An A-Z of Dubai’s hidden gems

Can you keep a secret? FACT Editor Samia Qaiyum had one goal before bidding farewell to her birthplace of Dubai: share an A-Z of its hidden gems. How many have you frequented?

A: Archie’s Lending Library and Bookshop
Print may be a dying medium, but in the warren-like streets of Karama, the buying and borrowing of titles is alive and well at Archie’s. Opened in 1987, it was initially set up with the help of Yasmine Chinoy’s personal book collection and passion for reading, but hasn’t changed all that much since those days. Outside the store, heavily discounted books in a basket on the pavement await adoption. Inside, Archie’s is crammed with floor-to-ceiling shelves carrying an eclectic collection of over 80,000 literary gems ranging in condition from crisp and brand new to ready-to-fall-apart.

B: Brix
At this tiny, 10-seater spot in Jumeirah Fishing Harbour, desserts have been turned into a science experiment – and an art form. Even better: the open-plan kitchen allows diners to watch the talented young chefs slowly assemble the impeccably plated desserts, element by element. It’s the Brix Tasting Experience here that we can’t recommend enough. Available as three or five courses, it’s sensory overload, but in a good way. On the menu are simple names for incredibly complex desserts. The ‘Mango’, for example, pairs fresh mango pudding with mango compote, Greek yoghurt ice cream, and fried tapioca for an unexpected crunch. The ingenious ‘Texture of Chocolate’, meanwhile, accents carob ice cream with chili-flake meringue and a rich yuzu koshu chocolate sauce, making all other chocolate-based desserts in the city obsolete.

C: Courtyard Playhouse
For those who think Dubai lacks culture, listen up. Independent theatre Courtyard Playhouse, located in Al Quoz, is where it all happens – acting classes, improv workshops, theatrical productions of all types, storytelling sessions for kids, and even musical theatre for pre-teens. Our favourite offering here, however, has to be National Theatre Live, an initiative by National Theatre to broadcast the best of British theatre live from the London stage to cinemas around the world. And as Courtyard Playhouse is a partner venue, annual membership will give you access to all NT Live screenings – a guaranteed minimum of 10 per year – alongside other perks. Past screenings have included the likes of Fleabag, Hamlet, and Hedda Gabler.

D: Dukan Namlet
Dukan Namlet is the definitive stop at Al Seef, a leisure destination located on the bustling south bank of Dubai Creek. For one, it’s one of the few places in the country where you can give Namlet – the UAE’s first ever soda – a try. Still unknown to most residents, the drink dates back to the 1920s, when trade between India and UAE flourished. It had just about disappeared by the 1980s, and has only recently returned. Not only are some of the flavours downright creative – pomegranate and kiwi-lemon included – but the quirky codd-neck bottle also makes Namlet a culinary experience on its own.

E: EKart Zabeel
Adulting is hard – and 2020 is harder – so take the weekend to indulge your inner child already. The recently opened Ekart Zabeel is reason enough to (finally) explore the nine-floor extension of The Dubai Mall. You’ll don a jumpsuit, put on a helmet, and race through a track on the latest generation of electric go-karts. Lap times will be recorded and shared at the end of your session. Bonus: amateur drivers are very much welcome.

F: The Flip Side
Calling all melophiles! This list would not be complete without Dubai’s first – and only – independent record shop: The Flip Side. Located in Alserkal Avenue and owned by Egyptian DJ Shadi Megallaa, it is a veritable haven for vinyl collectors who, prior to 2017, knew the hurdles of getting their fix online. Not only does the store stock everything from coveted LPs and obscure records from all corners of the globe, but it also boasts four listening stations, screens music documentaries, holds talks on topics surrounding music in the region, and hosts intimate in-store sessions that celebrate the likes of reggae and dub. 

G: Gulf Photo Plus
Be it Bombay, Bangkok, or Cairo, life happens on the streets. That’s why we think the skill of street photography is one that anyone with a passport ought to hone. Enter: the photo walks hosted by Gulf Photo Plus. Taking place across areas such as Deira and Karama, these three-hour treks take participants through the colourful and chaotic streets of Old Dubai, guiding them on capturing candid moments, techniques for difficult lighting conditions, and tips on how to compose an image alongside plenty of time for critique and Q&A. Even better? You’ll be taken through routes laced with history and street food. Win-win.

