The capital of a nation less than 50 years old, Abu Dhabi bubbles with an oil-rich optimism and a spirit of welcoming visitors that dates back to its pearl-trading past.
The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is the world’s largest and most advanced treatment facility for the care of the nation’s most revered species. To better understand the importance of the falcon in Emirati culture, visitors can watch simple procedures like feather replacement and talon trimming and learn about the sport of falconry and how it relates to desert life.
The Rub Al Khali, or Empty Quarter, is the largest contiguous sand desert in the world and starts in Abu Dhabi. While it takes several hours to drive to the edge of this desert, smaller but just as breathtaking dunes can be found 45 minutes outside of the city and are best explored with expert off-road drivers sporting SUVs with all the right equipment for driving in the dunes.
Mangrove National Park, located on the eastern edge of the main island of Abu Dhabi, offers a peaceful escape from the city and a one-of-a-kind view of the natural beauty of the Emirates. Guided paddleboard, kayak, and even pearl-diving dhow tours are available through the more than seven square miles of dense mangrove forest where crabs, flamingos, herons, and other exotic birds can be spotted.
When Bedouin tents gave way to permanent structures, the first built in Abu Dhabi was Qasr Al Hosn. Once a watchtower in the 1700s, the castle-like building expanded to become the home of Abu Dhabi’s ruling Al Nahyan family. The site is currently being redeveloped with plans to reopen later in 2018 as a museum highlighting Emirati heritage, culture, and tradition.
Located in the heart of the city of Al Ain, a nearly 3,000-acre swath of verdant palm fronds marks the Al Ain Oasis, where you can walk or bike ride under cooling canopied trails. A new visitor Eco-Center, trail maps, and even a mobile app provide insight into not only this delicate ecosystem, but the importance of water sources in the development of the emirate.
In 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened, taking cultural offerings in Abu Dhabi to new heights. While the permanent exhibition demonstrates the connections between the Middle East and Western art world, it’s the Jean Nouvel-designed structure made up of a “medina” of buildings sitting on the water’s edge with a dramatic roofline shining a “rain of light” that makes the museum one of the greatest contributions to today’s art world.
Best Day Trip
Al Ain is just a one-and-a-half-hour drive from the city of Abu Dhabi. In addition to its namesake oasis, Al Jahili Fort, dating back to the late 1800s; Al Ain Palace, the private summer home of the nation’s first leader; and Qasr Al Muwaiji, the birthplace of the current ruler, all offer a glimpse into the nation’s modest beginnings and current seat of power.
Most Iconic Experience
Abu Dhabi’s coffee culture is as strong as the arabica bean itself. For the ultimate coffee experience head to Emirates Palace, one of the world’s most opulent hotels, take in the surroundings, and enjoy a Palace Cappuccino. A house specialty sprinkled with 24-karat gold flakes, it’s a fun way to have a taste of life as a sultan.
At the “top” of the island in the waters of Khor Al Maqtaa, Al Maqtaa Watchtower is one of the city’s first structures. The classic, 200-year-old Arabian fort protected early inhabitants from tribes seeking Abu Dhabi’s water source. Best viewed from Maqtaa Bridge, visit in the evening when it’s lit up alongside the modern Zaha Hadid-designed Sheikh Zayed Bridge.
Visit Abu Dhabi during Ramadan to better understand the time when Muslims contemplate their faith and fast for 30 days. While unusual store hours and limited daytime dining options can be a challenge, in the evenings the city comes alive with family activities and festivals. Make sure to attend an iftar, a traditional meal served at sunset to mark the breaking of the day’s fast.