Only a couple of days in Abu Dhabi... or a week? There is so much to see, from breathtaking modern architecture to gems of traditional culture and arts. Here is our guide on getting the right fill of culture in the time you have available, with a selection of top tips, time-saving combinations and discoveries off the beaten track.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
This is a definitive must-see while you’re in Abu Dhabi!
The Mosque’s beautiful architecture is the most popular attraction here. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque comprises 82 white shiny domes, golden colonnades and features stunning flower inlays across its marble flooring and walls.The Mosque hosts free public tours daily in a range of languages, which give you much more insight into its architecture and unique design. Or, follow the indicated path at your own pace. Around sunset, the Mosque holds a particularly magical flair (take the 5pm tour). If your visit coincides with the new moon, you might be fortunate enough to see the Mosque suffused in a numinous blue glow. Pictures are allowed and there are plenty of great vistas - but remember that this is a religious site so refrain from frivolous shots. The dress code includes long, loose-fitting shirts and ankle-length trousers or skirts as well as headscarves for women. Abayas and kanduras will be provided if necessary.
Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street. Website: www.szgmc.ae
Combine your visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque with... Wahat Al Karama
For an impressive fusion between art and architecture head across the street to the Wahat Al Karama Remembrance Memorial. It is situated across from the steps to the entrance of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The installation, designed by British artist Idris Khan, is a tribute to the men who gave their lives for the UAE. 31 huge aluminium-clad slabs lean against one another in an intriguing arrangement. Step down into the half buried Pavilion of Honour, at the end of the journey, as a place for rest and reflection.
3rd Street, Khor Al Maqta. Telephone: +971 2 668 1000
Heritage Village, Marina Breakwater
The Heritage Village is an old-time favourite for tourists and the best place in Abu Dhabi to get the feel for traditional desert life. Enter the typical Bedouin tents made from goats' hair and try to imagine what life in those would have been like. Wander through the tiny oasis complete with a few animals or visit the workshop's courtyard situated across from the neat little museum. A series of craftsmen demonstrate their traditional skills, from metal and wood works to pottery and leather tanning—if you are lucky you might get the chance to try out the pottery wheel. A traditional restaurant onsite offers a refreshing mint/lemon juice while you look out at the skyline of the Corniche opposite the village.
Breakwater, the Corniche. Telephone: +971 2 681 4455
Combine your visit to the Heritage Village with... A Corniche view
For a great shot of Abu Dhabi’s skyscrapers across the sea, walk a bit further along the breakwater to the giant flag pole and the rotunda of the National Theatre, where locals hang out in the evenings and jet ski riders show off their skills. If you want to combine your trip to the past with modern luxuries, then head to Marina Mall, just across the road from the Heritage Village and Emirates Palace, just a short ride away.
Qasr Al Hosn
Palace, fortress and seat of government until 1966, Qasr Al Hosn is the historic nucleus of Abu Dhabi. It was the city’s first permanent building when it started out as a watchtower more than 250 years ago. Renovations of the delicate coral and sea stone structures are transforming the site into a major cultural centre. Until it reopens fully, the Visitor Centre houses a small, but worthwhile exhibition, that tells the story of how Abu Dhabi island was settled by a small fishing community and progressed to the high-rise city you see today. Check out the incredible photos series of the fort sitting in a tranquil desert setting 70 years ago to appreciate just how much the emirate has changed since the discovery of oil.
Qasr Al Hosn, Sheikh Zayed the First Street.
Corniche and Mamsha Al Khair
Walking or cycling along the extensive Corniche promenade brings it home to you how much the story of Abu Dhabi is linked to the sea. Years ago pearl fishers used to push off boats on expeditions full of danger and risk. From the East Plaza all the way to the Emirates Palace, you will spot the granite monolith and limestone installations of Mamsha
Al Khair, which contain quotes from globally renowned inspirational figures that aim to increase awareness of the importance of social responsibility and social service.
Parking is available next to Nation Towers on Corniche Road. Use the pedestrian underpass to access the beach side.
Women’s Handicraft Centre
Inside this government-run initiative, local women keep Bedouin crafts alive, such as palm weaving, saddu tapestry making and telli braiding. The Women’s Handicraft Centre is not on the main tourist thoroughfare, but if you persevere to find your way past the gate of the complex you will be rewarded with a unique chance to meet the true guardians of local heritage. Slip off your shoes as you enter the five workshop areas, sit down and observe the women in traditional dress at work. You can stock up on the products for sale—souvenirs made here in the UAE— in the exhibition hall opposite the workshops. The hall also houses plenty of interesting displays of traditional Bedouin household craft and adornments and a big model of Abu Dhabi as it was in 1959. Women, men, children are all welcome. Dress appropriately for this traditional environment and respect the breaks at prayer time. This is a great opportunity to take snapshots of local craft in the making but remember to ask for permission before photographing the women.
