Skyscrapers on the rise, a new restaurant, mall or hotel opening every few minutes: Abu Dhabi is all about the latest and greatest. This emphasis on progress, and the capital’s relatively short history, mean vestiges of Emirati heritage can be hard to find. If you only have 48 hours in the city, we recommend seeking out these most Arabic of experiences. You’ll be richly rewarded.
Get up the first morning in time to make it to Between the Bridges area and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque by its 9 a.m. opening (every day except Friday). Not only is the early light perfect for photographing the 82 white marble domes, you also will have beaten the first Big Bus tour group. After you’ve marveled the opulence of one of the world’s largest mosques, taxi over to nearby Al Fanar, on the grand canal at Venetian Village, for a late breakfast or lunch. Fanar is one of the very few restaurants serving local Emirati cuisine. Be sure to take advantage of the kitschy photo-op with a fake camel in the dioramas of traditional life that include a market scene and a burka-clad grandmother weaving outside her hut.
For centuries, small wooden boats called abras used to ply the island waterways. After your meal, take a cruise with Capt. Tony’s Abra Water Hopping Service across the canal to the Souk Qaryat al Beri. This thoroughly modern souk, or market (in this case a mall-like one), was designed to replicate the small labyrinthine passageways of old, with intricate Arabic patterns as decoration. Shop for dates, incense, curvilinear coffee pots, pashmina shawls and other bric-a-brac. Don’t miss Gallery One, where everything from prints to puzzles is decorated with local photography or art.
Hope you threw your swimsuit in a bag if it’s hot out. Next door to the souk, the Shangri-La Hotel allows public access to their beach club for a fee. Indulgence itself is cooling off in a canal-side infinity pool facing the Grand Mosque in the distance. Those who want to stay dry can opt for a beverage on the balcony of the lobby bar, which boasts a similar view. Later, a meal at P & C (Pearls & Caviar) restaurant is an oh-so-chic way to end the day, accompanied six days a week by the smooth, live Latin Arabic sounds of JazzArabia.
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Today you’ll be focusing on the northwesterly, “downtown” area of Abu Dhabi, bordering the Arabian Sea (aka the Persian Gulf). First, get a perspective on the place from Etihad Towers’ Observation Deck at 300. From the 74th floor you have a birds-eye view of the Sheikh’s gleaming white new palace under construction and the original, Emirates Palace, a Kempinski Hotel, which is where you’re headed next. A gold leaf-topped latte and cake at Le Café in the Emirates Palace is an essential, if expensive, Abu Dhabi must-do. (Reservations required.) Look around you – those rock-sized jewels in the gate and the 24 carat-gold ceilings? They’re real. Look for the small spaces off the lobby display where antiquities and exhibits are displayed.
Next stop is Heritage Village across the causeway on nearby Marina Mall island. Though small, this recreated village illuminates early life in the Emirates. You know, back when the main occupations included date farmer, pearl diver and camel trader. If you’re feeling peckish, Marina Mall itself is a city fave with more than a dozen dining outlets. We recommend the eclectic Shakespeare & Co and its huge menu that includes scrumptious saj (Arabic flatbread) “pizzas.”
After a late lunch, take a long stroll along the Corniche, the city’s beautifully landscaped, beachfront promenade and then head back to your hotel for a rest. Your Dhow Dinner Cruise doesn’t embark until 8pm. As you sail out past the fleet of dhows (traditional wooden fishing vessels), nibbling dates and other delicacies, look back at the illuminated skyline and reflect on how far the UAE ad its capital has come since its inception 45 years ago.