The capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi is the very model of a modern Gulf petro-city: thoroughly contemporary, unashamedly wealthy and decidedly staid. The emirate's lightning change from obscure fishing village into modern city-state within the past forty years is perhaps the most dramatic of all the stories of oil-driven transformation that dot the region, although locals have long prided themselves on the city’s more slow-paced and traditional lifestyle compared to Dubai, happy to live in the shadow of their upstart neighbour. Things are changing, however, and recent years have seen the city increasingly competing for local bragging rights and making its own concerted bid for the global tourist and business dollar, with a string of landmark new mega-projects slowly taking shape across the city and a skyline now almost as upwardly mobile as Dubai’s own.
The city’s two standout attractions are the stunning Sheikh Zayed Mosque, one of the world’s largest and most extravagant places of Islamic worship, and the ultra-opulent Emirates Palace Hotel– while the spectacular new Abu Dhabi Louvre, hopefully open (or about to open) by the time you read this, promises to add further significant gloss to the city’s burgeoning tourist credentials. Other highlights include the memorable modern souk at the World Trade Center, the contrastingly traditional Heritage Village, offering superb views of the sweeping, skyscraper-lined Corniche, and the stunning modern developments gradually taking shape on Al Maryah and Al Reem islands.
Abu Dhabi isn’t as vastly spread out as Dubai, but still stretches over a considerable area – even the city centre’s main sights are too widely scattered to be comfortably walkable (it’s 8km from the Emirates Palace on the southwest side of the centre to the Abu Dhabi Mall on the opposite flank). Fortunately there are plenty of inexpensive city taxis available to ferry you around the city, as well as for longer trips out to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque (15km from the centre) and beyond.
The city is actually built on an island, connected to the mainland by three bridges: (from north to south) Sheikh Zayed Bridge, Al Maqtaa Bridge and Mussafah Bridge. These bridges connect in turn to the three main roads across the island: Al Salam Street, Al Maktoum Street and Al Khaleej al Arabi Street. Memorize this basic layout, and you’ll hopefully not go too far wrong.
Route-finding and orientation are generally straightforward thanks to the city’s fairly regular grid plan, although potential confusion is provided by the city’s street names. All major roads have both a number and a name (or sometimes two). Odd-numbered roads run up and down the island, starting with the Corniche Road (1st Street); even-numbered roads run across the island. Names are more complicated. Most major roads have a modern Arabic name, although different parts of the same street may have different names (the city-centre 5th Street, for example, is known as Al Nasr Street at one end and Hamdan bin Mohammed Street – or just Hamdan Street – at the other). A few old pre-independence names also remain in occasional use (7th Street, for example: officially Sheikh Zayed the First Street but also known as Electra Street; or 9th Street, officially Al Falah Road but also occasionally referred to as Old Passport Road). Road signs generally show a mix of numbers and modern names.
Driving into Abu Dhabi along the main Dubai highway you can’t fail to notice the extraordinary Aldar HQ building, headquarters of the Aldar property group and intended to form the centrepiece of the still-evolving Al Raha Beach development. Dubbed “the world’s first circular skyscraper”, it looks rather like an enormous magnifying glass, crisscrossed with a diagonal grid of steel supports which largely remove the need for internal columns. It’s well worth a closer look, and you’re free to go inside the lobby for a glimpse of the building’s airy interior.
Immediately beyond downtown, on the far side of a narrow sea inlet, a cluster of dramatic skyscrapers announces the city’s new financial district, Al Maryah Island. Abu Dhabi’s biggest and most futuristic urban development, the island is still very much a work in progress but has already sprouted a modest crop of wacky skyscrapers whose outlandish outlines hint at the architectural madness yet to come.
Centrepiece of the development (and the only part more or less finished at present) is the dramatic Abu Dhabi Global Market Square (or Sowwah Square, as it was previously known, and is still often described), with four massive skyscrapers surrounding the distinctively anvil-shaped Abu Dhabi Global Market building. Beneath this, the very chic Galleria shopping mall (looking like some kind of postmodern armadillo) swoops down to water level, where an attractive new pedestrianized promenade, dotted with cafés and restaurants, stretches down along the water to the quirky Cleveland Clinic building, resembling a pile of haphazardly piled transparent Lego bricks.