Follow Karamah Street (14th) to the end, heading away from the Corniche. Park outside the Women’s Union complex and walk up to the guard who will indicate the way to the tent shaped roofs in the far-left corner. Taxi drivers may not know this place, so bring these directions when you go. Identity documents may be required and will be left at the security gate.
Umm Al Emarat Park
Enjoy the beautiful palm tree walks, take in the sights and sounds of the water running down the walls of the Wisdom Garden and visit the animal barn. Umm Al Emarat (formally known as Mother of the Nation) Park’s sustainable design set international benchmarks and includes art installations, botanic gardens, play parks, as well as cafés. It also boasts a special charm after sunset. For more information about regular film screenings, pop-up markets and other community events go to @ummalemaratpark on Facebook.
Between Karamah Street (14th) and Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street (18th), with best access from 15th and 18th Street.
Telephone: +971 2 666 9559
Zayed Exhibition, Zayed Centre
The Zayed Centre is set in a picturesque complex of buildings modeled on traditional Emirati architecture right at the edge of the turquoise sea. Its little museum is well worth a visit to get a sense of the pride Emiratis feel for the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, affectionately known as the ‘Father of the Nation’. The Zayed Exhibition holds photos and personal memorabilia of the beloved late leader and many unique gifts bestowed on him by foreign delegations. Next to cherished classic vehicles—including a Mercedes Maybach - you will find marvels such as stuffed lions, hunting rifles, and a huge portrait of the late Sheikh recorded as a Guinness World Book record, composed from UAE stamps worth more than AED 100.000. To finish, sit down among the majlis cushions, accept the complementary cup of Arabic coffee and chat to the friendly reception staff.
Al Bateen area, close to the Crown Prince Court along 4th Street. Telephone: +971 2 665 9555
UAE Currency Museum
If you like museums in unusual locations, then book ahead to get access to the Currency Museum, set in the ground floor of the UAE Central Bank. The museum’s gold and silver Islamic coins will make your eyes sparkle, but more importantly, the currency tells you abåout the historic trade connections of the region. It also explains the process of unifying the emirates as witnessed by the Indian rupees on show, and the currencies of the different emirates before the joint dirham and the UAE bank notes came into use.
UAE Central Bank, Al Bateen along 4th Street, close to Sheikh Zayed Centre. There's plenty of parking on the rear side. Enter via the back reception building. Entry: Free. Booking at least a day in advance is required. Tour size: max 15-20 persons. Telephone: +971 2 691 5265
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
One of the most sought-after tours in the capital is a visit to Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. While it may sound a bit dry to those who think they are not that interested in birds, a visit to this hospital is a walk back into time and a window into culture like no other in the capital. Allow Yalla to take you on a quick tour of the hospital to pique your interest.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is the largest falcon hospital in the world. It opened on 3 October 1999, at the request of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan — the Founding Father of the UAE.
A tour of the facility begins with a primer on the three main breeds of falcons, the important seasons of hunting, breeding, moulting, and what falcons physically do during these times, and, perhaps most importantly, you will learn why the falcon is revered as the national bird of the UAE.
After a brief introduction, the tour group moves into the actual waiting room for the falcon patients. Some are unwell, but most are in for a checkup, talon trimming, or more invasive procedures, such as endoscope or feather implanting.
Perhaps the most unique features of the tour is seeing one of the most common procedures: a falcon pedicure. The falcon is sedated, and the talons are trimmed. While the falcon is sedated, visitors have the opportunity to feel the falcon’s resting heartbeat. The technician will also describe and point out all the interesting aspects of the falcon’s anatomy, such as their multiple eyelids and teeth. The tour then continues to the aviary, where short-term residential falcons soar freely above you.
The tour lasts approximately two hours, and visitors will depart understanding why the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is ranked as the second most popular destination in Abu Dhabi on TripAdvisor. This is not coincidentally one of the city’s most popular tours, so do check out the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital on your next visit to Abu Dhabi.
Sweihan Road, Al Shamkha, near Abu Dhabi International Airport. There's parking available and wheel chair access. Tour price: Adults AED170, children AED60 (5-9 years), Free for under 5.