Abu Dhabi feels like a city whose time has finally come. A vision for modern Arabia first dreamed in the early seventies, it has transformed over the past decade from a business traveler’s stopover into a sprawling, vibrant metropolis with a proud sense of its own past and a burgeoning identity as a home for modern art and culture. With the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, the city’s landmark international museum, in November 2017, more people than ever are opening up to the idea of visiting for an extended vacation, curious to discover what a city founded in living memory has to offer. The answer: far more than you might think.
World Class Art and Architecture
Any exploration of Abu Dhabi should begin at the city’s great architectural masterpiece, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The main draw of the UAE’s largest place of worship is its lavish interior, and with over 1,000 columns decorated with intricate paintwork, twenty-four-karat-gold chandeliers, and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet, it doesn’t disappoint. But our tip is to stroll around the mosque’s exterior gardens at dusk, when it’s cool enough to watch the daylight fade over the building’s eighty-two perfect white domes and reflective pools. It’s a welcome moment of peace and tranquility in the midst of a busy, vibrant city.
Suitably rejuvenated, you’ll want to head to the city’s landmark cultural attraction: Louvre Abu Dhabi. The opening move in the city’s bid to become a serious player in the global art scene was created, by an agreement between Abu Dhabi and France, and made world headlines when it was announced in 2007. Now the dream is very much a reality, with over 600 artworks on display including loans from thirteen prestigious French partner museums. The museum, designed by Jean Nouvel, gives every visitor an unforgettable experience under its signature dome, where you can enjoy the “rain of light.” The museum has an active list of events all year long including special exhibitions, concerts, performances, and talks that are catered to indulge its visitors in multicultural experiences. Since opening in November 2017, the museum already has its first coup: Leonardo da Vinci’s 500-year-old painting Salvator Mundi, recently crowned the most expensive artwork in the world after being bought for $450 million, is winging its way there (very carefully) in 2018.
Louvre Abu Dhabi is situated on Saadiyat Island, the hub of the city’s cultural ambitions. The Al Ain National and Delma museums are worth a visit for an insight into UAE history, while the long-awaited opening of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will showcase a rapidly expanding collection of work from figures as diverse as Andy Warhol, El Anatsui, and Yayoi Kusama. The building itself, Frank Gehry’s vivid deconstruction of traditional Arabic architecture, will be twelve times the size of its New York counterpart—another reminder that in Abu Dhabi nothing is done by halves.
Half an hour’s drive away along Abu Dhabi beach sits the famous Emirates Palace, a five-star hotel, civic center, and performance venue that immediately dazzles, from the sloping approach through its lush gardens to the marble, granite, and stone facade lit from every balcony into the lavish, pearl- and crystal-lined interior (where you can buy gold from the vending machines, naturally). Stretching more than half a mile wing to wing, with a central dome towering nearly 250 feet aboveground, the Emirates Palace is both a showcase of Arabian design and a statement of intent for the city at large.
Experience Authentic UAE Culture To understand the character of any city, you need to go where people trade, and in Abu Dhabi that means visiting the Souks. Start at the quayside fish market at Mina Zayed where you can watch fisherman haggle over the morning catch and sample some yourself at one of the many grill stops. From there, take a walk across the road to the market stalls of the Al Mina Fruit and Vegetable Souk for a burst of color and some excellent people-watching opportunities. Close by again is the Carpet Souk, where you can pick up some Arabic majlis-style cushions for a fair price.
To delve deeper into the history of Abu Dhabi and experience one of the oldest permanently inhabited settlements in the world, drive out to the gorgeous Al Ain (“Garden City”). Here you can visit Qasr Al Muwaiji, one of the many forts that protected the oases from bandit attacks for over 100 years and was reopened following an impressive restoration project in 2015.
A Taste of Adventure
For any visit longer than forty-eight hours, you can explore plenty of exciting and unique experiences outside the city. For skiing without the chill, try sandboarding down Abu Dhabi’s desert dunes (the largest in the world, of course). The Liwa Oasis, on the edges of the Rub Al Khali (“Empty Quarter”), is the perfect spot. Alternatively, you can go dune bashing near Al Ain (helmet very much required), or if sand really isn’t your thing get the adrenaline pumping by hiring an Aston Martin GT4 for a quick lap around Yas Marina Circuit, the Formula 1 track, instead.