Abu Dhabi might get flak for its supposed superficial sheen of modernity and luxury, but bubbling away below the surface is a thriving centre of arts and culture, buoyed by the triumphant just-opened Louvre Abu Dhabi. The city’s art scene is now getting its chance in the spotlight, and these are the best spots where you can go full culture vulture.

A general view shows people walking under the dome at the Louvre Abu Dhabi that was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel during its inauguration on November 8, 2017 on Saadiyat island in the Emirati capital. More than a decade in the making, the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its doors, bringing the famed name to the Arab world for the first time. Image by Ludovic Marin / AFP / Getty Images
The Louvre Abu Dhabi's roof, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, is a work of art in itself © Ludovic Marin / AFP / Getty Images

Best for international art: Louvre Abu Dhabi

A decade in the making, the Louvre Abu Dhabi finally opened in November 2017 to critical acclaim. Inside the exhibition space, 12 galleries made up of 55 buildings illustrate highlights and treasures of an era. Each room flows clearly to the next – evidence of the journey through time and the museum itself being meticulously planned.

The collection is built from local pieces as well as loans from leading French institutions such as Musée d’Orsay, Centre Pompidou and of course the Louvre. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has billed itself as ‘the world’s first universal museum’ that tells the story of world history through artefacts from all over the world but are grouped together by time period. Egyptian antiquities sit alongside treasures from the Greek kingdom, transformational ideas of universal religions are explored through Gothic Bibles and blue Qurans, and the effects of the Industrial Revolution reflected by Van Gogh and Gauguin segue into perspectives of 20th-century modernity with Magritte and Mondrian, and then onto the works of contemporary artists.

General view of The Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum Opening on November 8, 2017 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Image by Luc Castel / Getty Images
A 'rain of light' streams in through the roof of the Louvre Abu Dhabi © Luc Castel / Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, the Louvre Abu Dhabi building is a work of art in itself. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel’s geometric domed roof is spectacular, and its design allows a ‘rain of light’ to shower through, bringing a sense of magic and serenity to the public street-like area below. You can wander the galleries at your own pace, or join a guided tour focused on architecture or museum masterpieces, or the family-centric ‘my first visit to Louvre Abu Dhabi’. Families will also love the dedicated children’s museum and hands-on family workshops.

Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Image by PiakPPP / Shutterstock
Make your own creation with local artists at Manarat Al Saadiyat © PiakPPP / Shutterstock

Best for interactive events and workshops: Manarat Al Saadiyat

A long-standing institution on the Abu Dhabi art scene, Manarat Al Saadiyat relaunched in November 2017, adding new art and photography studios to provide drop-in spaces where the public can work on their own projects alongside a team of artists and photographers. Specialised workshops, performances, film screenings and music are all part of the ongoing programme. Manarat Al Saadiyat also serves as the venue for Abu Dhabi Art, an annual event that attracts creators and galleries from all over the world. The art at the fair is for sale if your pockets are deep enough, but for the rest of us, it’s a prime opportunity to meet artists, to learn about new works or to get stuck into one of the many workshops. Abu Dhabi Art charges a small fee for entry, but other exhibitions and galleries at Manarat Al Saadiyat are usually free.

Warehouse 421, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Image by Lindsey Parry / Lonely Planet
Warehouse 421 has repurposed a space in the industrial Mina Port area © Lindsey Parry / Lonely Planet

Best for UAE-themed art: Warehouse 421

Launched in 2015, Warehouse 421 has transformed a storehouse in the historic Mina Port area into a cultural and gallery space, where much of the work focuses on the United Arab Emirates or is made by Emirati artists. Themes change quarterly, and past exhibitions have included emerging Emirati talent, Arabic posters from across the region and an insight into local life with Emirati family photographs from the end of the 20th century.

Art House Cafe, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Image by Lindsey Parry / Lonely Planet
Once you've finished in the Etihad Modern Art Gallery, continue a theme with a coffee in the Art House Cafe © Lindsey Parry / Lonely Planet

Best for discovering new artists: Etihad Modern Art Gallery

One of the smaller galleries in the city and a little off the beaten path, the Etihad Modern Art Gallery is an independent spot worth seeking out. Conceived as a space for local and regional artists, exhibitions tend to focus on Middle Eastern talent, but international artists are also regularly hosted. Exhibitions change monthly and are free to enter. After browsing the gallery, go next door for a coffee in the suitably creative surroundings of the Art House Cafe, run by the same owners as the gallery. Sit back and admire the quirky decor this colourful, charming rest stop with tables and chairs made from recycled oil barrels is something of an anomaly in Abu Dhabi.

Etihad Antiques Gallery, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Image by Lindsey Parry / Lonely Planet
Forage for treasure large and small at Etihad Antiques Gallery © Lindsey Parry / Lonely Planet

Best for antiques: Etihad Antiques Gallery

Located next door to the Etihad Modern Art Gallery (there’s no connection even though they have similar names), Etihad Antiques Gallery is a floor-to-ceiling treasure trove of beautiful, curious relics from all over the world. Collectors can shop for rarities, and even the merely inquisitive will enjoy whiling away an afternoon browsing the jumbled collection of trinkets, coins, swords, and Mughal doors.

Best for something unique: Julia Ibbini

Artist Julia Ibbini has spent years using computers to manipulate drawings, photographs and paintings, but it is her delicate art made from cut paper that have made her a name locally. Having learned to harness technology to create a depth of detail not possible by hand, she uses laser machines to bring her complex and meticulous designs of Arabian-inspired ornate doors, grand arches and palatial passageways to life. The resulting works are remarkable for their incredible visual feast of colour, intricate patterns and layering, and no two are the same. Julia’s works make for excellent out-of-the-ordinary souvenirs. Make an appointment to visit her studio.

Women's Handicraft Centre, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Image by Lindsey Parry / Lonely Planet
Pick up a local handmade souvenir at the Women's Handicraft Centre © Lindsey Parry / Lonely Planet

Best for traditional crafts: Women’s Handicraft Centre

Pass by an ageing exhibition on life in Abu Dhabi pre-oil boom, and you may wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into, but proceed on to the counter to buy a ticket (Dhs5). You’ll then be led to the craft village where you’ll find some of Abu Dhabi’s most authentic souvenirs. The rooms at the Women’s Handicraft Centre each house a traditional speciality, and local women work on palm weaving, Unesco-recognised saddu textile weaving, intricate silver-thread talli work and traditional toy- and dress-tailoring. Remove your shoes before entering any of the rooms and always ask permission to take photos – some of the women are more conservative and shy than others. All handicrafts are available for sale on a small shelf back in the main exhibition hall for reasonable prices.

Best all-rounder: New York University Abu Dhabi Art Gallery and Arts Center

Nestled within an impressive state-of-the art university campus, this art gallery is a large open space with a roving focus. Exhibitions change twice a year and have featured works from local artists, including the renowned Mohammed Kazem, and international works from Yoko Ono, Claes Oldenburg and Martha Edelheit. The university’s Performing Arts Center also has a vibrant events calendar. Highlights range from student productions and live music (including premieres such as the Grammy-award-winning Kronos Quartet) to the outstanding ‘Rooftop Rhythms’ evenings that feature open-mic poetry, rap and spoken-word performances.
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