A fine first foray into the Middle East, Abu Dhabi serves up just the right mix of Arabic culture and international allure. Expect world-class cuisine, beaches, shopping, nightlife and a burgeoning arts district – all with a distinctly multicultural focus. In the morning, heed the call to prayer at one of the region’s most visually stunning grand mosques, and then after dark answer a much more hedonistic summons — poolside, as a DJ lays down party tracks. The capital of the modern, progress-oriented United Arab Emirates (UAE) may be slightly less well known than glamorous big sis, Dubai, but the slower pace (and lighter traffic!) makes it all the more appealing as a destination.
A warm Arabic hospitality is evident in the smell of spiced Oud wood incense and the dates and coffee frequently offered as a welcome. But in this thoroughly international city, true Emirati experiences can be somewhat elusive. If you plan to see Abu Dhabi in 48 Hours, we recommend seeking out the local culture of the city itself. Tour the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, tuck into Gulf-caught fish machboos (a dish cooked with yellow rice, cardamon, cloves and dried lemon), luxuriate in the gilt surrounds of the Emirates Palace and take an evening cruise on a traditional wooden dhow.
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With more time, say a week, you could explore further afield – taking a desert safari for some dune-bashing (four-wheeling in SUVs) and camel riding, visiting the Falcon Hospital conservation facility or catching a race at the Camel Racetrack. You’d also have time for more indulgent pursuits. You could shop yourself silly at one of the many mammoth malls and shopping souks (markets) – each with its own atmosphere and abundant eateries. And if you’re in town over a weekend, sampling one of the city’s best Friday brunches is a must-do. The Bacchanalian excess of brunch food and drink often span several different hotel restaurants, and loud live music ups the party ante. (Those traveling with little ones may want to keep things calmer with kid-friendly brunches and visits to parks and indoor playgrounds.)
The city itself is actually a series of islands. So it’s no surprise that much of the capital’s attraction lies in its boat rides and beach clubs. Memorable experiences include taking a sunset skyline cruise, kayaking among the mangroves and boating out to swim off an uninhabited island with the locals. For a fee, the many lavish local resorts grant day passes to their landscaped pools, well-stocked bars and pristine beach fronts. On Saadiyat Island, a nascent cultural district is in the works. Gallery Manarat Al Saadiyat already hosts exhibitions, the first foreign branch of the Louvre Museum is opening and a Guggenheim Museum is slated to follow. To the south on Yas Island, a Formula 1 racetrack, Ferrari World amusement park, an active marina and a mega-mall all beckon for adventurers.
So much to see and do, yet looking at the number of cranes on the horizon, it’s clear this is only the start. Considering that Abu Dhabi city barely existed before the discovery of oil around 60 years ago, it’s easy to imagine that anything is possible in the future. So, come explore the contrasts of old and new. Ahlan wa sahlan. You are very welcome!