fFrom stunning architecture to World Heritage-listed wonders, Abu Dhabi has more to offer than sun, sea and sand. Delve into more than 8,000 years of history, discover centuries-old traditions shaped by desert-dwelling Bedouin and pearl-digging tribes, and learn how the country’s founding fathers carefully steered “black gold” after its discovery in the 1950s.
Here are our top recommendations to get you closer to the cultural heart of this fascinating destination.
Qasr Al Hosn
For a reminder of when Abu Dhabi was just a fishing village, visit this stone fortress in the heart of the city. Built around a tower built in the 1790s to protect a valuable water source for a growing pearl colony at the time, Qasr Al Hosn Overlooking the coastal trade route, it has been home to the Al Nahyan family, the emirate’s rulers, for nearly two centuries.
After a 10-year restoration, it opened as a museum in 2018 and today displays beautiful artifacts dating back thousands of years. Be sure to visit the House of Artisans, which showcases Emirati handicrafts such as Al Sadu weaving and Talli embroidery.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Named after the UAE’s founding father, Abu Dhabi’s majestic alabaster white Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the greatest attractions in the world and truly worth seeing. Topped by 82 marble domes, the vast courtyard is surrounded by four soaring minarets and flanked by thousands of columns inlaid with semi-precious stones that glisten in reflective pools paved with shades of blue.
Inside, walk barefoot on the world’s largest hand-knotted rug during free tours (every day, except Friday mornings) as your Emirati guide explains Islamic culture and design. Highlights include seven monumental crystal chandeliers and a carved cedar pulpit inlaid with mosaics and mother-of-pearl.
Qasr Al Watan
Opening to the public in 2019, the massive Qasr Al Watan Provides a fascinating insight into the governance of the country. A self-guided audio tour of the working presidential palace lets you explore at your own pace, admiring intricate geometric designs, dramatic chandeliers, and a giant spherical sculpture made of interlaced Arabic calligraphy.
Don’t miss the fascinating manuscript exhibition dedicated to the contributions of Arab scholars, the display of diplomatic gifts from other countries, and the chamber where cabinet meetings are held. Time your visit for the late afternoon to watch the daily 7pm sound and light show that illuminates the palace’s exterior and traces the history of the UAE.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
On Saadiyat Island, the first Universal Museum in the region, Louvre Abu Dhabi, a masterpiece inside and out. Sunlight filters through Jean Nouvel’s multi-tiered geometric dome as if floating above a mini medina of white cube galleries.
The permanent collection presents works from the Paleolithic to the present in chronological order, including ancient statuary, neoclassical sculpture, modern masters, and contemporary installations. This is complemented by rotating loans of iconic works by leading French institutions such as Van Gogh, Monet and Bonnard.
If you’re traveling with kids, check out the Children’s Museum, which offers family-focused exhibits and interactive workshops for children ages 6 to 12.
Be sure to allow time for a day trip to the Garden City ain, a 90-minute drive east of the coastal capital. Situated at the crossroads of ancient trade routes, the World Heritage-listed city and surrounding area boast a range of historic sites, including a magnificent oasis of date palms irrigated by two falaj irrigation systems.
Visit the 19th-century mudbrick Al Jahili fortress, and see an exhibit dedicated to Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s exploration of the open space in the 1940s. Then drive to the top of Jebel Hafeet, stopping at the Al Ain Camel Market along the way to enjoy the expansive desert views from Abu Dhabi’s highest peak.