Cosying up against the southeastern flank of Al Maryah, the larger Al Reem Island is also in the throes of massive transformation, with further skyscrapers mushrooming up on a seemingly daily basis. Even from a considerable distance you can’t fail to notice The Gate Towers at the centre of the island’s Shams Abu Dhabi development – a trio of colossal towers capped by a huge skybridge, like a very futuristic but slightly wonky wicket.
The workaday Al Mina port district, stretching north of Al Zahiyeh, is where you’ll find Abu Dhabi’s closest equivalents to a traditional souk. First up is the so-called Carpet Souk, a modest square surrounded by small shops. Most of the stock on offer consists of low-grade factory carpet, though some places have more valuable traditional rugs and kilims if you hunt around. A five-minute walk beyond here, the Food Souk is aimed largely at the wholesale trade, although there’s a colourful line of date merchants at the southern end. A short distance west of here is the Al Mina Fish Market, with the day’s catch lined up along the quay.
Three bridges connect Abu Dhabi with the mainland, crossing the narrow sea inlet which separates the city from the mainland close to one another about 15km from the centre. Crossing Al Maqtaa Bridge, the middle of the three, you’ll probably notice an old watchtower sitting in the middle of the water, while just over the bridge you’ll pass the quaint little Al Maqtaa Fort (not open to the public), which once guarded approaches to the city.
The area south of here, on the mainland between Al Maqtaa and Mussafah bridges – now popularly (if unimaginatively) known as Between the Bridges (Bain al Jessrain) – has become a major tourist destination with the recent opening of a string of hotels, including the opulent Shangri-La.
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.
Standing in solitary splendour at the western end of the city is the vast Emirates Palace Hotel. Opened in 2005, it was intended to rival Dubai’s Burj al Arab and provide Abu Dhabi with a similarly iconic “seven-star” landmark – although in fact the two buildings could hardly be more different. Driveways climb up through the grounds to the main entrance to the hotel, which sits in an elevated position above the sea and surrounding gardens. It’s impressively stage-managed, although the only really unusual thing about the building is its sheer size: 1km in length, 114 domes, 140 elevators, 2000 staff and so on. The quasi-Arabian design, meanwhile, is disappointingly pedestrian and much of the exterior looks strangely drab and even a little bit cheap – ironic, really, given that the hotel is believed to have been the most expensive ever built (at a rumoured cost of US$3 billion). All of which means the Emirates Palace is as cautiously conservative as the Burj al Arab is daringly futuristic and innovative – which says a lot about the contrasting outlooks of the two very different cities which they represent.
The interior is far more memorable, centred on a dazzling central dome-cum-atrium, with vast quantities of marble and huge chandeliers. Cavernous corridors stretch out for what seem like miles towards the rooms in the two huge flanking wings – you can work up a healthy appetite just walking between your room and the lobby, and even staff have been known to get lost. The six “ruler’s suites”, with gold-plated fittings throughout, are more conveniently situated, but are reserved for visiting heads of state. Visitors with cash to drop can shop to impress at the world’s first gold vending machine (in the lobby), which dispenses over three hundred pure-gold products, including miniature gold ingots. Non-guests can visit for a meal at one of the numerous restaurants, or drop in for a sumptuous afternoon tea – although it's a good idea to reserve in advance.
Directly behind the Emirates Palace is Abu Dhabi’s staggeringly vast Presidential Palace. Finished in 2015 at a reputed cost of almost half a billion US dollars, the palace's rambling Arabian-style skyline of endless marble-clad domes, cupolas and towers looks like almost a mirror image of the adjacent Emirates Palace, and equally huge, or perhaps slightly more so.
Dramatically situated on the Corniche Road-facing side of the Breakwater – a small protuberance of reclaimed land jutting out from its southern end – the Heritage Village offers a slice of traditional Abu Dhabi done up for the visiting coach parties who flock here for whistle-stop visits, although it's the spectacular views over the water to the Corniche that are perhaps the main attraction (best appreciated over a coffee or juice at the slightly moth-eaten Al Asalah Restaurant right on the waterfront at the back of the complex). The “village” itself consists of a string of picturesque barasti huts including a number of workshops where local artisans – carpenters, potters, brass-makers and so on – can sometimes be seen at work. The so-called “traditional market”, however, is basically just a few ladies flogging cheap handicrafts out of a further huddle of huts.
