A stunning city of shiny new skyscrapers strung out along an idyllic corniche, oil-rich Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE and a rising player in the world’s financial, commercial, and tourist stages. Many visitors enjoy the slower and more traditional pace of life compared to Dubai, although after years in the shadow of its neighbor, Abu Dhabi is now also launching into its own spectacular spate of large-scale developments, ranging from the ultra-opulent mock-Arabian Emirates Palace, one of the world’s most lavish hotels, to the futuristic architecture of Al Maryah Island and the gleaming Etihad Towers. Downtown Abu Dhabi is the city’s bustling commercial center, where you’ll find the biggest mega-developments, the liveliest attractions, and all the busiest shops, bars, and restaurants.
POINTS OF INTEREST
ABU DHABI CORNICHE
Abu Dhabi’s showpiece boulevard sweeps for almost 3 miles along the Downtown waterfront. A long line of skyscrapers rises to one side, while to the other are a series of gardens, popular in the evenings with strolling locals and joggers. Hiring a bike and riding up and down the waterfront is a great way to spend an hour or so, and there’s a fine stretch of public beach.
Despite its slightly out-of-the way location, the sprawling Marina Mall is one of the city’s largest and most popular shopping destinations, with shops laid out between an attractive sequence of circular atriums topped with tent-shaped roofs. The highlight of the complex is the slender Marina Sky Tower, at the back of the mall, which offers superb views over the city and Corniche from the Colombiano coffee shop (floor 41) or the Tiara revolving restaurant (floor 42).
AL MARYAH ISLAND
On the northern side of Downtown, this island is the site of arguably the city’s most ambitious mega-project. Planned as Abu Dhabi’s new financial and business district, much of the development has yet to take shape, although the Abu Dhabi Global Market Square gives a taste of things to come, with its huge skyscrapers and chic Galleria mall.
WORLD TRADE CENTER
One of the largest develop ments in Abu Dhabi, the World Trade Center is topped by the Trust Tower and the Burj Mohammed bin Rashid. The main attraction is its souk, offering a kind of Postmodern re-imagination of the traditional Arabian souk.
AL ITTIHAD SQUARE
A crop of supersized sculptures stand in the small park at the centre of Al Ittihad Square, creating a whimsical contrast to the surrounding tower blocks. The five sculptures feature a gigantic coffeepot, a huge perfume bottle, an elaborate plate cover, a colossal cannon and a small fort.
ABU DHABI HERITAGE VILLAGE
For a taste of life as it was in the city before the discovery of oil, Abu Dhabi’s Heritage Village is the place to come. In a superb location directly over the water from the soaring towers of the Corniche, the village comprises a line of traditional barasti (palm-frond) huts, some of them turned into workshops in which resident craftspeople can sometimes be seen at work.
AL MINA SOUKS
Stretching away on the northern side of Downtown Abu Dhabi is the city’s Al Mina port area, stacked with cranes and busy with boats. A trio of small markets can be found here. The so-called Carpet Souk comprises a small square with lowkey shops. The nearby food souk is the heart of the city’s retail trade in vegetables and fruit, while opposite is the lively fish market, with the day’s catch laid out along the quay.
Abu Dhabi’s magnificent pink palace hotel dominates the western end of the splendid Corniche. The majestic multi-domed exterior is surpassed in extravagance only by the dazzling interior, glittering with gold and sparkling with Swarovski crystals. The Emirates Palace was constructed to provide opulent accommodation fitting for the capital’s visiting dignitaries.
Dominating the southwestern end of the Corniche is the huge Etihad Towers development, a cluster of five glistening skyscrapers with gently curved outlines and a gleaming metallic shine. There are superlative views over Abu Dhabi from the 74th-floor Observation Deck at 300 (in tower two) and from Ray’s Bar on the 62nd floor of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers hotel.
QASR AL HOSN
Located at the heart of Downtown, Qasr al Hosn (the Palace Fort) offers an unexpected throwback to earlier times. This is the oldest building in Abu Dhabi, first established back in the 1760s, after which it served as home to the ruling Al Nahyan family for the next two centuries. Most of what you see now – a high white wall dotted with a sequence of circular battlemented towers – was built in the 1940s. The fort is currently undergoing extensive renovations and will eventually reopen as a new museum showcasing the city’s history, although the date is unknown.
