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Your Ultimate Travel Guide To Abu Dhabi—The Perfect Blend Of Old And New

From adrenaline-pumping theme parks to innovative urban museums, buzzing beach bars, and vast heritage treasures, the diverse offerings of UAE’s capital never fail to dazzle any kind of traveller. By Rupali Dean

Abu Dhabi is as flamboyant as it is unpretentious, as avant-garde as it is traditional. When I visited the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, it left me awestruck with its rich history and dramatic evolution—from being a pearling and fishing town to the biggest oil repository in the Emirates to a cosmopolitan hotbed of creativity in the making. Today, Abu Dhabi is recognised not just for its centuries-old heritage and mind-boggling oil reserves, but also for its urban art and design, groundbreaking architecture, and many avenues of leisure. Although there are countless ways to dive into this contemporary yet traditional city, here’s a brief guide to its most amazing delights.

The city skyline as seen from Abu Dhabi Marina.


I’m not happy about being woken up before the sun has even risen. But this is precisely what my daughter does on the very first day of our vacation. “Wake up and just look outside,” she says. As much as I want to drift back to sleep, she’s right—the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, gleaming in white marble, is a sight to behold even through my window. Staying true to tradition, we set off early, clad in full-sleeved salwar-kameez and dupatta. The largest, and arguably the most splendid mosque in UAE is open to the public every day, with tours available at various hours. I am awestruck by the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet (5,700 square metres) in the main prayer hall that took around 1,200 artisans two years to create, the Moroccan artwork under the 82 domes, the seven crystal chandeliers featuring Swarovski crystals and galvanised gold, over 1,000 columns around the arcade hand-carved and inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones, and the 96 internal marble columns inlaid with mother-of-pearl vines. Also eye-catching are the four minarets that flaunt a combination of Ottoman, Mamluk, and Fatimid architectural styles. We come back at sunset to see the mosque light up like a dream—its lighting system has been designed to reflect the phases of the moon!

The columns around the arcade at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque are hand-carved.


Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, Louvre Abu Dhabi is a mesmerising medley of concrete, water, and light set up on the sands of Saadiyat Island. Its most stunning feature is a seemingly weightless dome made of 7,850 star-shaped structures that filter the sunlight, much like leaves of a palm tree, and endow the interiors with dappled daylight. The museum features 55 low-rise buildings inspired by the houses of the region and is surrounded by the sea, thus resembling a medina on an islet. Even inside the 23 gallery spaces, Nouvel’s architectural genius shines through. The porticos link with each other exquisitely, telling a cohesive story of human history arranged chronologically rather than geographically. In the wake of the pandemic, the museum has taken ample safety measures, including mandatory pre-booking of arrival time, compulsory masks, social distancing, optional hand gloves, elimination of paper maps and brochures (use the free app), and closure of the Children’s Museum.

The dome of Louvre Abu Dhabi is made of 7,850 star-shaped structures that scatter the sunlight.


We drive away from the city’s twinkling towers into housing areas filled with expansive bungalows. I had found Maitha Essa, a qualified tour guide, on Instagram and booked her Emirati House Experience online. Even as we arrive at the residence, I am not quite sure what to expect. Essa kicks off the evening by serving us a small cup of coffee, accompanied by khanfaroosh, an aromatic hotcake characterised by its notes of saffron and cardamom. She asks us to shake the cup to signal when we don’t need any more servings. This is just one of the traditional habits and etiquettes of the Emiratis that we learn in the 3.5-hour experience. Essa also shows us the correct way to wear a traditional niqab. This is followed by a traditional local meal of machboos, a traditional Arabic rice dish cooked in a chicken broth. There is also kunafeh, a dessert made with shredded filo pastry and layered with cheese. This activity is a great choice for those looking for authentic local experiences.

An immersive local experience with an Emirati family in their home.


Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi is Yas Island’s third theme park—an immersive entertainment junction that features five themed lands: Bedrock, Dynamite Gulch, Cartoon Junction, Gotham City, and Metropolis. Join Wile E Coyote in his quest for the Road Runner onboard the Fast and Furry-ous inverted coaster. Or, take on the evil forces of the DC universe with the Justice League on the 5D ride Justice League: Warworld Attacks. Or, immerse yourself in the world of Looney Tunes as you enter the vertical jump tower of Daffy Jet-Propelled Pogo Stick. Feel like a superhero? Teen Titans Training Academy will test and hone your world-saving skills with zip coasters, net climbs, rope bridges, and more.


What sets the Heritage Village of the Emirates Heritage Club apart from other similar centres I have visited is its comprehensive coverage of the region’s history. This old-style interactive desert village looks like a castle made up of museums and informative models. Workshops on metalwork, glass blowing, pottery, weaving, and spinning are immersive offerings here. At the end of the village is an imitation of the Hili Archaeological Site, which is famous for hosting some of the richest finds in the area from the Bronze Age.


For panoramic views accompanied by afternoon tea and light bites, head to Observation Deck at 300, the highest restaurant in the city. Located on the 74th floor of Tower 2, Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, the place gets its name from its altitude (in metres).


We spend our last afternoon at The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort. Here, the first-ever permanent day-to-night setup of Buddha-Bar Beach dazzles, just like its world-famous seasonal cousins in Baku, Maldives, and the Greek islands of Santorini and Mykonos. The club is divided into four parts: an open deck, a restaurant, a bar, and a lounge. The menu blends pan-Asian flavours with a Mediterranean flair, and mixologists whip up dreamy cocktails. I recommend trying an item from the Japanese robata charcoal grill—wagyu makes an excellent choice with a shiso chimichurri, baby corn, and sweet rocoto sauce accompanying it. Apart from resident and guest DJs, sunsets at Buddha-Bar Beach are rendered with saxophone sessions.;

Related: Quarantine Tracking Devices Are Now Mandatory For International Travellers Arriving In Abu Dhabi

Rashima Nagpal

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