From desert thrills to beach escapes, Abu Dhabi has something to entice every traveller. Of course, there are ultra-modern hotels, sprawling shopping malls and theme parks, but look further afield and you will find UNESCO World Heritage Sites and cultural gems begging to be explored.
Sheikh Zayed Mosque
The masterplan of Sheikh Zayed, the first president of the UAE, who unified the seven Emirati cities into one nation. The mosque is a must-visit in Abu Dhabi. Accommodating 41,000 worshippers, it is the third largest mosque in the world. Its roofline is held up by over 1000 pillars, while its chandeliers contain Swarovski crystals and 24-carat gold. To give a sense of scale, over 100,00 tons of marble were used in construction. Non-Muslims are denied entry at prayer times, and dress codes do apply, although hooded abeyyas (for women) and kanduras (for men) are provided for free.
Along with Yas Waterworld and Yas Marina Circuit, Ferrari World is on Yas Island – around a 30-minute drive from the capital. As to be expected from a Ferrari-branded theme park, it boasts the world’s fastest rollercoaster – Formula Rossa, reaching a top speed of 250kmph in 4.9 seconds. There is also the Flying Aces ride, with the highest rollercoaster loop in the world, and the option to drive around Yas Island behind the wheel of a Ferrari California. With the Junior Grand Prix, younger guests can race each other in a scaled down F1 car.
Delight in 43 rides and slides at this waterpark, including the world’s first hydromagnetic-powered, six-person tornado slide – we don’t know what that means, but it’s around the same length as 20 double decker busses. There is a 550-metre coaster complete with on-board water and laser effects, as well as a flowboard area where waves reach as high as three metres.
Yas Marina Circuit
For three days each year, Yas Marina Circuit plays host to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in what is often the championship deciding race. Not visiting during the time of the race? Go one better and take to the circuit yourself. A range of track days are available, giving you the option of driving in an Aston Martin or a Formula Yas 3000 – the closest thing possible to a Formula 1® vehicle.
500 metres off the coast of Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat Island translates as “Island of Happiness”. With a golf course, a 400-metre public beach, three museums - including the Louvre Abu Dhabi - and two five-star resorts. Plus more in the pipeline, there is plenty to be happy about. The beach plays host to several hawksbill sea turtle nests each year. As such, access to the beach is via elevated boardwalks - preventing the nests from being disturbed.
The dunes between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, or outside Liwa in Al Dhafra, act as your playground. The most popular activity is called dune bashing. What this involves, basically, is a driver taking you up and down the dunes at speed as you drift in every direction. A tip for this one, don’t eat too soon beforehand. If that sounds a little extreme, then there is quad biking, sandboarding and skiing.
Abu Dhabi Corniche
Four-mile-long promenade lined with shops, cafes, restaurants and the Corniche Beach. Awarded Blue Flag status, the beach is very family-friendly and even features floating fences in the sea to keep you within 40-metres of land. A great way to discover the Corniche is via bicycle, with some able to fit two or three passengers on the back.
An iconic landmark similar to that of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. These seven star hotels set the standard for luxury in their respective emirates. Opened in 2005 at a cost of $3 billion, the palace covers one kilometre from wing to wing. Five tonnes of gold leaf were used in construction, and 1,002 chandeliers hang from its ceilings. With a stay here, you really do feel like a royal.
This is the former home of Abu Dhabi’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed. Although not actually in Abu Dhabi (it is around a 2-hour drive away), Al Ain is well worth the travel. Nicknamed the ‘Garden City’, it sure has a lot of green spaces for a desert. The Al Ain Oasis for example, is a UNESCO Site spread over nearly 3,000 acres, containing more than 147,000 date palms. There are numerous forts and museums to explore, as well as the white-water rafting, kayaking and surfing destination of Wadi Adventure.
Al Jahili Fort
Within Al Ain, the Al Jahili Fort was created in 1891 as a summer residence for Sheikh Zayed the First and to defend the city and its palm groves. Contrasting to the Al Ain and Abu Dhabi of today, this was one of the few permanent buildings around at that time. Today, it showcases the work of British adventurer Sir Wilfred Thesiger who crossed the Empty Desert in the 1940s.