6 Quirky Things to Do & See in the UAE

Darah is a UAE-based traveler and one of my favorite Instagrammers who has a passion for cultural and authentic experiences while she is traveling. Here she takes this passion to the UAE as she shares some tips on things to do that are not necessarily too off the beaten path, but are certainly a way you can connect to the country’s rich history and vibrant present. For more of Darah’s adventures, you can follow her Instagram account (@darahgram).

I’ve always been infatuated with alternative* travel. From frolicking in Colombian coffee plantations to cooking local foods in Jordan, I always make sure to experience culture first hand, staying away from tacky tourist traps. Over the years, I’ve been to many destinations around the world, hopping from culture to culture, collecting intimate stories and authentic experiences. Yet, there is one place I’ve never explored in this way — my home, the United Arab Emirates.

To me, the UAE is where I grew up, where I now live and work. It rarely crosses my mind as a place to purposely explore, or consider as a destination for exploration, let alone advertise to friends and fellow travelers as an “alternative” destination. Growing up in the UAE, I watched as deserts morph into skyscrapers and modest souqs turn into mega real estate developments fit for residents of London and L.A. Fast forward to today, the UAE is notorious for its luxury resorts, glitzy lifestyle, and fine dining.

While this face of the UAE tends to be the most promoted (and sought after), cultural buffs might be pleased to know that the UAE does have unique experiences to offer. This summer, I decided to forgo my usual escape to cooler destinations and explore the UAE looking for experiences far from its infamous glamour.

*Alternative Travel is travel or tourism that’s not conventional in nature and it can be a niche kind of tourism such as going on a coffee plantation tour of Colombia.

So without further ado, here are my top alternative experiences in the UAE:

1. Explore Islamic Architecture: Architecture is easily any traveler’s top amusement. Over the years, travelers visiting the UAE (and Dubai in particular) seem to be critical of its skyscrapers and modern development — to the extent that many dub it lacking “culture”. I’ve often felt that this generalization was unfair, seeing as many travelers overlook visiting the UAE’s most historic sites. Many historic sites are now restored, such as Dubai’s Bastakiya heritage district, and other notable sites in Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Al-Ain, that are easily accessible for any visitor to the UAE.

My favorite architectural sight in the UAE is Sharjah’s Central Souk, built in 1978. The Central Souk is the UAE’s first form of shopping infrastructure and is currently on the country’s 5 Dirham note. The souk plays a significant role in the UAE’s history as Emaratis from all over the country would visit Sharjah specially to shop for gold and silk. The building continues to be one of the most prominent in Sharjah, and is beautifully decorated with Islamic-style tiles and mosaics. I highly recommend visiting Sharjah’s Central souk for an architectural perspective of Emarati culture!

2. Discover Secret Rooftops: Continuing with the theme of architecture, culture lovers would be pleased to know that although Dubai has a skyline New York would be envious of, as well as rooftop bars galore, it also has secret rooftops with a panoramic view of Dubai’s old skyline. Located on the third floor of the Grand Souk in Deira, a renovated bazaar that’s also worth visiting, this rooftop gives travelers a view of Dubai’s creek (dotted with blue Arabian dhows) as well as a view of Deira’s Al Ras neighborhood. Travelers will get an idea of the Arabian Gulf’s old trade routes and the importance of trade in Emarati culture.

I explored the area with Dubai’s photography community and had a blast capturing local happenings. I recommend checking out this secret rooftop with a local and/or your camera!

3. Experience The World Of Middle Eastern Art: Growing up in the Middle East — especially during the 90’s — art was for those that could afford to travel. Rarely was a Middle Eastern city considered a go-to spot for world class art. It is now safe to say that there are a few Middle Eastern countries invested in the arts including the UAE. With international galleries and museums opening up around the country (like the Guggenheim and the Louvre), as well as locally renowned art shows (such as Art Dubai), the UAE is now an up and coming art-lovers’ destination.

If I could recommend one art destination in the UAE, it would be the Sharjah Art Foundation — a contemporary art institute situated in the heart of Sharjah’s heritage area. The Foundation also offers a range of interesting workshops that are open to the public (traditional fig paper-making was my favorite) as well as holding community-related exhibitions and events. The Sharjah Art Foundation is not only a fantastic art destination, but also an architectural wonder! So, if you don’t visit it for the art, visit it for the architecture.

4. Drink Chai Karak at Abu Dhabi Ports: When I briefly lived in Abu Dhabi a few years ago, some friends introduced me to their favorite local pastime: drinking chai karak at mina (Arabic for port.) At Abu Dhabi ports, locals drive up to a modest cafeteria where they would wait for a chai wala (tea seller) to come out and take their order. They often did this at sunset, taking their hot cups of chai karak (a blend of black tea, milk, sugar and cardamom native to South Asia) by the water to watch the sun go down. This summer, I decided to go back and spend a whole afternoon at mina drinking tea and exploring the ports.

What I found surprised and pleased me at once. Abu Dhabi ports weren’t just about the chai— they were a haven for affordable, organic fruits and vegetables coming in from all over the Middle East. My travel buddy and I enjoyed two chai karaks while watching tens of Abu Dhabi residents haggling with port merchants over the prices of fruits and vegetables. We got to talk to and photograph all the giddy merchants selling their goods while watching the sun go down.

5. Taste Cocoa Beans From All Over the World: Who would have thought of Dubai as a place for a refined activity like cocoa tasting? Who would have thought of Dubai as a place for cocoa at all? Enter Mirzam Chocolate Makers factory. Mirzam Chocolate Makers is Dubai’s specialty chocolate factory inspired by the spice trade routes of the region. Mirzam creates eccentric chocolate flavors such as figs, cinnamon, cardamom, dates, and the list goes on, blended with tropical cocoa beans from around the world.

We visited the factory on a hot day and were instantly refreshed by the cool welcome of our guide. The guide took us through the different processes of cocoa manufacturing, from bean sorting and roasting to finally wrapping, before taking us to the tasting table. The session began with a crash course on how to professionally taste chocolate (sniff, snap, savor) followed by the tasting of 8 different cocoa beans. We tried different beans from Cuba to Papua New Guinea, and needless to say it was one of the most interesting activities I ever did in Dubai. We ended the session by having coffee at the cafe inside the factory while sorting through different chocolate bars to purchase. Also, did I mention every chocolate bar is tastefully wrapped in unique illustrations made by local artists?

6. Sip on the UAE’s Growing Coffee Culture: When people think of the UAE, the first thing that comes to mind is skyscrapers and gigantic shopping malls. Specialty coffee is the last thing you’d think of — but it might surprise travelers to know that locals share an unparalleled enthusiasm for specialty coffee. A friend of mine, a coffee connoisseur in Dubai, seriously views coffee-going culture as one of the most profitable ventures in the country. The popularity of specialty coffee has risen in recent years that cafés now look for creative ways to distinguish themselves. Examples include Depresso Cafe, a hole-in-the-wall concept that serves its coffee with donuts, and Drop Dubai who make cups fit for the Instagram feed of #CoffeeCupsOfTheWorld

My personal favorite is Ratio Coffee, a specialty coffee joint in Sharjah that uses the elements of a 60-year old Arabian Dhow in its interiors and serves coffee beans sourced from micro-roasters in the region. I recommend trying the El Salvadorian V60 for a flavorful cup in the heart of Sharjah!

Despite the global infatuation with the UAE’s skyscrapers and unprecedented economic growth, the UAE does offer a unique look into history. The UAE’s culture and society is rich with authentic Arabian experiences as well as alternative activities that are unique to the region. I highly recommend visiting the UAE, but with open eyes and an open mind.

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