H: History of Cinema Museum
To walk into the History of Cinema Museum is to step into a world of mechanical wonders. A cultural gem in Barsha Heights, it charts the progression of visual entertainment from its inception to the advent of early cinema. The engaging collection – over 300 antiques collected by businessman Akram Miknas over the course of 25 years – centres on the ways in which movement was added to the two-dimensional image. The magic of the moving image comes to life through interactive exhibits that take visitors on a journey through time and technology – they can peep into an 18th century peepbox viewer or turn the reel of an early 20th century mutoscope to see the flicker effect. As for the rarest piece? A toy magic lantern with a 1001 Arabian Nights theme from Germany circa 1860. A guided tour, for obvious reasons, comes highly recommended.

I: Inked
Another hidden gem in Alserkal Avenue, Inked hosts themed dining pop-ups that utilise “mad methods” to transport guests to fascinating faraway places – think: Germany’s majestic Black Forest, Salvador Dalí’s legendary dinner parties, Frida Kahlo’s storied Casa Azul, and Andy Warhol’s iconic 47th Street Factory. Time and time again, the conceptual dining space is guided by “the 7th sense” to create experiences like no other in the city – and no two experiences here are ever the same. Worthy of the splurge? Absolutely.

J: Jameel Arts Centre
There’s more to Dubai’s arts scene than Alserkal Avenue – promise. Few cultural spaces are as versatile as Jameel Arts Centre – the independent institution in the up-and-coming Jaddaf Waterfront area houses contemporary art from the Gulf and beyond alongside the region’s first open-access arts library, project and commissions spaces, seven gardens, a writer’s studio, a restaurant, and an onsite shop rife with unique trinkets. But that’s not all. It’s worth a visit for the adjacent open-air sculpture park alone. Bonus: entry is free.

K: Kaffe Bloom
Set your daily need for a tall-double-shot-skim-milk-no-foam-no-whip mocha from Starbucks aside, and head to Kaffe Bloom instead. Tucked inside lofty Asian supermarket 1004 Gourmet, this specialty café earns bragging rights for its coffee beans alone – it serves coffee roasted by The Barn in Berlin and Fritz Coffee in South Korea. But there’s plenty more to look forward to as it also serves Asian favourites like boba, several flavours of bingsoo (shaved ice dessert), and Korean rice dish bibimbap. For something a little more interactive, we love the Japanese and Korean cooking classes led by Chef Tatsu. Just be sure to book well in advance.

L: Lucky Voice
In a city associated with glitz and glamour lies a nightlife spot that promises kitsch, no-frills fun night after night after night. Housed inside Grand Millennium Dubai in Barsha Heights, this karaoke bar not only offers a socially sanctioned excuse to flaunt your singing skills, but also serves comfort grub like sliders and tacos. An outpost of the original in London’s Soho, Lucky Voice Dubai feels a little more lively and energetic because of its stage, but private booths are also on offer – 11 private and fully soundproof karaoke pods, to be exact. But regardless of where you end up, you’ll love the neon colours, dancing light fixtures, and laidback vibe on a night out with friends. 

M: Mazmi Casa
Yes, you’ll almost certainly have to ask someone for directions after walking around in what feels like a maze, but that’s what makes Mazmi Casa the definitive hidden gem on this list. Located in Bur Dubai, this intimate (read: three rooms) B&B serves up a truly honest snapshot of the city, what with Textile Souk, Shiva Temple, and Grand Mosque in the vicinity. Mazmi is owned by an Italian woman and her Emirati husband, so adding further diversity to the property is their collective backgrounds. The pièce de résistance is the eponymous restaurant that sits at the edge of Dubai Creek, translating to endless photography opportunities and the city’s ultimate sunset spot. Side note: skipping the homemade saffron ice cream would be sacrilege.

