Visiting a foreign country allows for you to experience new cultures, try new food, experience unique attractions, and learn about a different part of the world. I did just that, with my visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. I visited as a non-Muslim, wary of rules and expected norms, and was shocked at how welcomed I was into this place of worship.
There is a reason this location has 35,000+ reviews on TripAdvisor with a 5-star rating and the 2022 Travelers’ Choice Award. It was free, clean, educational, and picture-worthy.
To visit, all you need to do is grab a free reservation time online. These are assigned to space the public out to not have mass crowds appear all at once. The Grand Mosque also offers reservation times in person, but the online process is free and so easy that it’s recommend to do it in advance.
Expectations for visitors
As an American visiting the U.A.E. for my first time, I did my research to make sure I was respectful to the people and their culture. Specific clothing is one of the only requirements for visiting this Grand Mosque, and the Mosque is very clear and upfront about that. Numerous signs are at the location before you get to the official Mosque. The website also offers examples of what is accepted. I was in the U.A.E. as part of a media event, but the visit to the Mosque was on my own.
Looking for appropriate clothing? I wore this exact outfit, along with sneakers. Specific tours take you into prayer areas where you will need to take off your shoes, so you may prefer socks. Women will be expected to cover their hair at all times. The age of younger girls wasn’t exactly specified, but our tour guide informed us that Muslim girls usually begin this process around 12 years old. Young children do not have specifications, but are expected to wear clothing that covers them adequately, no shirtless kids allowed.
For women, head coverings were expected, but there was no requirement for specific types of covering. The Mosque Welcome Center has an underground mall before you head to the actual Grand Mosque. This area sells discounted head scarves and coverings. These are simple and sold cheap. If you want to come prepared, you can get a more traditional hijab cap or a type of simple headwear, and I noticed that many of the tour groups were using light jackets with a sun visor hood. All of these, and more, were openly accepted.
During my entire two-and-a-half hour visit, I only noticed one group get talked to by security. Three women took off their hair coverings and were doing poses and peace signs at the main photo-op. Security came over and kindly asked them to put their hair coverings back on and to be respectful when taking pictures. They listened and the security officer walked back to his waiting space. Security officers were very kind and were open to taking pictures for visitors when asked.
Arriving to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center
Arriving to the Mosque is not what you may expect. Having visited numerous famous Cathedrals in Europe, I thought I’d be dropped off near the entrance and walk right in. Instead, I was greeted by the welcome center, which was significantly larger than I expected. This area, akin to a mall, was an underground shopping and information center. Here you could find American food brands, a local grocery store, shops relating to Abu Dhabi, Mosque clothing requirement shops, and more.
This area had clear signage to the Grand Mosque entrance as well as information kiosks. This area, much like many of the locations I visited in Abu Dhabi, was immaculately clean. Each restroom had numerous attendants, and janitorial staff were constantly walking around the welcome center sweeping or spraying down high-traffic areas.
Ticketing and security
Worried about English signage? Don’t be. The Grand Mosque, and all of the areas I visited in Abu Dhabi, offered dual-language signage. I followed the signage to the ticket area where my QR code was scanned and I went through security.
I was allowed to bring in a large bag, a camera, a portable charger, and my iPhone. The one item I couldn’t bring in was a wireless microphone. I didn’t bring this item for the Grand Mosque, but did have extra equipment for my media tour of YAS Island and Abu Dhabi. This item was taken for safe keeping at security and I was given a card to present when I came back. Upon leaving, my item was returned when I could identify what I was having returned. I appreciated this second level of check in the case I had lost my card during the Grand Mosque tour.
A place of welcome and tolerance
One of my biggest surprises was the Tolerance Path and the Grand Mosque’s very obvious determination to adhere to welcoming the world in. This long underground walkway takes visitors through the history of the Grand Mosque. Here you can see what major world leaders have visited and what this country is doing to help those around the globe.
This path can be traveled by walking on the path, walking or standing on the moving walkway, or taking the continually running electric carts. In the U.A.E. the phrase Person of Determination is used instead of ADA or Person with Disabilities. If you are, or are with a person of determination, simply let security know and they will bring over assistance.
This Tolerance Path begins a series of moments of welcoming culture, personal learning, and guest service that continued the entire visit. As a non-Muslim, I never felt I needed to act a certain way or talk to people in a specific way. The simple answer was, be respectful. I wasn’t loud or obnoxious, I wore the clothing that was asked, and I didn’t attempt to push through crowds or rush for photo-ops.
The welcome I received in return rivaled the service and respect level you would expect at Michelin Star restaurants or five star resorts. I was guided to photo-ops, welcomed into cultural tours, asked if I wanted my photo taken, and waved in to select areas. I seriously cannot overstate how welcomed I felt in this Mosque.
