The largest emirate, and the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi should definitely be on your radar as part of any Middle Eastern tourist itinerary …
Those in the know, like former resident and Irish hotelier Suzanne Mullen, describe Abu Dhabi in fond terms. It’s no less glitzy than its neighbouring emirate Dubai, and has much to offer tourists. “White sand beaches, clear blue waters of the Arabian Gulf, a sprawling desert, world-class museums and architecture, the fastest rollercoaster in the world and amazing live music, there is so much to do in Abu Dhabi,” Suzanne enthuses. “Abu Dhabi feels quieter and more relaxed than Dubai, and that can be a good thing when planning a holiday. I always recommend friends visit between the months of October and April.”
The city is especially attractive for design-lovers and is home to many architecturally unique buildings, from magnificent mosques to show-stopping museums and man-made islands. Many of the impressive buildings on the city’s skyline were designed by Japanese architect Katsuhiko Takahashi.
Suzanne’s top three sight-seeing recommendations include:
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
This is not only an active mosque, which can hold up to 40,000 people, but is also known as one of the 7 New Wonders of the World. The vision of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE, it took 3,000 people to build over 13 years and is now the size of four football pitches. It’s impossible not to be inspired by its exquisite workmanship which showcases traditional Arabic calligraphy, intricate mosaic designs and vast marble columns (embedded with amethyst and jasper!). There are 82 marble domes and numerous 24-carat gold Swarovski crystal chandeliers too. There are free tours and audio guides to further understand the cross-cultural influences of this, the world’s largest mosque. Top Tip: For beautiful sunrise or sunset photos in front of The Grand Mosque, go to the Abu Dhabi Memorial Park where you’ll find the mosque reflecting onto the waters in front with the sun setting behind the mosque. It’s truly beautiful; www.szgmc.gov.ae.
Qasr Al Watan
This is the (working) presidential palace on the Corniche, where visitors can learn about the history of the UAE, its values and traditions. It was officially opened to the public in 2019 and its aim is to celebrate the UAE’s heritage. It’s often the backdrop for official visits from foreign dignitaries. It is open for tours which includes its extensive gardens, visitors centre, courtyard and The Great Hall, which is spectacular. If you do visit, you’ll see a gold installation called the “Power of Words” by local artist Mattar Bin Lahej which incorporates a quote by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayan that says, “Wealth is not money or oil, wealth lies in people and it is worthless if not dedicated to serve the people.” There is also an impressive collection of 50,000 books in the library, while the House of Knowledge is another room which houses rare manuscripts as well as historic works of calligraphy. Every evening there is a light and sound show which celebrates the UAE’s history; www.qasralwatan.ae.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Just ten minutes from downtown Abu Dhabi, this is an impressive cultural oasis in the desert. Designed by Pritzker prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is instantly recognisable with its vast silvery dome (composed of 7,850 stars) that seems to float above the museum. As the sun passes, these stars bathe the museum in beautiful shadows and patterns known as the “the rain of light.” As for the collections, some of the world’s most famous paintings can be found at the Louvre – depending on when you go. Highlights of the collection, loaned from French museums such as the Musee d’Orsay, Centre Pompidou and Louvre Paris, include Piet Mondrian’s “Blue, Red, Yellow and Black”, Paul Klee’s “Oriental Bliss” and Giovanni Bellini’s “Virgin and Child”. You can take a virtual tour before visiting. Top Tip: Do go to the Art Lounge on the roof-top of the Louvre for sunset drinks overlooking the Abu Dhabi skyline and Arabian Gulf; www.louvreabudhabi.ae.
For a lush exotic landscape filled with birdlife including flamingos and herons and mottled crabs, The Mangrove National Park is just on the edge of the city and is free to visit. Visitors can take a leisurely cruise or for the more active there is kayaking or paddle boarding – all are a great way to take in this natural wetland and its waterways; you might spot some turtles, and dolphins on the way. This is a crucial asset to Abu Dhabi – mangroves protect the coastline from tidal surges and remove carbon dioxide from the air. Ornithologists will be particularly interested in the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, which has walking trails and a bird-watching hide to observe the flamingos – there are some 4,000 living there during autumn and spring.
As for fun theme parks, it’s a question of so many to do, so little time! These include Ferrari World (which holds the world’s fastest roller coaster), Warner Bros Studios (the world’s largest indoor theme park), and Yas Water-World (one of the region’s largest and best water parks). Top Tip: Buy your tickets online beforehand for good offers such as two-day passes to two of the theme parks for approximately €35.
