Editor’s Note: Lara Dunston has written half a dozen travel guides to Dubai and the UAE and has made it her home base since 1998.
Abu Dhabi, the dazzling capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (no, the capital is not Dubai) has been getting a bit of media coverage lately. Dare I say it, but the city-emirate is even starting to steal some of the spotlight from Dubai. The attention is mainly due to the recent opening of a colossal mosque dedicated to the late President and founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed – a mosque that some writers have likened to the Taj Mahal!
Before that there was the launch of the $14.5 billion Saadiyat Island cultural precinct boasting a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim art museum (set to become the world’s largest Guggenheim) and a branch of Paris’ Musée du Louvre by French architect Jean Nouvel, among other stunning museums. Then it was the city’s inclusion on the Formula One Grand Prix circuit, the first race being held in November.
How things change… When I first moved to Abu Dhabi in 1998 there weren’t too many people who could place it (or Dubai for that matter) on a map! But the funny thing is, despite all these exciting new attractions and events, the things that I still find most appealing about Abu Dhabi are the things I’ve always loved about the city. Here they are:
#1 Reason to love Abu Dhabi – It’s a stunner
Abu Dhabi is gorgeous. It’s a really attractive city and that’s the thing that surprises most visitors. There’s a soaring skyline of shiny towers that reflect the shimmering sea. And the city is skirted by sea (it’s an island after all) that is a crystal clear, aquamarine colour. The beaches boast the finest grains of white sand, and most are lined with date palm trees.
A seaside promenade, the Corniche, runs the length of the city, providing a great vantage point to enjoy the striking skyline. The best vistas are from a boat or from the enormous flag pole at the Breakwater at sunset, a favourite local viewing spot.
#2 Reason to love Abu Dhabi – The Corniche
My favourite part of the city, Abu Dhabi’s seaside promenade deserves its own entry. This is where residents come out to play in the cooler months – and even in the sweltering warmer months. But it’s winter when the temperatures hover around the low 20s Celsius (high 60Fs), and the spring and fall months when they’re in the high 20Cs (high 70Fs / low 80Fs), that the Corniche sees most of the action.
From early in the morning until late at night, locals and expats alike are out jogging, strolling, picnicking, snapping photos for their friends and family back home, rollerblading, skateboarding, cycling, and walking their dog along the Corniche. Come summer, when the temperatures are in the 40Cs (low 100Fs), you’ll only see locals here early morning or in the evening. One of the first things you should do when you get to the city is get down there too! But slap on the sunscreen first and bring coins for water, cold drinks, and even ice creams, which you can buy from the vending machines on route.
#3 Reason to love Abu Dhabi – It’s laid back
Sun-drenched Abu Dhabi’s easygoing lifestyle and low-key attitude has always been a big draw-card for expatriates. Expats were living here long before tourists started going to Dubai to gawk at its seven-star hotel, monumental malls, and throw snowballs at its indoor ski park. Dubai may have the big city appeal, but despite looking like a metropolis, Abu Dhabi has the small town vibe. What is so appealing about the city, apart from its endless sunshine, is the fact that there’s little to do but soak up the rays, bask on the white sand beaches, swim in the tepid waters, picnic and BBQ in the many parks, and drive out to the Dubai desert for some R&R when it all gets too much!
#4 Reason to love Abu Dhabi – The design
It’s a well-planned city with wide streets and traffic that flows freely. It’s easy to negotiate and a breeze to get around, especially on a private tour of Abu Dhabi. While Dubai is a sprawling mess of a metropolis with a chaotic old centre and suburbs that have sprouted up spontaneously, sneakily creeping into the surrounding desert, Abu Dhabi was a city that was planned for growth from the start. The city has a grid-like urban design that was modelled on Manhattan, making it a place that’s easy to navigate and get to know. Sure you’ll have a little traffic during peak hour and on weekend evenings when everyone is heading out, but then it actually has a real buzz about it.
#5 Reason to love Abu Dhabi – Local tradition is alive
The locals in Abu Dhabi are deeply devoted to their traditions – and they’re clinging on tight – and that’s what we love to see. They have a rich culture of local customs rooted in their Bedouin heritage and Islamic religion, like their tradition of Arab hospitality, and they’re doing their best to maintain them.
Take their national dress: unlike Dubai where local kids are increasingly wearing Western clothes, in Abu Dhabi the guys all wear crisp white dishdashas and checked gutras and agals, and the girls all don their elegant black abayas (cloaks) and shaylahs (headdress). When they walk by you on the streets and in the shopping malls their heady perfumes and colognes also waft by. You’ll also see more ‘locals’, as we call the Emiratis, in the streets of Abu Dhabi than you do in Dubai. Head into the suburban neighbourhoods on a religious or national holiday and you’ll see Emiratis singing songs and doing traditional dances.
