The capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is the largest and wealthiest of the nation’s seven emirates. Covering 80 percent of the land mass of the U.A.E., the emirate of Abu Dhabi is divided into three parts: the city of Abu Dhabi, the historic Al Ain region (centered on a large oasis on an old camel caravan route) and Al Gharbia, part of the world’s largest uninterrupted sand desert with towering dunes spreading across the Arabian peninsula.
The city of Abu Dhabi is a rapidly growing cosmopolitan metropolis where glittering skyscrapers pierce the sky and five-star resorts spread across natural islands where you’ll find golf courses, beaches, marinas, upscale malls, a Formula 1 race car track, amusement areas and cultural institutions.
Compared with Dubai, the nation’s playground and largest city 90 minutes to the north, Abu Dhabi is more family-oriented and, with a population consisting of a higher number of native Emiratis, more traditional in its values.
Abu Dhabi’s extreme wealth stems from oil, discovered in 1958. The U.A.E. was formed in 1971 when the head of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, persuaded his fellow emirs to form the union and became its first president. Transformation has been swift. Abu Dhabi put its oil money into the development of a modern infrastructure, health care, education, arts and culture. Abu Dhabi grew into a modern, Westernized civilization in a little more than a generation, evolving from a society of fishing villages along the coast and Bedouins living a nomadic life in the desert. Still, you’ll find that Arabian traditions and Bedouin hospitality have been preserved. The city is diversifying its stake in oil by developing other industries, including tourism, and is warm and welcoming to visitors.
Abu Dhabi’s culture is rooted in Islam, but all faiths are respected and protected by the constitution. The dress code is liberal, and Western wear is common, though native Emiratis often choose to wear their national dress. That said, you’ll want to leave your tank tops and short shorts at home. Women should not wear short skirts, strapless or spaghetti-strap tops, or shorts in public places. Men may not wear shorts in mosques. Aside from cultural considerations, a wrap or light jacket might be more comfortable in air-conditioned spaces and outdoors on winter evenings.
Abu Dhabi Attractions
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: The largest mosque in the U.A.E., accommodating 40,000 people, opened in 2007 and is named for the late president and founder of the U.A.E. Sheikh Zayed incorporated his vision of global unity into its design. Only the doors were made in the U.A.E.; all other materials are from locations around the world, including the planet’s largest hand-woven carpet, made in Iran of wool from New Zealand. Weighing 47 tons, it was divided into nine pieces and flown here in two separate planes. Chandeliers are made of Swarovski crystal and Murano glass, marble columns are inlaid with semiprecious stones and mother of pearl with gold tips. The mosque’s four, 328-foot minarets look down on 57 white marble domes and a courtyard inlaid with a floral mosaic design.
The mosque is located between the three bridges connecting Abu Dhabi city to the mainland and is open to non-Muslims for free guided tours on select days of the week. You also can visit on your own without a tour at other times depending on the call to prayer schedule. Men may not enter in shorts. Women are given a robe (abaya) and a scarf (sheyla) to put on over their clothing. Shoes are removed prior to entering the prayer hall.
Emirates Palace: Often mistaken for a royal palace, this grand structure is a five-story hotel owned by the government and managed by Kempinski. When it opened in 2005 at a cost of $3 billion, it was the most expensive hotel ever built. Travelers often come here for lunch or tea or just to walk around and gawk at marble from 13 countries, Persian carpets, 114 domes (including a central dome soaring more than 238 feet), 1,002 chandeliers and a private beach. Off the lobby, the Gold to Go ATM vends gold jewelry priced at the international daily rate for gold. Emirates Palace sprawls at the end of West Corniche Road in the central city.
Al Ain: Leave modern Abu Dhabi city behind and travel about 90 minutes to Al Ain, a city built around an oasis on an old caravan route between Abu Dhabi and Oman. One of the oldest permanently inhabited settlements on the Arabian peninsula, it is the historic home of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. Among the sights is Al Jahili Fort, erected in 1891 and birthplace of U.A.E. founding father Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was both a fort and summer residence of the royal family. It houses a permanent exhibit of the impressive black-and-white photographs taken by British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger on his crossings of the Empty Quarter desert in the 1940s. You’ll find it in the southeastern section of the city near the Public Garden and center of town.
You’ll find another UNESCO World Heritage Site nearby. The Al Ain Palace Museum was built in 1937 and was once the home of Sheikh Zayed. It has a large collection of objects related to the ruling family. It’s on Al Ain Street. The nearby Al Ain National Museum is divided into two sections, ethnography and archaeology; it has artifacts of people living in the region going back 7,500 years, including household items, costumes and jewelry, agricultural tools, funerary artifacts, weaponry, musical instruments and traditional wedding boxes containing jewelry called mandoos.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital: Take a guided tour of the specialty hospital treating the royal bird. See the luxurious wards where the birds are kept; visit the museum to learn more about the sport of falconry and a free-flying area to see falcons soar; and try your hand at the sport in the garden. The hospital is in the Al Raha district near Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Corniche: The city’s manicured front yard stretches for five miles along the coast with the skyscrapers rising behind it. Corniche Beach Park features lifeguards, an ATM, cafes and children’s play areas. The main entrance is Gate 3 at Al Khaleej Al Arabi Street.
