Nestled on the shores of the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates’ island capital is an intriguing paradox of old and new, East and West, desert and sea. Though young — the UAE is not yet 50 — the small, fast-growing region of Abu Dhabi is keen to catch up with competitors and cement its status as a luxury destination for today’s international jetsetters, meaning there has never been a more exciting time to make the trip.
Long weekend: our essential travel guide to Abu Dhabi
24th March 2017
Discover the Arabian sights to be found in the United Arab Emirates’ capital, where the natural wonders and culture are just as tempting as the sun and shopping
Housed in one of Abu Dhabi’s most iconic architectural landmarks is Jumeirah at Etihad Towers. Ideal for business travellers or those with a penchant for slick city living, there is also plenty of opportunity for a spot of R&R at the private beach or in one of three pools.
Stuffed dates and honeyed baklava await new arrivals in their rooms, which combine opulent Eastern décor with spectacular views of Abu Dhabi’s skyline, while toiletries shaped like the Etihad Towers add a touch of quirky charm. An excellent breakfast buffet is available at the Jumeirah’s award-winning Rosewater restaurant, with fresh Arabian salads and bite-sized eggs Benedict. Indulge in a spot of shopping at the onsite boutique mall Avenue, and be sure to visit the Observation Deck at 300, where, 74 floors up, high tea means just that.
On the spotless white sands of Saadiyat Island, home to wild gazelles and nesting hawksbill turtles, the Park Hyatt is the perfect hideaway retreat for those in search of a more relaxing stay. Every detail has been thoughtfully arranged to inspire a sense of tranquillity, from the understated yet elegant décor to adults-only pools and quiet green spaces. Though it’s all too tempting to while away the day nibbling fresh fruit on a poolside cabana bed, it’s at the Atarmia Spa that you’ll discover a real feeling of Zen — the Lomi Juma massage is not to be missed, and you can also book yoga classes.
Elsewhere, Zaya Nurai Island is arguably the closest thing to paradise the UAE has to offer. With a choice of airy, light-drenched beachfront retreats, villas, houses — and even estates — this private island is secluded and scenic. Active types can keep busy snorkelling, kayaking and paddle-boarding in the turquoise waters, while those of a more sedate nature can kick back with a Hendricks-infused ice lolly at the delightful, Tropics-inspired Ginger Mermaid beach bar.
With its increasingly international reputation, Abu Dhabi has much to offer travelling foodies. Start off with a truly indulgent coffee break at the grand Emirates Palace hotel, where the signature Palace cappuccino comes sprinkled with real 24-carat gold flakes.
On the shores of Al Raha Beach, Meylas is ideal for a casual lunch. Founder Sheikha Al Kaabi puts a modern twist on Emirati cuisine and hospitality; try the locally caught fish — a must in this island-based region — grilled over charcoal and served piping hot with rice and ghee. Save room for the fresh jbab bread, with cheese, honey and syrupy dates.
For evening, sample some of the best Thai food in the UAE at Pachaylen, where newly appointed chef Pitak Srichan dishes up aromatic takes on spiced green papaya salad and delectably moreish crispy soft shell crabs in curry sauce, as well as the signature tom yum khung soup, absolutely swimming with fat black tiger prawns. New kid on the block Bu! is making waves with artfully arranged pan-Latin food designed to share, such as the spicy Wagyu beef res Tataki rolls — although you may wish to keep desserts such as the choco chilli mango (fusing ganache, mousse cake and sorbet) all to yourself.
As one of the more liberal regions in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi’s bar scene is on the rise — though the majority are still confined to licence-holding hotels. The Saadiyat Beach Club is popular with locals and expats alike, especially on a Friday, when the weekend begins. Head down early to nab a seat on the rooftop and watch the sun set over the waves with a refreshing Strawberry Rosé Spritzer.
Another hot spot for cocktails is the sleekly sophisticated Ray’s Bar, where you’ll be spoiled for choice for tipples. The Oishii (meaning “delicious” in Japanese) goes down a treat, combining London Dry Gin with Choya Umeshu plum liqueur, citrus and ginger ale, while the Il Frutto Proibito will satisfy even the sweetest of teeth with a concoction of raspberry vodka, wild raspberry liqueur and a shot of mango. Alternatively, ask the first-class mixologists to whip up something special.
Tucked away down a spiral staircase at the Rosewood Abu Dhabi, La Cava is a gem of a wine bar with old-school charm and a cellar stocking more than 1,000 labels. Ask the excellent sommeliers for the perfect vintage to pair with the sharing tapas, or a hand-rolled Cuban from the walk-in cigar room.
Pleasure-seeking partygoers should take a short boat ride to the scenic Al Maya Island, located off the coast of the Corniche beachfront. A local favourite, this resort is renowned for its hedonistic pool parties, as DJs spin the decks to a dance floor and swim-up bar.
Be aware that some venues might not be open during Ramadan.
It’s time to do away with the misconception that sunbathing and shopping is all there is to do in Abu Dhabi. For a taste of local culture, the magnificent, lavishly decorated Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a must, while bargain hunters will delight in treasures such as spices, traditional fabrics and oud (a warm, woody fragrance derived from the tropical agar tree) found at the Souk Al Zafarana — be prepared to barter.
Cruise along the mangroves on an Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey, where you’ll learn about the Emirati tradition of pearl fishing over dates and Arabic coffee on an authentic fishing boat.
Comprising more than 200 islands, both natural and manmade, there’s plenty of scope to explore in the emirate. Discover your wild side on a 4x4 drive around the Sir Bani Yas Island, a lush oasis bursting with free-roaming giraffes, cheetahs and Arabian oryx, or get your adrenalin pumping with a race around the Yas Marina Circuit on Yas Island, which car lovers will recognise as the official site of the F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Over on Saadiyat Island, a dedicated Cultural District promises to make the region a serious contender in the international art world, housing a crop of new institutions such as Louvre Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum.
The more adventurous should look beyond the city limits. As more than 80% of Abu Dhabi is desert, the best way to experience the stark beauty of the dunes is on a Desert Safari, where camel rides — and a nerve-shredding off-road drive — are followed by shisha and a barbecue under the stars in a Bedouin-style camp.
British Airways flies to Abu Dhabi once daily from London Heathrow; with prices starting at £349 return.
For more information, see visitabudhabi.ae.