Renowned for its growing global cultural presence and heritage appeal, Abu Dhabi is a destination for fun and luxury. Now home to the first Louvre Museum outside of France, the emirate boasts plenty of experiences that will have you talking long after the holiday is done.
Abu Dhabi, while considered a more conservative emirate, is as much a desert playground as its neighbour Dubai. But it’s the diversity of the UAE capital’s offerings that make it an attractive destination for tourists. The city’s must-see attractions are far-reaching, with everything from traditional heritage experiences, theme parks and historic landmarks, to animal encounters and nature activities.
The first indoor entertainment venue of its kind in the world, Warner Bros World is one of the newest attractions. The Yas Island park boasts six immersive lands: Bedrock, Dynamite Gulch, Cartoon Junction, Gotham City, Metropolis and Warner Bros Plaza. Among the plethora of activities available, it gives visitors the opportunity to meet and get photographs with well-known characters such as Batman, Superman, Bugs Bunny, Scooby-Doo and Tom & Jerry. This is one of the area’s most popular attractions, so get your tickets in advance.
Hidden behind the main road that links Abu Dhabi and Dubai, you’ll find a treasure trove of walking paths, cafés, restaurants and water-based activities. Catch some of the best sunsets as you wander the promenade, or hire a solar-powered eco-donut boat and take a spin around the mangroves. Rent a kayak, join a stand-up paddleboard tour, or book yourself a seat on the Abu Dhabi Pearl Tour. If this seems like too much activity for one day however, just pull up a seat at one of the nearby cafés and restaurants and soak up the serenity.
For a unique look at the city get out on the water. Yellow Boats offer a choice of two tours in the capital – the Grand Mosque tour and Corniche tour. Not only will you get to share the Gulf waters with the resident dolphins, you’ll also get a front-row seat to spectacular views of the city skyline and some of its most notable landmarks including Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Sheikh Zayed Bridge, and the Corniche promenade. Join either a 60-minute or 90-minute set tour, or work with the organisers to put together a customised visit.
Fishing has long been a part of the culture in Abu Dhabi and a visit to the Al Mina Fish Market, one of the country’s oldest fish markets, is a must. In days gone by, Emiratis relied heavily on fishing, and while that is not so much the case today, the local market continues to offer the community a bounty of seafood. The best part is you can buy your preferred seafood and have it scaled, gutted and cooked in one location.
Heritage and design are the biggest calling cards at this Presidential complex. At home on the western end of the Corniche, Qasr Al Watan allows tourists to explore exhibitions that celebrate Arab customs and marvel at the elaborate design that reflects the region’s landscape. Featuring grandiose white domes, landscaped gardens and decked out in brilliant chandeliers, there is plenty to admire. Make sure to visit the Grand Hall, the House of Knowledge, the Presidential Banquet room and the 50,000-book library.
This popular religious landmark is as impressive on the inside as it is elaborate on the outside, with a unique lighting set-up that’s driven by the moon only adding to the experience. Home to the largest crystal chandelier on the planet and the world’s longest hand-knotted piece of carpet, the grandiose mosque was named after the UAE’s founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Visitors are reminded to be respectful and cover up when visiting the mosque and women are required to cover their hair. Revealing clothes are not permitted.
Originally the Arabian Peninsula’s largest wildlife reserve, Sir Bani Yas Island is 170km (106 miles) southwest of Abu Dhabi. Established in 1977 by the UAE founding father, the reserve is now home to thousands of free-roaming animals, including giraffe, oryx and gazelle. Catch the ferry from Dalma Island and stay at one of three Anantara properties: Desert Island Resort, Sahel Resort and Al Yamm Resort. During your visit, be sure to seek out one of the island’s oldest sites, the Nestorian Christian monastery that dates back to 600BCE.
The place to go for gold, Emirates Palace is dripping in the precious metal and offers guests everything from gold cappuccinos and ice creams to gold-leaf facials. Next door to the Royal Palace, this luxury hotel is the epitome of grandeur, even employing a gold-leaf specialist to keep the interiors looking rich and regal year round. Wander the confines at your leisure and admire the splendour over coffee and cake, or live it up as an in-house guest. Who knows, you might even see some famous faces.
Get a glimpse into the past at this reconstructed traditional oasis village on the Corniche Breakwaters. Study historical artefacts and line up for a first-hand look at how pottery is made, glass is blown and fabric is woven on a loom. Run by the Emirates Heritage Club, you may even get the chance to try your hand at these traditional skills that have long been a part of Arab culture. Afterwards, head to the little spice shop and check out the range of dried herbs, handmade soaps or purchase a souvenir. You’ll find Heritage Village just a short walk from Marina Mall.
