Often playing second fiddle to the glam and glitz of its effervescent neighbour Dubai, the Emirati capital is an equally enticing choice for the discerning traveller as the heritage heartland of authentic Arabian grandeur.
Abu Dhabi is the capital of United Arab Emirates and comprises about 80% of the territory, spanning from the serene Arabian Gulf coast to the splendid desert landscape dotted with cool oases. With its beautiful coastline, natural islands, shifting sand dunes, world class museums and opulent resorts, Abu Dhabi is draped in an unmistakably unique Arabic vibe – traditional with a modernist outlook. The Emirati capital has also won the distinction of being the safest city in the world.
The iconic Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, with its milk-white marble walls and immaculately-carved domes, is a breathtaking sight to behold. Besides being one of the world’s largest mosques, it synthesises the unique interactions between Islamic and other cultures across the globe. The stunningly impressive structure that stemmed off the vision of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Founder of the UAE, uses traditional architectural and design elements from parts of Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan and Egypt, blended by celebrated architects from Britain, Italy and Emirates. The result is a sparkling architectural gem that integrates cultural diversity and welcomes members of all faith into its majestic interiors.
The 8-kilometre waterfront stretch of the Corniche is where you will find Abu Dhabi at its best leisure-filled avatar. Explore the beautiful gardens and the public art installations on a bike, go for a dip at the beach, take lazy strolls along the winding pathways and set sail on a tranquil Sunset Cruise or a thrill-filled Yellow Boat Cruise into the emerald Gulf waters.
While there, do not miss the fairytale architectural wonder of Emirates Palace straight from the pages of Arabian Nights and the sprawling marbled pavilion of Qasr Al Watan offering a deep insight into Arab heritage.
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Head over to Observation Deck at 300 to soak in unhindered, 360 degrees panorama of the twinkling, ever-evolving city skyline, the Corniche and the marina. Perched royally on level 74 of the plush Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, the lookout exudes an exclusive, upscale vibe where you can enjoy a classy, quiet afternoon tea with the choicest tea blends and sophisticated savouries while enjoying the birds-eye views 300 metres above the Emirati capital.
One of the world’s ancient, lived-in settlements, Al-Ain is 90-minute drive away from Abu Dhabi and a UNESCO World Heritage site. With its still-operative traditional falaj (ancient irrigation system) and walkways fringed by date palms and fruit orchards, Al-Ain is a picturesque canvas of seven oases with historic royal buildings, ancient forts, vibrant souks (markets), an adventure water park, and a heritage and culture theme park that showcases authentic Emirati art, craft and culture.
Masdar is a futuristic city in the making, about 20 minutes away from the Emirati capital. It is a pioneering, visionary project of evolving as the world’s most sustainable city with an aim to minimize water and energy consumption. The city is being developed with new enterprises joining the movement, tapping the resources from Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a research university committed to path-breaking research in the realm of sustainability solutions.
Abu Dhabi throws up some stiff challenge to Dubai’s best theme parks in the form of Yas Island – the ultimate adventure and amusement destination for super family-friendly fun. From Ferrari World that packs scintillating rides and attractions including the world’s fastest roller coaster Formula Rossa to Warner Broswhere you can meet your superheroes and favourite cartoon characters; from CLYMB, the hair-raising adventure hub with the world’s tallest indoor climbing wall and the world's biggest indoor skydiving flight chamber, to Yas Waterworld, an inventive water park designed to celebrate the region’s pearl-diving heritage – the 25 square kilometre man-made Yas Island is a world’s top tourism project carved out to exhilarate the intrepid traveller in you.
Abu Dhabi is a retail paradise where you can shop your heart out inside the luxuriously designed, elegantly-architectured shopping malls that have entertainment enclaves, splashy restaurants, film theatres and leisure facilities all under one roof.
Choose from over 370 shops and services and more than 60 delicious dining venues spread across 2.5 million square feet in Yas Mall at the heart of the iconic Yas Island. Indulge the movie buff in you at the 24 screens VOX cinemas and let the kids have a spree of giggles and wide-eyed wonder at the Fun Works – two entertainment-packed floors with state-of-the-art adventure rides, a giant soft play area, learning workshops and toddler playgrounds.
If browsing through super elite brands is your favourite way to holiday, head straight to Marina Mall, offering the latest trends of luxury and leisure arranged over five floors. Spoil yourself in more than 400 outlets of retail havens before indulging your palate at the revolving restaurant on top of its 30-story observation tower, boasting splendid views of Abu Dhabi and the Persian Gulf that envelopes the Emirates capital.
