As the UAE celebrates its 47th National Day, we shine a light on the capital’s enduring appeal
Anchored by its island city, Abu Dhabi is a curious blend of contrasts that draws visitors from around the globe. From its historic heartland out to the golden dunes of the Empty Quarter, culture and heritage reign supreme, with iconic landmarks such as Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Louvre Abu Dhabi on the must-see list for many. However, it’s also a place for adventure seekers to get their thrills and spills, with exciting theme parks and plenty of outdoor adventures to enjoy. Even if you’ve visited many times before, there’s a wave of newness to entice you back, from the newly-renovated Qasr Al Hosn to the billion dollar Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. Let our top picks inspire you to rediscover all the best bits…
The emirate is home to some great greens (and browns). For some of the best scenery, however, we suggest you play a round at Yas Links, the city’s only links course that benefits from a stunning coastal setting. Just don’t let the gorgeous views distract you from your game.
A desert safari is a must, and Arabian Adventures is the pick of a number of locally-based companies to offer this and other fun desert experiences. It’s the rare visitor who turns down an opportunity to embark on their Desert Rose Dinner Safari, which will take you on a thrilling four-wheel drive across the dunes to a traditional Bedouin style camp where a delicious dinner awaits. Plus, you’ll have the chance to ride a camel and test your sandboarding skills.
On, below and above the smooth surface of the desert sands lies a teeming mass of wildlife. The impressive Al Ain Zoo, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018, is all about education and conservation. Visit its sprawling facility and you’ll easily spend a good few hours observing more than 4,000 animals. Its highly regarded breeding programme includes a growing Arabian sand cat community and the endangered dama gazelle.
Culture, in musical form, is the modus operandi of the hugely popular annual Abu Dhabi Classics concert series that runs from September to April. Featuring world-class artists and orchestras, concerts take place in the opulent setting of the Emirates Palace auditorium, on Saadiyat Island, and at Bin Hamoodah Fort in Al Ain
A mosque stop
When a whistle-stop visit is the reality, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a must-see. 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. A guided tour is imperative for insightful snippets about its architecture and design features, including the world’s largest handmade carpet.
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.
Storytime at the fort
The former home of the emirate’s ruling family, and originally a coral stone watchtower marking the city’s first settlement, Al Hosn recently underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation to transform it into a cultural destination comprising the historic Qasr Al Hosn Fort, the Cultural Foundation, the National Consultative Council building, and the House of Artisans. The museum traces the city’s development from a fishing and pearling settlement to the modern metropolis it is today.
SAY YAS TO FUN
Entertainment hub Yas Island is the place to go for some fast fun, with a cluster of theme parks and hi-octane attractions for thrill seekers of all ages. New on the scene is Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, which boasts six immersive lands including DC’s Metropolis and Gotham City, as well as Cartoon Junction, Bedrock, Dynamite Gulch and Warner Bros. Plaza. There’s a 29-strong roster of rides, plus interactive family-friendly attractions and live entertainment populated by fan-favourite characters such as Scooby-Doo, Wonder Woman and Tom and Jerry.
Pedal to the metal
This entertainment nirvana is also home to the 5.55-kilometre Hermann Tilke-designed Yas Marina Circuit, which hosts the annual Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. But don’t fret that you’ve just missed the main event, as the circuit hosts a full programme of year-round on-track activities, headlined by in-demand driving experiences behind the wheel of an Aston Martin GT4 or single-seater Formula 3000. yasmarinacircuit.com
Life is a roller coaster
Speed demons of all ages are also bound to have Ferrari World Abu Dhabi on their bucket list. Home to the world’s fastest rollercoaster – the Formula Rossa, which hits 240km/h in under five seconds – as well as the 1.5-kilometre-long Flying Aces rollercoaster, featuring the world’s largest inverted loop and steepest incline. But it also has a host of (ahem) gentler rides to try.
