How Dubai turned hipster

In a series of warehouses in an industrial area on the fringes of the city, a 159-seat independent performing arts space sits alongside galleries displaying local art; a café sells chia matcha smoothies, buckwheat granola and raw salad bowls; and an independent record store is proffering its own zine – the brainchild of a local DJ.

It’s not your typical Dubai scene. But new arts areas such as Alserkal Avenue are helping to overturn the stereotypes of this much maligned city, which has steadily been gaining respect in the design world – sparked by the annual Dubai Design Week, which started in 2016.

You’d be right to question whether a place that has a “hipster-themed” bar in an unmarked car park, and decidedly manufactured arts hubs, has anything original going for it. It’s true that the main new cultural areas were dreamed up by the UAE government and property developers with a view to fostering an arts and start-up scene in the city. As a result, hipster Dubai can at times seem like a contrived, economically driven bandwagon that’s been jumped on. That said, if you avoid the Cereal Killer Cafe and Hobo (said hipster-themed bar) and take what you find at face value, Dubai has some decent creative spots.

Curated design hubs

Dubai Design District – or D3, as it’s known – is a glassy development where expats, beards, suits and lunching ladies populate places such as Craft Café, brunch spot 1Life and The Espresso Lab. Travel and design boutique Montroi, and fashion and lifestyle store Corcel Collective, sit alongside exhibition spaces housing work by local photographers. They also host graffiti and zine-making workshops, plus yoga and DJ sets in the evenings. The brainchild of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the UAE’s Prime Minister and the Emir of Dubai, it may be a purpose-built “creative community” modelled on Shoreditch and New York’s Meatpacking District but it’s a well-designed set of good-looking buildings by architects Foster + Partners.

The newly built Alserkal Avenue, meanwhile, still has a shiny Dubai feel to it but houses indie initiatives: The Junction performing arts space, which hosts everything from stand-up to dance; an artisan chocolatier, Mirzam; sneaker store The Good Life Space; and independent Cinema Akil. 

Springing up from the Al Quoz industrial area, it’s also home to Flipside DXB – Dubai’s one and only independent vinyl store, which is run by local DJs and musicians, complete with a bedouin section and beanbag-filled listening area. It also hosts live music sessions in support of Syrian refugees. 

Nearby, A4 Space is a co-working area and café with a mezzanine library of classics, autobiographies, travel guides and design magazines. The galleries and design spaces open up for regular “Alserkal Lates” evening events, too.

Avo on toast

In the Trade Centre area, The Sum of Us is a Melbourne-inspired brunch spot with insanely delicious French-style cakes, eclairs and pastries baked on site. Everything is made from scratch and you can even hone your coffee skills at a tasting with expert Encounter Coffee Roastery baristas. Wild & the Moon, in Alserkal, serves cold-pressed juices and raw food with ethically sourced ingredients, while Make Art Café in Al Fahidi serves camel-milk ice cream and hearty salads surrounded by pop-art prints.

Head to Ripe Market at Zabeel Park on a Friday morning for Coco Yoco’s paleo, vegan ice cream; Japanese baked treats from Yamanote; second-hand bookstand Book Hero; and everything else from Polish street food to beard oil. If it all gets too much, try a free yoga class.

Local culture

The best way to eat local food in Dubai is with Frying Pan Adventures, a foodie walking tour. On the four-hour Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage you’ll visit restaurants around Deira (the older part of Dubai), working your way through dishes including Palestinian falafel, musakhan (sumac-roasted, olive oil-drizzled chicken served on a bread base) and kunafa, a syrupy-sweet cheese and pastry dessert – as well as Emirati food, including lentil soup and goat that’s been slow-cooked underground. 

Hipster digs

In the Al Fahidi historical district, XVA Gallery specialises in contemporary art and has a connected 14-room boutique hotel, XVA Art Hotel (doubles from £170, room only). The individually designed, art-filled rooms open onto peaceful shaded courtyards, and films are screened in the vegetarian restaurant. It’s also well positioned for exploring old Dubai. For something a little more “Dubai”, try the bold, brash W Dubai Al Habtoor City (doubles from £175, room only). 

Travel essentials

Emirates flies from London Gatwick from £329 return. Clare travelled as a guest of Dubai Tourism.

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