Abu Dhabi has a wealth of cultural attractions. With over 4,000 years of history and tradition to draw from – plus a bevy of architectural wonders and heritage attractions – Abu Dhabi is quickly cementing itself as the cultural hub of the Arabian Peninsula.
Abu Dhabi’s cultural attractions – Jutting out from the endless desert into the vast blue waters of the Arabian Gulf, Abu Dhabi is the largest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE and the nation’s capital. Many visit for its glorious beaches and luxury hotels. Others for its shopping malls and theme parks, or for sporting occasions like the exhilarating Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. But increasingly, it’s the emirate’s cultural credentials that are pulling in the punters. And it’s easy to see why…
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
As one of the most beautiful religious structures in the world, Abu Dhabi’s magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was ranked this year by users of TripAdvisor as the second greatest landmark in the world, beating the likes of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Taj Mahal in India, and eclipsed only by the ancient Incan site of Machu Picchu in Peru.
This cultural jewel is one of the world’s largest mosques, featuring 82 domes, approximately 1,000 columns, 24-carat-gold-plated chandeliers, and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet, which measures 5,627 square metres, weighs 35 tonnes and took 1,200 women two years to make.
Able to accommodate more than 41,000 worshippers, the mosque’s complimentary guided tours through the marble courtyard, palm tree-inspired columns, mother-of-pearl encrusted walls and gilded minarets are open to all faiths and not to be missed. Trained Emirati guides share insights into the foundations of their faith and passion for their nation, and take you into the breathtaking enormity of the mosque’s calming interior, which features seven chandeliers bedecked in Swarovski crystals, the largest of which weighs a staggering 12 tonnes.
Louvre Abu Dhabi & Saadiyat Island Cultural District
Saadiyat Island Cultural District is arguably the most ambitious cultural project ever conceived. The centrepiece of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, it will house the world’s largest single concentration of premier cultural assets, including Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Zayed National Museum, which is backed by the British Museum in London, and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi – all designed by winners of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize.
If the scale and grandeur of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque impresses, the palatial proportions of Louvre Abu Dhabi will leave you architecturally awe-struck. Born of an intergovernmental agreement between the UAE and France in 2007, and set to open in 2017, Louvre Abu Dhabi will change the emirate’s cultural landscape forever, becoming the first museum in the Arab world to embody the spirit of openness and dialogue between cultures. As the first of the three ‘starchitect’-designed mega museums planned for Saadiyat Island, it represents a fundamental statement of Abu Dhabi’s long-term cultural vision.
Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, the structure’s 180-metre-wide domed roof graces the Abu Dhabi skyline like an artwork in itself. Inspired by the interlaced palm leaves of traditional Emirate roofs, the exterior shell is a complex geometric pattern of 7,850 stars, repeated in eight layers at various sizes and angles. The sun shining through the dome’s perforations casts an enchanting ‘Rain of Light’ into the museum’s interior that shifts throughout the day, charting the sun’s path through the almost-always clear sky.
It’s not just in the dome that Nouvel sought inspiration from Arabic architecture. A series of more than 50 white buildings make up this ‘museum city’, inspired by traditional low-lying Arab settlements. Ever aware of context, Nouvel has introduced a traditional falaj-inspired water system, conceived as a complex of pavilions, plazas, alleyways and canals that run through the museum and continue externally, creating the appearance of a city floating on the waters of the Arabian Gulf.
Louvre Abu Dhabi (artist’s impression):-
Within this city will lie a growing collection of more than 600 pieces of art, displayed across 23 state-of-the-art galleries. Drawn from civilisations from all around the world, the works will tell the story of shared human experience from ancient times to the present day. Themes include prehistory, the birth of civilisations and the first great empires, universal religions, exchange across trade routes, voyages of discovery, the role of the individual in history, and globalisation.
