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The Abu Dhabi Rundown

What do you do when the oil runs out? The United Arab Emirates may have the answer, or, to be more specific, Abu Dhabi may have the answer. Dubai’s brash, look-at-me posturing bullied and overshadowed the capital of the U.A.E. for years but lately, and most notably in the wake of the global economic crisis, it looks more and more like Abu Dhabi’s cautious, analytical pace might yet win it the day. Sure, Dubai’s financial clout, huge expat populace, sci-fi skyline and public relations machine still has it on top but a number of favourable signs point to the distinct possibility that in the near future, Abu Dhabi could well be the cultural and cosmopolitan capital of the new Arab world.

Of course, Abu Dhabi’s slow and steady tortoise to Dubai’s hare is the equivalent of a cheetah anywhere else. Mega-projects are being planned and built at breakneck speed, in spite of the inevitable hiccups that occurred during the worldwide financial meltdown. One need look no further than Saadiyat Island, the highly anticipated mixed-use project set for a grand 2020 unveiling. With highlights like Louvre Abu Dhabi, a Guggenheim franchise with requisite Pritzker Prize architect, championship golf course and satellite campus of New York University, Saadiyat Island is the perfect poster child for the U.A.E.’s collective aspirations.

That ambitious zeal is evident even in Abu Dhabi’s more laid-back haunts, from Corniche coffeeshops to the numerous beaches that line the emirate’s coast. See the Emirates Palace over here, a city-like luxury hotel complex built for over AED 11 billion. See the Sheikh Zayed Mosque over there, a magnificent leviathan testament to modern Islamic pride. Confident and ever-secure in its place in the Arabian Peninsula and, indeed, the world, Abu Dhabi is an enchanting city to discover.

Abu Dhabi’s Top 10

10. Abu Dhabi Heritage Village is next to the city’s immense flagpole and impossible to miss as a result. The open-air museum offers a nice glimpse of traditional U.A.E. life before the oil boom years.

5. Emirates Palace is much, much more than a standard luxury hotel. The incomparable Abu Dhabi landmark has a pristine private beach, lap pools, a rugby and football pitch and oasis-like gardens that surpass 100 hectares.

9. Ferrari World The U.A.E. was a deliberate, strategic choice to host the first Ferrari theme park in the world. For the time being, the Yas Island attraction is the largest indoor amusement park anywhere and contains the fastest roller coaster on the planet.

4. Qasr al-Hosn is a rare breed in Abu Dhabi: a landmark that pre-dates the discovery of oil in the emirate. Built in the late 18th century, the white palace fort is the former home of the powerful Al Nahyan family.

8. Al Wahda Mall is one of the most visible landmarks in Abu Dhabi and hosts the typical arsenal of upmarket shops and food court restaurants.

3. Khalidiyah Mall is a behemoth, with countless options for your leisure and entertainment pleasure.

7. Marina Mall is a colossal, shiny place to escape the desert heat and spend some lolly in the process.

2. Abu Dhabi Corniche is the principal thoroughfare and pulse point in the city.

6. Emirates National Auto Museum exhibits Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan’s truly singular collection of rare automobiles.

1. Sheikh Zayed Mosque was built for AED 2 billion in the 1990s and has a capacity of more than 40,000.

Abu Dhabi History

  • Heritage Village – The oasis-style village on the Corniche Breakwater is complete with a souk.
  • Women’s Handicraft Centre - Local women gather here to sell their traditional products.
  • Al Bateen Shipyard – The oldest inhibited area of the city, which forged the traditional “dhow” sailing boats and still practices ancient rituals.
  • Al Maqta Fort – Built 200 years ago, it was used as a military checkpoint.
  • Qasr Al Hosn – This fort was constructed in 1761 and was the traditional residence for the ancient leaders of Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi Art & Culture

  • Saadiyat Island – A world-class cultural hub housing the world’s largest concentration of premier cultural assets.
  • The Folklore Gallery – A great display of local pottery and art.
  • Al Ain National Museum – Presents the various aspects of life in UAE with a variety of objects.
  • Emirates Palace – A national landmark that is host to many shows and arts performances.
  • Barakat Gallery – An extravagant exhibition of genuine antiquities from China, Egypt and Africa.

Abu Dhabi Shopping

  • The Souk at Central Market – A traditional Arabian souk offering an extensive range of traditional and regional goods.
  • Khalifa Centre – Treat family and friends to Iranian carpets in this ethnic mall.
  • Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre & Gold Centre – With more than 400 stores, the centre also includes a big textile market.
  • Abu Dhabi Mall – Discover Abu Dhabi’s high-end shopping scene with this modern complex.
  • Khalidiyah Mall – Experience the most unique shopping experience in this mall featuring distinctive Islamic architecture.

