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10 Reasons to Visit Abu Dhabi Now

Once a sleepy Arabian Gulf town, Abu Dhabi today is a modern global metropolis muscling its way onto the international tourism stage. The capital and second largest city of the United Arab Emirates is also the wealthiest of the seven emirates by far, which is evident in the eye-popping landmarks and world-class cultural venues at every turn. A country-altering supply of oil was discovered in 1958 (you can still see the first well), and locals blithely refer to “before oil” and “after oil” when discussing changes over the years. An ochre-colored city surrounded by water, water everywhere, Abu Dhabi sprawls over 200 islands — with more popping up whenever additional land is needed.

A fascinating intersection of modernity and tradition, this city of 1.6 million embraces its rich heritage — Emiratis still sport traditional garb and maintain conservative social customs — while also unabashedly racing toward the high-speed future. Although its crane-dotted skyline can’t rival Dubai’s for sheer audacity and glitz, it boasts its share of visual icons amid an impeccably clean landscape, thanks to huge fines for littering or driving a polluting car.

As Abu Dhabi pours $10 billion into its tourism infrastructure from now until 2030, it hopes to boost its international overnight visitors from 3.8 million in 2023 to 7.2 million by 2030. With its diverse and growing number of bucket-list attractions, this safe and secure emirate may be well on its way.

"What I love about this country is the optimism," Etihad Airways communications rep Rana Chahine told me during my visit. With money gushing and essentially a blank slate, that optimism is transforming Abu Dhabi into an Arabian showpiece.

From Michelin-starred dining and glittering malls, to thrilling theme parks, pristine beaches, and world-class art and culture, here are 10 reasons to visit Abu Dhabi now.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The pedestrian approach to this mosque, the world's third largest, provides clues to the vision of its creator, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Founding Father of the UAE (who’s buried in the courtyard). Inspiring aphorisms line an underground passageway from the parking garage called the Tolerance Path, such as, “Humanity is our message to the world,” “Welcome people of the world to the Emirates of peace,” and “Openness and co-existence with all segments of society.” They reflect Zayed’s view of the mosque — indeed of the country in general — as a welcoming cultural haven that inspires people from all backgrounds. Indeed, only 19% of the local population is Emirati.

An architectural icon, the gleaming-white mosque combines Mughal, Moorish, Ottoman, and Persian styles in a brilliant fusion of Islamic art. Its dazzling features include gold-plated Swarovski chandeliers, acres of marble with inlaid mosaic artwork, Moghul-style domes (reminiscent of the Taj Mahal), Moorish archways, and reflective pools that mirror the 96 amethyst-, lapis lazuli-, and jasper-embedded columns. The exterior lighting system is dramatically synchronized with the lunar cycle, creating a building that “breathes with the moon.” Accommodating a whopping 44,000 worshippers at one time, the grand structure was built by skilled workers from all over the world, including 1,300 Iranian artisans who hand-knotted the main prayer hall's carpet — the world's largest.

Qasr Al Watan Presidential Palace

Competing for attention with the mosque is another dazzling white landmark, the granite and limestone Qasr Al Watan Presidential Palace, an exquisitely crafted tribute to Arabian heritage and artistry. With an emphasis on learning, this working palace features a massive library and House of Knowledge as well as the offices of the President, Vice President, and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and formal meeting and banquet rooms that reflect the nation’s founding principle of collaboration.

Completed in 2017, it’s considered one of the main cultural tourist attractions of the Middle East. The 4-million-square-foot complex (nearly five times the size of Buckingham Palace) is intricately designed and ornately decorated to wow with its grandeur and opulence. The Great Hall, for example, boasts a jaw-dropping 121-foot-diameter central dome with a chandelier so large it contains a three-story interior staircase to allow workers to clean its 350,000 pieces of crystal. White, gold, and blue colors symbolically dominate the hall, with blue representing the waters of the Gulf, white standing for purity, and yellow for the desert sands.

Founder’s Memorial

An interactive tribute to the UAE’s founding father, the Founder’s Memorial commemorates the life, legacy, and mission of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is revered here. Opened in 2018 on the 100th anniversary of his birth, it features a fascinating video of the founding of the nation by this humanitarian visionary who is still considered the guiding star of his young country.

That star metaphor is brought vividly to life in the memorial’s centerpiece, a monumental public artwork called The Constellation. This three-dimensional 98-foot-high “box” features 1,327 steel shapes hanging from 1,110 steel cables suspended from the roof. When lit at night, the metal shapes — inspired by pointillism — shine like stars and form the portrait of Sheikh Zayed, who resembles a constellation in the sky. One of the world’s largest art installations of its kind, it’s unique in its use of abstract portraiture on this scale. The surrounding urban park, dotted with indigenous flora, is a quiet contemplative place both day and night.

Louvre Abu Dhabi

How does a country without strong fine arts traditions create a world-class art museum? By partnering with France to create the Louvre Abu Dhabi and hiring the Pritzker award-winning French starchitect Jean Nouvel to design a show-stopping facility.

Resembling an inverted bird’s nest floating in water, the iconic building is a symphony of concrete, metal, water, and light. Its huge silvery dome is a complex geometric structure of 7,850 open star shapes in eight individual layers. As I watched light filtering through the holes in the dome dapple the courtyards with changing patterns, it reminded me of the local palm trees whose leaves filter the bright desert sunlight.

