Dubai is known for its record-breaking buildings, luxurious real estate and rapid transformation into a thriving metropolis. However, the city’s history can be traced back to the 1830s, when the Maktoum family arrived and settled on the banks ofwhat is now the Dubai Creek, a natural saltwater inlet.
A Brief History of Dubai
From a small fishing village, Dubai grew into a regionally important port town with a population of around 20,000 by the 1920s. However, the collapse of the pearl industry and subsequent economic depression hit the city hard.
After the discovery of oil in the 1960s, Dubai truly began its rapid modernisation. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, one of the founding fathers of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai at the time, recognised that oil was a limited resource for the city.
During his 32-year rule, Sheikh Rashid’s ambition and vision drove the development of important infrastructure projects such as Port Rashid, Shindagha tunnel, Jebel Ali Port, and the expansion of the Creek. These projects helped to modernise the city and establish it as a major economic hub in the region.
As Dubai has continued to expand towards Abu Dhabi, the area around the Creek has become known as “Old Dubai”. This area was once the centre of the city, with the districts of Deira to the north and Bur Dubai to the south playing a key role in commercial trade.
Today, visitors can still get a sense of the city’s history and culture by visiting these important parts of Dubai. In Bur Dubai and particularly in the Al Shindagha and Al Fahidi districts, buildings have been preserved and restored according to traditional architecture. These areas offer a glimpse into Dubai’s past and the rich cultural traditions of the city.
If you would like to delve deeper into the history of Dubai and Emirati culture, the following are our top places to visit.
Al Shindagha Museum
Al Shindagha Museum is dedicated to the history of Dubai and Emirati culture. The historical buildings have been restored and preserved in order to showcase traditional Emirati architecture. Some of the foundations of the buildings date back to pre- 1900s.
A few modern elements have been incorporated into the architecture to update and innovate the visitor experience. Like the neighbouring areas of Al Fahidi and Al Seef, you will feel transported back in time, when you wander the narrow lanes between each building.
As a visitor, you start at the Welcome Centre, and you are then invited to visit themed pavilions, each dedicated to different aspects of Emirati history, life and culture. Highlights include the restored Maktoum family residence (pictured), giving a captivating insight into this family dynasty, and the Perfume house, where you will discover the significance of scents in Emirati culture and how they are created.
The museum is home to a great selection of artefacts allowing visitors to explore the history of Dubai and Emirati culture.
Opening hours for Al Shindagha Museum:
- 10:00 AM to 8:00 PM every day. Please note last entry to the museum is at 7:00 PM
Ticket prices for Al Shindagha Museum:
- Adults 50 AED
- Students (5-24years) 20 AED
Learn more at Al Shindagha Museum
From Al Shindagha, venture into neighbouring Al Fahidi, where you will find several more historical places to visit.
Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood
The Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood (previously known as Al Bastakiya) is the oldest part of the city, easy to explore on foot.
Al Fahidi Fort and Dubai Museum
Dubai Museum is located in the Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in Dubai, dating back to 1787.
In 1971, the fort was converted into a museum with the aim of preserving the cultural heritage of Dubai and the UAE. The museum displays a range of exhibits that depict the traditional way of life in the region, including the local history, culture, and customs.
Please note that the Museum is currently closed until further notice due to renovation.
Don’t worry about the museum being closed; there’s a lot more to explore on foot in the surrounding area. We have a complete guide to exploring the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood here, or read on for some of the historical highlights.
Dedicated to all things coffee, this museum is well worth a visit. Coffee plays a big part in Emirati culture along with the wider Middle East, and here you can learn all about the cultural significance of this drink.
The Coffee Museum is housed in a traditional building with a wind tower, typical of the Gulf region. The museum covers the history of coffee from its origins in Ethiopia to its spread around the world. It includes a range of artefacts and equipment related to the coffee industry, such as antique coffee grinders, roasters, and pots.
Visitors can also learn about the various types of coffee beans and brewing methods and can participate in educational workshops and tastings to learn more about the history and culture of coffee.
