Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital city, is fast becoming the go-to destination in the Middle East. It’s the richest of the all the Emirates, with enough oil to last another 50 years, but with clever forward planning the city is rapidly turning into a tourist haven gearing up to out-Dubai Dubai.
And it’s all the brainchild of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan – the revered spiritual “father” and first ruler of the United Arab Emirates – who began the recreation of the emirate with mass investment in financial services, innovative new architecture, huge museums and galleries, and vast shopping centers like Marina Mall, all in direct competition with Dubai, which is just 90 minutes up the road. Indeed the present ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheik Zayed’s son Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, bailed out Dubai to the tune of billions of dollars in the global financial crash of 2009
An introduction to Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi has transformed from sleepy backwater state to an international financial and tourism hub, and the Corniche is the common thread that pulls the city together, promenading for miles along the Arabian Gulf shoreline and demarcated by the port at the east end and the opulent – and mighty expensive – Emirates Palace Hotel to the west. It is lined with shady parks and cooling fountains; strolling along it is the perfect way to appreciate the architecture of contemporary Abu Dhabi.
Hop-on hop-off buses in Abu Dhabi wend their way along the Corniche, allowing passengers off at the various attractions. At night the place comes alive with sparkling lights from the skyscrapers reflected in calm waters of the Gulf. The whole city seems to gather on the Corniche on Thursday and Friday evenings, admiring the cityscape, greeting friends, and drinking coffee in the wayside cafés.
Abu Dhabi’s greatest visitor attraction is the snowy-white Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which was built in homage to Sheikh Zayed (who died in 2004) and arguably the most beautiful building in Abu Dhabi as well as the biggest mosque in the UAE. It opened in 2007 and can accommodate 41,000 people in the elaborate central prayer hall and courtyard. Thousands of people were involved in the construction of its 82 onion-shaped, gilt-topped domes, minarets, and gold-embossed marble columns. The perfectly symmetrical interior is adorned with semi-precious stones, crystals, and mosaics influenced in design by the Moorish Mezquita in Cordoba and the Taj Mahal in India.
The chandelier in the central prayer hall is another record breaker – it’s the largest in the world, at 39 feet (10 m) across and 49 feet (15 m) tall, sparkles with hundreds of thousands of Swarovski crystals, and weighing in at over 10 tons (nine tonnes). The flooring is of ornate marble and mosaic patterns – and yet another record – the world’s largest carpet is found in the central prayer hall. It was designed and hand-knotted in Iran before being sown together here. When taking a guided tour of the mosque, remember to dress appropriately; leave your shoes outside, cover up with long trousers and ankle-length skirts. No bare shoulders and women are expected wear headscarves.
Visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque on a tour
Lifestyles of the rich and famous
With Abu Dhabi’s race to attract ever-more visitors, it’s fast becoming the stomping ground of the Middle East’s playboy rich; they head straight to super-developed Yas Island, home to the planet’s first Ferrari theme park. Ferrari World Abu Dhabi has a Ferrari-red hub and features adrenaline-fueled roller-coaster rides, a mock-tour of the factory at Maranello, and simulator rides in your favorite Ferrari model.
The newly created Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is held close by at Yas Marina Circuit; this is the place for trying out drag racing or test-driving an F1 racing car. The Grand Prix track passes right through the extraordinary Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi Hotel, which glitters at night under its carapace of purple LED lights. Several other luxury hotels have a presence here, including the Rotana and Plaza groups, and there’s also a links golf course on which to tee off against a backdrop of the sparkling Arabian Gulf. Big-name concerts are held at Yas Arena and Flash Forum while kids love Waterworld, and there is some respite from all this frenetic activity at Yas Gateway Park, with its beautifully manicured lawns and BBQ areas.
Just meters offshore from Abu Dhabi city, the Cultural District of Saadiyat Island is slowly metamorphosing into an extraordinary futuristic cultural hub; again it’s the innovative vision of Sheikh Zayed. Here there are malls, theaters, golf links, a beach, swanky apartments, a university, restaurants … And if that’s not enough, the real star of this man-made miracle is the collection of public buildings, brought together to showcase art and the arts in a spectacular fashion that only the UAE could pull off. A roster of international architects have come together to create a Louvre (Jean Nouvel’s eerie white dome), a Guggenheim (suitably fragmented cubes and pipes by Frank Gehry), a Performing Arts Centre (organic, flowing lines by Zaha Hadid), the Zen-like Maritime Museum (Tadao Ando, austere), and the fantastical Zayed National Museum (Lord Norman Foster; towers built to resemble falcon wings). It’s hoped that these iconic buildings and their priceless collections will attract visitors by the horde into Abu Dhabi. The current expected date for completion of this Herculean project is 2015 for the Louvre, 2016 for the Zayed National Museum, and 2017 for the Guggenheim.
Read more: 10 Reasons to Love Abu Dhabi
Old Abu Dhabi
And where can you catch what little is left of the old Abu Dhabi? Shamelessly twee but very informative, the Heritage Village is geared towards overseas visitors, representing a slice of life in the UAE before black gold was struck. Traditional Bedouin lifestyles are illustrated in a recreated oasis village; it serves well to remind us that a mere 50 years ago this vast megalopolis was a settlement largely made up of barasti (palm frond) houses with traditional wind towers providing primitive air conditioning. The little museum in the restored fort has displays of Bedouin jewellery, bronze cooking pots, and fading photographs of old Abu Dhabi. Elsewhere in the complex, craftsmen blow glass and weave traditional fabrics, there’s a small souk with a great spice shop, a mosque, a Bedouin encampment with goats’ hair tents, and a working falaj irrigation system.
Built in 1793, the Al Hosn Fort (White Fort) is the oldest building in Abu Dhabi, and one of the first not to be made out of palm fronds. It was the official residence of the ruling Al Nahyan family when they first moved from Liwa in the Empty Quarter to Abu Dhabi. There are no guides but visitors can wander the walls and climb the tower at will; viewing is best in the cooler late afternoon. The beautifully designed, Islamic-influenced Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation is next door, hosting concerts, movies, and workshops in a series of wonderfully photogenic courtyards and gardens. There’s a scattering of model dhows and musical instruments to see, a store selling traditional crafts, and a model of Abu Dhabi dating from 1959, when this 21st-century Gotham City city was little more than a simple fishing port.
Get an introduction to the city’s highlights with a sightseeing tour of Abu Dhabi
– Sasha Heseltine