Gay & Lesbian Abu Dhabi

  • Garden of Abela – A queer garden in the city, which becomes exciting at night.
  • Le Meridien Hotel – The bar attracts locals as well as gays.
  • Bedouin Beach Party – The largest party in Abu Dhabi’s LGBT scene.
  • Alfredo Cafe – Eye contact should work in the middle of coffee and snacks.
  • Hamdan Centre – The largest and most diverse crowd of gays in the city.

Abu Dhabi Outdoor

  • Al Ain Paradise – Home to 10 million flowers and a world-record number of hanging baskets.
  • Arabian Wildlife Park – Featuring more than 10,000 free-roaming animals.
  • Hili Fun City – Boasting 28 attractions for all ages, it is the perfect destination for families with young children.
  • Capital Gardens – Take a fresh breath of air in this patch of green in the middle of the hectic city.
  • Al Bateen Beach – Perfect for waterfront picnics, jet skiing and fishing.

Abu Dhabi Sport

  • Witness word-class motor sports in action at the Yas Marina racetrack.
  • Sail in the traditional Arabian dhow from the Breakwater.
  • Try deep-sea fishing at one of the many stunning beaches in Abu Dhabi.
  • Play a leisurely game of nine-hole golf complete with water challenges at Abu Dhabi City Golf Club.
  • Watch camel racing at the Camel Racing Federation at Al Wathba.

Abu Dhabi Local

Abu Dhabi is the capital city of the United Arab Emirates but is also the name of an emirate as well, an important distinction for visitors to keep in mind.

The Western Region, or Al Gharbia spans the Empty Quarter and borders both Oman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Sand dunes and vast desertscapes typify the region but a few friendly destinations proliferate, from the agricultural area of Liwa to the coastal town of Ruwais. The town of Madinat Zayed and Sir Baniyas Island both contain some hotels and resorts of note.

Al Ain is the second-largest city in Abu Dhabi Emirate and a historic one at that. A true oasis, the city of 375,000 people is poised to inherent the mantle of new tourism dynamo in the U.A.E. All in all, Al Ain is well worth the 130 km trip from Abu Dhabi proper.

The shiny new, deliberate leisure, entertainment, and cultural pulse points of the U.A.E., Yas Island and Saadiyat Island, both link up with the Abu Dhabi mainland. A bevy of calculated distractions abound here, from Yas Marina Circuit to Yas Links golf course, the future Louvre Abu Dhabi to the future Frank Gehry-built Guggenheim Museum. Though relatively quiet now, both areas are prime targets for enormous residential and commercial expansion.

Al Raha is a beachfront area slated for major development in the years to come.

Bayn Al Jassrayn, literally “between two bridges”, is the area of the mainland close to the city of Abu Dhabi. Hotels, shops, malls and restaurants dot the quarter, which resides a mere 15 minutes from both the airport and the heart of the city.

The island that confines the city of Abu Dhabi is the destination of choice for the vast majority of visitors. Downtown, the main central business district, borders the Corniche and is easy to spot, as a haven of high rise developments. As a hive of activity with big malls and modern hotels and access to important points of interest, the core of Abu Dhabi is attractive to tourists and locals alike. On a good day, it takes half an hour to reach the airport from downtown Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi Eat & Drink

Royal Orchid (Hilton Abu Dhabi, Al Khubeirah) serves above-average Thai food and has a nice ambiance to boot.

Hakkasan (Emirates Palace) is one of several brilliant restaurants in the swanky, über-luxe Emirates Palace. The menu features modern Chinese cuisine.

Café Arabia (15th Street between 2nd/Airport Road and 24th/Karamah) is a gem in Abu Dhabi that blends East and West in a beautiful former villa full of local art.

Mombasa Grille (Souq Qaryat Al Beri, Bain al Jesrain) cranks out wonderful market to table fare inspired by the rich cultural heritage of Kenya’s second city.

Noodle House (Al Wahda Mall, 11th Street) is the place to be for a solid noodle fix.

Marrakesh (Al Marzakiyah Millennium Hotel) serves up a deliciously immersive Morrocan experience.

Finz (Beach Rotana Hotel) serves top-drawer fish and seafood dishes.

Lebanese Flower (Hamdan & 4th Sts Al-Manhal) is the best affordable Lebanese restaurant in Abu Dhabi and has legions of loyal customers to show for it.

Ushna (Souq Qaryat Al Beri) is lovely bet for posh Indian cuisine with soul.

Sayad (Emirates Palace), Arabic for “fisherman”, has a gorgeous outdoor terrace and sumptuous seafood menu.

