Once synonymous with little more than luxury-to-the-max hotels and vending machines spitting out gold bars, the capital of the United Arab Emirates is increasingly cultivating reasons to visit that are the envy of the Gulf.
This shaping of recent history derives from the city having been operating in the shadow of perennial rival Dubai since tourism took off in the Emirates in the early 2000s. But now the flag’s been planted, Abu Dhabi is putting itself on the travel radar with colour that lights it up like a firework.
Unlike the mad eclecticism of Dubai, Abu Dhabi works hard to make you feel like you’re in a place that’s naturally evolved, rather than been dreamt up – so there’s a more authentic sense of place at its historic landmarks, crenellated forts and superlative mosque. Then, out in the startling blue-green mangroves there’s the air of freedom – an experience many don’t make time for.
Maybe it’s because the Gulf’s intense heat often forces everyone inside. So, it stands to reason Abu Dhabi has spent big on grandstanding museums and indoor theme parks. Cue a run of attractions that can pack out any itinerary, regardless of whether you’re travelling solo, as a couple, or a harder-to-please family.
What to do
See Islamic architecture with attitude
The marble-domed Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the ultimate expression of the Muslim faith: reverent, dignified and enlightening. Free, walk-in 45-minute tours run several times daily and are a terrific way to learn about the world’s third-largest mosque and its record-breaking hand-woven carpet and crystal chandelier, sublime cupolas, minarets, pulpits and reflective pools. If a faintly temporal aspect lingers, then know its design is a mish-mash of Ottoman, Mamluk and Fatimid styles.
Step into age-old Abu Dhabi
Northeast of the city’s palm-lined Corniche is the Mina Zayed dhow harbour, where traditional sailing vessels loaded with goods still push out across the Persian Gulf. The Al Mina Fish Market is the most obvious place to go; here there are restaurants and more than 100 fresh stalls, with fishmongers who’ll weigh, fillet and, in places, cook a catch for you.
Then it’s onto the part of the city that might’ve been imagined by a fanciful…