Built on the shores of the Arabian Sea, the shiny city of Abu Dhabi started out as a modest aquaculture village inhabited by the nomadic Bani Yas tribe. Then oil was discovered and Abu Dhabi rose from the sand as an elegant, modern city that’s both beautiful and ordered. And it has plenty of unique attractions – from wildlife encounters to fast cars, along with cultural experiences, decadent cuisine and world-class shopping … it’s a real playground for everybody.
The most popular tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi is the Grand Mosque, which is also the largest mosque in the UAE. It’s exquisitely beautiful and detailed with intricate mosaic work, vast handwoven carpets and massive kaleidoscopic chandeliers. The mosque, which took 11 years to build,is made from pure white marble and can accommodate 41 000 worshippers – non-Muslims are very welcome, too. If you only do one thing in Abu Dhabi, visit the Grand Mosque. It’s an exquisite architectural feat and tribute to the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
While the Grand Mosque is 21st century opulence, Qasr Al-Hosn, the city’s oldest building dating back to 1793, hints at a long history. Also known as the old fort, or the white fort, though the entrance is encrusted with green mosaic, Qasr Al-Hosn was both the residence of the ruling family and the seat of government. Today it showcases Abu Dhabi’s rich culture and history.
For a literal overview of the city, the Observation Deck at 300 offers bird’s-eye views over Abu Dhabi. It’s on the 74th floor of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers on Corniche road, and is, of course, also open to non-guests. Enjoy high tea at altitude as you gaze over the twinkling glass city.
Walking along the Corniche gives a sense of the city at ground level, its road following the coast of the Arabian Sea. The buildings that line it allude to Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth without succumbing to garishness of any kind.
Museums, theme parks and more…
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is housed under a magnificent dome on Saadiyat Island. It’s one of the most spectacular museums in the UAE and has 12 permanent galleries and at least four changing annual exhibits – diverse artworks from Egyptian art to pieces by the famed cubist Picasso call the Louvre their home. There is even an interactive children’s art museum on the grounds. As if that weren’t enough, the vibrant Louvre is the first of three impressive museums of Manarat Al Saadiyat, which is the planned cultural heartbeat of Abu Dhabi. The Zayed National Museum will be opening in 2021 and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi the following year.
On Yas Island, Ferrari World is an iconic pit stop for all thrill seekers. The theme park makes Formula 1 racing accessible through activities, rides and exhibitions. There is a junior track for kids, and the Flying Aces roller coaster gives adults the chance to blow their hair back at 120 km/h. The chance to experience training as a Ferrari driver is also on offer. There is a factory tour and an historic Ferrari car collection to enjoy too.
For kids of all ages, Warner Bros World is a theme park dedicated to cartoon-, movie- and comic-book characters. It’s the ideal place for family fun, all indoors and air-conditioned.
You can expect rides, roller coasters and interactive 4D experiences. Then there is Yas Waterworld, with extreme rides, a huge sheet wave for surfing, a free-fall water slide and more raft-, tube- and slide rides than you can count.
While on the Island, have a different Formula 1 experience at Yas Marina Circuit, kick back on Yas Beach, or shop in the city’s top shops in Yas Mall. If you still need to work off some energy, visit CLYMB – an extreme adventure hub that houses the world’s highest climbing wall at 43 metres, and the world’s biggest indoor skydiving flight chamber at 10 m wide and 32 m high.
For a taste of tradition and life before the oil boom, the Heritage Village is a replica of an archaic Bedouin village. There are also pearl-diving displays, exhibits and active workshops by craftsmen.
On the wild side
Sheikh Zayed loved nature and created a reserve on Sir Bani Yas Island to conserve indigenous Arabian wildlife. It is a great place to see endangered white Arabian oryx and the many other exotic animals that have been introduced to the terrain here. You may even see a giraffe on your 4×4- or horseback safari.
The Emirati are also particularly passionate about falcons, so there is a dedicated Falcon Hospital in Abu Dhabi. Tours of its facilities are available and visitors can see falcons up close while they are treated. There is also a museum detailing the history of falconry.
Seeing Abu Dhabi’s cityscape from the ocean is spectacular. Take a boat trip from the marina and go island hopping and snorkelling for the day, or do a sunset cruise and watch the city lights come on at dusk. Another way to experience natural Abu Dhabi is on a kayaking trip through the eastern mangrove lagoon. All levels of experience and fitness are welcome for a one- to three-hour trip, and night visits to the mangroves are also on the bill.
For a desert experience, visit Liwa Oasis among the Empty Quarter’s giant red sand dunes. It’s an exhilarating 4×4 day trip to ride dune buggies or camels, try sandboarding or soak up the desert silence. There’s also an evening option of dinner in the desert, with traditional belly dancing as entertainment.
If you prefer a low-key day in the city, buy a day pass for a hop on, hop off Big Bus Tour. It takes in top sites and leaves you free to stay at attractions as long as you please. The Abu Dhabi Morning Tour is just four hours long with a guide and includes the Grand Mosque, markets, fishing harbour and Heritage Village – with hotel pick-up and drop-off.
Diners are spoilt for choice as Abu Dhabi showcases the very best of world cuisine.
Li Beirut, in the famous Etihad Towers, is one of the city’s finest restaurants and serves traditional and contemporary Lebanese food with sea views, while Tamba, in The Hub At The Mall at the World Trade Center, serves bold Indian eats.
If it’s seafood you’re after, Bu Tafish Seafood Restaurant on Hamdan Street is one of the oldest restaurants in the city, open since 1968 and a favourite of Sheikh Zayed. It serves fresh, local fish and seafood, simply prepared and delicious. Another tasty option of that ilk is Catch on Corniche Street – a local favourite serving up fresh and tasty seafood.
For on-the-go dining, Salt in Mushrif Central Park serves international fast food and is open until 3 am, while Bonna Annee on Al Salaam Street is where you’ll find delectable Ethiopian curries, as well as vegetarian and vegan dishes.
For local-style crafts, carpets, textiles and spices, head to the World Trade Center’s Souk. Arab-style gold jewellery can be found at Gold Souk in Madinat Zayed shopping centre. Yas Mall has international retailers, multiple eateries and plenty of entertainment on offer. The Women’s Handicraft Centre on Karama Street supports the woman artisans keeping the skills of weaving, embroidery and basket weaving alive.
Where to stay
Southern Sun Abu Dhabi
Contemporary Arabic architecture and design are status quo when you take your place in one of the 353 rooms available at this spacious, modern hotel – each equipped with a queen- or king-sized bed, unlimited WiFi, air conditioning and stunning city views. Luxurious long-stay suites are also available, and come furnished with a kitchenette for your convenience. As for dining, indulge in the legendary steaks served at The Foundry or eats from one of five other spots on the grounds. Serving as a true hearth to call home during your stay, leave your rental car with the complimentary valet service and enjoy the 27th-floor rooftop pool. Facilities for the health-conscious also abound, with a gym, sauna and steam room at the ready, as well as a concierge service on hand to book tours, taxis and any other transport you may need.