A trading port for centuries, Souk Central Market acts today as the Emirate’s central trading and shopping port, taking over from the Old Central Market, which burned down in 2003. The modern souk is more like a shopping mall than a heritage market; head here to buy traditional goods, electronic items, garments, perfumes, antiques, gold and precious stones. There are a variety of local and international foods available here too.
Satisfy your need for speed at the city’s motor-themed fun park. Simulate a drive in a Formula 1 racing car, test-drive the world’s fastest Formula Rossi roller coaster, or try your hand at the park’s Tyre Change Challenge or Khalil’s Car Wash. Situated within the Yas Island entertainment precinct, Ferrari World is about 25 minutes by car from Abu Dhabi.
The UAE is just as renowned for its retail offerings as its heritage appeal, and Yas Mall is the go-to for those seeking some of its famous in-store therapy. Positioned within the Yas Island precinct, about 25 minutes from the city centre, you can browse the 370 stores or choose from 60 indoor and outdoor restaurants, to make a day of the largest mall in the emirate. Shoppers are also able to access Ferrari World directly from the mall.
It’s one thing to watch the world’s best Formula One cars zoom around the city’s F1 race track, but it’s quite another to do it yourself. Yas Marina Circuit is the home to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, offering spectators an opportunity not only to watch the best in action on the track, but to have a go at it themselves by either walking, riding or speeding around the 5.5km (3.418 mile) track. Get the adrenaline pumping behind the wheel of a souped up Aston Martin GT4, or jump in the driver’s seat of a Formula Yas 300 vehicle.
Sun, sand and unrivalled luxury are the order of business here. This island has a touch of Bond and can be accessed only by speedboat. The journey takes just 20 minutes from the Saadiyat Island welcome centre, with both day-trippers and overnight guests welcome. Available on the island among the beach estates and private beach villas is a spa, communal wave pool, teepee lounge tents, free bikes, and several Instagram-worthy photo spots to keep the social media ticking over.
For the best aerial view of the city, head to Jumeirah Etihad Towers hotel and head 300m (985ft) up to the 74th floor. Here you will find the Observation Deck at 300, the capital’s highest vantage point, with incredible views over the entire capital. Take in uninterrupted views of the Arabian Gulf, the Corniche below and the city skyline as you enjoy a choice of tasty high-tea, a coffee break or a sunset drink.
This 235,000 sq m mall allows people to shop till they drop. The total area of the mall equals to the size of 44 football fields – guaranteeing visitors plenty of space and options for an epic shopping trip. Housing everything from designer stores to fast food, Marina Mall is the ideal place for those looking to splurge, with more than 400 retail and service outlets.
The only museum outside of France to bear the Louvre name, this dome-shaped cultural landmark consists of eight layers and 7,850 geometric stars, designed to reflect the way the sunlight falls on the date palms. Broken into 12 chapters, it tells the story of humanity across 23 galleries, displaying a cross-section of artworks; the most significant of these are the four rare old religious texts: a Torah, Bible, Quran and Buddhist scroll, presented side by side. Once you have soaked up all the information on offer here, enjoy a sundowner at the Art Lounge or hire a kayak and marvel at the magnificent structure from the water.
Set up as a veterinary health care service in 1999, the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is today a health facility that not only looks after its high-value bird residents, but also educates tourists on the falcon and its place in society. As the UAE’s national bird, falcons are an important part of local life, and are even eligible for their own passports. A 25-minute drive from the CBD, visitors can tour the hospital, speak with staff and get a souvenir selfie to take home. Make some extra time for a visit to the neighbouring Saluki Centre where you can learn more about the local breed of dog.
The ultimate history-lesson destination, Qasr Al Hosn was first built in 1761 to protect the city’s only freshwater well. It was later expanded into a small fort, becoming the permanent residence of the ruling family. In recent years the historic site has been transformed into a museum and boasts two striking buildings: the Inner Fort and the Outer Palace. Visitors are invited to delve into the city’s archive to pore over the various heritage materials housed here, to gain a better understanding of the UAE capital and the broader region.
This mountain peak takes the title of the emirate’s highest, at 1,240m (4,068ft) tall. The craggy limestone elevation, which borders Oman and Al Ain, has stood tall for millions of years and has preserved fossils and burial tombs. As the UAE’s second highest mountain, the drive up is not for the faint-hearted, but well worth the trip to experience one of the world’s greatest driving roads.