Abu Dhabi is a city that lies on a small island just off the southern shore of the Persian Gulf. The capital of the United Arab Emirates and home to over one million people, Abu Dhabi is one of the rising stars of the Middle East. In the 1930s, the settlement consisted of a small but strategically important fortress and a surrounding town ruled by the Al-Nahyan family. After the discovery of oil in the region, Abu Dhabi quickly grew into a center of political and economic importance and has now become one of the richest cities in the world.
As a tourist destination, Abu Dhabi is not quite as geared towards receiving visitors as are the European capitals or the other traditional international tourist destinations of the West Indies and the Pacific and Mediterranean islands. Still, this bustling city does feature quite a few interesting sights that cannot be missed if you plan on visiting.
Completed in 2007, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates. The Grand Mosque is named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the late founder and first president of the UAE. Completed shortly after the Sheikh’s death, the mosque is a must-see for visitors to Abu Dhabi. The mosque complex contains the central building, which supports several large domes and can accommodate up to 40,000 worshipper; a large courtyard; and the gravesite of Sheikh Zayed, who is buried in a simple tomb in a corner of the courtyard. Four great minarets occupy the corners of the complex, from which the call to prayer issues five times a day.
The Grand Mosque is located just south of the airport on Al-Khaleej Al-Arabi Street. The mosque is open to visitors at all times except Friday mornings, and free tours of the complex are available to those who are interested. It’s generally recommended for visitors to take a guided tour – worshippers use the mosque throughout the day, and it can be easy to accidentally get in their way while wandering around the complex.
If the Grand Mosque is the embodiment of Abu Dhabi’s spiritual side, Emirates Palace is the embodiment of its wealthy and luxurious side. Emirates Palace is a hotel, but calling it a mere hotel cannot do it justice. The Palace is one of the most opulent hotels in the world. Guests stay in large, beautifully decorated rooms at nightly rates ranging from 400 to 2,000 US dollars. The building itself occupies the center of a massive square of land in the west of the city and is surrounded by gardens.
Even if you’re not staying at Emirates Palace, you can still visit the hotel. The Palace contains several great restaurants boasting top chefs and some of the best cooking in Abu Dhabi, and the massive, luxurious lobby features a bar and other amenities open to the public. The hotel also hosts many parties and other events, most of which are only open to those with invitations. Coffee and tea are available in the lobby, and a variety of drinks can be had at the hotel bar. Everything at Emirates Palace is quite expensive, but the cost is merely a part of the experience. If you want to feel rich for a few hours, visit the Palace – you won’t regret making the trip.
Abu Dhabi is, at heart, a city of the sea. It is now a bustling metropolis enriched by its vast quantities of oil, but a mere century ago, the people of Abu Dhabi relied upon pearl diving for their livelihoods. Although this island city in the eastern corner of Arabia is now one of the richest municipalities in the world, its location on the seaside is a constant reminder of its humble roots.
The seaside road running from the southwest end of Abu Dhabi Island to the northeast, running parallel to the other major arteries of the city, is called the Corniche. The seaside area of Abu Dhabi has recently been redeveloped after a major land reclamation project, and the Corniche now boasts beautiful gardens, parks, and shaded open-air lounges running along both sides of the road. The long, unbroken promenade along the Gulf coast is the perfect place for exercise and relaxation and is a popular walking spot for residents of the city.
The Corniche runs the length of Abu Dhabi’s harbor and features several beaches, some of which include concessions areas. The northeastern end of the Corniche terminates in the Al-Mina district, home to Abu Dhabi’s massive Port Zayed seaport. A great place to take in the seaside sights of Abu Dhabi, the Corniche is another must-see for any and all visitors to the city.
Falconry is a major part of Abu Dhabi’s traditional culture. For centuries, natives of the region have bred falcons for hunting and sport. While some of Abu Dhabi’s old cultural practices have fallen out of favor with the discovery of oil and the subsequent accumulation of riches, falconry survives as a popular sport to this day. Emirati falconers pursue their sport in the desert, where these birds of prey are let loose by their owners to hunt and freely enjoy themselves.
Falconry is such a major part of Emirati life, in fact, that Abu Dhabi contains a hospital specializing in the treatment of falcons. Established in 1999, the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world. The hospital employs a team of world-class veterinarians with special knowledge of falcon anatomy to care for injured and sick falcons. Unlike most hospitals, this one conducts tours: visitors can view the facilities and the adjacent falconry museum, although an advanced booking is required. If you’ve ever wanted a chance to view the majestic falcon up close, the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is an attraction you shouldn’t miss.
Abu Dhabi isn’t all about oil and falconry. Ever since the beginning of its ascendency, the emirate has always had grand ambitions, and none of its ambitions are grander than the plans for Saadiyat Island. Located just to the northwest of Abu Dhabi Island, Saadiyat is, according to the Emirati authorities, destined to become the new cultural center of the UAE capital. Construction is already underway on a Guggenheim Museum designed by famous architect Frank Gehry as well as a branch of the Louvre.
Saadiyat’s greatest landmarks are not yet completed, but that doesn’t mean the island isn’t worth visiting. Travelers who want to explore a bit outside of the city of Abu Dhabi should visit Manarat al-Saadiyat. Manarat is essentially a welcome center, but it’s also more than that – the center houses a running series of art exhibits and a gallery detailing the proposed improvements to the island. While the island itself has not yet become “a cultural asset for the world”, as ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan says he hopes it will become, Manarat al-Saadiyat is still well worth a look.
Up until a decade ago, the Emirati authorities never much considered Abu Dhabi’s tourism potential. Observant travelers will probably be able to tell the capital of the Emirates is still, above all else, a city of business and trade. Even so, Abu Dhabi has something to offer almost every traveler, no matter where his or her interests lie.