Immediately beyond the Heritage Village you can’t fail to notice the enormous flagpole, visible for miles around. At 123m, this was formerly claimed to be the tallest in the world, until topped in 2003 by one in Jordan (made, ironically, in Dubai). The quaint little octagonal building right next to the flagpole is the Abu Dhabi Theatre, its secular function belying its decidedly mosque-like appearance, complete with hemispherical dome and colourful Islamic tiling.
Dominating the centre of the Breakwater, the large Marina Mall is one of the city’s largest and most popular shopping destinations, built around a disorienting series of circular atriums complete with miniature fountains and topped with tent-style roofs. The mall’s main attraction for non-shoppers is its views of the long string of glass-faced high-rises lining the Corniche. These are best appreciated from the soaring Marina Sky Tower, located at the back of the mall, accessible for the price of a drink or meal at either the Colombiano coffee shop or Tiara revolving restaurant, both of which also offer bird's-eye views of the new Fairmont hotel – a huge pink monstrosity currently under construction directly behind the mall.
If somewhere like Yas Island is exactly what you’d expect in a place built on petroleum and in which the motor car is king, Masdar City is a complete surprise: the kernel of a brand-new zero-carbon, zero-waste green city, car-free and entirely self-sufficient in energy (using solar power and other renewable sources). Originally intended to cover some six square kilometres and provide a home to around 50,000 residents and 1500 businesses, the whole project has been more or less stalled since the credit crunch, although the small section so far completed is well worth a visit, and offers a tantalizing glimpse of what the twenty-second-century city might just conceivably look like.
Around 12km south of the Corniche, the Midtown area is dominated by the huge Zayed Sports City complex (home to Abu Dhabi’s test cricket ground, international tennis centre and numerous other sporting facilities), the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre and, most strikingly, the eye-bogglingly odd Capital Gate skyscraper: a huge (160m), steeply tilted skyscraper apparently on the point of toppling over like a drunkard in heavy weather. The building has been officially recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s most tilted tower and is popularly (if not very originally) known as the Leaning Tower of Abu Dhabi – although its eighteen-degree incline is actually more than four times that of the famous Italian landmark.
More or less at the very centre of Abu Dhabi sits Qasr al Hosn (“The Palace Fort”), the oldest building in Abu Dhabi. The fort started life around 1761 as a single round watchtower built to defend the only freshwater well in Abu Dhabi, and was subsequently expanded in 1793, becoming the residence of Abu Dhabi’s ruling Al Nahyan family. In 1939, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan al Nahyan, the elder brother of Sheikh Zayed, began to significantly enlarge the complex using income raised from the first oil-prospecting concessions granted to foreign companies.
The fort continued to serve as the ruler’s palace and seat of government until Sheikh Zayed came to power in 1966, at which point the ruling family decamped and the fort was given over to purely administrative uses. It was eventually renovated, acquiring a bright new covering of white-painted concrete – hence its popular name of the “White Fort”. The large and rather plain whitewashed structure you see today is of no particular architectural distinction, although the rambling battlemented walls, dotted with a few watchtowers, are modestly pretty. The fort was under renovation at the time of writing and is due to reopen as a major new museum of Abu Dhabi’s historical and cultural heritage – although no one seems to have any idea of when this might happen.
Rising to the northwest of Qasr al Hosn is the huge The Landmark skyscraper with its distinctive curved summit. This was the tallest building (312m) in the city when finished in 2012, but has now already been eclipsed by both the Burj Mohammed bin Rashid and ADNOC HQ.
One of the chain of islands running between downtown Abu Dhabi and the mainland, Saadiyat Island (“Island of Happiness”) is slated to become the twenty-first-century jewel in Abu Dhabi’s cultural crown with the opening of the new Abu Dhabi Louvre and a slew of other attractions.
