Many Aussies do little but change planes in Abu Dhabi, but this glittering city on the Arabian Gulf has a rich cultural heritage and plenty to offer those on an extended stay. Melinda Healy checks in with suggestions for top things to see and do...
A visit to Abu Dhabi is an intriguing blend of culture and historical significance, not to mention architectural brilliance and world-class art and design.
One day you can be visiting elaborate palaces and mosques, eating in glitzy restaurants and shopping in ultra extravagant shopping malls; the next, you’re immersed in spectacular desert landscapes and centuries-old traditional culture. These contrasts are one of the most fascinating aspects of a visit to the UAE capital.
Here are ten top things to do in Abu Dhabi.
1. Visit Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the emirate’s largest mosque and is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. Taking its name from the country’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who wanted it built to bring together the cultural diversity of the Islamic world, the grand religious landmark covers an area of more than 12 hectares. Situated in the city’s Ministries District, not too far from the CBD, visitors will be wowed by the carpet in the main prayer room (the largest of its kind in the world) and can marvel at the seven glittering imported chandeliers encrusted with millions of Swarovski crystals.
If you intend to visit at night be sure to try and time it with the new moon (as the mosque’s unique lighting system actually changes with the moon’s phases). It’s worth noting that due to cultural sensitivities, visitors are required to cover up to enter. You can hire garments as needed at the entrance.
2. See the light at the Louvre Abu Dhabi
Designed to ‘bring cultures together in a new light’, Louvre Abu Dhabi — the only Louvre museum outside of Paris — opened its doors in 2017, and has become one of the city’s most exciting cultural attractions. The gentle dome-shaped building was designed by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel and is the largest museum of its kind on the Arabian Peninsula. With a mix of permanent and temporary collections to discover, art enthusiasts can see works by Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet, alongside cutting edge contemporary artists such as Ai Ai Wei. There’s a cafe and a rooftop bar, and a dedicated children’s museum. Photographers will be in their element here given the landscape, especially at sunset. For a unique view of the architectural masterpiece, hire a kayak and paddle around the Saadiyat Island landmark.
3. Enjoy a gold cappuccino at Emirates Palace
Abu Dhabi is pure opulence, and all that glitters really is gold at the incredible Emirates Palace hotel. That includes the walls, the gold-encrusted ice creams, the gold-leaf facials, and even the gold-flaked cappuccinos! Sprinkled with 24 karat gold and priced at AUD $28 a coffee, it’s not cheap but it’s definitely an experience. Served on a polished silver tray, you can enjoy your cappuccino with a special date and dark chocolate, and then enjoy a stroll of the palace confines. The hotel is one of a kind. It hosts global dignitaries and world-renowned celebrities (Ryan Reynolds to name but one), and every female in-house guest receives a red rose at check-in.
4. Learn the history of falconry at the Falcon Hospital
Falconry plays a central role in the cultural heritage of this region. It dates back more than 2,000 years to a time when the birds were used by Bedouin hunters, and today falcons are so valued that they’re even eligible for their own passports and are permitted to fly with their owners, no matter what the airline class! The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, which is located a 25-minute drive out of the city, was set up as a veterinary health care service back in 1999 but has since developed into something of an educational facility. It’s the largest hospital of its kind in the world, with a patient influx or more than 110,000 falcons in its 20-year history. Visitors can tour the hospital, speak to the staff, and get their photo taken with the UAE’s national bird.
Make time afterward to visit the Saluki Centre, which is located just behind the hospital. It’s a chance to learn about this rangy desert dog breed.
5. Take a spin around the Formula One track
Yas Marina Circuit is the home for motorsports in the Middle East and for the past 10 years it’s played host to the final race of the Formula One World Racing Championship. The track is at its busiest annually in November when as many as 60,000 people pack into the stands to see the best of the best F1 drivers in the world do their thing. The rest of the time it’s a tourist attraction that allows motoring enthusiasts to experience the thrill of the track. Whether you’re keen on getting behind the wheel of an Aston Martin and satisfying your need for speed, or you prefer trying your hand at go-karting or releasing your inner dragster, there’s something here to get everyone revved up.
