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Fly to the capital of the United Arab Emirates and you’ll discover a humble desert settlement that’s recently undergone a meteoric rise. One of the region’s most modern cities, its popularity as a holiday destination is growing day by day – and for good reason. Abu Dhabi has many charms and attractions, both within the city and out in the breathtaking desert landscape that surrounds it.
There are several museums and galleries where visitors can soak up a taste of the region’s history and culture, from the Islam-focused Miraj Museum and fascinating Maritime Museum to the wonderful Folklore Gallery and quirky Etihad Modern Gallery. However, it’s worth prioritising the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village. This reconstructed village offers a look back at the pre-oil era, where an ox-drawn well is the centre of the city’s sustenance, an ancient irrigation system keeps the crops watered, and a coastal fort protects the city from invasion. You’ll also be able to watch traditional craftsmen at work. While you’re there, it’s worth popping into the Zayed Heritage Center to learn more about Sheikh Zayed, one of the UAE’s national heroes.
Islamic culture plays an important role in daily life and of all the mosques you can visit, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the most breathtaking for miles around. Decked out in gold, crystal and a wealth of precious stones from amethyst to mother-of-pearl, it accommodates an enormous 41,000 worshippers. But if anywhere can match the Grand Mosque for beauty, it’s the Emirates Palace. Sure, it’s not actually a palace but a luxury hotel, however, this glorious building is worth a visit even if you’re not staying there. It hosts opera and classical music performances during the Abu Dhabi Classics season, movie screenings during the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and houses a permanent exhibition of artworks from across the ancient world.
People and Traditions
The UAE is often depicted as a country with enormous economic inequality. It shouldn’t be surprising that there is in fact a large middle ground, and that Abu Dhabi is home to a diversity of cultures and income groups much like any regular city. Although the local way of life is dictated by Islam, the people are noticeably tolerant of foreign mores and lifestyle choices. Tourists should note that sacred Islamic sites like the Grand Mosque do require visitors to cover their arms and legs, and women to wear headscarves, which can often be provided free of charge. Additionally, it is considered impolite to take photographs of people without their permission, particularly women.
Abu Dhabi’s climate is hot and humid, with occasional dense fogs during the cooler months from November to March. Nights can be cool during this time, dipping as low as 10ºC. During the summer, however, temperatures regularly reach 40ºC with lows in the mid-20s.
Shopping in Abu Dhabi is a delight, whether at its traditional souks or sophisticated modern malls. Or why not rent a bicycle to explore the Corniche – the city’s beautiful waterfront complete with sandy beaches and a superb promenade providing great views of the iconic skyline.
For a more humble experience, however, head to the desert for a slice of Bedouin desert culture. There are several Bedouin camps dedicated to providing hospitality to tourists, usually in the form of traditional food, tea, entertainment and an open-air sleepover beneath the starry night sky. The desert also provides many other recreational activities, such as camel rides, sandboarding and falconry displays among others.
Located in the Jumeirah Emirates Towers, the Observation Deck at 300 offers sensational panoramic views over the city and sea. It’s 300 feet up in the air and the price includes food and drink at its chic café.
On Yas Island you’ll find two very different attractions. Yas Waterworld is a vast waterpark with 45 rides and slides to choose from – ideal for a family day out. Practically next door, sports fans will be delighted to find the Yas Marina Circuit, the venue for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Even if there’s no race to catch, the on-site Ferrari World Theme Park offers rollercoasters, rides and driving experiences that the whole family can enjoy.