Ferrari World Abu Dhabi: This theme park is like no other, and it’s not just for kids. Everyone can enjoy the Italian restaurants, the interactive display of cars from 1947 to the present, the Ferrari store, and 20 rides and attractions. Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster, accelerates faster than a Formula One car to reach 150 mph. Ferrari World is located on Yas Island, 30 minutes from the city center.
Golfing: Several courses are located within a half-hour of the central city. Among them are the nine-hole Abu Dhabi City Golf Club on 19th Street in the Al Mushrif district; Abu Dhabi Golf Club, home to a 27-hole championship course on Umm Al Nar Street in the Umm Al Nar district; Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, an 18-hole ocean course designed by Gary Player with several beachfront holes, on Saadiyat Island; and Yas Links Abu Dhabi, an 18-hole links course and nine-hole academy course on the western shore of Yas Island.
Abu Dhabi Restaurants
Emirati cuisine reflects Abu Dhabi’s trading heritage with ingredients and spices from around the Middle East: cinnamon, saffron, turmeric, nuts and dried fruit. Fish is a staple. Al Madrooba, for example, is a mix of salted fish, spices and a thick sauce served with white rice. For a snack, look for falafel or shawarma, pita bread filled with lamb or chicken carved from a spit. Fruit juices come in many varieties, including a popular lemon-mint drink sweetened with cane syrup. Serving Arabian coffee is a social ritual. It’s made blended with cardamom and saffron and served in small cups, often accompanied by dates.
With more than 130 nationalities residing in the U.A.E., you’ll find a wide variety of ethnic restaurants: Indian, Italian, French, Mexican, Middle Eastern — you name it.
Because liquor licenses are expensive and difficult to obtain, most restaurants that serve alcohol are found in hotels. Some of the largest hotels contain more than a dozen restaurants and function as social centers for residents.
During the holy month of Ramadan, observant Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours, and non-Muslims are asked not to eat or drink in public. Most restaurants close during the day. The time of Ramadan varies according to the Islamic calendar.
Lebanese Flower is popular with locals and often crowded but worth the wait. Try the mezze or the grilled meats or fish served with freshly baked Arabian bread. The restaurant has multiple locations around town.
For local eats, Marroush is a homey and inexpensive Lebanese and Arabian spot known for its kebabs and shawarmas. Al Arish is popular with visitors for its buffet of Emirati dishes.
Looking for a gourmet option? Mezlai is the only five-star Emirati restaurant in the U.A.E., located in the Emirates Palace. You might order hammour mafrook (fish mashed with cream) as a starter and the Bedouin dish, lamb shoulder Medfoun, as a main.
Quest overlooks the city center from its perch on the 63rd floor of the Jumeirah Hotel at Etihad Towers off Corniche Road. The pan-Asian cuisine turned out by chef Benjamin Whatt earned him a best chef designation from What’s On magazine.
Li Beirut, also in the Jumeirah Hotel, is an upscale take on Lebanese cuisine. Time Out Abu Dhabi magazine gave it an award for best menu. Start with mezze or foie gras and progress to a fish, seafood or lamb main dish. For dessert, consider the delicious honey fudge. If the weather is pleasant, choose a table on the balcony.
Emirates Palace, a hotel and an attraction in its own right, features several restaurants inside its expansive walls. The busy Le Vendome Brasserie is especially good for lunch, particularly if you can snag a table on the terrace. Choose from a variety of dishes on the international buffet, but save room for Palace cake, a rich, double chocolate cake with flecks of gold in the icing.
Pearls and Caviar occupies a separate structure next to the main building of the Shangri-La Hotel. The menu marries Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines and is especially known for its seafood and its Friday brunch. It is located in Bain Al Jessrain between the three bridges connecting Abu Dhabi city to the mainland.
Shopping in Abu Dhabi
Shopping, a national pastime for Emiratis and ex-pats, also draws plenty of visitors. Choose from a traditional souk selling Arabian items or an ultra-modern mall with restaurants and entertainment venues as well as upscale shops selling the latest brands. Stores may be closed or have limited hours on Fridays.
Good buys include local art, wood carvings, specialty foods, perfumes and carpets mostly made in the Middle East, Turkey, China and Central Asia. You’ll also find an abundance of gold jewelry, priced daily at the international rate, from 18 to 24 carats. Styles range from modern Western designs to ornate Arabian jewelry — traditional for weddings. Dates make a delicious edible souvenir and are sold in beautifully wrapped boxes. The sweet fruits come plain or in an array of varieties, including those dipped in chocolate or stuffed with almonds.
For a traditional shopping experience, visit the carpet souk. Unlike most of modern Abu Dhabi, this souk has old-fashioned, white, low-rise buildings where salesmen in Arab dress stand outside beckoning shoppers. Wares are mainly machine-made carpets and majlis, Arabian cushions.
The fish souk is a sight to behold in the early morning when fishermen unload their catch and haggle with buyers. Later in the day, the Emirati restaurant Al Arish, in the Al Meena district on the banks of the port, serves some of the fresh catch.
Among the souks is the modern Souk at Central Market with shops selling traditional items and regional products, such as spices, dates, carpets, scarves, sweets, perfumes, jewelry and handicrafts. You’ll find it off Hamdan Street in the Al Markaziyah Sharq district.
Among the modern malls is Abu Dhabi Mall with more than 200 shops in the Tourist Club district in the city center. At the popular Marina Mall, shops sell medium-priced goods and designer fashions and are complemented by an indoor ice rink, a bowling alley and musical fountains. It’s on the Breakwater in the city center.
–written by Katherine Rodeghier