Editor’s Note: CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
Fueled by petrodollars and ambition, Abu Dhabi is a young gun and wise uncle rolled into one charming if slightly schizo personality. It’s split between the original city on its crowded island nub, some 200 other islands and a slew of emerging mainland communities and attractions.
Before the city’s urban planners gussy up the United Arab Emirates’ capital beyond all recognition, a sojourn in the city still provides an Arabia-meets-Metropolis experience, merging a half-century of achievement with a 3D Technicolor vision of the future. Arab expats and Emiratis in traditional garb vie with suited Western consultants for café tables, while international A-listers and sports stars motor, sing, putt and pose their way through a packed social calendar of festivals and tournaments.
While the vibe is more relaxed than its nearest neighbor, Dubai, there’s still ample opportunity to “live large.” And even though the city feels like it’s fast approaching a cultural turning point, if you scratch beneath the surface you’ll catch a glimpse of the best of Abu Dhabi.
A sprawling cupola-covered homage to opulence fronted by a 1.3-kilometer-long private beach, this US$3 billion bastion of hospitality is the haunt of royalty, oligarchs and awestruck tourists passing through on the pretense of visiting the permanent Saadiyat Island Cultural District exhibition.
Larger than life in every respect, trekking the 1,000 meters from East to West Wing is the perfect way to walk off dinner. If your credit card limit doesn’t quite stretch to a US$15,000 a night Palace Suite you can still take home a little bit of luxury from the hotel’s own gold bar vending machine.
St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort
St. Regis, located on Saadiyat Island- Abu Dhabi’s much vaunted cultural hub- delivers a splendid excuse for simply lounging around in five-star style. Overlooking the popular golf club and a sea turtle conservation area, and landscaped to within centimeters of its life, indulgent relaxation is the name of the game with on-call pool butlers proffering iced towels and spa therapists to pummel the body beautiful to perfection.
Jumeirah at Etihad Towers
High-rise glass-clad hospitality, a dramatic atrium lobby and guaranteed sea views from every guestroom are nice after negotiating the surrounding (temporary) roadworks. Further mollification is provided in the form of an adjacent designer retail tower.
On-the-doorstep city pursuits are easily ignored with a trio of outdoor pools, beach, spa and 12 restaurants to sample, and the lobby lounge camelccinos (coffee with camel milk) are apparently all the rage. Located opposite the Emirates Palace, the hotel’s observation deck on level 74 has become another marker on the tourist trail.
One2One – The Village
In a quiet, semi-residential area yet still downtown, this cluster of individual villas, redeveloped into a quirky mini-village, is a pleasant contrast to the usual bland branded towers. OK, so the hotel’s “dry” status means you won’t get a glass of wine with dinner. But the free Wi-Fi is a plus and its popular Lebanese restaurant is a cool hangout for anyone looking for authentic local flavor. And we don’t just mean the hummus.
The Royal Hotel
In the heart of the city center, a short walk from the Corniche, the hotel may be located on one of Abu Dhabi’s busiest thoroughfares, but it’s a no-brainer for visitors looking for value. With an interior theme that’s a cross between bachelor pad and reality TV makeover – retro wallpaper and primary colors – it also comes with the rare mid-range hotel privilege of free covered parking and a compact collection of leisure facilities.
Moroccan dining at its seductive best, Agadir goes beyond the classic tagine and couscous repertoire with a menu, and setting, that instantly transports you to a hidden backstreet riad in Marrakech. The knowledgeable all-Moroccan team guides you through less well-known items on the menu, but the standout dishes are definitely the themed regional selections, from authentic Berber cuisine to coastal Essaouira delights.
The first Middle Eastern outpost for the upscale Chinese restaurant chain, celebrities and statesmen have all dined here and Hakkasan continues to draw crowds. Packed with atmosphere, the restaurant has elevated modern Cantonese dining in the emirate to a new level.
Must-try menu favorites include the crispy duck salad, jasmine-infused beef ribs and charcoal-grilled silver cod with Champagne and Chinese honey. For financially adventurous foodies, the braised abalone with truffles is a steal at 3,518 dirhams.
The Park Bar & Grill
Going up against established steak and seafood joints in the city, this double-story restaurant located on emerging Saadiyat Island is well worth the drive. While the animated open kitchen means chefs have to be on their best behavior, diners are easily distracted by the menu, which features Australian and Wagyu beef. Go against the grain and opt for the roasted orange-spotted trevally or Asian-style slow-cooked beef short ribs.