#6 Reason to love Abu Dhabi – Art & culture flourish, too
More intellectual and serious, Abu Dhabi has always been the more mature, arty, bookish sibling to Dubai. The city has always been eager to preserve its culture and heritage – they even have a Nabati Poetry Academy! – but it’s also been keen to see modern and contemporary arts flourish too, long before Saadiyat Island’s sleek new museums were planned.
Home to the UAE’s foreign embassies, the capital has always benefited more than Dubai from a lively international cultural exchange. It’s not unusual to see ambassadors and their spouses hobnobbing with Sheikhs over fruit juice and hors d’oeuvres in the foyer of Emirates Palace hotel or the Cultural Foundation as they wait for performances by the London Symphony Orchestra or the Bolshoi Ballet to begin.
The Cultural Foundation has always played host to the Arabian Peninsula’s biggest annual book fair and was responsible for starting the grassroots Emirates Film Competition, the country’s first local film festival, long before Dubai began its celebrity-driven International Film Festival. Coming up in April? The first WOMAD festival!
#7 Reason to love Abu Dhabi – The Cultural Foundation
This has always been one of my favourite places in the city. The Cultural Foundation has been Abu Dhabi’s artistic, intellectual and cultural centre for over three decades. An imposing building in the centre of the city, surrounded by shady parkland, it’s home to the national library and archives, an exhibition space, art workshops, and an enormous auditorium that has long hosted a vibrant nightly programme of classical music, theatre, ballet, traditional dance and song, and poetry performances.
Have a wander around and peek into the glass cabinets displaying Islamic art, calligraphy, traditional musical instruments, and fascinating old black and white photographs of the pre-oil capital. The Abu Dhabi depicted in the old images will astound – it was a sleepy village of barasti (palm frond) huts just fifty years ago. Upstairs is the cosy Delma Café, where you’ll be enjoying coffee in the company of Emirati poets, Jordanian theatre directors, Iraqi composers, and Indian filmmakers, who make up the Cultural Foundation’s multicultural staff.
#8 Reason to love Abu Dhabi – Heritage Village
Set on a soft white sand beach overlooking the azure sea and the striking city skyline, the delightful Heritage Village (tel. 9714 681 4455) offers an insight into life before the discovery of oil. While you can wander about and browse replicas of a barasti (palm frond) house, small souq and traditional mosque, ride a camel in a Bedouin encampment, and watch craftsmen at work beating brass trays, weaving on traditional looms, and blowing glass, the highlight is its intimate but engaging fort museum. Inside are fascinating old black and white photos, and exhibits of old Bedouin costumes and jewelery, khanjars (daggers), bronze coffee pots, cooking utensils, and old baskets – the very things the women at the Cultural Foundation’s Heritage Corner (see below) and the craftsmen at the Heritage Village make to this day.
#9 Reason to love Abu Dhabi – Qasr al Husn
In the lush grounds of the Cultural Foundation, the palm-filled courtyard gardens of the graceful white fort Qasr al Husn is a lovely place to stroll early in the morning or late afternoon. Enter via the impressive entrance decorated with pretty Portuguese tiles – if the majestic wooden doors aren’t open, climb through the small door spiked with iron nails.
The former palace-residence of the ruling Al Nahayan family who governed Abu Dhabi from here from the 18th century until 1966, the fort is the city’s oldest building, constructed in 1761. Within the fort is a maze of rooms decorated with painted reliefs of peacocks, flowers and Islamic calligraphy, and connected by long corridors with mashrabiya screens and carved doors. Home to the national archives until recently, the interior is currently being renovated with a view to turning it into a museum. It might still be possible to look inside if you ask at the Cultural Foundation. If not, simply enjoy the fort’s elegance and the leafy gardens.
#10 Reason to love Abu Dhabi – Heritage Corner
Heritage Corner, also known as Delma Corner (it’s outside Delma Café), is part of the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation. And while it’s small, I think it’s rather special. Featuring a traditionally decorated Bedouin tent strewn with camel bags, cushions and carpets, the Corner has wonderful local crafts for sale. The young Emirati hosts will pour you a tiny cup of the local cardamom spiced coffee from an engraved brass coffee pot – it’s polite to accept three cups and tilt the cup gently from side to side when you’re sated – and you can watch the local Emirati ladies, their faces covered in the delicate gold or black burqa (masks that were originally worn to protect the skin from the harsh sun) demonstrate traditional crafts.
You’ll see talli, a form of embroidery for making the gold and silver ribbons that embellish kandorahs (the loose dresses worn at home), and saddu, a textile-weaving technique to produce the bold striped carpets and camel bags. The women also weave palm fronds to produce beautiful, brightly coloured baskets and each of those have a different name too: al jefeer is used to carry dates, the pyramid-shaped al makabba protects food from flies, and al goffa is essentially a traditional handbag. And that’s about as sophisticated as tourism attractions get in Abu Dhabi. And that’s what we love about it!