You know the clichés. Dubai is hot. Dubai sprawls. Dubai is rich and not afraid to show it.
Well, it’s all true. Dubai is the United Arab Emirates’s very own Reggie Mantle – endearingly cocksure and full of people with more money than they possibly know what to do with.
The Global Financial Crisis was supposed to put an end to Dubai. The city doesn’t produce anything, they said. It’ll crumble into the desert, they said. But while the UAE’s largest town struggled for a time, it ultimately survived intact. And seven years later it’s back with a vengeance. What’s more, talk to some locals (yes, there are locals) and surviving the GFC is almost a badge of honour – like it’s given the city a hardened sense of legitimacy.
In short, Dubai isn’t going anywhere. And if you fly to and from Europe it’s increasingly the stopover of choice for many airlines. While there for a night or two you could choose to hunker down in a hotel room, watch some movies and drink eye-wateringly expensive beer. But that would be a milquetoast move.
The reality is that Dubai, in one form or another, has existed for close to a thousand years. And among all those haphazardly scattered hotels, bars and restaurants is a bunch of hidden gems, including the beginnings of a legitimate indie culture.
Dubai Tourism asked if I wanted to check it out. I said, “OK.” Here are five of the best.
#1 The Magazine Shop
Where: DIFC Gate Village 8, Podium Level
Just to the north of downtown is the Dubai International Finance Centre. This might sound like the worst place in history, but the DIFC is actually well worth checking out – a large, carefully planned development (rare for Dubai) packing a bunch of great restaurants, as well as some exceptional art galleries. Indeed, Dubai is full of great art. Remember this. It becomes important later.
Anyway, the DIFC’s greatest asset is a humble little magazine shop owned by entrepreneurial Emirati twins Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib and curated by Kamal Rasool, a Bahraini expat who cut his teeth in London studying advertising.
The shop doesn’t look like much because it isn’t much – a solid timber frame about the size of a shipping container, neatly covered in shade cloth with a food counter and coffee machine at one end and a bunch of tables scattered along its cool slate floor. The, er, walls meanwhile are lined with magazines – enough of them that you can smell the rich paper stock before you even make it to the store.
Visit in the morning and you’ll get a whole lot of business types looking rushed, conducting confabs. But come later in the day and it’s much more relaxed, those same power bros seeking solace with a magazine and some coffee.
This is the idea: you can buy anything at the Magazine Shop – and it has some of the best print from around the world, including the brothers’ very own Brownbook (and, yep, Frankie and Smith Journal. STRAYA!) – but the magazines are also there to simply be enjoyed while you’re passing through or meeting up with mates.
If you’re coming, make sure you check out the shop’s Facebook page. Rasool is continually mixing up the space with functions and special events featuring musicians and workshops. The whole thing is a love letter to the power of the written word – a mini library of the world’s arts and counterculture.
#2 XVA Art Hotel
Where: Al Fahidi Neighborhood (formerly Bastakiya), Bur Dubai
If you’re going to Dubai, it’s a bit of a no-brainer to visit the historic Bastakiya quarter. Slowly being restored to better resemble its 19th century origins, this was once the home of richie-rich textile and pearl trader types from Iran, the narrow lanes now lined with restored houses, art galleries and cafes. It’s all coral brick walls, heavy wooden doors and wind towers – an almost mystical antidote to the glitz and glamour of the metropolis.
Still, many walk straight past the XVA Art Hotel. Just like we almost do, which would’ve been a massive clanger of a mistake. Luckily, a bunch of school kids show us the way (thanks, you noisy little guys). They’re here to see a joint exhibition by Korea’s UnKyung Hur and Japan’s Shinji Ogawa called In The Water. In fact, the floppy-haired Ogawa is actually staying at the hotel – I spot him inside the hotel being peppered with questions by a Japanese journalist.
The quality of the artists’ work is stunning. Particularly Ogawa’s, which looks like it’s been collaged together from period photographs. Hotel owner Mona Hauser smiles and tells me that much of it is actually hand drawn. I laugh. Ha ha ha. Hauser looks at me strangely and I realise she’s serious. I stop laughing. I’m an idiot.
The exhibition is very much in keeping with the boutique hotel itself. Yes, you can stay there, and yes it’s cheaper than your average five-star elsewhere in the city. The rooms are small but cute, each with its own individual artistic flourish. And sitting in the hotel’s courtyard drinking coffee or juice is a very particular kind of bliss, seemingly miles away from the skyscrapers that define the city.
Tie it in with a trip across the Creek (well… they say ‘creek’ but really it’s a swollen torrent that makes the Yarra look like a water feature). Then, visit the souks. For anyone not named John, Big Boss or Katy Perry prepare to be confused. But the short of it is that, while a lot of people freak out about the intensity of the pedlars and hawkers along these narrow lanes, they’re easy enough to deal with – just be chill, politely say no and keep walking. They’re bold but friendly, and never aggressive. And if you’re in the market for a watch… well all I can say, sir, is that you are in luck.