Opening hours for the Coffee Museums:
- Saturday to Thursday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM
- Fridays closed
Learn more at Coffee Museum
The Coin Museum is dedicated to the history and evolution of currency in the UAE and the wider region. The museum features a collection of coins, currency notes, and other financial instruments from the UAE and other countries in the Middle East.
It is a popular tourist attraction in Dubai and is known for its informative exhibits and interactive displays. Visitors will learn about the early use of gold, silver, and copper coins, as well as the more recent introduction of paper currency.
The museum also has exhibits on the role of money in society and the development of financial systems in the region.
Opening hours for the Coin Museum:
- Monday to Thursday 8:00 AM – 3:00 PM, Friday 8:00 AM – 11.30 AM
- Saturday & Sunday Closed
Learn more at Coin Museum
Arabian Tea House
This café opened in 1997 as Basta Arts Café, when Al Fahidi was still called Al Bastakia. It has since become a cultural institution with numerous branches in the UAE and abroad.
Enjoy traditional Emirati cuisine and hospitality in the original branch of the teahouse. It is located inside a peaceful courtyard, where you can escape the heat as you relax in the shade with a cold drink or a traditional coffee.
Do be aware that it can get busy, and the café doesn’t accept reservations from Friday to Sunday.
Note that there are now multiple branches of the Arabian Tea House. The original is found in the Al Faihidi Historical neighbourhood, but further branches serving the same delicacies can be found in Jumeirah Beach, Mercato Mall, Jumeirah Archaeological site and Souk Al Shansiyah (Sharjah).
Opening hours for Arabian Tea House:
- Daily 7:00 AM to 11:00 PM
Learn more at Arabian Tea House
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is an organisation that aims to promote cultural understanding and tolerance in the UAE. Situated in amongst some of the city’s oldest restored buildings, it is an essential stop in Dubai for culture lovers.
It was founded in 1998 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and the ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, with the goal of fostering greater understanding and harmony between the various cultures and communities that make up the UAE.
The SMCCU offers a range of programmes and activities that are designed to educate visitors and residents about Emirati culture and help them learn more about the local way of life. These programmes include guided tours of local neighbourhoods, traditional Emirati meals, and lectures and workshops on various cultural topics.
The SMCCU also hosts several events throughout the year, including cultural festivals, film screenings, art exhibits and Ramadan Iftars.
Opening hours for SMCCU:
- Monday to Thursday, 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM; Friday to Sunday, 8:00 AM to 12:00 PM.
- Due to tour popularity and limited availability, prior booking is now essential.
- There’s a variety of free and paid events on offer.
Please visit www.cultures.ae to learn more about SMCCU and to book.
Textile Souk, Bur Dubai Old Souk
Not far from Al Faidi Histroical Neighbourhood on the Bur Dubai side of the creek, you’ll find one of the most popular souks in Dubai. Wander through the busy lanes as you shop for colourful fabrics and garments.
Come prepared to practice your bartering skills, and do note that some shops may still prefer cash over credit card.
Opening hours for the souks:
- The souk is generally open between 10:00 AM and 10:00 PM Saturday to Thursday, though many shopkeepers will close during the middle of the day.
- Friday is normally only open after 4:00 PM.
Next, head towards Jumeirah 1, where you will be able to explore more of the recent history of Dubai.
The Etihad Museum is dedicated to the modern history of Dubai and the formation of the United Arab Emirates as a nation. Located at the historical site where the UAE constitution was signed in 1971, Union House, the museum is housed in a striking building shaped like a manuscript designed to represent the country’s commitment to preserving its history and cultural heritage.
Inside the museum, visitors can explore a number of interactive exhibits and displays that showcase the rich history and culture of the UAE. The exhibits are divided into several galleries, each focusing on a different aspect of the country’s history. For example, one gallery is dedicated to the signing of the historic agreement that led to the formation of the UAE and displays the original copies of the documents that were signed.