For boho chic vibes and Far Eastern cuisine, head to the newly-opened Buddha-Bar Beach at The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi. Direct from Paris, this day-to-night destination is the ‘in’ place to unwind and when it comes to the food, the ceviche is a clear winner
Pack your bucket and spade and head to the city’s newest beachfront community A’l Bahar, situated along the corniche, which is packed with shops, entertainment, and reasons to get active – the inflatable AquaFun waterpark is our top pick for families
Inside the Louvre
Named in Time magazine’s list of the greatest places of 2018, Louvre Abu Dhabi is a cultural showstopper. Having recently celebrated its one-year anniversary this art icon, located within the Saadiyat Island Cultural District, recently unveiled 11 new acquisitions in its permanent galleries and is hosting an exhibition of archaeological masterpieces and important Islamic art from Saudi Arabia and the UAE until 16 February 2019. Its exceptional collection of artworks, artefacts and on-loan pieces is all wrapped up inside an architectural work of art – Jean Nouvel’s futuristic floating silver dome.
Manarat Al Saadiyat, a multi-gallery and performance space that hosts the annual Abu Dhabi Art show, is another gem the Saadiyat Island Cultural District. Check out the new Photography Studio, which hosts community-driven photography exhibitions alongside a year-round calendar of activities and programmes. There’s also a Drop In Studio for people of all ages to create their own artworks, with sessions lasting for up to two hours.
A growing cadre of independent galleries are also expanding the scene, including 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. It hosts a cool line-up of exhibitions, including Hundred Best Arabic Posters 100/100, which is running until 20 January 2019.
SET TO SHOP
Abu Dhabi’s plush malls are a shopper’s delight. If designer labels are your kryptonite then The Galleria, Al Maryah Island, is sure to rob you of your self-control. We say give in and go try on some of the wearable riches from the many luxury fashion, watch and jewellery brands housed here, including Van Cleef & Arpels, Richard Mille and Mulberry.
The concept boutique scene is also hotting up with a small but tempting collection of independent retailers selling quirky, cool and collectible items. Fashion-led Minbart in the Al Raha Beach community stocks pieces from up-and-coming local, regional and international designers, while Bits & Pieces in the Al Mushrif district is a repository of unique colourful homeware, décor and kitchen trappings.
To the souk
The Souk at Qaryat Al Beri is a contemporary take on the Arabian bazaar, with a touch of European influence thrown in for good measure. The waterside setting includes abras to ferry you along the man-made canal, a plethora of water-facing dining options, plus shops and pop-up stalls selling everything from jewellery and accessories to perfumes. Follow your nose to Amouage to stock up on oud-based fragrances, pick up a cashmere pashmina or three at Toshkhana, or treat yourself to some handcrafted jewellery at Exquisite Antiques Gallery.
If you’re keen to try authentic Emirati cuisine, we rate Al Fanar at The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi Grand Canal’s Venetian Village. Bring your appetite and feast on dishes including fish biryani and a hearty chicken thereed (where a flavourful stew is ladelled on top of thin Arabic bread)
WHERE TO STAY
The St. Regis Abu Dhabi
Located at the heart of the city, along the corniche, The St. Regis Abu Dhabi is famous for its Superior Sea View rooms. Take a load off at Nation Riviera Beach Club, which boasts its own private stretch of sand, and be sure to squeeze in some pampering at Remède Spa.
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Jumeirah at Etihad Towers
Overlooking the Arabian Gulf and the city’s cosmopolitan corniche, the 69-storey Jumeirah at Etihad Towers has views to write home about. The suites here rank among the finest in the city: even their bathrooms afford widescreen views of Abu Dhabi. There are multiple dining outlets to enjoy, a pristine private beach and the award-winning Talise Spa.
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Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort
Just a short stroll away from the sweeping protected beachfront, this contemporary resort is brimming with natural attractions, with mangroves, dolphins and turtles on the doorstep. Catch a sunrise yoga session, take a dip in one of three infinity swimming pools and observe Hawksbill turtles on the sand during the nesting season. Plus, it’s a stone’s throw from the emirate’s leading cultural attractions.
Inspired to go? Click here for the latest offers
Inspired to go to Abu Dhabi? Click here for the latest offers