Guide to Deira, Dubai

Deira: a historic haven with a frenzied character and old-school charm

Once the centrepiece of a very young and sparse Dubai, Deira has become a global trading port. It’s easy to see why the heritage hub attracts millions of curious tourists to the heaving district every year, captivated by its backstory and, of course, its spice and gold souks, as well as its inimitable creekside chaos.

Melinda HealyJournalist and travel writer
14 October 2022

As you walk through this often-chaotic neighborhood on the northern end of the emirate you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped back in time, and in a way, you have – after all, it’s known as Old Dubai for a reason. Deira grew up alongside the Dubai Creek, a machine-made canal that has been an international trading port since the 1800s. Today, it is home to 20% of Dubai’s population of around 3.3 million. When I spend time here, I never fail to lose myself in its charm, always reflecting on the past and acknowledging how far this city has come. The 8.7-mile-long creek is a continual hub of activity with small, motorized water taxis (known as Abras) and traditional wooden Dhows (similar to a sailing boat) making their way back and forth, up and down, not only transporting residents, workers and tourists, but hundreds of tons of goods, too. Seagulls squawk and circle overhead in search of a stray chip or fish and the puttering of engines fills the air - it truly is something to behold. As engaging as the creek activity is, it is within Deira’s laneways that the cultural immersion really begins. If you’re anything like me, travel is as much about immersion as self-discovery – and I’m telling you, this part of Dubai enlivens the senses at every turn.

Getting to Deira

When it comes to finding your way to Deira, The Dubai Metro is the easiest option.

The Green line is the one that takes you to this part of the emirate and you can purchase a one-time train ticket or Nol card (a rechargeable top-up card like the Transit Pass used in the US, or London’s Oyster card) at all Dubai Metro stations, bus stations, and at Carrefour, Spinneys and Waitrose supermarkets. Union station is best for the Dhow Wharfage area, Al Ras station for the Gold Souk, and Al Rigga for food.

Tickets are calculated based on the number of Metro zones you pass through. From DIFC to Deira, you’re looking at about AED 5 each way.

What to see and do in Deira

Visit the Gold Souk

This would have to be the most popular of Dubai’s markets, and it’s nothing short of a treasure trove. You’ll be in jewelry heaven and perhaps even a little overwhelmed as you meander in and out of the hundreds of gold, silver, diamond and other precious gem stores that extend as far as the eye can see.

Prepare to bargain

Always barter the price of any item you are considering purchasing. Sellers mark the prices high expecting to bargain. The weight element of the price is non-negotiable, but the workmanship is, so give it a go and be confident - if it doesn’t go your way there are plenty more to try.

I will never forget my first purchase here many years ago and what a whirlwind it was. I was on a city tour with limited time, and with my heart set on getting something special, I embarked on a purposeful dash between retailers. I am happy to say that, despite the overwhelming conditions and time limitations, I managed to bargain my way into a finely crafted gold bangle, one that to this day remains one of my most cherished travel mementos.

Open 9.30am to 9.30pm daily, except for Fridays when it doesn’t open until 4pm.

Enliven your senses at the Spice Souk

The scents permeating from this bazaar are just an indication of what you’ll find in the spice-filled passageways deep within the market.

Check before you buy

While most pre-packaged spices and seeds are usually OK, when it comes to taking them in your luggage to your home country, it is always best to check before you buy, just in case.

Mounds of colorful aromatic herbs and spices spill over the large baskets lining the streets, frankincense and rosewater linger in the air, and small bottles containing the freshest red strands of saffron adorn the shelves.

Aside from the display and pungent odors, you’ll always find the vendors who are very welcoming and keen to engage in conversation. Many of them are the continuation of family lineages that have been here for centuries, all of them keen to offer their insights into what the various spices should be mixed with and how best to use/keep them.

Visit Heritage House

You can’t visit the emirate’s most historic neighborhood without gaining some insight into the past. This courtyard house that was built in 1890 provides just that and was home to one of the city’s wealthiest pearl merchants.

Believe me, you won’t leave the same as you entered.

As you wander around, it’s hard not to appreciate the verandas surrounding this historic residence, and the elements of its structure that went a long way toward blocking the effects of the searing Dubai sun.

Audiovisual displays positioned alongside 3D dioramas assist in visualizing what life was like all those years ago without the modern luxuries we know today.

You are welcome to spend as much time as you like exploring these magnificent quarters, including the kitchen, the majlis (traditional family meeting room) and pantry.

On the second story, the part I found most interesting, you’ll notice a selection of children’s games – those versed in Middle Eastern culture will know that entire families spent much of their time enjoying these simple pleasures together.

Believe me, you won’t leave the same as you entered.