#3 Ravi Restaurant
Where: Al Dhiyafa Rd, Dubai
Ravi Restaurant is the kind of local institution that I shouldn’t really talk about, lest all you jackanapes start frequenting it. Still, ask any Pakistani ex-pat where to go for the best cheap eat and they’ll more or less say, “Dude, why on earth are we having this conversation?” and point you in the direction of Ravi’s.
That’s not as easy as it once was, given Ravi Restaurant has now expanded its business to cover three different locations. But the tight, grungy digs at the northern end of Al Satwa Rd are arguably still the best – as good for people watching as they are for their fragrant curries and tasty naan breads. You can more or less destroy your appetite on a couple of tatty 10 dirham notes (that’s $3.50AUD). High fives.
Maybe be a little wary of the chilli if you have a sensitive gut. (I’m in my 30s. I have a sensitive gut.) But offsetting that are the fresh, natural ingredients. It’s a bit of an elixir for the rich foods on offer at the city’s more hoity-toity establishments. Hoity-toity. Heh.
#4 Alserkal Avenue
Where: Street 8 – Al Quoz 1 – Dubai
Finding Alserkal Avenue is a bit of a bingo moment. It’s very much off the beaten track. (But then this is Dubai. The city sprawls. Everything’s off the beaten track, I guess.)
You’re about to scoff, but there’s actually a tonne of great art in Dubai. The amount of money floating around in the city simply dictates as much, and it’s an illustration that cash can live in harmony with high culture. Plus, there’s relatively little point-scoring on exotic imports, the galleries in Alserkal focusing on some staggering collections drawn from the Gulf, Middle East and North African regions.
Anyway anyway – we visit two galleries, one owned by Ramin Salsali (the first private museum for contemporary art in the region, apparently) and focusing on an exhibition of Iranian Mohammad Ehsai’s spellbinding woven carpets; the second presenting a retrospective of works by Bahrain-born, Saudi-based artist Faisal Samra. Both are absolutely first class. Even our good-natured, stone-cold pro of a guide, Darren, originally intent on hustling us through the district, stops to gape in awe at some of Samra’s inventive video installations.
Alserkal also includes A4 Space, a coffee shop and collaborative environment for freelancers, writers and artists. It packs a welcoming, warehouse vibe, and has a bunch of books and magazines on hand, as well as a small gift shop. Out back is a screening room, which my friend Mustafa and I stumble into like a couple of jerks, ruining a presentation. Sorry lady!
On the way out, we all nod at each other: “Al Serkal is legit.” And it really is on par with the art precincts you might find in any other city that prides itself on its culture. Only the graffitied Datsun is a Bentley.
#5 Surf House Dubai
Where: Villa 110, Al Soon St – Umm Suqeim 2 – Dubai
Staying down Jumeriah Beach way? Then you should be stopping in at Surf House Dubai, the city’s only dedicated surf shop owned and run by Dubai local Dan Van Dooren and Brazilian ex-pat Scott Chambers.
Surf House is gold, if only because when you walk into the shop you could be anywhere. Just around the corner from Jumeirah Road, it’s a little sanctuary away from the busy boulevard that services the beachside.
Surf House will sell or hire you a surf or paddle board, while also peddling a heap of accessories. The gents also pack handy local knowledge and can show you where to hit the waves (Dubai once had exceptional surfing conditions along its coast – then the Palm and the World and whatever else were built, interrupting the swell. It means you, y’know, need to know where to go).
But Surf House is also a meeting place, somewhere to hang with your friends, enjoy a coffee. Besides Van Dooren and Chambers, the staff are all chilled-out surfer types, and will happily chat away with you in between cleaning tables and serving customers. You can even hitch a class in the upstairs yoga studio, although it’s probably best to book.
Van Dooren speaks with a focused passion when telling me how locals in Dubai are hungry for experiences like his – something away from the major brands and chains that have typically dominated its malls.
Almost as a piece de resistance he takes me upstairs – opposite the yoga studio is a newly minted music room, sound proofed for jamming and recording sessions. The brainchild of the gents’ sponsor (in the UAE, any business must have an Emirati sponsor), a music fan and old friend of Van Dooren, the ultimate aim is to attract high-profile musicians who might – like you and me – be transiting through town.
Well played, Dan. Well played, Scott.
Matt Shea is a freelance journalist currently based in Brisbane. His work has been published in AskMen, ELLE, the Sydney Morning Herald, TheVine, Mess+Noise, the Guardian, the Big Issue, Tiger Tales and FasterLouder. Sometimes he travels. When he does, he writes. Love him or hate him on @mrmatches.