If you came to Abu Dhabi 40 years ago, you would have found mostly one thing: sand, and lots of it.
From a small trading port in the Persian Gulf to the sprawling capital of a modern and hyper-flamboyant state, Abu Dhabi has come a very long way in the last few decades and the journey is far from over.
Many travellers argue that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are nothing more than an artificial playground for millionaires. While there is certainly an element of truth to that statement, it has to be emphasized that the capital of the UAE is attempting to establish itself as a new cultural hotspot and if there is one thing this state doesn’t lack, it’s ambition.
A constantly evolving and ever-expanding metropolis, here are some suggestions on how to spend a few days in the Emirati capital.
History and overview:
There is clear historical evidence that the area of the modern-day UAE was already inhabited before the 3rd millennium BCE. Settlements of ancient nomadic tribes were located around Abu Dhabi and in the hinterland towards the precious water oasis of Al Ain.
During the spread of Islam in the 7th century, the territory of the UAE became a Muslim country which induced holistic changes in Middle Eastern societies.
After the Middle-Ages, pearl trade became the most significant economic sector of the region with the Bani Yas Bedouin tribe controlling large areas of today’s UAE. The Al Bu Falah subsection of these Bedouin tribes migrated towards the territory of modern-day Abu Dhabi in 1793. The modern ruling family was part of this movement. The territories were indirectly governed by the Ottoman Empire during this period and strongly affected by Gulf pirates and other raiding bands that were obstructing globally relevant Middle Eastern trade routes.
In the mid-1800s, British expeditioners were sent to the area to strike deals with the local rulers in order to secure trade routes from the UK to India. Various treaties were signed and the disparate emirates that were controlling the region were put under English protection and developed strong political and economic ties to Britain.
The first discoveries of oil occurred in the 1930s. Oil extraction however remained relatively limited until the 1950s, when the exploration branch of the large British minerals company BP received a concession to drill offshore. Many discoveries followed and the rulers of Abu Dhabi, in conjunction with the British administrators, struck a wide variety of deals with international companies to extract the black gold from the soils of what would become the UAE.
In the late 1960s, Britain became unable to administrate or protect the emirates and after a long process, Dubai and Abu Dhabi became fully independent.
In 1971, the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai called a meeting with the ruling sheikhs of five other emirates in the region and subsequently wrote a constitution, thereby creating the United Arab Emirates.
The country is since made up of seven distinct emirates (Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Qaiwain), all with a ruling family governing their territory without interference from the capital, Abu Dhabi. The latter handles international affairs and creates emirates-wide laws in certain domains, akin to a federal government.
The ruler of Abu Dhabi is the President of the UAE while the ruler of Dubai acts as Prime Minister.
Abu Dhabi has 96% of the UAE’s oil. After the independence, the sheiks of both Dubai and Abu Dhabi decided to develop the country at an unprecedented pace. The ever-expanding oil and gas trade has made the UAE one of the richest countries in the world and the UAE certainly do not shy away from demonstrating their wealth. The more ambitious and more infeasible a project sounds, the higher the likelihood that it will be built. Abu Dhabi alone has five artificial islands (and five more coming), the only completely round skyscraper in the world, the most leaning tower in the world and that’s without talking about Dubai.
It is a country of superlatives and a city which never ceases to amaze. Yes, the city can seem artificial, soulless and standoffish but the recent shift towards focusing the economy on culture, tourism and business rather than oil and gas trade shows a great spirit of innovation. The new city of Masdar (a completely sustainable city that consumes no energy, about 50% complete at the time of writing) is one of the first steps in this new masterplan.
Abu Dhabi is quite spread out which means that no matter how central your accommodation is, you will still have to take taxis to most of the sights. The most central area is the Corniche where many sights are located but where you will still be far away from the Grand Mosque and the Louvre for instance. Here are some suggestions in different areas.
Aloft Hotel: A great value for money option next to the Exhibition Centre and close to the Grand Mosque. This 4-star-hotel will delight travellers with its pool, its well-equipped and spacious rooms and its fantastic rooftop bar/club.