From high fashion to high-street, from casual nibbles to haute cuisine, The Galleria at Abu Dhabi’s Al Maryah Island is a sophisticated shopping and entertainment destination for the most discerning of travellers with its wide and diverse fleet of highbrow superbrands including Dolce & Gabbana, Alexander McQueen, Jimmy Choo and Michael Kors - tucked inside its spacious, modernist interiors.
Voted “Most Romantic Restaurant in Abu Dhabi” year after year, BBQ Al Qasr is a waterfront culinary retreat dedicated to delight your senses with divine food grilled to perfection, served in intimate beachfront gazebos set under the sky, just a few steps from the ultramarine Arabian Sea. Indulge into the Seafood Symphony: a lavish platter of lobster, jumbo prawns, squid, tuna and caviar - fit for royalty. Exhilaration guaranteed as the sound of soft waves lapping the shores blend with the aroma of the sizzling seafood or succulent, searing steaks. Evenings are especially romantic when illuminated palm trees and walkways under the starry night sky set the perfect canvas for an al fresco dining experience.
The award-winning Byblos Sur Mer curates some of the most authentic Lebanese fare, whipping up a delectable range of a kibbeh, kafta and mezze in its contemporary, cavernous interiors spanning two floors overlooking the sparkling marina. Enjoy the best food, stylish décor and the picturesque views with a chilled glass of arak or the wispy, curly smokes wafting from your shisha.
Simplicity meets tradition and elegance at Villa Toscana, where Chef Rosario Martorana utilises ingredients at their seasonal peak to bring the best of Tuscan flavours and aroma to the table. Special imports of cheese, prosciutto and cold cuts form the base of the handcrafted Italian delicacies served in a setting that would remind you of an elegant Italian summer house – right in the middle of Arabia.
Cocooned inside the grandiose Emirates Palace Hotel, Mezlai is a crossover between a luxuriant Bedouin tent and a Sultani residence. A meal in Mezlai is a window into Arabic culture, infused with warmth and hospitality, where the epicurean experience means tingling your discerning taste buds with elegant Middle Eastern fare – traditional Gulf cuisine steeped in z’aatar, zaffran and dates whisked up with contemporary, upscale twists. Do not miss their lamb machboos, a part of Bedouin culinary heritage: a one-pot meat-and-rice delicacy with onions, turmeric powder, and dried lemon.
Drinking culture in Abu Dhabi is slightly different and non-residents can enjoy a drink only in hotels, and restaurants and bars that are attached to hotels. Housed inside the opulent Ritz Carlton, Barfly by Buddha-Bar is right at the top of the pile. One of the trendiest nightspots in the desert city, this is a Neo-Baroque mystic-lounge concept where you can enjoy an afternoon narghile and romantic pre-dinner drinks in evenings in a moody, relaxed ambience before delving into its delectable culinary delights. Tapas platters, sushi buffet, free-flow post-brunch drinks, there are choices galore in this desert outpost of the celebrated Buddha-Bar brand.
Grab a table next to the floor-to-ceiling windows and drink the astounding views along with the exquisite craft cocktails that the expert bartenders have designed for you at the lofty Ray’s Bar. 62 floors up inside the splurgy Jumeirah at Etihad Towers hotel, this chic bar positions itself as the city’s prime weekend spot with innovative cocktails, DJ sets, and those unbeatable views.
Museums & the Arts
The Emirates capital burst onto the global cultural canvas with the much-vaunted opening of The Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island in November 2017. A satellite of the famed Paris institution, the museum is a pioneering cultural project in the Arab world that blossomed off an unprecedented partnership for cultural collaboration between France and UAE. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the stunning waterfront arts and civilization museum chronicles shared stories of humanity and creativity from pre-history to the present in a global selection of masterpieces in its permanent collection spread over four wings.
Heavily tilted towards avant-garde art and design, Warehouse421 is committed to supporting emerging talent from the UAE, Middle East, and South Asia. Located in the heart of Abu Dhabi’s portside Al Mina district, thisintensely creative space takes a collaborative approach and partners with international entities to develop UAE’s artistic ecosystem through learning, research, and commissions. A palm-fringed walkway leads to the unassuming warehouse structure that looks like an industrial complex but once inside, the abundance of natural light filtering in from the overhead glass skylights oozes a creative vibe in the art space that houses a cultural center, art exhibits, and artist studios.
The vibrant cultural heritage of Abu Dhabi comes to life at the Manarat Al Saadiyat. As the first museum in the Saadiyat Cultural District, Manarat is Abu Dhabi’s preeminent cultural hub, where everyone can come together to share and create myriad forms of creative artistic expression. The space is especially renowned for its large-scale installation art from creative minds across the globe. A white honeycomb lattice on Manarat’s exterior sets the tone for the art-filled interiors that are always buzzing with exhibits, performances, lectures, and workshops in the three galleries, the auditorium and on the beautiful terrace.
