It’s culture, not oil, that is the future of the capital of the UAE. Felicity Cousins marvels at its many treasures, catches a glimpse of its ambitious projects, and still has time to relax
1. Emirates Palace
Abu Dhabi’s streets are safe and clean, but don’t try to walk as the city is spread out across an elongated island, with the centre based mainly along the 10km Corniche on the north-west side. The best way to get around comfortably is by air conditioned car.
To understand something of the past and future of the city, start at the Emirates Palace hotel. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was a bona fide palace – the breathtakingly huge building has 302 rooms and 92 suites, but it’s much more than a hotel.
There is a permanent display of stunning historical artefacts behind unobtrusive glass cabinets, and when I visited there were only a few people peering closely. It’s easy to get lost as you wander through the great marble halls, marvelling at the high painted ceilings – even the toilets are worth a visit for their unapologetic golden grandeur. See emiratespalace.com for more information.
2. Cultural Museum
As well as providing a snapshot of the past, the Emirates Palace’s own cultural museum documents the new developments taking place in Abu Dhabi. The exhibition explains how oil was discovered in 1958 and four years later it began to be exported. Abu Dhabi has 9 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves and 5 per cent of its gas. The UAE is well aware that these will eventually run out, and to help plug the gap, plans are under way to make Abu Dhabi the region’s cultural centre. Saadiyat Island, a 27 sqkm mass 500 metres off the coast of the emirate, was once a sleepy resort but is now set to become the new cultural district.
Work began in 2004, and museums will include the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, designed by Norman Foster, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by Frank Gehry, and the Louvre by Jean Nouvel. There are also plans for 29 hotels and 8,000 villas, two championship golf courses and 19km of beach. The architects’ models, on show in the museum, give a good idea of how the island will look when the final phase is completed in 2018. Visit saadiyat.ae
3. The Corniche
Head back into town along the Corniche. The area has recently been expanded with new parks and beaches and is a popular place to walk, jog, cycle, rollerblade, swim or simply sit on one of the shaded gazebos while looking out to sea. Opposite the Corniche is Lulu Island, built from reclaimed land in 1988. There are plans for development on this island too, and despite the Corniche beach being completed only a year ago – at a cost of US$28.5 million – it has proved so popular that it will be renovated again with areas for football and volleyball, and more restaurants.
4. Dhow Wharf and fish market
For a taste of local life, go to Al Mina, where you will find Dhow Harbour. Nearby is the fish market, and if you can stomach the smell, it’s worth a visit (it’s best to go in the morning, before the stench gets too bad). Watch the fishmongers gut their wares, and take a look at the fresh fish on display, their mouths open as if in shock, eyes gleaming coldly from a bed of glistening ice. At the far left of the warehouse you can grab some smoked or fried fish from one of the takeaways. Al Mina is also home to the Iranian souk, carpet market, and date market. If you have time, stroll through the vegetable market too.
5. Abu Dhabi Mall and Zen the Spa
Lastly, make your way to the Abu Dhabi Mall in the Tourist Club Area – it has 220 outlets over four floors if you fancy splashing the cash. Directly connected to the mall via escalators, the Beach Rotana Hotel and Towers is a good place to escape the crowds. Its spa offers a tempting array of treatments, including one that involves being covered from head to toe in four types of mud. (Booking advised.) Visit rotana.com