Notable artworks include one of the finest examples of a standing Bactrian ‘Princess’ from the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, a 3,000-year-old Middle-Eastern gold bracelet with a lion’s head, an 1878 painting by Osman Hamdi Bey titled A Young Emir Studying, Paul Gauguin’s masterpiece Children Wrestling, nine canvasses by contemporary artist Cy Twombly, and the oldest known photograph of a veiled woman.
In the opening year, the permanent collection will be complemented by approximately 300 masterpieces on loan from key French institutions, including works from the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Palace of Versailles and the Musée d’Orsay. Highlights include Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman, a three-metre-tall statue of Rameses II, a Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait, Claude Monet’s Saint-Lazare Station, Edouard Manet’s The Fife Player, and Henri Matisse’s Still Life with Magnolia.
Next to join Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island will be the Zayed National Museum, designed by British Pritzker Prize-winner Norman Foster and backed by the British Museum. The museum will be the UAE’s national museum, telling the story of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, his unification of the United Arab Emirates, the history of the region and its cultural connections across the world.
Guggenheim Abu Dhabi
Last but by no means least will come Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Frank Gehry – who also designed the Guggenheim Bilbao – Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will boast yet another enviable national and international collection, and is set to be the largest Guggenheim in the world – about 12 times larger than its New York namesake.
Until these museums are open, visitors to Abu Dhabi can see the island’s cultural vision brought to life at the exhibition centre Manarat Al Saadiyat. Free to enter, the centre offers lessons in history and scale models of the aforementioned museums. It also regularly hosts temporary exhibits linked to the development of the Cultural District, including Abu Dhabi Art, the emirate’s flagship annual arts event, which takes place each November and showcases works from some of the world’s most innovative galleries.
Guggehheim (artist’s impression)
Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey & Falcon Hospital
Beyond the headline-grabbing mega developments, Abu Dhabi has a rich history that stretches back thousands of years. Archaeological finds point to people having lived in the region as far back as the third millennium BCE, and delving into the emirate’s past is a fantastic way to get beneath the skin of the destination.
Long before the discovery of oil, pearls were the primary source of income for the inhabitants of the UAE. In the 19th century, crews of 20 men, packed onto traditional wooden vessels, would depart for the pearl banks of the Arabian Gulf for months at a time. Divers would go down upwards of 50 times a day, pulled to the bottom by weights on their feet, their noses pegged with turtle-shell clips and their ears plugged with wax. After filling a basket with as many shells as possible, they’d pull on their rope and be hauled to the surface.
Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey
Starting from the marina in front of the 5-star Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara, the 90-minute Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey offers a unique opportunity to learn about Abu Dhabi’s pearl-diving history. Seated on Arabian floor cushions aboard a traditional pearling vessel, guests cruise past the city’s natural mangroves enjoying Arabic coffee and dates as an Emirati guide explains how the country’s forefathers dedicated their lives to diving for oyster shells. You even get to shuck your own living, natural oysters, and keep any pearls that you find inside!
Equally central to the history of Abu Dhabi is the practice of falconry. Historically, falcons were used for hunting, to supplement the Bedouin diet with meat such as hare or houbara. Today, hunting with falcons is prohibited in the UAE, and falconry in Abu Dhabi is practised purely for sport and to honour the traditions of the past. Falconry displays can be witnessed at desert resorts on Sir Bani Yas Island and among the dunes of the Empty Quarter, but to really understand the importance of falconry in the UAE, a trip to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is essential.
The largest and most advanced of its kind in the world, the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital sees 50 to 100 falcons treated within its walls every day. Falcons are regarded as members of the family by their Emirati owners, so much so that they are often bought First or Business Class tickets aboard Etihad Airways when they’re taken abroad.
Although fractures and infections can all be treated at the hospital, most birds are brought in simply for a check-up – to get their feathers checked and talons trimmed. In the wild, their talons would be worn down naturally by rocks, but for tame, trained falcons, not enough time is spent hunting for that process to work, so the doctors clip their talons to ensure the birds’ own comfort.
