Abu Dhabi's humble roots are difficult to unearth. Following its oil boom, the city has become a playground for the Gulf’s rich and famous. But beyond the domino-like deluxe hotels, it retains seductive charms and a treasure trove of souqs, traditional dhows, date palm gardens and the odd thirsty camel.
What do the locals in Abu Dhabi do to pass the time? Depending on the season and time of day – remember cold nights, sandstorms and summer temperatures of 48°C (118°F) are not uncommon here – you could be off roading in the desert, taking a boat trip along the coast or rugging up under the Gulf's burnishing stars.
Journey through a seafaring past in Al Bateen
The best way to get to grips with Abu Dhabi is to do as the locals do. Begin the day with a steaming cup of gahwa (strong Arabic coffee) at your hotel and then head to the restored Al Bateen Shipyard (Al Bateen Island, next to the Intercontinental Hotel), one of the oldest inhabited areas of the city. In the company of gnarled Sinbad the Sailor seadogs, you can learn about the city’s maritime heritage, which has been forged by dhow sailing boats, offshore pearl harvesting and fishing. If the ocean breezes beckon, you can charter your own boat to skirt the city's outer limits in style.
Qasr Al Hosn Palace, the oldest stone building in Abu Dhabi © Veronica Garbutt / Getty Images
Discover the beginnings of city and country at Qasr Al Hosn
In the centre of Khalidiya lies the first and oldest stone structure on Abu Dhabi Island, the intriguing and historic Qasr Al Hosn fort. Built as a watchtower in 1760 and once the only stone structure for miles, the fort stands its ground in the shadow of the towering modern skyscrapers all around it. Later expanded to a fort, Qasr Al Hosn eventually became home to the Al Nahyan ruling family and the site of the country’s first National Council. Although currently under renovation, you can catch glimpses of the watchtower and fortified walls as you enter the free exhibition on site, which recounts the city’s history through objects and images portraying the humble lives and daily hardships endured. Interactive exhibits and videos of locals also narrate tales of how life used to be among the sand and searing heat.
Wander through the palm trees of a gorgeous oasis in Al Ain © sharrocks / Getty Images
Explore Unesco cultural sites in the ‘Garden City’ of Al Ain
Around an hour's drive to the south and into the desert lies Al Ain, one of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited settlements, now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Spend some time sheltering from the heat of the day by wandering through one of the six Al Ain oases that form just one of the Unesco-recognised cultural sites of the city. A visit to the Al Ain Camel Market is also a fascinating and eye-opening experience where frenzied breeders and buyers haggle over prized animals like the region’s nomadic shepherds have done for centuries.
Driving a go-kart at Yas Marina Circuit © Francois Nel / Getty Images
Get in the driver's seat of a golf cart or go kart
Come in winter (the best time to visit as the temperature hovers in the mid-20s) and you may find the locals practising more modern pursuits on one of Abu Dhabi's outlying islands. Sporting legend Gary Player has opened a signature golf course on Saadiyat Island, while the arrival of the Yas Marina Grand Prix circuit on nearby Yas Island has opened up the city to go kart racing and a calendar of motorsport.
Test your haggling skills at Abu Dhabi's markets © Matilde Gattoni / Getty Images
Shop, haggle and people watch
Before the sun dips below the horizon like a ripe orange, Abu Dhabi's central souqs become chaotic, bustling beehives – the perfect place to buy a pearl necklace, aromatic pinch of frankincense or kitsch mosque alarm clock. Better still, practice your haggling and pick up a pair of curly-toed Persian slippers for that difficult aunt. Though sadly many of the original souqs of the city have been lost through redevelopment or have burnt down, modern souqs reimagined in a traditional yet modern style have replaced these. Favoured choices for items you won’t find in the malls are the World Trade Center Souk or Souk Qaryat Al Beri. Though both lack a certain authenticity, they make for a pleasant outing and a spot of people watching.
Appreciate the endless sands surrounding Abu Dhabi on a desert safari © Buena Vista Images / Getty Images
Get to grips with the sand on a desert safari
Built on the edge of the Rub Al Khali, one of the world’s great desert seas, Abu Dhabi is prime territory for 4x4 off-road safaris. Once more accustomed to the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and great British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the rolling carpet of sand is perfect for all manner of family adventures. Ever the entrepreneurs, Emiratis will give you the chance to ride a camel, get to grips with falconry or even try sandboarding. Don’t miss the chance to dine under the stars either, especially in the cooler winter months, as plenty of tour companies offer sundowner drive-and-dine trips into the dunes.
Join the locals for a late-night shisha session © Getsaraporn / Getty Images
While away an evening like a local
The best way to mingle with the UAE's increasingly young population of locals and expats is to enjoy a night of hookah at one of numerous hotel bars or shisha cafes. A popular spot is the aptly named Hookah Lounge on Marina Breakwater where you’ll enjoy panoramic views across the waters of the city skyline. Hookah Lounge does offer food, but for a more authentic taste of the Middle East, try the small but mighty Lebanon Mill just off Fatima Bint Mubarak St, where the staff are friendly and the food is fresh and delicious. Tuck into a wide variety of Middle Eastern dishes, including hummus, moutabel (purée of aubergine mixed with tahini, yogurt and olive oil) and fattoosh (a salad of toasted bread, tomatoes, onions and mint leaves). Their shish tawook (tomato and yoghurt marinated grilled chicken) is among both the best and the cheapest in the city.
Be warned though: after socialising for what may seem like 1001 nights, getting up the next day might be harder than you think.
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