The 23 galleries display ancient and contemporary works from around the world — many on loan from the Louvre in Paris — spanning all of human history including ancient archaeological finds, decorative arts, neoclassical sculptures, paintings by modern masters, and contemporary installations. Organized thematically (First Villages, Universal Religions, World Empires, and the like), they shed light on the commonality of different cultures and the stories of shared humanity. This stunning interplay of sun, sea, art, and architecture, which opened in 2017, is an inspiring tribute to the region’s vibrant multiculturism.

Qasr Al Hosn Fort

A historical landmark and the oldest stone building in Abu Dhabi dating to 1761, the Qasr Al Hosn stands as a proud symbol of the country’s past. Built as a conical watchtower to defend the only freshwater well on Abu Dhabi Island, it later became the residence of the ruling sheikh and remained a royal palace and seat of government until 1966. Covered in plaster made from lime, sand, and crushed seashells that sparkle in the sun, it’s nicknamed the White Fort.

To visit this meticulously restored museum today is to walk through history. Its exhibition halls tell the story of the development of Abu Dhabi from a fishing and pearling village in the 18th century to a modern metropolis today with displays of artifacts, weapons, and archival material dating back to 6000 BC. It traces the formation of the country from its early history and ancient communities to life in the desert oases up to its founding in 1971.

The complex includes the House of Artisans, which celebrates the country’s Bedouin craft traditions. Three beautifully designed sections feature embroidery; weaving with sheep and goat wool and camel fur; and weaving with palm fronds. I watched traditionally dressed women in metallic Gulf Burqas weaving palm fronds and embroidering with silk threads — a living expression of these ancient arts.

Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental

In a city awash in five-star hotels, one stands alone: the eight-story, half-a-mile-long Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental, the most expensive resort ever built. Talk about a pinch-me experience. Drenched in 22-karate gold leaf — more than 65,000 square feet, in fact — and boasting the largest dome in the world, this Arabian fantasy screams “look at me.” It sprawls on reclaimed land so large it equals half the area of Monaco.

Located on a pristine private beach, it’s an extravaganza of 394 marble-swathed rooms and suites loaded with the latest technology; silver, gold and glass mosaic décor; and elaborate Islamic architectural elements including 200 fountains, 114 domes, 1,002 crystal chandeliers, courtyards, decorative pools, columns, and arches.

It's the kind of place where arriving guests are given a refreshing towel, dates, juices, and teas on individual trays; where terrycloth slippers are laid out on white linen mats bedside during turndown service; and where Emirati royal families stay when they’re in town.

It doesn’t lack for gee-whiz amenities, either: a spa with gold dust body treatments and a Moroccan hammam, two temperature-controlled pools, a marina, four helipads, and a ballroom that accommodates 2,500 people. Among the 12 — count ‘em — food venues, you can dine in not one, but two Michelin-starred restaurants: Talea by Antonio Guida (Italian cuisine) and Hakkasan (Cantonese cuisine).

Ferrari World

Are you into speed? Do you like fast cars? Then embrace your inner champion at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, the world’s first Ferrari-branded theme park. Home to the world's fastest rollercoaster at 150 mph (G force, anyone?), highest loop ride, and tallest space-frame structure, among more than 40 record-breaking attractions, this is the ultimate place for adrenaline-fueled, heart-pounding fun. That includes such thrills as walking on the iconic red roof, a zero-gravity fall, hang gliding, zip lining, becoming a Ferrari test driver, and driving through “Italy” in a Ferrari 250 California recreation.

Beaches Galore

The name Abu Dhabi may not immediately conjure up beaches. But with 200 islands, water is never far away. And that means an array of beautiful beaches, from natural to manmade. Many of the world-class hotels boast their own stretches of powder-soft white sand, but the public strands are just as gorgeous. They include names such as Kai, Corniche, Yas, Al Bateen, Mirfa, Yas, and Soul. Two of the most popular are Kai Beach, a generous strand uniquely dotted with shrubs and greenery, and Soul Beach, a half-mile-long manicured stretch lined with more than 400 parasol-flanked loungers along the azure waters of the Arabian Gulf. And yes, bikinis and Western bathing suits are allowed.

Mega Malls

Mall shopping is serious business in Abu Dhabi. From family outings and hangouts with friends to browsing luxury goods and catching the latest films, it’s a big part of the social culture.

Take, for example, The Galleria Al Maryah Island, one of 23 malls. This four-level emporium in two buildings showcases the predictable high-fashion name brands: Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, Dior, Tiffany, Versace, and Dolce & Gabbana among its 400 stores. But after shopping till you drop, you can choose from 100 food and beverage options and cutting-edge entertainment for all ages, including rock climbing walls and bowling alleys.

While malls have a sameness around the world, here you’ll know you aren’t in Kansas anymore. Arabic music wafts throughout, a display of Arabic hanging lanterns adorns the entrance, and specialty cafes and shops include perfumeries, honey and nut vendors (with prized honey from Yemen, one vendor tells me), upscale halvah purveyors, and a customized-coffee café.

Additional Etihad Airways Flights

Air lift to Abud Dhabi just expanded. On April 1, the national carrier, Etihad Airways, added nonstop service from its fourth U.S. destination, Boston. The new service operates Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays using a state-of-the-art Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, featuring the airline's super comfy Business Studios and Economy Smart seats. Boston joins Etihad’s three other nonstop U.S. destinations: Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC.

Veronica Stoddart

Written by Veronica Stoddart

The former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for two dozen publications and websites. Follow her on Twitter @wanderlust13.

Read more posts by Veronica Stoddart

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