Driving through modern Abu Dhabi’s suburban sprawl, it’s easy not to notice that the city is built on an island rather than on the mainland itself; it wasn’t until the construction of the Maqtaa Bridge in 1966 that the two were connected. The city’s waterfront location is best appreciated from the sweeping, waterfront Corniche, which runs for the best part of 5km along Abu Dhabi’s western edge, lined with spacious gardens on either side and flanked by a long and impressively tall line of glass-clad high-rises (best viewed from the Heritage Village across the water).
Several of the city’s most striking recent developments can be found at the southwestern end of the Corniche Road. The huge Etihad Towers complex (wetihadtowers.com) is one of the city's major landmarks: a cluster of five futuristic skyscrapers, whose sinuous curved lines and highly polished metallic surfaces couldn’t be further removed from the über-traditional Emirates Palace opposite if they tried. They also offer one of the city’s finest views from the 74th-floor Observation Deck at 300 (in tower two; daily 10am–6pm; 75dh, including 50dh worth of food/drink in the attached café), at precisely 300m, as the name suggests.
Standing nearby in massive, solitary splendour above the Corniche is the ADNOC building, the appropriately huge HQ of the mega-rich Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Completed in 2014, this is the second-highest building in the city, standing 342m high and sporting a distinctive design with a black-glass skyscraper inside a kind of white frame. Slightly further along the Corniche, the Nations Towers development comprises two further similarly neck-cricking towers of slightly unequal height, joined at the top by a vertiginous sky-bridge, the world’s highest, housing the Abu Dhabi Suite of the St Regis hotel, complete with its own cinema, gym, spa and two-storey majlis – the UAE’s most expensive room, at a cool US$25,000 a night.
The Corniche Road is also a popular spot with local residents catching (or shooting) the breeze, particularly towards dusk, when it fills up with a diverse crowd of promenading Emiratis, jogging Europeans and picnicking Indians. There’s also an attractive blue-flag beach with safe swimming stretching from near the Hilton to Al Khaleej al Arabi Street (which is where you’ll find the main entrance). The best way to explore is by renting a bike from one of the four outlets of FunRideSports dotted along the Corniche (the main one is next to the Hiltonia Beach Club opposite the Hilton); prices start at 30dh/hr, or 20dh for kids.