6 awesome things to do in Abu Dhabi

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For those who have been separated from loved ones halfway around the world, the capital of the United Arab Emirates could be the perfect midpoint for a sunny reunion. Writer Emily McAuliffe discovers the best things to do in Abu Dhabi.

Why hadn’t I stopped here before? Having crossed the world from Australia many times, I had always made the journey, cloudy-eyed, in a hop or two, with the intention of reaching my destination as quickly as possible. That usually meant a pinch in the Middle East, oblivious to the beauty beyond the airport.

Example: Abu Dhabi. A city that is not just a stopover, but, as I quickly discovered, a destination in its own right. It’s home to great food, culture, sun, soft sand and turquoise water, swirling around its 200 islands.

Architectural Wonders in Abu Dhabi

Ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi from 1966 and President of the United Arab Emirates when it was formed in 1971, Sheikh Zayed’s extraordinary impact on the region is remembered through his eponymous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Big is not an understatement. Rising to 100 meters at its highest point, it is one of the largest mosques in the world. And a must add on any list of things to do in Abu Dhabi.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is grand in the extreme © Nessa Gnatoush / Shutterstock

Like all women entering the mosque, I cover myself from head to toe. Note that mosques are the only place in the city where women must cover their hair, wrists and ankles. I wander down a corridor of tall white marble pillars decorated with jasper and amethyst. To my left, the central courtyard is so bright it reflects the minarets, like a shallow pool of water.

The mosque is just one example of Abu Dhabi’s spectacular architecture. On Saadiyat Island, the city’s cultural district, Louvre Abu Dhabi showcases the work of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel. The low, domed building houses a permanent exhibition that skilfully interweaves the history of civilizations around the world. In addition, temporary exhibits feature works of art on loan from French museums, including the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Center Pompidou.

Louvre Abu Dhabi
Louvre Abu Dhabi © Emily McAuliffe

Like the Grand Mosque, the Louvre is best visited at dusk. The sun seems to burn bigger and brighter in the United Arab Emirates. Before entering the gallery, I pause to watch gravity gently pull the glowing orange orb through the water. Behind a soft haze, the sky fades from dusty pink to deep purple, resembling a pastel painting. It’s as if I was surrounded by art, inside and out.

Five-Star Luxury: Emirates Palace Check-in

The shimmering skyline of downtown Abu Dhabi is awe-inspiring, but a visit to Emirates Palace This is where I appreciate the depth of the city’s opulence. As I turn down the palace’s long driveway, the earthy-colored Arabesque-style building — which cost $3 billion to build — stretches out in front of me. The private marina and 1.3 kilometers of private beach hide behind. Many Abu Dhabi hotels have access to a private white sand beach, including the Park Hyatt on Saadiyat Island.

Emirates Palace Abu Dhabi
Emirates Palace © Reinhard Westphal

Inside, the hotel practically shines. Swarovski crystal chandeliers shine overhead. Meanwhile, 24 carat gold – 34 tons, to be precise – adorns the ceilings, pillars and other ornaments. For added opulence, a 24-karat gold facial is also offered at the spa.

Later, I criss-cross the hotel, crossing the thick Persian carpet to one of the palace’s many restaurants. In Vendôme, I sit in front of a buffet of traditional dishes. Here, dips and flatbread, tabbouleh, juicy meat and sticky candies are the order of the day.

feelings of the desert in Abu Dhabi

After dining inside a palace, one dines under a desert moon. On my last night, I’m driven into the Al Khatim desert, a 90-minute drive east of the city. Despite its many turquoise beaches, Abu Dhabi is best known for its vast desert. Here, the sand shifts and ripples in the warm wind, creating a hilly, ever-changing landscape. Throughout my four-day trip, I ask locals what they love most about them. The answer is unanimous: the desert. And of all the must-do things to do in Abu Dhabi? Dune bashing, of course.

Breaking up dunes
Feel the adrenaline on a desert dune trip

Today, my Landcruiser is not just a means of transport; that’s part of the fun. A group of camels lazily watch us stop alongside a row of four-wheel drives. We jump quickly to climb a steep, sandy peak. In front of us, we see endless rolling dunes. We didn’t have long to wait before our guide waved us back to the car. Moments later, we’re crossing the dunes at high speed, sliding sideways down the slopes and hurtling nose-first into sandy valleys.

Things to do in Abu Dhabi desert dune bashing
Al Khatim Desert © Emily McAuliffe

Our driver skillfully corrects the vehicle at the last second and brings us back to a barbecue area. Here, white-topped coffee tables rest on red rugs in the sand. We dine surrounded by the silence of the desert. It is as if we are in the middle of nowhere, when in reality we are in the middle of the world. Could there be a better halfway point than this?

A fast graphical interfacefrom to the birth of Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Sitting on an archipelago in the Persian Gulf, it connects to the mainland by a bridge. The city was transformed from a relatively unknown town into a sophisticated metropolis, thanks to an oil discovery in 1958.

Today, this cosmopolitan city is the cultural heart of the UAE. Filled with museums, architecture, culture and award-winning five-star properties, Abu Dhabi is more than just a stopover destination. Make it the hub of your next trip and discover for yourself the best things to do in Abu Dhabi.

This article was created in partnership with Abu Dhabi Tourism.

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