Journey across the creek in an Abra

For just AED 1 you can jump on an Abra (which means ‘to cross’ in Arabic) and alight across the creek at Bur Dubai. This journey is authentic in its delivery, offering you an alternate view of Old Dubai.

Experience the moment

As hard as it may be these days, try to avoid being so engrossed in taking photographs and shooting Instagram reels that you fail to acknowledge this moment in time - the sights, sounds and atmosphere are truly worth bottling.

I like doing this in the morning when the local merchants have dropped anchor in preparation for the day’s trade. The evening is atmospheric too, the city lights reflecting on the bustling canal, forming a soulful, compelling backdrop.

You’re invited to sit on a central wooden bench for the short trip, and I encourage you to focus in on the traditional houses – wind towers and minarets are notable from this vantage point; it’s these heritage features that provide that all-important sense of place that most of us search for when traveling.

Not only will the ‘old’ stand out to you, but you’ll also see it in contrast to the developing modern landscape that now boasts hotels and commercial buildings that brandish reflective glass facades and architecture more reminiscent of the time we live in.

Where to eat and drink in Deira

More about a melting-pot of cultural flavours than attracting the attention of the Michelin Guide, Old Dubai serves up the world on your plate, quite literally – we’re talking mouth-watering authentic fare from cultures including India, Syria, Ethiopia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

Try the small places

When choosing somewhere to eat, don’t discard the small hole-in-the-wall eateries - they’re often the best and at a fraction of the cost. Sweets stores are the best around here - check out the Iranian ones as they’re some of the best.

For fresh seafood, the Waterfront Market has you covered, allowing you to savor the quality and freshness immediately or opt for a meal at any one of the precinct’s cafes and restaurants.

For something a little different, yet in-keeping with the locale, a Dubai Creek Dinner Cruise is a nice way to end a day of discovery. If you’re up for a stroll, I suggest you make your way toward Al Seef where the options are endless. One of my favorites is Al Fanar Seafood Restaurant – it’ll take you back to 1960s Dubai and the food is as fabulous as the ambience.

Shopping guide to Deira

As the emirate’s oldest commercial district, Deira is a go-to for locals as much as it is a haven for tourists. Besides the spice, gold and fish markets, the Grand Souk (or Al Souk Al Kabeer as it’s known in Arabic) will see you welcomed into a warren of covered alleys brimming with traditional stores, Karak tea stalls, and cafes where locals spend as much time socializing as they do trading.

If you’re on the hunt for traditional clothing, like Jalibiyas, shaylas (headscarves) and abayas, Naif Souk on Deira Street is best – here you’ll also find mobile phone accessories, electronics, watches, leather and plenty more. Prices for traditional clothing are the cheapest around, costing between AED 40-100 per item. For wholesalers selling shoes and clothing, head to Old Baladiya Street.

The Middle East is renowned for its perfumes, and you’ll find a dedicated market on Sikkat Al Khail Street, not too far from the Gold Souk. Here you can buy original perfumes, and even make your own signature scent.

The oldest mall in Dubai is the Al Ghurair Centre, while in contrast, City Centre Deira is the more modern shopping mall. The former was built in 1981 and has served its community for the past 40 years, while the latter boasts more than 370 stores and even has a dedicated jewelry and textile court where you can buy Middle Eastern handicrafts.

Where to stay in Deira

Accommodation is vast and varied in these parts with many tourists preferring to stay nearby for at least part of their stay in Dubai so that they can soak up the atmosphere and stroll the streets 24/7.

Crowne, Avani, Aloft, Hyatt Regency, Hilton and Pullman all have Creekside properties here with rates varying depending on the time of year you’re planning to visit.

For the more budget-conscious traveler, there are smaller boutique-style hotels and hotel apartment buildings, like the Ibis Al Rigga and Signature Inn Deira that charge as little as AED 55 a night – if all you need is a bed to sleep in, these are worth considering.

Who should stay in Deira?

This charismatic neighbourhood is hectic, but it will make you feel alive.

Given its proximity to Dubai International Airport which is about 10 minutes away by taxi or six minutes via the Metro, Deira is ideal for those with little time to spare, those on a budget – singles, families, or couples – or business travelers who may be mixing some sightseeing with work duties.

Be prepared for the hustle and bustle and noise, this charismatic neighborhood is hectic, but it will make you feel alive. If you’re after a quiet, solemn experience, perhaps just visit for the day and opt to stay elsewhere in the city.

About the author

Melinda HealyAlthough born in PNG, Mel is an Aussie-made journo who's always been more interested in passport stamps than possessions. A whiz with words, Mel spent a number of years living and working in the United Arab Emirates, it was here that she shared insight into Dubai and Abu Dhabi with the world. Mel believes travel is a privilege and an educator.