Watching a peregrine get a pedicure is a fascinating highlight of the hospital tour. The patients wait in rows in the examination room, on wooden benches topped with something akin to Astroturf, with hoods over their eyes to keep them calm while they’re waiting to be seen. When their time comes, they’re carried to a specially designed table. A conical contraption is slipped over the bird’s head and gas is released until the creature goes to sleep. The doctor then spreads the soft, feathered wings, checking for any breaks – feather transplants are also commonplace – before expertly clipping the bird’s talons, then filing them down to an appropriate length with a miniature sander. A few moments later, as the gas wears off, the bird begins to stir and its hood is placed safely back over its eyes. It’s ready to be returned to its owner.
The ‘Oasis City’ of Al Ain
For an even more authentic taste of Abu Dhabi’s culture and heritage, leave the skyscrapers behind and make for the rustic charms of Al Ain, Abu Dhabi’s second city, about a 90-minute drive from the capital.
One of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited settlements, Al Ain offers many fine examples of traditional Arabian architecture, as well as the Cultural Sites of Al Ain (Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and Oases Areas), which together were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011.
Of these, the Al Ain Oasis offers excellent facilities for visitors. The site is filled with palm plantations, many of which are still working farms. Cool, shady walkways transport visitors from the heat and noise of the city to a tranquil haven brought to life by a complex irrigation system known as aflaj, whose individual channels (falaj) have been used for centuries to tap into underground wells.
A purpose-built Eco-Centre at the oasis entrance provides an overview of the site and explains its importance to the development of Abu Dhabi. Through a series of fascinating and immersive exhibits, the centre highlights the work and methods of oasis farmers, and the measures being taken to preserve the oasis ecosystem.
Beyond the Eco-Centre, a nifty app and a stylised map allow visitors to navigate the many trails that criss-cross the interior, punctuated by information boards and interpretive panels. The site also features a restaurant and three cafes, souvenir shops, plenty of free parking and connectivity to neighbouring heritage sites, including the Al Ain Palace and Al Ain National Museums.
The former houses a large collection of material about the ruling Al Nahyan dynasty, while the latter sheds light on the many layers of Al Ain’s history. A charming museum, it’s full of ancient weapons, jewellery, sacred texts, traditional costumes and surgical implements, as well as objects excavated from the tombs nearby at Hili and Umm an-Nar, which date to the 3rd millennium BCE.
The most recently opened of Al Ain’s museums is Qasr Al Muwaiji, which has been built around a century-old fortress that was home to generations of Abu Dhabi’s ruling dynasty. The museum recounts the history of the fortress and its many residents, as well as the wider history and archaeology of Al Ain. It also celebrates the life and achievements of Qasr Al Muwaiji’s most famous son, the current UAE President Sheikh Khalifa, who was born in the fortress in January 1948.
Al Jahili Fort
As fortresses go, however, it’s hard to top the picture-postcard image of Al Jahili Fort, built in 1891 to defend the city’s palm groves. Aside from conjuring images of One Thousand and One Nights, the fort is home to a permanent exhibition about British adventurer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who crossed the deserts of the Empty Quarter twice in the 1940s and 50s, disguised as a Bedouin. Thesiger was a personal friend of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE, and his book, Arabian Sands, is considered a classic of modern travel literature.
“The Empty Quarter offered me the chance to win distinction as a traveller; but I believed that it could give me more than this, that in those empty wastes I could find the peace that comes with solitude, and, among the Bedu, comradeship in a hostile world.”
Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands
The Abu Dhabi of today would be unrecognisable to Thesiger, but the hospitality and comradeship he encountered is as abundant as ever in the Emirati people. Abu Dhabi is an emirate that safeguards its past, preserves its cultural heritage and values its traditions. For travellers looking for a cultural connection, Abu Dhabi’s cultural attractions are much to be admired.