Cosmopolitan, dynamic, trendy yet traditional and serene… Abu Dhabi, the progressive capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), offers a multitude of disparate experiences. From glitzy malls and power-packed theme parks and from one of the trendiest F1 racing circuits to the region’s oldest fort and a stunning mosque, there is something here for every traveller. While one day is certainly not enough, here’s something to get you started.
I start my day at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a striking edifice that greets visitors entering the city. It’s an oasis of calm punctuated by the almost rhythmic chirping of birds. The white marble beneath my feet is cool and the breeze ruffling my maroon robe makes the morning even more pleasant. I weave through the pillared courtyard of the majestic mosque, stopping to marvel at the intricate inlay work of semi-precious stones in each pillar. This modern Islamic architecture consists of 80 onion-shaped domes, several pools and 1,000 pillars surrounded by manicured gardens. The pillared gallery ends in the main prayer hall, marked by three magnificent crystal chandeliers and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet! Around me gathers a group of European tourists: the women, like me, are dressed in loose-fitting ankle-length abayas (robes) and men are in kandouras (robelike clothing). Realisation dawns that the mosque is not just a place for prayers, it’s a site for cultural exchange and reflects the soul of Abu Dhabi: a land where everyone is welcome, where heritage thrives alongside modernity.
My next stop of the day is Qasr Al Hosn, the oldest and maybe the most significant building in Abu Dhabi, housing the city’s first permanent structure; the watchtower. Built around 1790, the structure overlooked the coastal trade routes and protected the growing settlement established on the island. A quaint white-washed building, Qasr Al Hosn makes for a striking picture framed against the backdrop of the steel-and-glass glitz of the Etihad Towers and other highrises: a symbol again of the past co-existing with the present. Once home to UAE’s ruling family, the complex is now a popular museum with exhibits dating back to as far as 6000 BC displaying the country’s cultural and political history. Spend some time exploring the palace rooms, which have been reconstructed to give a glimpse of life in this desert region 250 years ago. Also learn about the traditional pearl and fishing industries on which the nation has been built.
After a quick lunch at one of the many restaurants, I head off to the Louvre on the Saadiyaat Island, the first art museum of its kind in the Arab world. The excitement starts building much before I arrive at the Louvre as I marvel at its striking white facade and signature dome rising from the brilliant blue sea. The Louvre’s design reminds me of an oasis in the desert: the stark white building, the palm-fringed pathways and the blue water gently weaving in an out of the complex. It has been designed like a small city, with galleries, shops and a fantastic fine-dining restaurant. Opened in 2017, the museum is distinct not only in its architecture but also in the way exhibits have been planned. Through 12 galleries, the artworks trace humanity’s artistic landmarks. They tell stories, compare different civilisations and bring the world together; breaking set norms of museum curation. Keep some time aside to just sit by the waterfront, as sunlight filters in through the criss-crossed dome roof, drawing magical patterns on the ground.
After Louvre, I make a pitstop at Yas Island, an elite adventure paradise with extravagant theme parks, a gigantic mall, the F1 circuit, private beaches and plush hotels.
Walking for hours has made me ravenous and I head back to the mainland’s plushest hotel, the Emirates Palace. The property truly defines luxury and the dinner spread at the Sayad Seafood Restaurant is lavish! Post-dinner, I stroll out of the hotel, glittering against the night sky, past the cosy dining tents on the beach, towards the sea. There is more to be explored in this city, I know, but that’s for another journey!