Think You Know Abu Dhabi? Think Again.
A modern hotspot with ancient roots, Abu Dhabi has an appeal all its own. As the capital of the United Arab Emirates — the seven-member Middle Eastern federation that just turned 50 — the city blends an exceptional arts scene (there’s literally a local Louvre) with monumental architecture (see: the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque), rich history (whether you want to travel back centuries or millennia) and enough energy to keep you exploring for days.
Indeed, Abu Dhabi is made up of more than 200 islands, so despite its reputation as an easy stopover (complete with widely spoken English), this Emirate is very much a destination unto itself. As such, it has lured many a traveler (and ever more expats) during its quick rise to prominence on the world stage.
But even if you merely spend a couple of days there en route to, say, the Seychelles or the Maldives, you’ll be richly rewarded. In fact, you’ll get a whole second vacation thanks to Etihad’s free two-night stopover. And why not take advantage? After a direct flight from the US, you can acclimate to a new time zone while exploring the amazing local offerings. Read on for some of the best.
Meet the city and its heritage
To get an excellent overview (and your bearings), take a tour that introduces you to the three local regions: Abu Dhabi City (i.e., the buzzing, cosmopolitan capital of the Emirates); Al Ain (the so-called Garden City and an ancient UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Al Dhafra (a coastal adventure zone). Rest assured, after your quick intro, you’ll want to return to explore each area in depth — much as we’ll do throughout this story.
But first, a few more can’t-miss introductory stops. First up is the aforementioned Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi’s spiritual and architectural epicenter, its stark signature domes offset by delicately wrought minarets and mosaics. Occupying 30 acres (and that’s not even counting the perfectly manicured grounds), the mosque is among the largest on earth, with room for 40,000. Another point of distinction? Nodding to the local openness, the complex is open to non-Muslim visitors and even hosts free guided tours.
While you won’t find many old buildings in town — the Bedouin culture that preceded the modern capital is better known for tent living than for permanent structures — don’t miss Heritage Village, an oasis village replica. There you’ll find a pre-modern UAE camp, mosque and souk (traditional market) where you can shop for spices, watch potters, weavers and glass blowers at work (and maybe even try your hand at one of these crafts yourself). For a true step back in time, however, head to Qasr Al Hosn, the city’s oldest building, home to everyone from the ruling family to National Consultative Council over the centuries. The piece de resistance is the original 18th-century watchtower, with its commanding views of the coastal trade routes.
For the modern-day equivalent (okay, a bit higher up), you’ll also want to head to the 74th floor of the Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers for high tea on the observation deck, where you’ll get a sweeping new perspective on everything you’ve just seen at ground level.
Enjoy the truly great outdoors
One of the easiest-access expanses of local nature is Saadiyat Island, where you can be chilling on one of two gorgeous white sand beaches or teeing off by the water within 10 minutes of leaving downtown Abu Dhabi. Just be aware that the dolphins in the Gulf can be so distractingly cute at play, they should be listed among the challenges of the Gary-Player-designed Saadiyat Beach Golf Club.
To immerse a bit more into the local nature, consider kayaking in the Mangrove National Park. Yet another retreat just outside the city center, this sprawling preserve is home to around 75% of the UAE’s total mangrove forest area and all manner of biodiversity, from foxes to flamingos and dugongs to dolphins. (And as in most mangroves, fish and crab sightings are common, too.)
To commune with nature and history at once, head to the above-mentioned UNESCO World Heritage Site of Al Ain. Translating to “the spring,” the name couldn’t be more apt, as you’ll discover in the capital's lush garden city, once a vital trade route oasis. Though you can now drive here in 90 minutes from Abu Dhabi, the historic caravan stop vibe is still going strong thanks to vibrant camel markets and souks, old-world palace and fort architecture and an ancient oasis, whose still-operational falaj (the traditional irrigation system) is shaded by almost 150,000 date palms and fruit trees. To travel even further back in time—all the way back to Neolithic prehistory, in fact—explor Al Ain’s archaeological sites of Bida bint Saud, Jebel Hafit and Hili.
For nature with a side of adventure, head to the aforementioned Al Dhafra, where the “empty quarter” moniker makes perfect sense: Think dune-dominated landscapes and mile upon mile of seemingly empty coastline. Here you’ll meet Tel Moreeb, or Terrifying Mountain, one of the tallest dunes in existence at almost 1,000 feet. Even if you don’t want to scale the colossus yourself, you may want to time a visit to the Moreeb Hill Climb, the part of the Liwa International Festival that sees four-wheel drives, quad bikes and dirt bikes in crazy competition. If you do want to get behind the wheel, know that you’ll find dune-driving courses for all skill levels throughout the regions (and of course, you can always travel by camel here, too).
If you feel the need for speed, however, head to the Yas Marina Circuit on Yas Island, home of the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix. In addition to going as a spectator, you can get behind the wheel yourself in any number of driving experiences, from the Polaris Drift Sprint to the Aston Martin GT4. Or go for a different kind of adrenaline rush altogether at Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi on the same island, where you can take off in everything from the Batmobile (courtesy of Batman: Knight Flight) to the Jetsons Cosmic Orbiter.
Immerse yourself in the international arts scene
Though long regarded as an arts hub, Abu Dhabi was just included on the prestigious ARTnews Art Cities to Watch 2021 list. Citing the local Tourism Development & Investment Company’s dual missions—“to create a new generation of local collectors and draw blue-chip art to the city from around the world”—the piece notes the multitude of ways those goals are being carried out: high-profile biennials and fairs, strong educational and research opportunities—particularly through the just-launched New York University Abu Dhabi Arab Center for the Study of Art—and plenty of space and encouragement for emerging artists.
Anchoring the scene is the Saadiyat Cultural District and the resident icon: The Louvre Abu Dhabi. A 55-building “museum-city in the sea” with its own LEED-certified microclimate, this Louvre is as much a retreat as an art center. You can get here by land or water, and spend as much time wandering the serene walkways as contemplating the galleries’ masterworks by everyone from Mondrian to Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-Battûtî (don’t miss the 18th-century Astrolabe).
Following on the success of the Louvre, two more major newcomers are expected over the next few years: the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Norman Foster-designed Zayed National Museum.