If you've never been to the emirate of Abu Dhabi – or the capital and second largest city in the UAE that goes by the same name – you'll probably be thinking it's all sunshine, sand and shopping. Well think again – from its own outpost of the Louvre to traditional markets, to its breathtaking architecture and untouched natural habitats waiting to be explored, Abu Dhabi is full of inspirational experiences. Here are a few of them to help plan your break.
Abu Dhabi, UAE: What to see and do
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
From high-flying skylines to high-flying, er, falconry demonstrations, there’s plenty to see in Abu Dhabi, but make Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque the first thing you check out. Its ornate vaulted chambers and 86 domes can accommodate more than 40,000 people during Eid al Adha each year. Oh, and since you’re asking, it’s also home to the world’s biggest carpet, which took 1,200 weavers more than a year to craft, tying 2.2 billion knots in a rug that weighs more than 12 tons.
Kayak the mangroves
You might not immediately associate peace and tranquillity with a trip to the fast-paced, thrumming centre of Abu Dhabi, but you’ll find both of those things just minutes from the bustle of the city. Heading out into Mangrove National Park in a kayak is like entering another world: you’ll be able to soak up the city scenery and skyline from afar, but immerse yourself in the emirate’s remarkable natural landscape at the same time: it’s home to 60 species of bird, as well as marine life and verdant saltwater forests.
Kayak tours from £33pp;sea-hawk.ae
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Strangely, the UAE’s own version of the world’s most famous art gallery is about way more than just art. Tracking humanity from prehistory to the present day with its exhibits, this is an exhaustive, all-encompassing museum that takes in everything from classical artifacts and decorative pieces to the world-leading artworks you’d expect from a museum like the Louvre. What’s more, the Jean Nouvel-designed building that houses the exhibition space is so ornate and intelligent in the way it plays with shadows and light, it’s practically a whole new exhibit in itself.
Saadiyat Cultural District, Saadiyat Island;louvreabudhabi.ae
Abu Dhabi, UAE: Where to stay
Qasr Al Sarab
If you want to see the Emirati desert but don’t want to deal with the heat, the resplendent, palatial luxury of Qasr Al Sarab will do the trick. Set a 90-minute drive from the city in the rolling dunes of Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter, this blends Bedouin-style rustic living and sumptuous modern luxury. And if you ever want to venture outside the oasis, the resort can organise fat biking tours and bespoke dinners out in the dunes, too.
From £351; Qasr Al Sarab Road.anantara.com
Somehow balancing the opulent architecture of the old Middle East with the luxurious fin de siècle glam of European grand hotels, Kempinski’s Emirates Palace is the perfect place to kick back, relax and take a break from the helter skelter streets at the centre of the city, or, indeed, London. Here, you’ve got a private beach, a luxury spa, and more palms and fountains than you could ostensibly shake a stick at (should you so wish). Put simply, from food to plush furnishings, this is old-school glamour for the Instagram era, and we couldn’t be any happier to rest our heads on its pillows.
From £400; West Corniche Road.kempinski.com
How do you have a city break without doing the, well, ‘city break’ things? In Abu Dhabi, you get on a ten-minute boat from Saadiyat Island to Zaya Nurai – a compact private island resort – and then you relax. You relax in the sea-level infinity pool, you relax on a lounger on the private island’s beach, you relax by, er, getting dragged across the Arabian Gulf with your feet taped to a wakeboard or waterskis. And when you’ve done all that relaxing, you might feel like getting the ferry back to the city for some sightseeing. Yep, city breaks are pretty easy when you know how to do them.
From £717; Nurai Island. zayanuraiisland.com
Abu Dhabi, UAE: Where to eat & drink
Al Mina Fish Market
Getty Images/arabianEye/Matilde Gattoni
If you’re even remotely into fresh seafood, a trip down to Al Mina Fish Market on Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Port is an absolute must while you’re in the city. Pick your prize catch, take it across the way to be gutted and prepped, and then drop by one of the nearby restaurants, who’ll season and grill it for you (or make it into an absolutely banging fish curry) to eat on the lobster pots outside while admiring the view. It really doesn’t get much fresher than that.
If you don’t mind dropping big bucks on a cocktail or two, a trip to Ray’s bar and grill high up in the Jumeirah hotel at Etihad Towers is well worth it for the incredible views alone. From the window seats at this exclusive 62nd-floor hangout you can fix your sights on everything from the high-flying skyscrapers of the Corniche to the sprawling mangroves and the beautiful, shimmering Arabian Gulf below. Oh, and it just so happens to be a steakhouse serving a pretty staggering array of prime cuts of beef from across the globe, too, so there’s that to bear in mind as well.
Etihad Towers, West Corniche.jumeirah.com
You may head to a place like Abu Dhabi with the intention of chowing down on the food of the Middle East, and there are plenty of places to do just that (try Atayeb or Mijana to get started). But with Indian nationals making up more than a quarter of all people living in the UAE (compared to the 11% of Emirati citizens), a lot of Indian food on offer in the city is every bit as worth getting your chops around, too. From hole-in-the-wall spots to fine dining, there’s something for everyone, but few do it as well as Ushna, a high-end Indian in Souk Qaryat Al Beri, just a few minutes from Sheikh Zayed Mosque.
Souk Qaryat Al Beri