Forward-thinking Dubai has a fascinating history. This two-day itinerary gives you a chance to step back in time on day one in the city before taking a leap into its futuristic present on day two

Day 1: A Taste of the Past in Old Dubai

Day 1 A Taste of the Past in Old Dubai

Dubai started out as a diminutive fishing village some 4,000 years ago and remained so until the 1830s when the go-getting Al Maktoum tribe – Dubai’s ruling family – transformed it into a tax-free port.

It was the Persian merchants from Bastak, the first traders lured across the Arabian Gulf, who built the handsome courtyard residences in old Bastakiya (pictured above), recently re-branded as the Historic Al Fahidi Neighbourhood. Begin your discovery of Old Dubai here, in the atmospheric quarter’s breezy lanes, dotted with small museums, galleries and cafés. Start by getting a taste of the local culture as you sample Emirati food at a ‘Cultural Breakfast’ at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.

Nearby, you can learn more about the city’s history at Dubai Museum, in Al Fahidi fort, the city’s oldest building, dating to the late 1700s. Air-conditioned, it offers a fantastic respite from the scorching heat for an hour or so.

Cross the road and slip behind the Grand Mosque (pictured above) into a narrow alley lined with little Indian shops selling religious paraphernalia, bindis, incense, and offerings to worshippers heading to the Hindu temples on the lane. It’s a wonderful example of Dubai’s cosmopolitanism and tolerance. The lane leads to the Bur Dubai textile souk (or Mina Bazaar) and shops full of rolls of shimmering brocades, glittering satins, and sequinned Aladdin slippers. You’ll also find stalls selling Indian street food snacks.

From here you can take an abra – a small wooden taxi boat – across bustling Dubai Creek to the Deira souks. Stroll through the fragrant Spice Souk (pictured above) before ambling around the corner to visit two small museums. Heritage House is a handsome pearl merchant’s residence, and adjoining Al Ahmadiya School, the city’s first school. Nearby, you can gawk at the gleaming displays of elaborate jewellery intended for dowries at the Gold Souk.

Meander back through the busy alleyways to the abra dock to cross the Creek and wander past the stately old ruler’s residences to the site of Dubai’s earliest settlement at the mouth of the Creek, Shindagha. Now home to the Dubai Heritage and Diving Village, a charming recreation of the early fishing village and pearling centre, here you can ride a camel, taste Emirati sweets, and buy souvenirs such as brass coffee pots and Bedouin rugs. After, you can enjoy an Arabic feast and puff on a sheesha at waterfront Kan Zaman restaurant, a perfect place to round off a day in Dubai.

Day 2: The Futuristic Present in Modern Dubai

Day 2 The Futuristic Present in Modern Dubai

The metropolis of ‘modern Dubai’, comprised of towering skyscrapers, monumental shopping malls, lavish hotels and smart villas, only really sprung up in recent decades – since the 1970s.

Kick off your tour with a cruise along Jumeirah Beach Road in a cab, stopping periodically to gawk at the gorgeous white-sand beaches on your way to Dubai’s first architectural wonder: the “seven-star” Burj Al Arab hotel (pictured above). When this white, sail-shaped building – constructed on a man-made island – opened in 1999, it kick-started a particular kind of tourism boom that hasn’t stopped: one that drew visitors for its adventurous architecture and construction marvels as much as the sumptuous hotel rooms and ornate shopping arcades that lay inside.

From here, you can shop for Oriental carpets, souvenirs or Middle Eastern homewares at nearby Madinat Jumeirah (pictured above), a modern air-conditioned mall – albeit a very charming one. Here you can lunch on anything from Asian noodles or American-style steaks to Mediterranean or Moroccan – if you choose your table wisely you’ll also be able to enjoy Burj Al Arab views across Venetian-inspired waterways.

Alternatively, you could grab a taxi from Burj al Arab to Dubai Mall (or have the driver drop you at a stop to ride the sleek Metro to the monumental shopping centre). There’s enough to occupy you here for an entire day, including an enormous aquarium, countless shops and department stores, kids’ entertainment zones, cafés, cinemas and restaurants. Even if you’re not into shopping, it’s a brilliant spot for people watching.

When you’re done, head out to the breathtakingly beautiful Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building – and zip up to the observation deck for jaw-dropping views of Dubai (pictured above). From here you’ll be able to see the dazzling skyscrapers that line Sheikh Zayed Road.

If you’ve had your fill of the futuristic once on the ground, head into Souk Al Bahar, another shopping centre inspired by ‘old Arabia’. Here you can snag a seat at one of the many waterfront restaurants and bars for a table with a view of the dancing fountain and towering Burj Khalifa. As your eyes trace the outline of this incredible feat of engineering up to the clouds, you can raise your glass to the modern miracle that is Dubai.

Be its traditional or modern side that most appeals, find more of the city’s best bits in our Dubai Guide – plus expert advice on where to stay

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