Check out concerts happening during your stay at the Du Arena. The Rolling Stones, Pink, Sting, Andrea Bocelli, Robbie Williams, Guns ‘n’ Roses and many more have played here. Top Tip: it is worth paying for Golden Circle tickets if you can, and ensure you have organised transport pick-up for after the concert (which can be organised via your hotel or tour group).
No trip to the emirate is complete without a visit to some of the spectacular malls. My preference? The Galleria on Al Maryah Island. It’s a very luxurious and hassle-free shopping experience with everything under one roof, from high street brands to designer boutiques.
As for where to stay? Suzanne recommends these top hotels:
Four Seasons, Al Maryah Island
Posh and pedestrian friendly, this is a great base in the city, for both sight-seeing and shopping. It’s located next to the Galleria Mall and just ten minutes drive from Saadiyat Island where you also have all the best beaches, and water sports. Even if you are not staying here, pop in and have a look at its Emirati art collection. Its steakhouse, Butcher & Still, is one of the most coveted in the city, and the hotel also has more casual Italian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants; www.fourseasons.com.
St Regis Abu Dhabi
If you want a beach holiday, this is my recommendation. Abu Dhabi’s best beaches are all located on Saadiyat Island, so the opulent St Regis is perfectly positioned. The scenic Corniche beach, which has Blue Flag status, is on its doorstep too, the marina is only a 15 minute walk away and there is an entrance to the Nation Galleria from within the hotel. Friday brunch at the St Regis is something of a must do on the Terrace, if bottomless champagne service and all the oysters you can eat is your preference. The hotel’s beach club has cool cabanas with mint-scented towels and free popsicles to keep guests feeling refreshed; www.marriott.com.
Anantara, Sir Bani Yas Island
Approximately two hours from central Abu Dhabi, Sir Bani Yas Island is a protected reserve founded by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Though it doesn’t compare to African safari experiences, it is home to free-roaming wildlife including giraffes, gazelles, Arabian oryx and more. This is a fun thing to do for a couple of nights if you are spending time in the region. The Anantara resort comprises gorgeous private villas with great natural views; www.anantara.com.
Qasr Al Sarab
For surreal relaxation, escape to the Empty Quarter and stay in the Liwa desert at the beautiful Qasr Al Sarab, approximately 1.5 hours from Abu Dhabi centre. Here you’ll find hills of rolling dunes, and when you’re there, you will wonder how the nomads and tribesmen of past times survived. For the ultimate experience, stay in one of the hotel’s pool villas, with your own private pool and dining area overlooking the desert and the roaming gazelles (who will come up close at dinner time!). Top Tips: Do the sunrise trek in the desert and watch the sun come up over the Empty Quarter followed by breakfast in the dunes. It is beautifully hypnotic. Similar treks are also available for sunset. If available, go half board with dinner included as dining can be expensive. Also, don’t rule out a high summer stay. Even though temperatures can be scorching, there are great deals to be had and the heat isn’t too bad as there is no humidity in the desert. You can also order set-up food on your private terrace (for lunch) which is lovely; www.anantara.com.
Where to eat? Suzanne recommends these restaurants:
While Abu Dhabi doesn’t have the same sizzling social scene of Dubai, it does have some lovely restaurants to visit (all serving alcohol). My favourites includes the buzzy Derwandi on the Corniche for very good Lebanese food. It is reasonably priced with live music and offers an authentic Middle Eastern dining experience – try some shisha when you’re there! Combine some shopping in the Galleria with lunch or dinner afterwards in La Petite Maison (or LPM to locals) on Al Maryah Island. It’s a high-end French bistro. I recommend the mid-week Business Lunch menu for value, though I also like popping in for pre-dinner cocktails or a nice G&T at the bar. Finally, Zuma on Al Maryah Island is a favourite for very good Japanese food from the international chain (pictured). Again, opt for their mid-week Business Lunch menu, which is good value.
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Need to Know: There are direct flights from Dublin to Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways. In March, the average temperature in Abu Dhabi is a warm 23°C, with highs of 29°C in the peak of the afternoon. At night the temperature dips to a cooler 17°C. Abu Dhabi expects just 10mm of rain in March, and with 11 hours of sunshine forecast each day it’s perfect beach weather at this time of year.
Suzanne Mullen is managing director of the Station House Hotel, Co Meath; www.stationhousehotel.ie.