In a country where locals are a small minority of the population (in 2015, expats outnumbered Emiratis nine to one), Dubai isn’t necessarily the first place you’d expect to find a thriving local scene. But even in a city full of foreign businesses and manufactured landscapes, locals still know best. From eating like a Bedouin on the beach to navigating the Emirati design district, use these local tips to get a true taste of Dubai.
Pay with Your Nol Card
Dubai may be many things, but it is far from being a walkable city. Even if temperatures didn’t remain in the triple digits for most of the year, a lack of pedestrian walkways and a surplus of (air-conditioned) metro stations make it a no-brainer when choosing how to get around without wheels. More than 29 metro stations, 11 tram stations, and numerous bus stations (both land and water buses) make up the public transportation system, and all are included in the city’s Nol card program (nol translates to “fare” in Arabic). Similar to a New York MetroCard, this prepaid smart card comes with a variety of pass options (1 day, 1 week, 1 year, etc.), and can be purchased online or in any of the transportation ticket offices in Dubai.
Take a Taxi
Unlike most countries, cab booking services like Uber and its local competitor Careem are actually more expensive than typical cab fare, so most locals keep some dirhams on hand for taxi transportation (note: many Dubai taxis are cash only). Look for official Dubai Taxi Corporation (DTC) cabs by spotting their signature red roofs, or call 04 2080808 to reserve a pink-roofed Ladies and Families Taxi, exclusively available for women and families traveling with children.
Why drive when you can take an abra? Abras are traditional wooden boats that line the banks of Dubai Creek. The boats were the traditional way locals traveled between the two sides of the creek until bridges were constructed in recent years. The heritage boats are still in use and cost less than a dollar (1 dirham per ride, no ticket needed) for a historic trip from Diera to Bur Dubai. The city modernized a few of its fleet, and along with traditional options, there are now electric and air-conditioned abras as well. While you’ll rarely see locals renting them out for city tours, they are available for rent at just 120 dirham per hour.
FOOD AND DRINK
Have a Coffee Date
Coffee dates in Dubai don’t involve meeting up at Starbucks but rather eating an actual date with your coffee. Arabic coffee (or gahwa) is only served in a handful of places (try it at Café Bateel), and is prepared by grinding a mixture of cardamom and saffron in with the beans before brewing. Locals take their coffee black and sip it from small cups while snacking on platters full of dates.
Get a Taste for Emirati Cuisine
With more than 9,189 options for international restaurants according to local food blogger Food Sheikh, eating out in Dubai can be overwhelming. Going out for Indian food alone would mean selecting from more than 2,000 options. It’s a little easier with Emirati cuisine, as there are only 60 restaurants serving local plates of al harees, kibbeh al bezar, or lamb thereed. The demand for Emirati food is rising, offering modern spins on traditional dishes, like the gourmet camel burger at Al Barza, the fusion-style Khaleeji spiced fries at Logma, and the Arabic tapas and shisha served at Ambar atop the rooftop of the new Jumeirah Al Naseem hotel. For authentic recipes, check out the new Seven Sands restaurant.
Brunch on Friday
Brunch in Dubai is no ordinary Sunday affair, and it’s not just because it’s held on Fridays. Since the workweek in Dubai runs from Sunday to Thursday, locals can hit the all-inclusive drink and food buffets with little concern for next-day “performance.” A typical Friday brunch in Dubai starts around 12:30 pm and lasts until 4 or 5 in the afternoon, with many parties lasting late into the night. Brunch reservations book up quickly at local favorites like Saffron and Toro Toro, and it’s always a see-and-be-seen scene at the super trendy (and most expensive with its Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle Brunch package starting at AED 2900 per person) restaurant Pierchic.
Although the main product that comes from the ground in Dubai is still oil, a handful of local farmers and producers have begun challenging Dubai’s horticultural history. Farmers markets have become trendy for locals excited to eat the first fruits of Dubai’s new organic farming movement, where regular vendors sell everything from fresh flowers and organic spinach to seasonal strawberries and cage-free eggs. Spend the day doing yoga at the Farmers’ Market on the Terrace or hang out listening to local bands at the Ripe Night Market.
Shopping is as much a part of the culture in Dubai as gambling is in Las Vegas, and although you won’t find locals hanging out at the mammoth malls of Dubai, you will find them spending their hard-earned dirham with the same fervor as any tourist. Locals tend to shop at places like The Courtyard or the new D3 Design District, where Emirati artists have set up shop, like designer Maryam AL Selaich’s chic fashion studio, Slouchy’z. With such a huge turnover rate from expats coming and going through Dubai, the vintage and secondhand stores are out of this world. Check out Bambah for a mix of vintage goods and a few of the founder’s own designs, or head to Garderobe for amazing designer finds including gently worn Chanel jackets, DVF dresses, and Bottega Veneta bags at fractions of their retail prices.
Support the Expats
The city has been burned in the past by foreigners coming in for short-term work visas and heading home before so much as changing their mailing addresses. But in recent years, many expats have begun to call Dubai home and have invested in the local culture and art scene. The Courtyard Playhouse is full of funny foreigners performing stand-up and improv nights weekly, while AlSerkal Avenue has become a hub for artists and craftspeople looking to display their original art in this renovated warehouse space in Al Quoz.
Emiratis and expats alike are beginning to take more pride in Dubai’s idiosyncrasies and eccentric offerings and they’re trying to get the message out to the rest of the world through social media. Follow @MyDubai on Instagram to see shots from locals on some unique things to do, see, and eat around Dubai, like the weekly outdoor cinema projected for free outside Wafi Mall, or the new BBQ, Donuts, outside the Dubai Creek Yacht & Golf Club that lets groups grill while floating down the creek on a giant inflatable donut.