N: Noire
They say you eat with your eyes first, so what happens when you’re deprived of your sight? Well, a unique culinary adventure, for starters. As a concept, dining in the dark is popular around the world, but few realise it’s offered by Noire at Fairmont Dubai. Here, your other senses – particularly smell and taste – are heightened as you dine on gourmet food in a pitch-black setting while servers wearing night-vision goggles tend to you. Scared of the dark? Maybe skip this one.

O: O’de Rose
We’re spoilt for choice when it comes to concept stores, but there’s just something about O’de Rose. Rife with statement pieces, both for yourself and your home, this eclectic boutique in a converted villa on Al Wasl Road has mastered the art of showcasing creative talent from the realms of clothing, accessories, art, furniture, and home décor. The items are handmade and hand-picked from around the world, each reflecting Arabic heritage with a contemporary twist, so expect to see designs by the likes of Nada Debs, Bokja, Silsal, and Rana Salam. We’re long-term patrons of this bohemian hotspot for its continued support of local and disadvantaged artisans.

P: Point Zero Floatation Center
You may not necessarily equate aqua with relaxation, making the flotation sessions at this wellness centre in DIFC one of the most unique ways to de-stress in Dubai. While floatation therapy is one of those things that’s best experienced firsthand, here’s a little teaser of what to expect: you’ll float in a highly concentrated solution of epsom salt (magnesium sulphate) in a private cabin or pod. The temperature of the water will be set somewhere between 35.5 and 35.8°C to match the temperature of your skin, and it’s essentially the closest you’ll ever get to being back in the womb again. Bliss.

Q: Q’s Bar and Lounge
The name Quincy Jones needs no introduction, but in case you have yet to discover Q’s Bar and Lounge, here goes. The award-winning jazz bar is tucked away inside Palazzo Versace Dubai, showcasing world-class performances from emerging artists handpicked by the music legend himself. Versace-designed furniture and unmatched acoustics aside, the stage at Q’s has already been graced by talents such as Nalaya Brown, Shameka Dwight, and Rogelio Douglas Jr. – with plenty more to come in a post-coronavirus world. Our point? If you crave the intimate jazz sessions you’ve caught in cities like New Orleans, Montreal, and Amsterdam, this one’s for you.

R: Retold

As a society, we can sometimes be a little consumerist – okay, very. Luckily, vintage stores like Retold continue to advocate for sustainable fashion. Because it’s not located in one of the major malls, many have yet to discover it, but a trip to this 3,000-square-feet boutique on Umm Suqeim Road is a must. For starters, there’s over 6,000 items ranging from high-street brands to designer labels (Stella McCartney and Jimmy Choo included) to choose from, all of which are in mint condition. A big part of the store’s DNA is giving back, recently partnering up with Gulf for Good. Simply donate the clutter in your closet to Retold, where the team will sort and showcase the pieces. Customers can then shop from the collection, the profits of which will go towards renovating classrooms and school facilities at Enjoro Primary School in Tanzania.

S: Sonara Camp
Eco-friendly, a zero-waste policy, hundreds of oryxes and gazelles, and divine fusion cuisine enjoyed under the stars in the midst of the beautiful Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve – just about everything at the luxurious Sonara Camp feels like the antidote to the frenzy of the city. The entertainment here ranges from live music and fire shows to quad biking, sandboarding, stargazing with an astronomer, and overnight glamping. You can even take a 30-minute camel ride to the camp if you’re up for a little bumpy fun. We say you’re in their territory, so embrace it!

T: Tribe
India, Indonesia, Kenya, Cameroon, Morocco, and more – decorative treasures from over 25 countries come together at Tribe, an independent home décor studio hidden away at The Collective, Al Quoz. Rooted in social responsibility, Tribe is all about ethically sourced products, empowering artisans, and the use of sustainable materials. And because the selection of handmade, fair-trade products is curated by Australian designer Jo England, everything within its walls is impossibly rustic-chic. We spotted bamboo mirrors, rattan baskets, hanging macramé chairs, and ladder shelves made with salvaged wood – easy, breezy furniture and accessories in natural tones and textures that scream tropical holiday.

