It takes one old photo to transform my attitude towards Abu Dhabi. The Heritage Village, on the coast, backs onto the gargantuan Marina Mall, while across the water a series of towers thrust upwards, keen to show off their dazzling, glassy architecture and sky-piercing modernity. But inside the Heritage Village’s small museum, amid the old pearling equipment and traditional costumes, are some photos of what Abu Dhabi once looked like. The black-and-white shots show a sand-blown place, and a handful of rudimentary buildings seemingly on the verge of being consumed by the desert. The most striking thing about it, though, is how recently it was taken. This was Abu Dhabi in the 1960s.
What’s happened since is staggering. Spurred on by oil revenues, the largest of the UAE’s seven emirates has transformed itself into a world hub. The mushrooming growth of domestic airline Etihad Airways means an increasing number of travellers across the globe connect via the ever-expanding airport. Many opt to spend a few days here, no doubt impressed by Abu Dhabi’s efforts to transform itself into a destination in its own right.
The obvious parallel is glossier, showier neighbour Dubai. The pair aren’t quite yin and yang — Abu Dhabi has its fair share of ostentatious buildings too, even though it doesn’t feel nearly as hyper-caffeinated and frenetic. But they do complement each other rather well.
Abu Dhabi wants to be the cultural sibling, a claim that will be strengthened when its branch of the Louvre opens in late 2016. A Guggenheim and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum are set to follow. All three will be located on Saadiyat Island, which is intended to be the more cerebral alternative to the thrills and revving motors of the more established Yas Island. The latter is home to the Yas Marina Circuit, where the Formula One Grand Prix season comes to a close in November.
Neither is — or ever will be — the heart of Abu Dhabi. Largely because it’s a city with not one but many small hearts, each pumping to a different rhythm. The nominal downtown area is governed by function not fantasy, but the shops and low-budget restaurants reflect the global workforce that’s physically created this city in the desert — Indian, Sudanese, Nepali, Filipino, Indonesian, Zimbabwean and more. And it’s this multinational throng that acts as Abu Dhabi’s engine. The simple Bedouin land that existed before the ’60s oil boom is now an intriguing mesh of global influences.
What to see
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: The stats are impressive enough — 82 marble domes, 41,000-worshipper capacity, four 350ft-tall minarets, over 1,000 pillars. But the openness to outsiders matches the grandeur and twinkling interior. It’s one of the few great mosques in the world that grants entry to (respectfully dressed) non-Muslims.
Ferrari World Abu Dhabi: The world’s largest indoor theme park is Yas Island’s prime source of giddy screaming. The Formula Rossa — the planet’s fastest roller coaster — is responsible for most of this, shooting passengers along at up to 148mph. Elsewhere, there are plenty of kiddy-oriented-but-fun simulators, although it’s short on big thrill rides.
Yas Waterworld: Resembling a multi-tentacled sea monster from the outside, this water park has over 40 rides, slides and attractions. Slides vary from manageably tame to really rather fast. Go on a week day to avoid big crowds, though.
Yas Marina Circuit: The F1 Grand Prix track has plenty of driving experiences on offer, but Tuesday nights have a heart-warming magic to them. It’s given over to thousands of cyclists — and visitors can hire bikes on site to play at being a two-wheeled Lewis Hamilton.
Mangrove kayaking: The Eastern Mangrove Lagoon National Park provides an unexpected natural twist to the desert city. The mangroves are home to thousands of tiny scuttling crabs and plenty of birdlife — most notably herons and flamingos. Sea Hawk runs leisurely kayaking tours through the mangrove channels.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital: Falconry is huge among Emiratis, who treat their raptors as part of the family. Tours of the falcon hospital give an insight into this cultural curio. Expect such smile-inducing sights as hooded, sedated birds lined up on benches to get their talons trimmed, and sheikhs stroking their bird’s feathers in the waiting room.
Al Ain: Abu Dhabi’s best day trip (with Emirates Tours and Safari) passes through the desert dunes to the ‘Garden City’ of Al Ain, arguably Abu Dhabi’s most traditional city. Highlights include a series of oases, a camel-racing track and the epic views from Jebel Hafeet, the emirate’s highest peak.
Like a local
Leave the hotel: Abu Dhabi’s tourism scene is mainly centred around hotels and resorts, which can be pricey with 20% in taxes added to anything bought in hotels. Prices plummet if you stay at an Airbnb or aparthotel, and stick to independent stores and restaurants.