BAIN AL JESSRAIN
Most of Abu Dhabi is actually built on an island separated from the mainland by a narrow sea inlet known as Maqta Creek – it wasn’t until the opening of Maqta Bridge in 1966 that the island and mainland were connected. Three bridges now span the creek, whose shores now feature several top hotels and some of the city’s most valuable real estate. The area on the mainland side, known as Bain al Jessrain (Between the Bridges), is also where you’ll find the little Souk Qaryat al Beri, which is home to a string of boutique and eating outlets set over two levels. Following a Venetian theme, canals meander throughout the pretty souk.
SHEIKH ZAYED MOSQUE
This impressive structure is an imposing sight on the drive from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. The mosque is named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder and the first president of the United Arab Emirates, who is also buried here. The building is open to non- Muslims, but visitors should dress conservatively.
ABU DHABI LOUVRE
A new branch of the famous Parisian museum, the Abu Dhabi Louvre is the centrepiece of the huge Saadiyat Island project, intended to form a dedicated cultural and leisure destination within the city, with further museums, malls and beaches planned. Due to open in 2017, the building was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and resembles an enormous white flying saucer under an intricately latticed roof. The museum will host a range of exhibits from the Louvre’s collections, including a strong selection of Middle Eastern and Islamic art.
Rivalling Wild Wadi and Aquaventure in Dubai, Abu Dhabi’s state-of-the-art water park offers more than 40 stomachchurning rides and slides, plus gentler water-based fun for kids and adults alike. Adrenaline junkies should head for the near-vertical Jebel Drop water slide. If you want to enjoy the sea itself, the nearby Yas Public Beach has loads of sand, an infinity pool and lovely loungers to relax on.
AL MAQTAA FORT
This quaint little 200-year-old fort once guarded the main approach to the city and still stands sentinel beside Al Maqtaa Bridge. The sand-coloured exterior is adorned with carved wooden doors and shuttered windows, with narrow slits above for rifles.
SAADIYAT PUBLIC BEACH
This beautiful beach offers a nice change of pace from the city centre, with a huge expanse of fine white sand. The dunes behind the beach are a nesting site for turtles and a refuge for other rare flora and fauna, while dolphins are sometimes spotted offshore here. The facilities include toilets, showers and a café.
MANARAT AL SAADIYAT
This purpose-built art, culture, and social center in the heart of the Saadiyat Cultural District is home to international exhibitions, home-grown innovative art, inclusive talks, seminars, screenings, art classes, and production facilities for professionals and amateurs alike. Visitors can enjoy picturesque outdoor facilities as well as an onsite café at Abu Dhabi’s leading regional and international hub for art and culture.
The ultimate shrine to one of the world’s most famous cars – appropriate enough in a city built almost entirely using petrodollars. Billing itself as the “world’s largest indoor theme park” this vast red extravaganza boasts an amazing range of rides. Highlights include a Formula 1 simulator, the world’s fastest rollercoaster and the vertiginous Tower of Speed ride.
The Aldar HQ is another strong contender for the title of Abu Dhabi’s most unusual building, clearly visible from the main highway as you approach from Dubai. Claimed to be the world’s first circular skyscraper, the structure looks a lot like a huge magnifying glass, supported by a diagonal grid of steel girders. Casual visitors are welcome to go inside for a look at the airy atrium.
The so-called “Leaning Tower of Abu Dhabi”, Capital Gate is one of the most remarkable of Abu Dhabi’s many strange modern buildings. Officially recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s most tilted tower, this enormous skyscraper looks as if it’s on the point of toppling headfirst into the sea, with four times more lean than even the famously wonky Leaning Tower of Pisa.
AL JAHILI FORT
The picturesque Al Jahili Fort is one of the UAE’s most historic buildings. Built in 1891 to defend the city’s palm groves, the fort hosts regular exhibitions and is set in beautifully landscaped gardens which visitors are encouraged to explore.
AL AIN OASIS
Wander the shady walkways of the Al Ain Oasis, the UAE’s first curated UNESCO World Heritage site visitor experience, which introduces visitors to the delicate oasis eco-system, its 3,000-year-old irrigation system, and the importance it has played in the development of the emirate.
AL AIN PALACE MUSEUM
Tour the private rooms of the nation’s founding father at the Al Ain Palace Museum located on the western edge of Al Ain Oasis. The Palace of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was built in 1937 and is typical of historic buildings of the UAE.