Sitting snug amid the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates, Travel + Leisure India & South Asia curates the best experiences in Abu Dhabi to make every bit of your week-long trip memorable. By Bayar Jain
Abu Dhabi is many things—the capital of the United Arab Emirates, largest emirate of the country, and a major cultural and commercial centre. However, over and above these factual descriptions sits a land brimming with unexplored gems; cocooned by the gentle Arabian Gulf waters on one end, and Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai on the other. A look beyond the usual perceptions of Abu Dhabi unearths a bevy of culturally rich and captivating experiences for all kinds of travellers, including a solo woman traveller like myself.
It is said that Abu Dhabi is a land of luxuries. This moniker is brought to life in more ways than one. To kickstart my trip, I check into Emirates Palace, an opulent abode that often finds a spot on every indulgent traveller’s itinerary. A walk through the hotel’s palatial corridors instantly dissipates my long-haul travel woes; and the 24-carat gold-flaked Palace Cappuccino served at Le Café is an apt way to commence my exploration of this city’s many regalities.
Talking of regal ambience, no trip to Abu Dhabi is complete without a halt at the iconic Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Irrespective of your religious preference, this stunning mosque is a must-visit. And thus, also my first stop. Created as a testament to the vision of its founder, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the white architectural marvel draws my attention from afar.
Photographs dotting the walls reveal talks of building the mosque first began in the late 1980s. Construction, however, only commenced on November 5, 1996. White Macedonian marbles adorn the exteriors, while the interiors are bedecked with colourful Islamic arts. Consider taking a day to soak in this beauty and witness the artworks up-close. At dusk, the location reveals another surreal moment—the lunar illumination. The lighting system at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is designed to reflect the phases of the moon, 22 light towers equipped with light projectors cast soft undulating bluish-grey clouds on the marbles, including the facade and dome. The result? Magical. Despite sundown, I feel safe and surreal in the lunar glow of Abu Dhabi.
The region’s tryst with art is a long-standing one. Traditional crafts such as pottery, Al-Sadu (weaving) and embroidery have been intrinsic to Emirati culture since Bedouin times. Today, the city has embraced more contemporary art forms as well. I get a glimpse of this at Louvre Abu Dhabi. The Arab world’s first universal museum, Louvre Abu Dhabi offers a display of historical, cultural, and sociological significance right from the ancient times to the contemporary era. A seemingly weightless silvery dome, which appears to float above the museum, serves as the perfect initiation for my art-loving soul into the creative world. Inspired by the cupola, a dome-like feature common to Arabic architecture, this geometric dome interlaces 7,850 stars repeated in various sizes and angles across eight layers. As the sun shines over the silver piece and into the museum, it casts an enchanting effect called the rain of light. Mesmerising light-work aside, Louvre Abu Dhabi encompasses 9,200 square metres of galleries, including a Permanent and Temporary Gallery.
Next, I make a stop at Warehouse421 that supports emerging talent from the UAE, Middle East, and South Asia. A walk through the white-walled galleries reveals colours, hues, and strokes of various artistic styles. I make a mental note to revisit to attend one of the various performances, book readings, workshops, and talks.
For a dose of heritage and history, House of Artisans is the place to be. The crafts represented here celebrate the region’s creative and artistic relationship with locally available natural resources. House of Artisans also offer training courses and educational workshops to keep these traditions alive.
There’s no dearth of adventure when it comes to Abu Dhabi. The soaring dunes of Liwa Oasis in Al Dhafra or Al Khaznah rightfully serve as a playground for dune bashing. However, the main city comes packed with adrenaline-pumping offerings too.
I start slow at Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. As the world’s biggest and fully air-conditioned indoor theme park, this family-favourite hotspot brings legendary characters from the studio to life. However, a solo traveller like me, too, finds fun in every nook. Six immersive worlds made up of action, adventure, and eccentricity greet at every turn. One can choose from 29 state-of-the-art rides, interactive attractions, upbeat live entertainment, dining options, and exclusive shopping options. I find my happiness goofing around with Tom & Jerry, the iconic and lovable cat and mouse characters of the eponymous cartoon franchise.