The Etihad Museum also has a research centre and a library that are open to the public. These resources are a great place for researchers and students to learn more about the UAE’s history and culture and can be accessed by appointment.
Overall, the Etihad Museum is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in learning more about the recent history of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates.
Opening hours for Etihad Museum:
- 10:00 AM to 8:00 PM every day. Last entry to the museum is at 7:00 PM.
Ticket prices fro Etihad Museum:
- Adults 25 AED
- Students (5-25 years) 10 AED
To learn more or to book visit Etihad Museum
The Jumeirah Mosque is a landmark building with its two minarets standing tall above the main prayer hall. It was built in 1979 as a gift by the former ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum.
The interior of the mosque is just as beautiful as the exterior, with a central dome and arched walls decorated with intricate patterns and calligraphy. The mosque can accommodate up to 1,500 worshippers at a time, and it is a popular place for Friday prayers.
One of the unique features of the Jumeirah Mosque is that it is one of the few mosques in the United Arab Emirates that is open to non-Muslim visitors. Guided tours of the mosque are available for tourists, and these tours provide an opportunity for visitors to learn more about the mosque, the Muslim faith, and Islamic culture. The tours are led by trained guides who can answer questions and provide insights into the history and significance of the mosque.
Overall, the Jumeirah Mosque is an important cultural and religious landmark in Dubai, and it is a beautiful and fascinating place to visit for people of all backgrounds.
Opening times and entry to Jumeirah Mosque
- Visitors are welcomed at the mosque twice a day at 10:00 am and 2:00 pm every day, apart from Fridays.
- Bookings are not required, and registrations start 30 minutes before published visiting times.
- Entry is 35AED per person.
Please note modest dress is required for all, and women are asked to bring a shawl or scarf to cover their hair.
Learn more at Jumeirah Mosque
More for History and Culture Lovers in the UAE
For those who’d love to dive more into the country’s recent history and pre-history, we’d also recommend:
- A day trip to Al Ain. Home to the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage Listed properties, there are multiple opportunities to take a fascinating trip down memory lane, from visiting the country’s founding father’s home (Al Ain Palace Museum) to visiting burial tombs believed to date back 5,000 years.
- Day trip to neighbouring Emirate Sharjah, known as the country’s cultural capital, is a must. In town, there’s a large concentration of museums in Sharjah worthy of a visit, particularly the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization and Sharjah Maritime Museum.
- Further out of town, the recently opened Mleiha Acharealogical Centre in Sharjah is a fascinating look at the country’s pre-history.
- A further day trip to the capital Abu Dhabi is also a must. Although mostly recognised for sensational modern buildings such as the Louvre, the Grand Mosque and Qasr al Watan, make some time in your Abu Dhabi itinerary to see Qasr Al Hosn, the oldest structure in the city has recently been fully restored and re-opened to the public.
- The country’s east coast should not be forgotten, with Al Bidya Mosque being the country’s oldest mosque in the Emirate of Fujairah. You’ll find a wide variety of fascinating historical remains as you cross the Hajar Mountains and explore the northern Emirates.
Before you go… More important things you should know when planning a trip to Dubai
- Pop into our essential planning information page, it includes everything you need to know about getting around Dubai, a handy guide on what to pack, and top tips for first-timers on the do’s and don’ts, laws, and customs to be aware of.
- Check out this incredible list of 150+ places you should visit when you’re in Dubai.
- Pick up a Dubai Pass from iVenture or a Go City Dubai Pass to save up to 50% on top Dubai attractions.
- Don’t forget to pack your travel insurance!!!
- Discover the best areas to stay in Dubai, or bag a bargain on your accommodation here:
Take me back to the best attractions in Dubai
Please note we are not a travel agency. This site is a travel blog to help newcomers to the UAE and transit passengers self plan their trip, we cannot book your flights, hotels, visas or connections for you. We may make a small commission if you click on any of our recommendation links.Dubai Travel Planner