken tikka kebab pulled straight from the embers of a roadside seller.

Then it's on to the Abu Sahar Bakery, run by two Afghanis who hand toss 3,000 tandoori rotis a day. Farida arranges us in a circle, each holding the edge of a wheel-sized flatbread, and dollops a spoonful of golden ghee into the middle, smears it around, then grates 'jaggery', a lump of unrefined cane sugar, over the top. We tear off pieces and pop them into our mouths, the warm buttery ghee running down our chins. It's far more fun than sitting down to a formal dinner in an air-conditioned restaurant. From AED380 (£66) per person (over 14s only). Words: Emma Thomson

02 Friday's epic brunches

With the working week in Dubai ending on a Thursday, Friday brunch has become a tradition with many hotels offering extravagant buffets, free-flowing drinks and DJs. The Westin Bubblicious Brunch is ideal for families with a petting zoo and face painting.

03 Explore Al Quoz

Take a taxi to the Street 8 arts district in the up-and-coming quarter of Al Quoz. Teens will love this avant-garde collection of warehouses, home to contemporary art galleries, fashion designers and coffee shop. Kid-friendly gallery TheJamJar nearby offers 'paint your own canvas' sessions and, around the corner, the funky urban cafe Tom & Serg serves wicked bagels, old-fashioned milkshakes and lauded cups of chai latte.

04 Eyewitness: Understand Islam

Take a guided tour of the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding

Her eyes are framed by a flick of thick black eyeliner; her face and body by a black dupatta — a long headscarf and matching robes. Our elegant guide glides across the stone-laid paths of the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) pointing out features of traditional Emirati-style homes as we go. Situated in a traditional wind tower house in the Old Town, the centre offers guided tours to help visitors gain a greater awareness of Islam.

We stop outside a heavy wooden door and our guide asks if we know why there's a little door set inside the larger one. Without hesitation, a little voice pipes up from the front of the crowd: "Is it for kids?" Our guide laughs: "Almost! The big door was used for animals and the small one for people — we made them low so you have to bend down as you enter as a sign of respect. "The size of the door and materials would indicate the wealth of the family. Same goes for the wind catchers," she continues, pointing to the square tower speared with wooden poles that rises above the rest of the building. "They direct cool air down into the house, making it 5–7 degrees cooler. Guests of honour sleep directly under them, so the more you had, the better connected you were."

We walk past a rubbled part of the old city wall towards the mosque. Outside, we remove our shoes and the ladies each don an abaya headscarf before pacing inside to sit beneath an almighty ornate dome. She explains why devout Muslims pray five times a day (it's one of the five 'pillars' of Islam) and why everyone sits shoulder to shoulder and foot to foot (as a sign of equality).

Questions are flowing fast now, so we move to the covered rooftop of another house to continue discussions. We sit cross-legged on woven red carpets, sipping piping-hot coffee and nibbling sugary dates. "Ask anything you like," invites our pretty guide. Shyness takes over the group, so I break the ice: "Do you feel constrained having to cover your body and face?" "Good question!" she beams.

"In fact, covering our faces is not part of our religion, it's a choice and changes with the fashion. The burqa — with a mesh window over the eyes — is a bit old-fashioned and favoured by older people, while some women use the niqab, the one with the narrow eye slit, as a form of sunglasses. Sometimes I wear one to the mall, sometimes I don't. I always wear a bikini on the beach. The choice is ours."

A must-do activity for clearing up any misconceptions. Tours start from AED65 (£11). Words: Emma Thomson

05 Traditional boat tour of Dubai Creek

Take to the waters of Dubai Creek to get a sense of where the city started life. It's traversed by traditional wooden abras (water taxis) that ferry passengers from Bur Dubai on the left bank to Deira on the right, for AED1 (17p) one-way, or they can be chartered for AED50 (£8.60) per hour. Go at sunset or book an evening cruise with BBQ dinner, music and belly dancing.

06 Deira Souks

Step into the narrow alleyways of the Spice Souk in Deira to see the aromatic herbs and spices spilling from large baskets. Or visit the Gold Souk next door, where window upon window is full to the brim with dazzling bangles and necklaces, and rings encrusted with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires. The souk is monitored by the government to ensure the gold and stones are genuine. On the other side of Dubai Creek, the textile souk in Bur Dubai sells fabrics that are bright and colourful with silks and cotton sold by the yard. Expect all the souks to be bustling, crammed and noisy and remember, if you want a souvenir at a bargain price — you'll need to haggle.

07 Shop & spot fish at The Dubai Mall

Shop your heart out at Dubai Mall then take a break to see a multitude of fish. A section of the the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo is on display for free, but buy a day Explorer ticket and you can walk through a 157ft tunnel and see up to 33,000 fish then take a boat ride to cruise the surface of one of the world's largest suspended tanks. Peer between your feet and you could spy 75 varieties of fish, including giant grouper weighing up to 450kg and the world's largest collection of sand tiger sharks. Explorer ticket from AED120 (£21).

Watch your kids grow up before your eyes as they pretend to be adults at this interactive city, built to kids' scale and complete with buildings and streets, where they can role-play more than 80 professions, from doctor to firefighter. Kids work to earn kidZos — KidZania's own currency — and pay for goods and services in the make-believe city. There's a bank where they can open a savings account with a debit card that works at the city's miniature ATMs. From AED95 (£17) 2-3 years and adults; AED140 (£26) 4-16 years; free for under-2s.

Published in the Dubai supplement, distributed with the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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