Historic and cultured, Abu Dhabi is fast emerging from Dubai’s shadow. From the city’s famous Corniche to the lush desert oasis of Al Ain, there’s much to admire here says Nick Boulos
Where? Northern coast of the United Arab Emirates
Why? Desert, beaches and an abundance of Middle Eastern hospitality
Capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi has long languished in the shadow of Dubai – an hour’s drive north-east – but the city is fast emerging as a destination in its own right. While Dubai is futuristic and hedonistic, Abu Dhabi prides itself on being a cultural alternative with some of the finest mosques and museums in the whole of the Middle East.
There are the gargantuan shopping malls and glitzy hotels one would expect from the UAE, but also small heritage villages that offer a glimpse of days gone by.
While very much a place that holds dear its past, change is coming to Abu Dhabi at a rapid pace. Plans are well underway for a new cultural district that will shine a global spotlight on the city. Due for completion in 2020, the vast complex on Saadiyat Island (saadiyat.ae) will include eye-catching architecture housing branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums (due to open in 2015 and 2017 respectively) and the Zayed National Museum, dedicated to Islamic art.
Beyond the city, Abu Dhabi is wild and untamed with landscapes of infinite deserts best explored by camel or 4x4 and underwater worlds of shipwrecks and coral reefs. With all this and more, Abu Dhabi challenges everything you think you know about the Emirates.
International flights (duration from Heathrow is around seven hours) land at Abu Dhabi International Airport, located 40km from the city centre. As a growing hub linking travellers from the UK to Asia and beyond, it has everything you’d need and expect from a 21st century airport. There’s free wi-fi, ATMs, more than a dozen currency exchange booths and free of charge showers (available near departure gates 32 and 37). There are lounges available to economy passengers for a charge of AED100 (£18). You’ll find a tourism office in arrivals. Taxis and public buses are available outside the terminal.
Passengers arriving at the airport have three transfer options: metered taxis, fixed fared limousines and shuttle buses. A limo will set you back AED120 (£22) while a taxi will cost around AED75 (£13). Shuttle buses offer the cheapest transfer (www.ojra.ae). The green and white 901 bus connects all three terminals to downtown Abu Dhabi, where the service terminates at the Old Fish Market on Al Nasr St. Journey time is 45 minutes with departures running around the clock every 40 minutes. A one-way ticket costs just AED3 (50p).
Abu Dhabi is easily reached from Dubai. The two cities, just 90 minutes drive apart, are linked by regular buses (www.rta.ae), which depart from Dubai’s Ghubaiba bus station. A one-way fare is AED20 (£3.50).
Exploring Abu Dhabi by foot can be a sweaty and tiring experience but the city is blessed with a cheap and efficient bus network (www.ojra.ae). One-way tickets cost just AED2 (35p).
Stroll along the Corniche and enjoy the majestic Grand Mosque
Give the day a spiritual start with a visit to the appropriately named Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. One of the biggest in the world, it is the only mosque in the city to allow entry to non-Muslims. Inside, the sprawling complex is one of Greek marble columns, chandeliers of Swarovski crystals and 82 majestic white domes. Remember to dress respectfully and pay your respects to the UAE’s first president whose tomb stands within the complex.
From there, venture downtown and stroll along the 3km-long Corniche. Pause for a paddle on the adjacent blue-flag beach before heading to the nearby Abu Dhabi Heritage Village (+971 2 681 4455), designed to replicate how Emiratis once lived. The site, which includes an interesting museum, is also a good spot for lunch.
From there, shop ‘til you drop in the three-storey air-conditioned Abu Dhabi Mall or the fragrant Al Meena markets.
Speed fiends will enjoy Yas Island, located to the east. Here you’ll find the Yas Marina Circuit, home of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix, where it’s possible to tour the track and go for a drive. Finish the day at Abdel Wahab (Souk Qaryat Al Beri, +971 2 558 1616) for some delicious mezze and shisha (fruit flavoured tobacco smoked through a water pipe) with views of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Big is beautiful in the Emirates and there’s no shortage of high-end resorts to choose from in Abu Dhabi.
Top end: The new 377-room St. Regis on Saadiyat Island delivers on five-star comfort and style. There’s a spa, four restaurants and miles of pristine beachfront to enjoy. Doubles from AED1,300 (£220), including breakfast.
Mid-range: Located within the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre is the trendy Aloft Hotel. Rooms are design led and the rooftop pool is the perfect place to cool down. Doubles from AED300 (£50), including breakfast.
Budget: The rooms at the centrally located Al Diar Mina Hotel are a little tired but comfortable and spacious. Many offer nice views over the Gulf. Doubles from AED180 (£31), room only.
Stay, but only for a day or two. Abu Dhabi itself makes for an unusual stopover en route to the Far East or Australasia but it is not one of the world’s greatest cities.
Those with time to spare should consider travelling further afield within the UAE: to the skyscrapers and souks of Dubai or the desert oasis of Al-Ain, home to historic forts and lively camel markets. When it comes to Dubai, it’s helpful to put preconceptions to one side. Yes, it’s big and brash but it’s also layered with an intriguing past and invigorating present, with some of the finest food and drink in the region. Cruise the busy Dubai Creek on a rickety abra (wooden boat) and venture to the top of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa that stands at 828m.
A two-hour drive further south of Abu Dhabi is Al-Ain. Known as the Garden City for its 150,000 date palms, it’s the country’s second largest city and sits on the border with Oman.
Main attractions include the former royal residence of Al Jahili Fort, built in 1891, and the Al-Ain National Museum displaying archaeological exhibits from the Bronze Age. Then, once you’ve done all that, why not hop across the border into Oman?
Population: 2.5 million
International dialling code: +971 (2)
Visas: Not required by British passport holders.
Currency: United Arab Emirati Dirham (AED), currently around AED5.6 to the UK£.
Highest viewpoint: The Observatory Deck at 300 on the 74th floor of Jumeirah at Etihad Towers number 2.
Health: No vaccinations are required for travel. The biggest health risk is the intense Arabian sun. Take care to avoid heatstroke and dehydration.
Recommended guidebooks: Dubai & Abu Dhabi (Lonely Planet, 2012), The Rough Guide to Dubai & the United Arab Emirates (Rough Guide, 2009).
Web resources: The official Abu Dhabi tourism website offers a comprehensive look at the city.
iPhone app: The iThinkDiff Arabic Dictionary app is useful for language translation.
Climate: Temperatures are high year-round though winter nights can be chilly. Summers are hot and humid with temperatures rising to 48°C. Winter is more bearable with average temperatures of 24°C.
Caring for the much-loved national emblem of the UAE, the award-winning Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital offers visitors an up-close glimpse of these impressive birds of prey.