6. Cheer trackside at a camel race
Being trackside at a camel race has to be one of the most memorable experiences you can have in the emirate and as far removed from the bling and the beach as you can get! Held in Al Wathba, about 45 kilometres from the city centre, camels gallop around a specially marked track with their owners driving alongside them in 4WDs to spur their beast and mechanical jockey on to victory. Races normally take place on weekend mornings during the winter months, but if you drive out this way at any time of the year you’ll often find groups of camels being herded to and from the track for training. Stop by the camel souk nearby before you leave. It’s here that you’ll get a real insight into this long-standing tradition and what it means to the local community.
7. Step back in time at Qasr Al Hosn
The oldest and most significant stone building in Abu Dhabi was built in 1761 as a conical watchtower to defend the emirate’s only freshwater well. It was later expanded into a small fort by then-ruler, Shakhbut bin Dhiyab Al Nahyan, and became the permanent residence of the ruling Sheikh. Most recently though, Qasr Al Hosn was transformed into a museum after more than 11 years of intensive conservation work. It can be found in the centre of the city, and is made up of two iconic buildings: the Inner Fort and the Outer Palace. Wandering around the historical precinct is like stepping back in time and it gives visitors a much greater understanding of where the Abu Dhabi of today has come from.
8. Be wowed by Warner Bros World
Keep the little kids and big kids at heart entertained with a day at one of the emirate’s newest theme parks. Warner Bros World features six immersive ‘worlds’ — Bedrock, the Plaza, Dynamite Gulch, Cartoon Junction, Gotham City and Metropolis — and as you’d expect, it’s jam-packed with all the popular Warner Bros characters and plenty of rides, shows and attractions to entertain all ages. Located a 20-minute drive from the city in the Yas Island entertainment precinct (that’s also home to Ferrari World, Yas Waterworld, Yas Mall and Yas Marina Circuit), the 15-hectare park is an indoor venue and provides heaps of opportunities to get up close and personal with Bugs, Daffy and the rest of the gang. Take your camera; there’s no shortage of selfie opportunities!
9. Enjoy a sky-high supper
Here’s another of those experiences that could only happen in Abu Dhabi. There’s nothing quite like taking in the view of a city from above and The St Regis Abu Dhabi hotel certainly offers that opportunity at their monthly Helipad Sunset Supper, which is hosted on the highest active helipad in the region (255 metres straight up). Only available from October to March due to the weather, a maximum of 20 guests are escorted up onto the helipad where they are wined and dined as the sun sets. There are butlers and mixologists at your service, along with a live saxophonist to provide the entertainment. You’ll also be treated to the signature St Regis champagne sabering ritual. While not for the faint-hearted, the photo opportunities are brilliant!
10. Take a tour of the Palace of the Nation
Situated inside the Presidential Palace compound on the western end of the Corniche, the new Qasr Al Watan is a publicly accessible palace, legislative centre and cultural landmark that celebrates Arabic custom in all its facets. Incredibly elaborate in its design and decorated with white, yellow and blue hues to represent the surrounding landscape, visitors to the palace make their way through beautiful gardens beneath huge white domes.
There are several rooms to explore, including the Grand Hall, The House of Knowledge, The Presidential Banquet room and the Qasr Al Watan Library — which houses more than 50,000 books.
Melinda Healy is an Australian-made journalist who enjoys roaming the globe and writing about it. She’s just returned to Australia after four years working in the media in Abu Dhabi, most recently as section editor of a weekly lifestyle newspaper supplement. Mel is a destination expert for Telegraph Travel and Culture Trip and has had bylines in The Times, The Independent, Etihad Airways’ Atlas online, Ultratravel Middle East, Conde Nast Traveller Middle East and The Upsider.