Jumeirah Etihad Towers: One of the best and most centrally located hotels in Abu Dhabi. Fantastic rooms with a view and all the facilities you could possibly yearn for. If you are a Fast and Furious fan, this is the complex which was used for the car-flying-through-skyscrapers scene in Furious 7. Don’t worry though, the damage has since been repaired (just kidding, that scene was CGI).
Park Hyatt Saadiyat Island: A great oasis of luxury a bit further away from the centre. Located on the artificial Saadiyat Island, the Park Hyatt offers everything you need for a relaxing getaway and better beaches than the ones in the city centre. This large hotel is moreover located in close proximity to the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the new cultural district which is being developed as we speak.
Oryx Hotel: Another beautiful hotel with a very good price-quality relation. Located in the city centre, Oryx has everything you need and offers one of the best British-style pubs in the city (alcohol is only served in hotel bars in Abu Dhabi).
Cultural offer and activities:
Louvre Abu Dhabi: (Saadiyat Island) By far the most important museum to visit in Abu Dhabi. Opened in November 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is by no means a copy of the famous Parisian museum but a genuinely innovative modern take on this famous French institution. Housed in a round, post-modern architectural masterpiece on Saadiyat Island, the Louvre Abu Dhabi boasts a wide variety of exhibits and paintings bought from the Parisian Louvre and from other museums in France and other countries. The collection is impressive and highly diversified, focusing on a presentation of different historical periods and cultural specificities from all around the globe.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: (Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street, 5th St) The word ‘grand’ really describes this location best. Built in 2007, the 40k people capacity mosque will enchant prayers and architecture lovers alike with its 82 domes, its 420m long hallways and its lavish interior. An absolute must for Muslims and non-Muslims equally. Be aware that a strict dress code applies for every visitor (female visitors have to adhere to the Islamic dress code, abayas are provided on site) and that non-Muslims cannot enter all of the prayer rooms. On Fridays, the mosque can only be visited in the afternoon due to the Friday prayers.
Corniche and Central Abu Dhabi: The Corniche area is what could be considered the ‘centre’ of the Emirati capital and it has lots of walks along the beach (the only place where walking actually gets you anywhere), hotels and restaurants. In this area you will find among others the Jumeirah Etihad Towers, the Heritage Village and the Emirates Palace.
Heritage Village: (Abu Dhabi Theatre Rd) A replica Arab village with a small museum and some impressions on what life in the desert looked like hundreds of years ago. The Heritage Village is a great place to learn about how the Emiratis lived before the discovery of oil and it will enable you to understand a bit more of the traditional way of life on the Arab peninsula. Activities like horseback- and camel riding are also available in the Heritage Village.
Desert Safari: Desert safaris are one the coolest ways to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city in the UAE. You can do quad-riding, dune bashing with a 4×4, camel riding, watch a belly dancing show and numerous other activities. A myriad of companies offers the trip to Abu Dhabi’s closest deserts (Al Khatim and Liwa) and trips can be booked in every hotel. This guide recommends Rayna, a company offering every kind of desert adventure for reasonable prices.
Ferrari World: (Yas Island) An impressive amusement park boasting the fastest roller coaster in the world. Centred around the legendary Italian car maker, the Ferrari World is most of all a park where you can have some juvenile fun on the rides while looking at beautiful cars. The whole complex has a bit of a kitsch-artificial feel to it but it is still well worth a visit, be it just for the 350kph roller coaster.
Marina Mall & Yas Mall: The two largest malls in Abu Dhabi are nothing compared to the two largest malls in Dubai but still a great place to eat or to brush up on some designer wear or some local goods such as silk products.
Emirates Palace: The most luxurious hotel in the world is a tourist destination and accessible even if you are not staying there. The lobby bar offers their trademark gold coffee which is supposed to be healthy. The building is sort of a modern-day Versailles Castle, with an Arabic touch to it. Think of these structures what you want, they are impressive.
Jumeirah Etihad Towers Observatory: The Observatory at a height of 300m is the highest in Abu Dhabi and offers staggering views over the UAE capital. It moreover enables you to glance at the many new artificial islands which are being built and gives an overview of the never-ending building spree that is constantly changing Abu Dhabi’s cityscape.
