To experience the United Arab Emirates at its most authentic, you shouldn’t miss Abu Dhabi, the country’s fascinating capital.
Abu Dhabi is not only the UAE capital but also the largest of the seven emirates. Its name means The Father of the Gazelle in Arabic, and it refers to the abundance of gazelles that once inhabited the land. Abu Dhabi is an absolute must for experiencing the UAE at its most authentic, and it’s just an 80-minute drive from Dubai. Yes, the cities both have towering skyscrapers and beautiful beaches in common, but seeing one of them doesn’t mean you’ve seen both of them. Here are five things to do in Abu Dhabi.
1. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a must-see landmark that never fails to wow. The first time I drove to Abu Dhabi, I saw the massive structure from afar growing bigger as I approached, an impressive welcome to the capital! Open to non-Muslims, the Mosque is the eighth largest in the world and features 24-carat gold gilded chandeliers, the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet and 82 domes supported by more than 1,000 columns. Both men and women must cover shoulders and knees. Men may be asked to wear a kandora while women will need to wear a shayla and abaya to enter the mosque.
2. Saadiyat Island
Saadiyat Island is located about one-third of a mile off the coast of Abu Dhabi. Still a work in progress, the island is slated to become the beating pulse of the emirate as well as the UAE’s artistic and cultural hub. Although the island as a whole won’t be completed until 2020, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened its doors on 11 November, is already attracting quite the crowd. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, the highly anticipated museum recounts the history of humanity through a display of 600 artworks and artifacts from all over the world. Starting in 2018, three hundred rotating works will be showcased in four annual temporary exhibits organized by13 key French museum partners.
Saadiyat Island will also be home to a multitude of residential, commercial and recreational venues. In addition to the Louvre, seven other museums designed by esteemed architects are in the works! These include the Frank-Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum from the UK-based Foster + Partners architecture firm. At the moment, the museums are still in early planning and construction phases.
3. Visit Al-Ain
Located east of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain is the historical seat of the Sheikhs and where His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was born. Commonly referred to as the Garden City due to its greenery, Al Ain, the most traditional of the UAE’s major cities, is popular in the summer due to its low humidity. The Al Ain Oasis, spread over 1,200 hectares and containing more than 147,000 date palms, is the UAE’s first curated UNESCO World Heritage site traveler experience.
Visiting the Al Ain National Museum and Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum is a must as is the camel race track and the Camel Market. The UAE’s last souk of its kind, the Camel Market offers an excellent opportunity for an up-close look at camels and the effort that goes into their care. The love for these animals runs generations deep, as the nomadic Bedu desert tribes not only used them for transportation, but their milk and meat were necessities for surviving the challenging conditions of the Arabian desert.
At 4,068 feet, Jabel Hafeet in Al-Ain is the UAE’s second highest peak, and the road to its summit boasts magnificent panoramic vistas. My first time there, I was surprised to discover hot springs at the base of the mountain. You can dip your feet in them, and admire flowing streams, man-made lakes and chalets.
4. Indulge in the need for speed
One of the Abu Dhabi’s top attractions for thrill seekers and families alike is Ferrari World, the world’s first Ferrari-branded theme park that is home to the world’s fastest roller coaster, which reaches a speed of 120 km/h (75 mph) on a 52-meter (170 ft) loop (the world’s tallest!). The nearby Formula 1 Yas Marina Circuit is a must for speed demons! Feel like a Formula 1 driver as you gear up to take a spin around the track in the driver’s seat of an actual racecar. When in Abu Dhabi, you can also drive an Aston Martin GT4 or Jaguar F-Type, or drag race a Chevrolet Camaro Drag. And if an adrenaline rush has caused you to work up a sweat, then head to Yas Waterworld to cool off.
5. Sip tea from the Emirates Palace Hotel…and admire the view while you’re there!
The Emirates Palace Hotel is a destination in and of itself. The billion dollar spectacle is not just a hotel but a landmark. Located on Abu Dhabi’s on Corniche, the palace offers an amazing panoramic view of the city from the 300-meter-high Etihad Towers. The vast grounds, private beaches, and ornate interiors will take your breath away! In addition to the breathtaking view, treat yourself to afternoon high tea at the Emirates Palace Hotel! Sip some hot tea while you nosh in freshly prepared delights like scones, sandwiches and tarts in an unparalleled atmosphere of the hotel’s tea salon.
6. Hold a falcon
I love animals, and at the Falcon Hospital, I got to hold one of these incredible birds. This working veterinary hospital for ill and injured falcons provides guided tours that give travelers a close-up look at these gorgeous creatures, while an on-site museum explains the history of falconry as an integral part of Gulf traditions.