Follow the cultural trail through Abu Dhabi’s past, present and future for a tale of two cities
Named in Time magazine’s list of the greatest places of 2018, Louvre Abu Dhabi has emerged as a cultural showstopper. It’s just one example of the emirate’s magnetic appeal, luring those keen to explore its heritage and artistic heart, while getting a coveted glimpse of the vision for the future. Art looms large on the visitor agenda and, on the Saadiyat Island Cultural District, the exceptional collection of artworks, artefacts and on-loan pieces at Louvre Abu Dhabi (main image) is all wrapped up inside an architectural work of art – Jean Nouvel’s futuristic floating silver dome. The island location is also home to Manarat Al Saadiyat, a multi-gallery and performance space that hosts the annual Abu Dhabi Art show. Hold fire for a few more years and the arts playbook will add a new chapter with the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum adding to their cultural voice.
A growing cadre of independent galleries are also expanding the scene, from new kid on the block Warehouse 421, tucked away in the port area, which is an advocate for emerging talent within the local creative community, and Etihad Modern Art Gallery in
Al Bateen, where you can pick up an arty souvenir and grab a coffee in the cool café.
If a whistle-stop visit is the reality, another must-see and global landmark is Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. A place of worship for up to 40,000, the exquisite structure features 82 domes and 1,000 pure white columns adorned with floral designs inlaid with semi-precious stones. Named after the founding father of the UAE, a guided tour is an imperative, not only to gawp at the world’s largest handmade carpet, but for behind-the-scenes insight into the Islamic faith and customs.
Swap large-scale sights for an altogether quainter experience at the open-air Abu Dhabi Heritage Village. Built to resemble a desert oasis community, take a gentle wander around the traditional barasti (dried palm frond) huts housing various exhibits, see local artisans in action and get a potted history of the emirate. The village has great views of the skyline.
Culture, in musical form, is the modus operandi of the hugely popular annual Abu Dhabi Classics
The former home of the emirate’s ruling Al Nahyan family, and originally a coral stone watchtower marking the city’s first settlement, the Qasr Al Hosn cultural foundation recently underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation, priming it for visitors.
Also paying homage to the ‘father of the nation’, albeit with a decidedly quirky flavour, is the Zayed Centre in Abu Dhabi city. Part of another heritage village site, the small but fascinating museum features a photo gallery and collection of intriguing memorabilia, including the late ruler’s face recreated in the world’s largest stamp mosaic.
Culture, in musical form, is the modus operandi of the hugely popular annual Abu Dhabi Classics concert series. Featuring world-class artists and orchestras, and running from September to April, concerts take place in the opulent setting of the Emirates Palace auditorium, over on Saadiyat Island and at Bin Hamoodah Fort in Al Ain.
An historic coastal community, Abu Dhabi’s early wealth was fuelled not by oil, but by the pearl diving industry. Those days are long gone but visitors can learn about this incredibly challenging profession on the Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey – a 90-minute dhow cruise through the city’s eastern mangroves. Part history lesson, part nature trip, you even get to shuck your own oyster in search of a pearlescent prize.
Abu Dhabi’s early wealth was fuelled not by oil, but by the pearl diving industry
Back on dry land amid the shifting sands of the surrounding desert, a trip to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to get a closer look at these fearsome and majestic hunting birds that have a long acquaintance with the region and its Bedouin people.
For those unfamiliar with Abu Dhabi’s geography, a road trip to its second city of Al Ain is a must-do. Home to not one but five UNESCO-listed cultural sites, the ‘garden city’ is an oasis-rich gem set amid the rocky backdrop of Jebel Hafeet, and can date human civilisation as far back as 2500BCE. Make time to visit the Al Ain Palace Museum, former home of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Built in 1937, it is typical of historical buildings of the UAE and presents a rare opportunity to tour once private rooms.
An hour’s’ drive out of Abu Dhabi in the other direction to Al Ain, the Emirates National Auto Museum is a real ‘as seen on TV’ (Top Gear, to be precise) hoot. Here, the world’s largest truck rubs bumpers with a gamut of American classics, customised Rolls-Royce saloons and much more.
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