I then head for some fast-paced adventure at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, the world’s first Ferrari-branded theme park. Open year-round, this mostly indoors theme park tells the marque’s story through 20 exhilarating and educational rides. One of the few outdoor attractions here is the iconic Formula Rossa, also known as the world’s fastest rollercoaster. This lightning-fast ride soars to a height of 52 metres, bolting ahead from zero to 240 kilometres per hour in less than five seconds. My heart may have skipped a few beats, but the adrenaline gushing through me was roaring for another round!
Instead, I pursue another adventure. A quick pivot, and I continue to Yas Marina Circuit to swerve (safely!) at high speeds on the F1 racetrack. Launched in 2009 to host the annual Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, this epic motorsport arena winds its way around Yas Marina, with five main stands. The ultramodern track also allows kart racing, drag racing, walking, running, and cycling.
My day ends on a high at CLYMB Abu Dhabi. Home to the world’s tallest indoor skydiving flight chamber and the world’s tallest indoor climbing wall, this geometrically designed building ensures fun for all ages, and with a guide makes it easy even for a solo adventurer.
I am a water baby. And the waters surrounding Abu Dhabi brim with life. The National Aquarium Abu Dhabi brings them all under one roof. Credited as the Middle East’s largest aquarium, this blue abode hosts one of the biggest coral reef tanks in the region and possibly the world’s largest living snake, including over 46,000 animals from 300 species. The 10 nautically-themed zones boast more than 60 attractions. Picture glass-bottom dhow tours or personal encounters with sharks, puffins, and freshwater rays, fused with innovations like video mapping technology, signage guides, and countless interactive learning opportunities.
After levelling up in marine science, I head to explore the city’s many beaches. The spotless Corniche Beach is an apt place to start. I walk towards the turquoise waters and soft, white sand via a seaside boardwalk. One can enjoy the manicured gardens, dedicated play areas for kids, and free sports facilities namely five volleyball courts, two football pitches, and three playing fields. Or, like me, go snorkelling to discover the mesmerising life underwater. And if none of the above floats your boat, strike a pose! Corniche is ideal for the ’gram. The Cove Beach Makers District, too, vies for attention. Abu Dhabi’s new licensed private beach club is ideal for lazing around while gazing at the glittering ocean.
It is often said that Abu Dhabi is a haven for shopping. Justifiably so, considering Yas Mall, Marina Mall, The Galleria, and more find pride of place here. Each of these shopping centres deliver an impressive array of stores, including international retailers and eateries.
And don’t forget to overload on dates – the best of which can be found at the Abu Dhabi Dates Market. I also find a treasure trove of traditional handicrafts and souvenirs at Heritage Village. Designed as a pre-modern UAE village locked in an enchanting time capsule with an old-world souk (market), mosque and camp, this oasis showcases time-honoured crafts of the region. For a more local touch, head to Mina Market, a fascinating farmers’ market. Being an archipelago, Abu Dhabi has a deep connection with the sea. Its love for seafood, then, is no surprise. The quayside Fishmarket offers the best variety of seafood. Further on is the Al Mina Fruit and Vegetable Souk that provides unique colours, aromas, and visuals of fresh produce—a haven for vegetarians like me. Yemeni mattresses and machine-made carpets dominate the Carpet Souk, while some even sell Arabic-style cushions to serve as mementos from a memorable trip.
As I round up my solo sojourn in Abu Dhabi, I know it’s a destination I’d love to explore more, possibly with my girlfriends soon—it’s safe, trendy, and culturally rich at the same time—a perfect place to have unadulterated fun experiences.
Getting to Abu Dhabi
Etihad Airways offers many direct flights from all major Indian cities like Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru, and Chennai.
Explore more here.
Related: Your Ultimate Travel Guide To Abu Dhabi—The Perfect Blend Of Old And New