Abu Dhabi Events

Abu Dhabi’s cultural scene has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, as officials and civic leaders look to attract a more cosmopolitan brand of expat and tourist. The city now flaunts one of the most eclectic calendar of events in the entire Arabian Peninsula and Middle East.

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit is one of the most popular stops in Formula 1, not just with drivers but with fans as well. The race is the sole event of the Grand Prix season to take place at night, under flood lights.

Abu Dhabi Film Festival is one of the newcomers in the U.A.E. and has been held since 2007 under the patronage of Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage. The festival promotes the growth of the regional film industry and features big international names as well.

Abu Dhabi is a rare international city to host Creamfields, the gigantic DJ and dance music festival. The event takes place at Yas Arena on Yas Island.

Al Gharbia Festivals encompass a wide range of regional events and interests, from watersports and falconry, to date cultivation and camel races.

Liwa Date Festival is held every July, with explicit aims to put Liwa and the Western Region of Abu Dhabi on the international tourism map.

Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition is a multifarious national festival in September with art competitions, traditional hunting and equestrian events, camel auctions and saluki beauty contests. Visitors who love the great outdoors can peruse the latest camping, hunting, equestrian and weaponry gear from hundreds of international brands.

WOMAD, the most venerable world music festival, comes to the Abu Dhabi Corniche and Al Ain Fort every April, with a reliable lineup of superb global talent.

Abu Dhabi Classics features a first rate ensemble of concerts at Emirates Palace, open-air stages, theatres and desert milieus from October to May.

Abu Dhabi Festival is the most comprehensive classical arts festival in the U.A.E. and one of the best in the Middle East. The linchpin festival cements Abu Dhabi’s reputation as a pre-eminent platform for and nurturer of creative expression in the Arab world.

Gourmet Abu Dhabi is a supreme gastro-fest that pairs international celeb and Michelin-star chefs with local restaurants for two weeks every February.

When To Go

The weather in Abu Dhabi is consistent with a hot arid climate, with high average temperatures and little to no rainfall from one month to the next (indeed, the city receives just over 100 mm of precipitation for the entire year). The most comfortable time to visit is from December to February, when temperatures run from 54°F (12°C) to 79°F (26°C).

Humidity rises considerably from June to September, with torrid temperatures in the 77°F (25°C) to 102°F (39°C) range. Highs of 118°F (48°C) are not uncommon in the Persian Gulf summer. When the mercury spikes to such levels, visitors would do well to stay indoors.

Out in the desert, as you stray further from the coast, conditions change significantly, with wider swings between daytime highs and nighttime lows.

What To Miss

Abu Dhabi is a relatively immaculate, safe city and, happily, devoid of flagrant tourist traps. Hyper growth in recent years, however, has led to a considerable rise in typical urban ills, namely traffic and sprawl. The government has made road safety education and the apprehension and punishment of reckless drivers a priority.

The United Arab Emirates is a devout Islamic state and, as such, visitors need to be aware of social customs and rules and regulations with regard to alcohol sales and consumption, dress and the like. To obtain alcohol outside of 4 and 5 star hotel bars and restaurants, for example, visitors can apply for a special permit. The temporary licence places a quota on monthly purchases in correlation with the holder’s annual salary.

Respectful dress is a necessary part of life in Abu Dhabi as well. As such, avoid sleeveless tops, shorts and short skirts altogether. Throughout the month-long observance of Ramadan, residents, in general, restrain from conduct incompatible with Islamic mores. Visitors are strongly recommended from doing the same and should not smoke, drink or eat in public until after dusk.

Getting Around

Abu Dhabi International Airport is on the mainland and a 30 km drive from the city. The airport is in the final phase of a colossal overhaul and improvement scheme, as the emirate plays catch up to cope with a fourfold jump in total passengers over the past decade or so. When the terminal expansion work comes to a close, total capacity at Abu Dhabi International will top out at 20 million passengers per year. For now, the hub serves such far-flung destinations as Astana, London-Heathrow, Toronto and Sydney. Another alternative, of course, is to fly in to Dubai International and hire a taxi or bus to Abu Dhabi upon arrival.

Abu Dhabi, like the United Arab Emirates as a whole, is not made for pedestrians. Climate and the basic urban layout of the city both play a part in the blatant car culture. To get from point A to point B, rent a car from a reputable international company or flag down a white-and-gold or silver cab.

For day trips to Dubai and other emirates, check out the long-distance taxi stand and main bus terminal on the corner of East Road and Haza’a bin Zayed Street.

HC Blog

Abu Dhabi: Cosmopolitan Oasis

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