Beaches: Saadiyat & Corniche Beach: Abu Dhabi’s beaches are not the best in the world but do the job when the weather allows it. From May to September, the water and the air become so hot that the beaches do not really offer any kind of refreshment. The beaches are nevertheless a great place to spend some time outside of the UAE’s unbearably hot summers.
Wine & Dine:
There is no shortage of restaurants from all around the globe in Abu Dhabi, bearing in mind that most international restaurants are located either in hotels or in malls. Here are some suggestions.
Saudi Kitchen Al Mushrif: (Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street) A great Arab restaurant close to Mushrif Mall. Frequented by locals, expats and tourists alike, the Saudi Kitchen will enable you to try some Arab specialties in a traditional floor-sit-down setting or on a conventional table.
Yas Mall: The large mall located on Yas Island next to the Ferrari World and connected to the latter offers a wide variety of local and international restaurants, ranging from Indian food temples to Australian steakhouses.
Marina Mall: The most centrally located place to find a large amount of international restaurants. The Marina Mall has a bit of everything and is located on the island facing the Emirates Palace.
The UAE being a strict Muslim country governed by Sharia law, alcohol is only served in hotel bars which means that the nightlife is utterly incomparable to a Western country. Options are limited and alcoholic drinks are ludicrously expensive.
Another important thing to know is that the UAE’s rigorous behaviour code also applies to bars even though these are mostly frequented by tourists and expats. Public displays of affection are strictly prohibited and obnoxious behaviour is not tolerated. Seriously guys, google it, there have been cases where foreigners spent time in jail for kissing in public. Although this very rarely happens, it is best to just follow the rules in order not to run into trouble.
Relax 12: Our top pick in terms of outside rooftop bars. Located on the 12th floor of Aloft Hotel, the venue has an outdoor bar with a great view and an inside club which frequently hosts events and parties for expats.
Fadó Irish Pub: Located in Oryx Hotel, the Fadó is without a doubt our favourite Irish pub in Abu Dhabi (which doesn’t mean a whole lot since there aren’t too many). The food is fantastic and the prices are very reasonable, on top of that the pub often invites genuine Irish live bands creating a great atmosphere until late.
Hemingway’s Bar: (Hilton Corniche Rd W) One of the best places for a casual scotch and a cigar. The bar has a large assortment of international drinks and a very stylish vibe to it. Certainly a good option for a romantic date (without PDA) or just a nice drink among friends.
Ray’s Bar: The famous Etihad Towers obviously also have a high-end bar and Ray’s Bar definitely doesn’t disappoint in terms of over the top chicness. Want to feel like Gatsby in Abu Dhabi, this is the place (without the unruly 20s behaviour).
Final tips & verdict:
Walking is of no use as most of the sights are located faraway from each other. Taxis are the most common mode of transport since they are cheap and ubiquitous. The best time to visit is without a doubt November until April. After that temperatures are so high that it becomes impossible to spend time outside.
A whopping 75% of Abu Dhabi’s population are expats, the two largest communities being Filipinos and Indians. This makes English the vehicular language in Abu Dhabi and most locals and expats have an excellent command of English. Arabic being a language with a completely different and unintelligible (to people used to the Roman alphabet) writing, it is virtually impossible to learn any Arabic for a short trip. A few sentences will nevertheless make a good impression.
All in all, Abu Dhabi is a great all-round destination with lots of activities and sights at its disposal. In our humble opinion and with our Western mindset, the city isn’t great in anything but good at nearly everything. The beaches aren’t great but not too bad either. The food and nightlife scene isn’t bad, especially for such a strict Muslim city. The best things about Abu Dhabi are by far the Louvre and the Grand Mosque. The Louvre is a serious cultural institution and not another prestige project to impress tourists. The Mosque is one of the most stunning religious sites in the world and truly manages to capture the magic of an ancient religious site, which is very rare for a modern building. Finally, the desert will really blow your mind. This is something genuine from the region and has nothing to do with building the tallest skyscrapers. The allure of the endless widths of the Arabian peninsula’s sand dunes is unmatchable and quintessentially Arabic, which makes it one of the best things about Abu Dhabi.
On the basis of these findings, Abu Dhabi is certainly worth exploring, especially when you are stuck in the freezing European winter, it makes a great sunny getaway.