The many treasures of Abu Dhabi

The capital of the UAE, this is the perfect destination to begin and end a trip to the Middle East

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As our plane descended just before the stroke of midnight into Abu Dhabi International Airport, the landscape was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Neat rows of earth-coloured villas and the surrounding streets were lit up, giving the stark desert landscape a golden glow.

Met on arrival, I was whisked away to my hotel, driving past the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, that even with bleary eyes, was utterly breathtaking.

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, is the perfect destination to begin and end a trip to the Middle East. If you want glitz, Abu Dhabi has it in spades. Though founded in 1761, it’s a modern city, with towering skyscrapers, landscaped parks, and a corniche that faces the iridescent waters of the Persian Gulf, and a pleasant place to stroll lined with beaches, restaurants, cafes, and hotels. I felt immediately at ease here.

There is a lot to see, so allow enough time to explore all that it offers. While the city centre is walkable, many of the attractions are deceptively some distance away. When I set out the next day, the Emirates Palace and Presidential Palace loomed large in the distance, though it took five hours to reach them.

Abu Dhabi
Source: Supplied

Begin at the Observation Deck at Etihad Towers for the best 360-degree views of the city. Explore historic mosques and Qasr Al Hosn, built in 1760 as a watch tower to guard a well of fresh water. Nearby, the World Trade Centre provides a reinterpretation of a souk, designed by the British Architect Norman Foster, and is a pleasant place to visit.

What is surprising is that most of the people you’ll meet are expats, from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Egypt, making up almost 90% of the population. And in the evening as the sky turns burnt orange, it seems everyone is out for a stroll, the best time to watch fishermen in Dhows going out to sea.

Beyond the city

Remarkable for its beauty and opulence, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, 16kms away from the city centre, is one of the world’s largest mosques, accommodating 40,000 visitors inside. Built from white marble, it has a roofline supported by over 1000 columns with floral designs inlaid with semi-precious stones, 82 domes, the world’s largest hand knotted carpet, and contemporary chandeliers with Swarovski crystals and gold. An opulent modern Islamic building for the modern age.

Linked by bridges, the islands of Abu Dhabi have their own distinctive character. Saadiyat Island, 8kms away, is where the Louvre Abu Dhabi is located. I spent an afternoon here – the stunning building defined by its striking silvery dome. Other museums slated to open include the Natural History Museum, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum, designed by the world’s leading architects.

Abu Dhabi Louvre, Source: Supplied

If it’s action and thrills that you’re after, Yas Island is home to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and several family friendly amusement parks offering rides including Ferrari World, with the world’s fastest roller coaster, Warner Bros World, and Yas Waterworld. Nearby Yas Mall provides global brand shopping with 370 shops.

Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi, Source: Supplied

For an eco-tourism experience, head to Mangrove National Park, home to wetlands that attract numerous species of birds including herons and flamingos. You can meander along a boardwalk or kayak here.

Further afield

A 25-minute drive from the city centre is where you’ll find the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, the world’s leading centre for falcon medicine, welfare, research and training. Visitors learn about the lifespan, history and cultural significance of the UAE’s national bird on an informative tour.

Al Ain, a two-hour drive away, is one of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited settlements, once a vital stop on the caravan route between Oman and the Persian Gulf. A lush oasis with natural groundwater springs, it has forts and museums to visit and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a date palm grove fed by a 3000-year-old channel system of irrigation. Nearby, and a fascinating place to visit, is the lively camel market with many camels for sale.

Source: Supplied

Also a two-hour drive away, is the world’s largest sand desert, regarded as the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. The arid landscape supports a surprising amount of wildlife, with Arabian oryx and camels roaming the dunes.

Four-wheel drive excursions by Jeep travel to Jebel Hafeet, the mountain that looms over the city and stretches to the border with Oman. From its summit, you can enjoy incredible views, while at the base are beehive shaped burial chambers dating back 5,000 years.
Abu Dhabi is a fascinating blend of modern and ancient and already I find myself planning a return trip there.

Travel Notebook

Entry For Australian passport holders, 30-day visas are issued free on arrival.
Fly Etihad Airways flies direct to Abu Dhabi from Sydney and Melbourne. Their airport lounge is recommended.

Stay Hotel prices vary depending on demand and season, with rates lower between May and September. I recommend staying near the corniche at the Sofitel or Hyatt for views, St Regis for the beach, or midrange the Courtyard by Marriott.

Getting around Abu Dhabi’s bus network is excellent, but you need a Halifat card to use it. There’s also a Big Bus, while taxis are reasonable and can be hired for the day.

Dine One of the main joys of Abu Dhabi is dining out and while hotels offer plush restaurants featuring seafood, Italian, French, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, budget options are outstanding, with entire streets dedicated to dining. Strike out between Sheikh Zayed the First St and Falah Street. An absolute must is Bait El Khetyar for Middle Eastern cuisine.

More information visitabudhabi.ae 

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Petra ONeill
Petra ONeill
After growing up in Australia's outback she enjoys visiting remote destinations in Australia for the wildlife, vast open spaces and brilliant night sky and travelling overseas to exotic destinations to experience different cultures. Her bag is always packed and ready for the next trip

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