As a citizen of Florida, Mosques are a rare site, especially ones that offer grand tours. That is not to say Muslims don’t live in Central Florida, but the American culture rarely aligns itself with opportunities for true learning about religions outside of Catholicism and Christianity. Where I haven’t stepped out in the United States to learn more, I felt the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was my place to visit and learn.
The splendor of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a marvel of design and architecture. Sunglasses are allowed, and highly suggested, as this vibrant, white marble structure shines bright. More than 3,000 workers and 38 contracting companies cooperated in building the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates.
As previously stated, this Grand Mosque is immaculately clean. At times I noticed myself trying to walk “smoother” to avoid the squeak of my tennis shoes. When I first arrived, it was 9:30 a.m. and there were about 100 people around the entire Mosque. I recommend arriving early, as when I went to leave around noon, the Grand Mosque had thousands of visitors.
I visited during the day, but my colleague Seth Kubersky was able to visit at night. At night, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is illuminated by 22 lighting towers. These towers simulate the moon phases, with projections of soft undulating clouds of the color blue. The brightness of the lighting effect changes every night from a dark color to bright light at full moon.
Even though I visited during the day, I was not overheated. Much of the Mosque is shaded and some areas offer air-conditioning. If you are able, a sunset visit was highly recommended to us to enjoy the cultural tours and then see the splendor of the structure when the sun is down.
The Cultural Tour cannot be missed
Initially, I was going to tour the Grand Mosque myself, but my timing aligned with one of the cultural tours. I am so glad it did. It’s not mentioned on their website, but the walking cultural tour is about an hour long. It’s worth every second you spend there.
This tour took me away from the crowds and into the heart of the Grand Mosque to see areas where 99 percent of the public will never get to go. Our fantastic tour guide walked us to where Muslim worshipers entered and washed themselves before prayer, an act called Wudu. We were able to see the memorial grave of Sheikh Zayed, an area most of the public is not allowed to witness.
We were given facts about the extensive construction efforts that went into the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. This building was constructed with perfection and symmetry in mind. Marble, precious stones, crystal, and ceramics were used from different countries like Italy, Germany, Morocco, India, Turkey, China, United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Greece to assemble this Grand Mosque.
Permission to walk inside the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The highlight of my tour was the extremely-limited opportunity to take off my shoes, along with my fellow tour mates and our guide, and walk into the main prayer area of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Anyone who visits will be able to see indoors. While thousands of visitors can see it, only the few who do the cultural tour can walk in and explore.
This impressive space was meticulously decorated with religious details, from the chandelier to the massive carpet. We were given five minutes in this space to take photos and videos. We were then given an overview of Islam and how the creation of this space relates back to the religion and its traditions throughout the years.
The carpet alone is a work of art, with stitching meant to create a seamless piece. Our guide told us about the creation of this carpet, the largest of its kind in the world. This piece took 1,200 artisans more than two years to create, and includes carpet ridges to indicate prayer lines for worshippers.
The centerpiece of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a calling to Allah. Ninety-nine pillars of the Islamic faith are engraved on the main back wall of this Mosque, with one left empty on purpose. The reason? Humans alone cannot comprehend the universe, so we cannot know all there is about the supernatural works in our world. This space, located above the writing for Allah, is a calling that we can never know it all, or be everything.
Other tour opportunities
Visitors to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque can also just tour the area themselves. It would be nearly impossible to get lost on a self-guided tour. The Grand Mosque offers more than adequate amounts of ropes and signage. If you somehow do get turned around, the security officers were always nearby to help and answer questions.
Alongside the cultural tours, there was a second option which may intrigue certain visitors and might be a better option for persons of determination. This was the extended, but still free, electric cart tour, “Hidden Glimpses of the Mosque.” Instead of primarily walking, this tour uses electric carts to drive around the extensive gardens and walkways of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Visitors of this tour will be taken to exclusive stations to see the Grand Mosque from up-close and afar. These tours take guests to more intimate areas than the general public visits, but are not as personal as the cultural tours.
Tour guides and group tour packages are sold online that include the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. But the Grand Mosque itself does not charge anything to visit. It is great to have a local guide assist you when visiting a new city, but don’t think you have to pay to visit. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is very specific about freedom to visit, explore, and learn.
I believe a visit to Abu Dhabi would be incomplete without stopping at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. This destination offers a wonderful learning experience for children, historians, and fans of Arabic architecture. It is also a very welcoming place for non-Muslims to learn more about the religion and culture.
Before visiting the Grand Mosque, it was recommend to me again and again by locals, taxi drivers, and fellow travelers, and now I see why. I am joining this group in encouraging the masses to not miss the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
It is free to visit, it has food and drink items for sale before and after the tour, it offers clothing options to bring or buy, it has educational tours and photo-ops, and it is simply a splendor to witness in person. Head to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque’s website to book your reservation and learn more.