For a quintessential Arabian experience, set sail along the Corniche of Abu Dhabi on a traditional dhow boat. The wooden vessel is a holdover from the Emirati’s not-so-distant past when these double-decker boats were used by merchants and traders in the Gulf – then a hub of the pearl diving industry. Enjoy the breathtaking Gulf waterscape with Abu Dhabi’s famed skyline forming a gleaming backdrop in a sunset cruise, as the mellow rays of the desert sun slowly turns into a liquid gold. Savour succulent dates and sip your dark and sweet Arabica coffee, before enjoying a gourmet dinner on the deck, paired with indigenous live music under a starlit Arabian sky.
Sir Wilfred Thesiger wrote “It was very still, with the silence which we have driven from our world”. The renowned British explorer had crossed the world's largest uninterrupted sand mass on foot and camelback in the 1940s. Eight decades later, the vast expanse of fine golden and red sand sea with their ever-shifting, windswept dunes hundreds of feet high, offers you the same surreal silence. This is the magical Empty Quarter, lyrically named Rub Al-Khali. Drive through the desert and over the dunes with your guide with multiple stopovers for sandboarding, visit a camel farm, and dig into a scrumptious lunch in the middle of the desert. For a more immersive experience, choose to stay at one of the world’s most luxurious hotels: the magnificent Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara.
Drench yourself in the warmth of traditional Arabian hospitality and rekindle the adventure buff in you with desert walks in dawn, falconry, camel trekking or fat-tyre biking through the sea of sand.
Mangroves in Abu Dhabi? Unbelievably true. Just outside the city centre, the sprawling Mangrove National Park is a jewel in the UAE capital’s crown and the Emirati’s most important biodiversity hotspot rich in mangrove forests, salt marshes, mudflats, and home to herons, flamingos and turtles. Explore the water channels streaming through the mangroves, both natural and planted, with your guide in a kayak, swim in one of the beautiful mangrove beaches or laze in the sun on the beach – a perfect spot to soak in the city’s dramatic skyline.
The US$1.3 billion Yas Marina Circuit opened in 2009 on the iconic Yas Island to catapult Abu Dhabi into a world class sporting destination. It is one of the premier circuits in the F1 calendar. Explore its state-of-the-art facilities and the exclusive Paddock area. If you are a racing enthusiast, take the 20-minute lap around the circuit in a supercar including a Ferrari 458GT or Aston Martin GT-4 as part of the exclusive DriveYas Experience.
A diversity of golf experiences is on offer for those whose holidays must include a tee-off. Six pay-and-play courses, from championship-ready parklands to urban–centre courses, are designed for a memorable game of golf and also delectable, post-round clubhouse experiences. But the icing on the cake is Yas Links. On the western shores of Yas Island, it is Arabia’s only true links course, featuring a 7,450-yard par 72 course, with stunning coastal views.
Horses have been an integral part of Emirati cultural heritage for centuries. The nomadic Bedouins harboured and mastered graceful equestrian talents, and The Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club remains a flagbearer of the rich legacy. The race nights in the winter season are electrifying with six races per evening at 30-minute intervals. Betting is disallowed, but you can pick your winner and get attractive prizes if your charger finishes among the top three.
Must Buy Souvenir
Carry back home a piece of Arabian heritage, something that resonates with the region’s enchantment and beauty. And a hand-knotted carpet comes at the top of the pile, either from an upmarket mall store or a smaller, souk-style traditional outlet.
From homegrown brands offering the authentic taste of Arabia to opulent outposts of signature global chains and incredibly plush hotels with regal residential overtones – Abu Dhabi has come a long way in the last four decades in boutique luxury lodgings. Many of them are located right at the heart of the city, close to the major attractions; some others have chosen palm-shaded beachfront spots with stunning views of the emerald Gulf waters.
Select your option from the list of lavish lodgings in Abu Dhabi from this BusinessClass.com guide
The most convenient way to reach your destination in the Emirati capital is to get a taxi after alighting from flight. There are a few bus services that operate from the Abu Dhabi international airport’s arrival terminals, the most efficient being the 24/7 A1 bus, which shuttles between the airport and the City Air Terminal (bus station). Flag a taxi from there to your final location. If the majority of your vacation is spent in and around the city, taxis and a public bus system work best. For day trips, you can hire a cab or even rent a car. The Emirati’s highways are easily navigable.
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