Travel free: There’s a free, regular shuttle bus that hops between the main points on Yas Island. Lesser known, but equally handy, is the free bus that flits between Yas Island and Saadiyat Island — although that finishes at 8pm.
Marina Mall: Abu Dhabi isn’t quite the shopper’s bargain paradise it likes to think it is — expect to pay between 20% less and 20% more than you would at home. But the malls are nothing if not comprehensive. The Marina Mall is more than just shops, though — there’s also a cinema and an ice rink. marinamall.ae.
Al Mina markets: For a less sanitised experience, mooch around the port-side souqs at Al Mina. You might not end up buying anything, but there’s a glorious sense of mild chaos among the carpets, fruit and veg, freshly hauled-in fish and random pots and pans.
Where to eat
Automatic: You can rarely go wrong with cheap Lebanese. Automatic is a reliably good chain — there’s one (the Automatic Restaurant & Grill) in the north of the city, on Channel, near Al Raha Beach. The smaller Lebanese Flower chain is a good bet too.
Le Beaujolais: This time-warpy French pastiche, inside the Mercure Abu Dhabi Centre Hotel, serves up evergreen French classics like boeuf bourguignon on red-and-white checked table cloths. It’s unassuming, has a separate menu of pork dishes for those with cravings, and sells wine cheaper than pretty much anywhere else in town.
Vasco’s: Part of the Hilton Abu Dhabi, Vasco’s relaxed beachside setting combines with some exquisite and inventively prepared seafood. The tuna steak with pineapple and coriander salsa is a highlight.
Belgian Café Abu Dhabi: A sprawling marina-side haven at the InterContinental Abu Dhabi, where big screens are erected for major sporting events. It has the best beer in town and a consistently lively feel. Dozens of top brews have been imported from Belgium.
Bentley Bistro & Bar: In the Galleria Mall, with a great terrace overlooking the water and the city, this is a rare non-hotel option. Largely a wine and cocktail joint, it teeters on the boundary of classy and showy. More importantly, happy hour lasts from 5-9pm every day.
Ray’s Bar: You’ll pay through the nose for that sunset martini, but it’s all about the setting rather than the mixology. Ray’s is way up on the 62nd floor of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers — the loftiest drinking den in town, so rest assured the view is pretty darned good.
Where to stay
Hilton Abu Dhabi: One of Abu Dhabi’s oldest hotels, the Hilton has business-bland rooms, but the value comes from the array of restaurants and bars — Hemingway’s is a popular expat haunt — and the superb beach club. The sizeable chunk of private beach is topped off with three pools and slides for kids.
Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi: The wow factor is high — the Formula One circuit loops around and under the hotel and the enveloping 4,898-LED canopy puts on a stunning light show at night. Inside, furniture and fittings curve as if following racing lines. Super-soft sheets, touch-button mood lighting and a sleekly sexy rooftop bar weigh in too.
Etihad Airways has three daily direct flights to Abu Dhabi from Heathrow, two a day from Manchester and five a week from Edinburgh. British Airways flies direct from Heathrow only.
Average flight time: 7h.
As taxis are very cheap, only true scrimpers are likely to bother with public transport. That said, a good bus service operates, with a uniform fare within the city of Dh2 (50p). dot.abudbahi.ae
When to go
The summer months can be unbearably hot, with temperatures regularly between 40-50C. November to February is perfect with the mercury hovering in the upper-20Cs. If it rains, you’ve been astonishingly unlucky.
Need to know
Visas: Free 30-day visas are available on entry for British citizens.
Currency: UAE Dirham. £1 = Dh5.67.
International dial code: 00 971.
Time difference: GMT +4.
Lonely Planet Pocket Abu Dhabi. RRP: £7.99.
DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide: Dubai and Abu Dhabi. RRP £7.99
The National. Abu Dhabi-based English language newspaper.
Time Out Abu Dhabi. Local listings, including restaurants, bars and activities.
How to do it
Netflights offers a four-night stay, B&B, at the Hilton Abu Dhabi, with return Etihad Airways economy flights from Manchester from £474 per person.
Etihad Holidays has a week staying half-board at the Yas Yiceroy Abu Dhabi, with a return Etihad Airways economy flight from Heathrow, from £1,236 per person.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)