U: Underdog Boxn
Sure, there’s no shortage of great yoga studios in the city, but here in Dubai Media City awaits yoga with a twist. The rather aptly named BOXNFLOW class at beloved boxing studio Underdog Boxn offers a mash-up of boxing, yoga, and meditation within a 50-minute session. You’ll start by warming up, then release your aggression during a couple of rounds of boxing, before going into a dynamic yoga flow that incorporates poses challenging strength, balance, and coordination. Next up is a series of poses and stretches that focus on lengthening key areas of the body using the principles of yin yoga and, finally, a bout of guided meditation in order to create awareness where you need it most. Because yin and yang, right?

V: Villa 515
Fragrance aficionados already flock to Villa 515, a one-of-a-kind boutique in the heart of Jumeirah – and now it’s your turn. A haven for niche perfumes, it features a salon for perfume consultations and presentations, but is especially popular for the olfactory workshops held at the laboratory, with two levels ensuring there’s something for everyone. Level 1 caters to those who have an interest in learning the basics of perfumery, touching on things like fragrance classification, raw materials, and fragrance mixing using ready bases and accords. Level 2, meanwhile, delves deeper. Instead of using ready bases, participants are allowed to explore fragrance creation using raw materials, and therefore guided on the differences between natural and synthetic raw materials. The common denominator? Everyone walks away with a bespoke fragrance of their own.

W: The Workshop
Is it a café, co-working space, concept store, art gallery, antique store, design studio, or events hub? Well, believe it or not, it’s actually all of the above. The definitive space if you’re feeling crafty and creative, this (very) versatile spot in Jumeirah 2 has hosted workshops on everything from calligraphy and creative writing to custom-blending your own lipstick and creating DIY detox face masks – hence the name. Come cooler weather, you’ll love spending an afternoon in its shaded garden, practicing the art of dolce far niente.

X: XVA Hotel
Putting art hotels worldwide to shame is XVA Art Hotel, which hosts XVA Gallery and regular talks led by a leading art historian alongside 15 unique rooms themed around cultural motifs. One is inspired by the ancient Hand of Fatima talisman, another boasts an original wind tower, yet another is inspired by the traditional attire worn by local men. The riad-like property is situated deep in the Al Fahidi neighbourhood, so even if you get lost, you’ll encounter public art, authentic souvenir shops, and scenic alleys along the way. Inside are tree-shaded courtyards that exude tranquillity, one of which houses XVA Café, where the dishes are primarily vegetarian and the mint lemonade has achieved cult status. 

Y: Yui
Tricky to find and worth the trouble is Yui, a tiny must-try ramen spot located in d3. Its claim to fame? It happens to be the first handmade ramen house in the Middle East. Here, you’ll slurp and bite your way through the hearty likes of ‘Tantanmen’, ‘Shio Paitan’, and ‘Shoyu’. As for the source of all that flavour? Yui’s signature broth is simmered for a whopping 10 hours every day. But back to what makes Yui hard to find: it’s actually housed within Frame, the region’s first “Japanese lifestyle culture shop”, which is brimming with records, collectibles, trainers, skateboards, and all manner of urban knick-knacks.

Z:  Zaaz
It’s refreshing – rare even – to discover a wonderful spa that happens to be standalone, saving us the hassle of traipsing through a hotel. Zaaz is nestled in Jumeirah, but a visit here feels more like a jaunt to Morocco. You’ll be greeted by plants, lanterns aplenty, the soft trickling sound of a fountain, and plenty of natural light – all elements reflecting the fact that Zaaz is inspired by a traditional riad. Here, it’s the ‘Zaaz Hammam Malaki’ you want to start with. Naturally, organic argan oil is the star of this show and features in every step of the hammam, complemented by products from Moroccan beauty brand Izil. Between the cleansing beldi soap, nourishing hair oil, a softening body scrub, a purifying ghassoul body wrap, and even a face mask loaded with green tea and rosewater, this is quite literally top-to-toe pampering.