Pending the opening of the Louvre, Saadiyat’s main draw is the Saadiyat Public Beach, a beautiful blue-flag, lifeguard-patrolled beach, with a gorgeous swathe of fine white sand and facilities including toilets, showers and the Bake bistro kiosk. The protected dunes backing the sands support a delicate ecosystem whose vegetation survives on the ultimate slimmer’s diet of atmospheric moisture and coastal fog, as well as providing a nesting site for green and hawksbill turtles (mainly April to July) and local and migratory birds. Reptiles and mammals ranging from gerbils to gazelles can also be found here, while Indo-Pacific humpback and bottlenose dolphins can occasionally be seen in the waters offshore.
On the western side of the island, Manarat al Saadiyat hosts an exhibition showcasing the various developments planned here. It feels mainly like a glossy PR and sales exercise, although some of the architectural models and pictures are interesting, offering tantalizing glimpses of how the island may eventually look. The striking building next door – like a huge metal sand dune – is the UAE Pavilion, designed by Foster + Partners for the Shanghai World Expo 2010 and subsequently moved here at the end of the exhibition. It’s not regularly open, but hosts occasional exhibitions and cultural events.
Currently sleepier than a rather dusty dormouse, Saadiyat Island is set to become Abu Dhabi’s key tourist destination and home to a spectacular new US$27 billion cultural district featuring several world-class museums and other attractions – a key component in the city’s increasingly energetic attempts to raise itself up out of the shadows of Dubai, backed by the emirate’s apparently bottomless well of petrodollars.
Centrepiece of the district is the vast new Abu Dhabi Louvre (due to open in late 2016), housed in a spectacular, flying saucer-shaped building designed by Jean Nouvel and showcasing a wide range of European and Middle Eastern artefacts from the collection of the famous Parisian museum. A new Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum and a Sheikh Zayed National Museum by Foster + Partners are also planned, and although both have singularly failed to get built since they were first announced in 2006, the long-overdue opening of the Louvre suggests that the entire juggernaut project is finally at the point of getting off the ground.
Standing on the site of the city’s former main souk, the huge World Trade Center (previously known as the Central Market) is one of central Abu Dhabi’s most interesting recent developments. Much of the complex is concentrated in a pair of shiny cylindrical skyscrapers, the Trust Tower and Burj Mohammed bin Rashid. The latter is currently the tallest building in Abu Dhabi at 382m, named after the current ruler of Dubai, just as the tallest building in Dubai is named after the ruler of Abu Dhabi – although the latter’s Sheikh Khalifa has undoubtedly got the better of a rather unequal deal.
The centre's main attraction, however, is its marvellous souk, designed by Foster + Partners and offering a wonderfully original postmodern take on the traditional Middle Eastern bazaar. Housed in a kind of huge three-storey wooden box, the design blends traditional Arabian motifs with modern materials to memorable effect, with the intricate latticework of the enclosing wooden superstructure (reminiscent of traditional Arabian mashrabiya windows and screens) creating a marvellous play of light and shadow within. Take time to have a look at the outside of the souk, too, where the full ingenuity, artistry and scale of the enclosing box are fully revealed.
Shops around the ground floor include several handicrafts and souvenir shops, plus dedicated honey and spice shops – most of the stuff on offer is fairly humdrum, although hunt around and you might turn up some more interesting collectibles. There are also a couple of places to eat in the central atrium and a very chintzy branch of Shakespeare & Co.
On the other side of Khalifa bin Zayed the First Street, the recently opened WTC Mall continues the architectural theme of the souk, although in a significantly watered-down and less memorable way, complete with piped muzak and naff shops.
Exiting the east side of the WTC Mall brings you directly out onto Al Ittihad (“Union”) Square, home to an arresting sequence of oversized sculptures, including a vast cannon, enormous perfume bottle and gargantuan coffeepot – an endearingly quirky contrast to the largely drab surrounding architecture.
About 30–35km from the centre on the outermost edges of the city, not far from the airport, Yas Island is now home to several of the city’s key tourist attractions. Fast cars are the principal order of the day here thanks to the presence of the Yas Marina Circuit, which hosts the annual Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix along with various other races and activities. Overlooking the circuit on one side and the island’s swanky marina on the other you’ll notice the dramatic Yas Viceroy Hotel, topped by a 217m-long undulating glass-and-steel canopy studded with over five thousand LEDs which ripple memorably with changing light displays after dark.