Proudly modern and cosmopolitan, Abu Dhabi is the UAE's forward-thinking cultural heart where nothing stands still – except perhaps the herons in its mangroves.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, with its globe-trotting collection covering the breadth of humanity's artistic achievements, finally threw open its doors in 2017. It's the first of the city's planned mega-museum projects to open and a major feather in Abu Dhabi's cap as it pushes to become the region's cultural leader. This world-class museum may get all the buzz but more locally focused sights get a look-in too. Emirati heritage can be difficult to seek out but pearl journey dhow trips and the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital take you behind the curtain to get a glimpse of it.
Opulent, dramatic and no expense spared: the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a triumph of Islamic architecture for the modern world. Architectural nods to all the great Islamic empires of past from Fatimid Egypt to South Asia's Mughal dynasty are represented among its blinding white marble facade, but this is a mosque thoroughly of and for the 21st century, with striking contemporary artistry at its heart. Non-Muslims may only be allowed to enter a single mosque in the city, but the one they can, is magnificent.
Thrills & Spills
Need some adrenaline in your life? Yas Island provides enough distractions to keep even the most dedicated thrill-seeker happy. This is the setting for the famed Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the track hallowed ground for Formula One fans. Year-round there are opportunities to hop in the driving seat yourself and make your own Yas Marina Circuit memories. Off the track, Ferrari World and its speed-freak favourite Formula Rossa roller coaster plus Warner Bros World provide full-on family entertainment with enough rides to wear out and sate the thrill tick-list of kids and adults alike.
There's no need to leave the city for a beach-break, Abu Dhabi offers a swath of sand for everyone. Saadiyat Island has one of the nicest slices of public beach (with a minimal fee) while Al Bateen, the Corniche and the brand-spanking-new beach on Hudayriat Island offer up completely free swags of sandy fun. On the water, Abu Dhabi's Mangrove National Park showcases a completely different face to a city more known for glinting glass-and-steel skyscrapers than nature. Keep your eyes peeled for flamingos, heron and scuttling crabs as you explore the waterways of this vast forest by kayak.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Abu Dhabi.
Rising majestically from manicured gardens and visible from the bridges joining Abu Dhabi Island to the mainland, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is an impressive welcome to the city. With more than 80 marble domes on a roof-line held aloft by 1000 pillars and punctuated by four 107m-high minarets, it's a masterpiece of modern Islamic architecture and design. Conceived by Sheikh Zayed, and marking his final resting-place, the mosque is one of the few in the region open to non-Muslims.
Designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Jean Nouvel, the highly anticipated Louvre Abu Dhabi finally arrived in late 2017. Through 12 galleries, the world-class collection traces humanity's artistic achievements from the Neolithic up to the present day, all the while breaking all norms of traditional museum curation. Here, artworks are grouped by theme and time-frame rather than country or specific civilisation. The result is a globe-trotting journey through human heritage that highlights the universal threads of all cultures.
Standing outside Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, watching anxious owners from across the region delivering their hooded 'patients' in person, you will quickly realise that this is a much-needed and much-loved facility. Falcons are an integral part of traditional Gulf culture, and no expense is spared in restoring these magnificent birds to full health. Tours include visits to the falcon museum, the examination room – including intimate glimpses into coping procedures – and the free-flight aviary. Tour reservations (bookable online) are mandatory.
After six years of planning and construction, this memorial celebrating the life and achievements of Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the United Arab Emirates, was inaugurated in April 2018. Set inside the landscaped garden is The Constellation, a giant avant-garde 3D art piece reflecting the portrait of the sheikh. By daylight, peruse the garden filled with native and medicinal plants, but to appreciate the full spectacle, return after dark when The Constellation comes alive with lights.
If you want bragging rights to having 'done' Formula Rossa, the world's fastest roller coaster, visit this indoor (perfect in summer) temple of torque and celebration of all things Ferrari in a spectacular building. Accelerating from 0km/h to 240km/h in 4.9 seconds, this is as close to an F1 experience as most of us are likely to get.
You almost walk away from this five-star urban park feeling like you've visited a museum. Manicured to perfection and full of design-forward and thoroughly interesting distractions, it more than justifies its admission fee. Highlights of the wonderful smoke-free space include a poignant memorial to the words of Sheikh Zayed; a three-floored shade-house with stupendous views; an animal barn with camels, goats, donkeys, llamas and the like for the kids to pet; a botanical garden; and an outdoor performing-arts venue.
By far Abu Dhabi's nicest public beach. A boardwalk leads through a protected zone of coastal vegetation, home to nesting turtles, to this prime slice of powdery white beach on the northwest coast of Saadiyat Island (neighbouring the Park Hyatt resort). There's a lifeguard until sunset and a cafe, though you're able to bring in your own picnic supplies (no alcohol allowed). Towel rental is Dhs10 and sunloungers with umbrella are Dhs25 weekdays and Dhs50 Friday and Saturday.
For architecture with a sci-fi vibe make the trip to Masdar City, near Abu Dhabi Airport, touted as the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste city powered entirely by renewable energy when plans for it were first unveiled. Although those goals haven't worked out, the city core (the only portion yet finished), where the teflon-coated wind tower, domed knowledge hall and sharp-edged incubator building rub up against wavy terracotta-coloured walls of residential blocks, is a futuristic vision of city-planning.
You'll probably hear them before you see them, as a howl goes up when a visitor approaches this hound pound. A visit here involves entering the kennels, meeting the affectionate and well-looked-after residents, picking up a puppy or two and perhaps watching bath time. Prized for their hunting skills and speed over distance, salukis have for centuries been man's best friend to the Bedouin, and after a visit to this breeding and training centre, it's easy to see why.
Top 10 travel goals
Take a drive across the dunes
Make a splash at Yas Waterworld
Hike the spectacular Jebel Hafeet
Take a spin on Flying Aces
Paddleboard amidst the mangroves
Race around a Formula One track
Tour the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Hit the white water at Wadi Adventure