Rising mirage-like from a low-lying island on the coast of the Persian Gulf, the former pearl trading station of Abu Dhabi has long-played second fiddle to Dubai, 150km to the north.
But with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure now coming online under the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, the bling gap between the two cities is starting to wane.
More than 2.5 million people visited Abu Dhabi in the first nine months of 2013 – a 17 per cent increase compared to the previous year.
Here’s how to spend 24 hours in the city.
8AM – Za’atar and sand bars
Start the day with a walk, jog or swim along the beach at Saadiyat Island on the city’s northeast flank. The translucent blue waters remain deliciously warm all year round, and with 9km of sand you’ll never have trouble finding a place to lay a towel.
With six gourmet buffet stations … breakfast at the St. Regis is epic
Replenish lost calories at Oléa, an alfresco restaurant set on the ground floor of the mediterranean-themed St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort. With six gourmet buffet stations comprising foods from all different parts of the world, breakfast (186 Emirati Dirhams) at the St. Regis is epic.
Don’t miss the croissants garnished with za’atar, an Arabic herb mix made of thyme, oregano, toasted sesame seeds and salt – it offers ample fuel for a day-long exploration of the city.
10AM – Souk it to me
Souk is Arabic for ‘marketplace’. When you mention it to your concierge they’ll invariably direct you to The Souk Central Market, a new shopping destination for high-end jewellery, perfume, silks and antiques.
But to experience the sights, sounds and smells of an authentic Arab souk, head to the Mina Zayed portside district. On 31 St. you’ll find the Mina Fish Market and Dhow Wharf, named after the old sailing boats that brought cargo to the Gulf from the Far East and India in days of old.
Bargain hard to earn stallholders’ respect.
Visit the Al Mina Fruit & Vegetable Market on 20th St. to buy a satchel of za’atar and hone your bargaining techniques, before continuing to the Abu Dhabi Carpet Souk on Al Mina Rd. Think Yemeni mattresses, intricate handmade Iranian carpets and traditional majlis-style cushions and covers. Bargain hard to earn stallholders’ respect.
NOON – Tower records
In a city where prices are generally as high as the glittering skyline, taxis in Abu Dhabi are surprisingly cheap, with metered fares starting from 3.50 Dirhams.
Taxis also provide refuge from the searing desert heat that climbs up to 48°C from July to September – hail one to drive you along the rows of sculptured towers of glass and steel that are cementing Abu Dhabi’s title as the richest city in the world.
The twin Al Bahr Towers are shaped like colossal pineapples with thousands of self-retracting umbrella-like elements to ward off the sun
Building like Capital Gate, AKA the Leaning Tower of Abu Dhabi, certified by Guinness World Records as the world’s furthest leaning tower; the twin Al Bahr Towers (pictured), shaped like colossal pineapples with thousands of self-retracting umbrella-like elements to ward off the sun; the World Trade Center Residencies that on completion will be the city’s tallest buildings at 382m; the Etihad Towers, a conglomeration of five buildings designed by Australian architects DBI design that sparkle iridescently in the sun; and Aldar Headquarters, an iconic spherical building inspired by the clam that resembled a giant disc balanced on its side.
1PM – Mosque def
Encircled by reflective pools, cornered with minarets that soar 100m into the sky and capped by 82 onion-shaped domes, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is Abu Dhabi’s most beautiful building. And thanks to an open-door policy that harks back to the Golden Age of Islam, it’s also the city’s most popular tourist attraction with nearly a million visitors per year.
The Grand Mosque’s dimensions and the attention to detail of its craftsmanship and design are absolutely awesome. Two and a half times the size of a football pitch, its gleaming white courtyard is the largest example of marble mosaic in the world. Take a pair of sunglasses as it sparkles.
Take a pair of sunglasses as it sparkles.
The main prayer hall features seven colossal palm-shaped chandeliers, the largest weighing 12 tonnes and incorporating 40kg of 24-carat-gold and glass panes studded with millions of Swarovski crystals. Then there’s the main prayer rug. Measuring more than 5,000sq-m, it was made in Iran, hand-knotted by 1,200 weavers over 16 months. On completion it took two jumbo jets to fly it here.
The Grand Mosque is located on the Airport Rd 15km from the heart of the city. Opening hours are 9am-10pm Saturday to Thursday and 4:30pm-10pm on Fridays. Entry is free and free guided tours are offered 2-5 times daily. A dress code applies.
3PM – Fast times
A half-hour taxi ride from the Grand Mosque, Yas Island is home to Ferrari World, the world’s largest indoor amusement park. Experience the thrill of a Ferrari rollercoaster that hits speeds of 240km/hour and 17 other hair-raising rides for 240 Dirhams, or grab a snack at one of the theme park’s five Italianate restaurants and cafes.
If the heat gets too much for you, take a dip at Yas Water World, where you’ll find 43 waterslides and the world’s largest surf simulator. Family tickets are 705 Dirhams. For a spot of golf visit Yas Links, a Gary Player-designed 18-hole championship golf course with an air-conditioned swing studio.
Yas Island also has four polo fields, a marina to moor your superyacht and a protected mangrove area
Yas Island also has four polo fields, a marina to moor your superyacht and a protected mangrove area where Noukhada Adventure Company offer 2.5-hour guided eco-kayak tours for 220 Dirhams.
In December, check out the Gulf 12 Hours, a Le Mans-style endurance race at the Yas Circuit Marina, where luxury British carmaker Bentley Motors staged its comeback to racing last year, taking on the likes of Aston Martin, Ferrari, Maserati. “We chose this event because it has global appeal and it matches what is our words a gentleman’s race,” says Bentley spokesperson Robin Peel.
8PM – Aladdin’s lamp
The $6 billion Emirates Palace Hotel is lavished in so much marble and gold that you’d be forgiving for thinking it was the home of Aladdin himself. Set at the end of the Corniche West St., Abu Dhabi’s glamorous beachfront boulevard, ‘the Palace’ is surrounded by 100 acres of manicured gardens and a 1.3km private beach.
It has a 1,100-seat theatre, a grand ballroom, two helicopter pads, floodlit blue on green tennis courts and a rock-lined adventure pool with flowing currents. Stay in one of 394 hotel rooms and suites featuring bathrooms with elevated spas, 24-hour butler service and 4-foot-wide plasma screen TVs from 3,000 Dirhams a night.
For a really big splurge, the 680sqm, three-bedroom Palace Suite is 17,500 Dirhams.
For an alfresco dining experience straight out of Arabian Nights, head down to BBQ Al Qasr on the Palace beach. Start with a humous dipping plate drizzled in olive oil and dusted with paprika. Follow with a platter of the finest chargrilled seafood from the Gulf and meats from New Zealand. Round it off with Turkish coffee, Nutella tiramisu and a puff on an aromatic shisha pipe. Fittingly, belly dancers and bongo players make regular appearances here.