Many people considering a holiday in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) immediately think of Dubai—a city renowned for its glamour and luxury, not to mention being home to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. Dubai has a well-deserved reputation as a fantastic holiday destination, but its lesser-known neighbour, Abu-Dhabi (the capital of the UAE), should certainly not be overlooked. This city has grown in popularity as a holiday destination in recent years, having gained attention as the setting for major films such as Sex in the City 2 (which in reality was filmed elsewhere) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Visitors are beginning to appreciate the quiet appeal of Abu Dhabi holidays, which contrast with the flashy opulence of Dubai. So, what does UAE’s capital have to offer, and why should you bump it to the top of your holiday wish list?
1. STUNNING ARCHITECTURE
Dubai may have the headline-grabbing ‘tallest building in the world’, but Abu Dhabi is also rich in architecture—both traditional and modern. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the largest mosques in the world. It was built between 1996 and 2007 to honour the founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and has the capacity for an astounding 40,000 worshippers. The mosque is open to visitors every day and entry is free. Visit at sunset and witness the unique lighting system that reflects the phases of the moon and highlights the building’s stunning white and gold design.
Take a day trip out to Al Ain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s earliest permanently inhabited settlements. The city has seven oases and numerous pretty forts that you can explore. There are plenty of activities to keep the whole family entertained, including museums, a theme park (Fun City), a zoo and white water rafting (Wadi Adventure).
Al Ain may be one of the oldest settlements in the world, but Masdar City is the world’s most innovative. In 2008, the city became a global leader in the move towards renewable energy and sustainable urban development. Masdar City is a low-carbon development built on three pillars of economic, social and environmental sustainability. It continues to evolve and is a world-leading model for clean technology. It is freely open to the public and should definitely be on your ‘must-see’ list.
2. ART AND CULTURE
Abu Dhabi’s cultural quarter opened in December 2018 and, when complete, will encompass a fully restored eighteenth-century fort, the Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, to name just a few attractions. The aim is to create a global cultural hub with the world’s largest concentration of cultural assets. The Louvre Abu Dhabi was one of the first buildings to open in the quarter and is a joint venture between Abu Dhabi and France. The museum houses objects and artwork from the most ancient to the most modern, across a diverse range of civilisations. Children under 13 can enter free of charge.
Throughout Abu Dhabi, there are countless museums to visit. From the contemporary Warehouse 421, with its modern buildings and rotating exhibitions, to the Heritage Village, which takes visitors on a journey through historic Abu Dhabi, there is something for everyone.
Abu Dhabi’s culture of hospitality and its rich traditions are evident throughout the city. Whether you’re taking a desert adventure, dining in a restaurant or relaxing in your resort, take the time to soak up the local stories, crafts and traditions around you. Avid culture vultures should time their trip to coincide with the annual Qasr Al Hosn festival. The festival runs for ten days in February and celebrates Abu Dhabi’s traditions and culture.
3. FIVE-STAR LUXURY/WORLD-CLASS SHOPPING
Abu Dhabi may be the quieter, more conservative neighbour to Dubai, but it can certainly stand its ground when it comes to luxury and opulence. If you’re planning a special holiday to Abu Dhabi, why not treat yourself to a stay at the Emirates Palace? This awe-inspiring building spans over half a mile and has 114 domes. The interior is breathtaking, with beautiful designs in gold, pearl and opal.
Beyond hotels and resorts, there are plenty of luxury shopping malls and dining experiences to enjoy. Possibly the most well-known is the Abu-Dhabi Mall, which offers 200 stores, including high-end shops, restaurants, cinemas and other entertainment. Yas Marina Mall is another huge shopping venue with premier shops and activities. If you’re seeking smaller, exclusive boutiques, Avenue et Etihad is the place to go.
There is no shortage of luxury dining options in this emirate. Asia de Cuba opened in the city after establishing a reputation in London. Enjoy a cocktail on the beach terrace or dine in the decadent interior. If you’re a fish or seafood lover, this could be the perfect choice for you. If you’re in the mood to push the boat out, Coya Abu Dhabi, located next to the Four Seasons Hotel, serves exquisite Peruvian food with dishes to suit all tastes, including vegetarian options. Abu Dhabi offers a diverse range of world-class dining options. Take your time to explore and enjoy all the emirate has to offer.
4. FAMILY FUN
For families seeking the ultimate beach holiday, Abu Dhabi is hard to beat. Sunshine is guaranteed all year round and the beaches are excellent—many have blue flag status. The Corniche beach is one of the most popular, and offers a variety of water sports. Some visitors may find the heat excessive in the summer months, but there are great deals to be had at this time of the year. The kids can always be entertained with indoor activities in the hottest part of the day. The most popular time to visit is between December and March, making it a great winter sun destination. Abu Dhabi was also named the safest city in the world in 2017 and 2018 by Numbeo—a website for crowd-sourced local data.
Yas Waterworld is a firm favourite with families visiting the emirate. Besides pools and water slides, there are roller coasters, a fortress and shops. The water park also holds special events and fiestas to celebrate Eid Al Fitr and other occasions. It’s a 25-minute drive from Abu Dhabi and there are free shuttle buses from Saadiyat Island.
The falcon is the UAE’s national bird and falconry is an important part of UAE culture. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital offers visitors the opportunity to see these birds up close, watch them fly and discover more about them in the museum.
5. THRILLS AND ADVENTURE
Another one for the ‘must do’ list for visitors of all ages is Ferrari World. This indoor theme park is a great place for escaping the heat, with a number of Ferrari racing rides that you won’t find anywhere else in the world! If you’re feeling brave, try out the world’s fastest roller coaster—the Formula Rossa. It takes just five seconds to speed passengers up 52 metres into the sky. Another great option for racing fans is a visit to the Yas Marina Circuit, which offers a variety of track days.
A trip to the UAE would not be complete without a desert adventure. Ride a camel and sleep under the stars in the dramatic desert scenery of the Al Dhafra region. Alternatively, take the family on a wildlife safari on Sir Bani Yas Island and see who can be the first to spot a giraffe, gazelle or cheetah!
DUBAI VERSUS ABU DHABI: WHY CHOOSE?
UAE’s capital city has plenty to offer whether you’re seeking luxury, family time, culture or adventure. Year-round sunshine, excellent beaches, history, architecture, fine dining and luxury accommodation make Abu Dhabi a holiday destination to bump to the top of your holiday wish list this year. Quieter and more conservative than Dubai, it’s a good choice for those who are less interested in nightlife and more focused on absorbing the culture and traditions of the middle east.
But, why choose between the two? Dubai is less than an hour and a half’s drive from Abu Dhabi. A twin-centre break is a great way to enjoy both emirates. If you’re looking ahead to 2020 holidays, you could even speed between the two in just 12 minutes, when the new hyperloop is unveiled. This will be the world’s first hyperloop system (once again, Abu Dhabi and Dubai lead the way in cutting edge technology). Start planning a visit now and be one of the first to experience this exciting new development.