Abra-Cadabra: The Magic of Old Dubai

Enough of the glitz and glam! Some of Dubai’s most magical parts are located around the famous Dubai Creek and adjacent Bastakia Quarter. It’s old, yes, but it’s good to see what Dubai life was like for the residents before the glass skyscrapers were erected.


Wherever you go in Dubai you cannot escape the glass skyscrapers that have popped over all over the emirate since the discovery of oil. Yet when in the Old Quarter, standing beside the characteristic Dubai Creek, all of the sudden you realise the millionaires and big businesses should come second to experiencing a bit of ‘normal’ life here. In fact, I recently included the Dubai Creek at #7 on my list of the Top 10 Attractions in Dubai.





The Dubai Creek is actually a saltwater river, that stretches from the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary right into the Arabian Gulf. The Creek splits the city into two, with historic Deira on one side, and a more modern enclave known as ‘Bur Dubai’ on the other side, which in turn leads to more affluent areas such as Jumeirah and eventually the Dubai Marina with all its glitzy yachts and hotels – which makes backpackers like me feel a little upset. Although the Creek can be navigated from both sides, most people come to the Old Quarter in Deira for a true cultural experience, and to hop onboard one of the small vessels here known as abras. It will set you back just AED1 for a magical 10 minute ride on the abra, and my fare was collected during the journey – although at one stage I thought the guy had forgotten to take my money. No such luck, I’m afraid!

I have been fortunate enough to have taken a short cruise on a dhow in Doha, and those are much larger vessels than the abras found here on the Dubai Creek – and the smaller the vessel, the less safe I feel! It was a fantastic experience to travel down the Dubai Creek in the afternoon and check out the sights on both sides of the water, but if I am being honest, I was kind of glad it was over, for I had a camera, an iPhone, and a wallet in my shorts, and if I had fallen in, well, you get the picture…



I believe the original purpose of an abra (and dhow-sized veseels, as pictured above) was to transport goods like gold and porcelain down the Creek to markets. The Bani Yas Tribe arrived in Dubai in this area, which led to the establishment of the Al Maktoum Dynasty which is still in force today, and they ensured the Creek’s importance and purpose as a major trade waterway – especially for the emirate’s precious pearling industry. You can still see much evidence of this along the Creek, although clearly times have changed fast in Dubai and valuable goods are now flown into the city rather transported by water.

The Bastakia Quarter
The Bastakia Quarter




Al Bastakia is an historic district of Dubai, right beside the Creek itself. Upon completing my little journey on the abra, it was time to do a little bit of exploring in this intriguing quarter. Luckily, I seemed to have left the other tourists at home this afternoon, so it was as if I had a lot of the place to myself. Al Bastakia dates back to around 1890 and many Iranian immigrants flocked here to make it their home. It is so-called due to ‘Bastak’ being a region of Iran. Nowadays, Bastakia is designed with narrow and winding lanes, with sand-coloured buildings adding to the distinctive desert vibe. It is a true taste of Arabia here, and though for the average backpacker there may not be much to look at apart from its exterior architecture, upon closer inspection you will find a mosque, parts of the old City Wall (it’s no Badaling, though!), and numerous Arabic tea houses. Personally, I have always been interested in the communal parts of foreign lands, regardless of whether they are ancient or contemporary, and in fact my favourite part of the Bastakia Quarter was the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, which offers everybody a fascinating insight to the magic of Old Dubai. I often paused for thought as to what it must have been like to live here for those original Iranians in days when there were no luxury yachts sailing past, or the world’s largest skyscraper on the horizon.


When all was said and done, it was time for me to return to my hotel. But with this being Dubai, and with me being a mere backpacker, it wasn’t back to a fancy hotel on the Marina. My hotel was just a few blocks away from the abra station on Al Rigga Road. Still, it was a magical experience to see some of the areas of Dubai that some tourists never think of seeing!


7 thoughts on “Abra-Cadabra: The Magic of Old Dubai

  1. Very interesting. I know people who have been on package holidays to Dubai and seemed never to have left the hotel or resort they were staying in. I’ve never fancied going for that reason. Your post has made me think again!


    1. If I stayed in a huge resort in Dubai like Madinat Jumeirah, then maybe I wouldn’t leave the hotel either. But for most people, travelling is just as much (if not more so) about seeing the sights than laying around a fancy pool! I hope you can get to Dubai eventually! 🙂


  2. A vey interesting blog about old Dubai. We welcome you at Dubai social networking and feature your blogs about
    Dubai to all our social networks. Trip ila Dubai.


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