The One Restaurant
An old expat favorite occupying the first floor of local upmarket furniture emporium The One, the popular restaurant is a favorite located at the far end of busy Khalidiyah Street. A one-size-fits-all venue with a menu that ranges from coffee and gluten-free cakes to locally inspired dishes like macadamia nut-crusted hammour and Mexican-style falafel with orange and basil hummus, it’s a foodie find.
Four-wheel drives block the street outside both outlets of this Abu Dhabi takeaway institution, furiously honking their horns for service while waiters scurry back and forth with bags of garlic-scented lamb shawarmas, mixed-grill delights and classic salads. Inside, eager diners line up for a seat or for a take-home treat of sticky sweet Lebanese pastries.
The city’s original supper club – live jazz and fusion sounds from the resident South African six-piece band make this a perennially popular nightspot. The modern art deco-themed interior attracts an international audience of music lovers and tourists looking for a chill night out, retro cocktails in hand. Smart casual, no cover charge.
Pretty young things dominate the scene on weekends while weeknights attract a more mixed clientele at this lively rooftop bar on the outskirts of the city. The all-white decor is the backdrop for a weekly calendar of themed DJ sets complemented by an expansive cocktail and tapas menu.
Yas Marina Circuit
While you don’t get to pull on your leather driving gloves and slide behind the wheel of a US$1.5-million car solo, the F1 two-seat racer experience provides once-in-a-lifetime thrills. Suit up in fire-retardant gear to be catapulted at speeds of up to 300 kph around the Hermann Tilke-designed track. If you’re still itching to go the distance, the circuit also offers a self-drive Formula Yas 3000 alternative.
Upping the ante on its eco-friendly ambitions, Abu Dhabi’s protected mangroves are accessible with a 90-minute kayaking trip through the narrow channels and splendid lagoons of this green-canopied inner-city wilderness. Suitable for beginners. Minimum four people.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
Get close to one of the Emirates’ most emblematic symbols at the world’s largest falcon hospital, which treats 6,000 sick and injured birds each year. The two-hour tour includes a museum and free-flying falcon display and the chance to visit patients on the high-tech wards.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Spiritual significance and endless superlatives come together under 82 white marble domes, 1,096 exterior columns, 96 semi-precious jewel-encrusted internal columns and seven 24-carat gold plated Swarovski crystal chandeliers. With capacity for 41,000 worshippers on the world’s largest carpet, the mosque took 11 years to complete and is the jaw-dropping centerpiece of the city’s cultural legacy.
Central Market at WTCAD
The city’s old souks are dying, but for a flavor of traditional street market life the Central Market does its best to recreate the sights, smells and ambience of a traditional bazaar, minus the grit. You can load up with goodies for the kitchen, including delicious Muhammadi Rose tea and the finest quality saffron at Wadi Az Zafran, or pick up traditional handicrafts from the Sougha initiative, which sells colorful hand-woven and leather gifts made by entrepreneurial female Emirati artisans.
Madinat Zayed Gold Centre
Not the prettiest shopping mall in the city, the bland interior fades to gray in front of a dazzling window display of gold, diamond and pearl bling in this sprawling gold center. With more than 70 jewelry stores vying for the tourist dollar, visitors must brave the beckoning hands and “special price madam” pleas of shopkeepers. Haggling is de rigueur and, behind the scenes, craftsmen create one-off made-to-order designs to satisfy demanding clients.
Tips and suggestions
The definitive list of the UAE’s best malls, with updates on everything from designer label sales to electronic bargains, iShopaholic also shows the way the closest malls to your location.
iShopaholic, Blackberry and iPhone compatible, Apple App store; free
Abu Dhabi offline map and guide
Confused by the absence of street names and compass points? This useful GPS-enabled navigation tool avoids expensive roaming fees by storing an up-to-date offline directory of the city’s streets.
Abu Dhabi offline map and guide, Apple App store; US$1.99
Ethics guide for tourists
Abu Dhabi’s official (and complimentary) ethics guide is packed with useful advice on dress codes and acceptable behavior in public places within the emirate. Published by Abu Dhabi Police General HQ, the 14-point guide includes vital tips on avoiding indecent behavior such as kissing and cross-dressing, plus information on drugs, alcohol consumption, prostitution, begging and vagrancy.
For more information, call the Tourism Police Department hotline: 800 2626