The United Arab Emirates is a country which exudes the ultimate in glitz, glamour and opulence. May surprise you to know it’s one of the main reasons I’ve swerved a visit since my last 13 years ago to Dubai. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no secret I love a bit of luxe on my travels but this girl needs a culture hit on holiday too. Although still lavish, this is where Abu Dhabi is edging ahead, slowly positioning itself as the Middle East’s arts and cultural hub. On a recent stopover to the Maldives we discovered an insight into local Abu Dhabi culture and its blossoming art scene.
Things to do in Abu Dhabi
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The most iconic destination in the city – Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque will leave you speechless. This modern architectural Islamic masterpiece is reminiscent of the Taj Mahal and built on a hill ensuring visibility across the city.
It boasts the largest mosque domes in the world and the superlatives don’t end there. Look down as you tread the threads of the world’s largest hand loomed carpet and look up in awe at the enormous golden chandeliers. The grand central chandelier is an impressive 15 metres in height, embedded with a million Swarovski crystals weighing in at a whopping 12 tons.
Over 100,000 tons of pure white Greek and Macedonian marble was used in its construction. The delicate and intricate floral designs inlaid with semi-precious stones adorn marble pillars and walls alongside the more traditional geometric ceramic designs.
Unusually, the 40,000 worshipper capacity mosque is open to tourists. As non muslims we weren’t fully au fait with mosque etiquette. Everyone is made to feel welcome, as long as you’re respectful. Entry is also free with complimentary audio guides and tours are available throughout the day. It’s well worth timing your visits for the invaluable and insightful tours.
A strict conservative dress code is observed and women need to ensure their head, ankles and arms are covered. If required, on entry you’re able to borrow an ‘abaya’ from the mosque.
Free Entry – Open 9am to 10pm Saturday to Thursday, 4.30pm to 10pm Friday. Find more details on the website szgmc.gov.ae
Louvre Abu Dhabi
The Louvre Abu Dhabi has been on my radar since its opening in November 2017. After a successful trip to the original Louvre in Paris with the girls – it was time to show them the new kid on the block.
In the heart of the Saadiyat Cultural District, the £1 billion 24,000 square metre structure has placed Abu Dhabi well and truly on the top of the culture map. The permanent collection at the Louvre Abu Dhabi houses over 600 artworks, with pieces specially chosen to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western art.
We wandered through halls filled with Impressionist and Surrealist paintings by famous European and American painters to historical carvings from ancient China and Iran. Exploring the galleries by time period and theme helps build a cohesive narrative as you wander through.
Designed by Pritzker-prize winning architect Jean Nouvel, the latticed dome weighing in at 7, 500 tons appears at first to float above the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Its geometric openings represent interlaced palm leaves used in traditional roofing.
It produces the rain of light effect on the 23 dazzling white galleries below as the sun’s rays filter through. Any art aficionado worth their salt should not miss a visit to this incredible museum.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is closed on Mondays. On Saturdays, Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, it is open from 10AM to 8PM while on Thursdays and Fridays it is open from 10AM to 10PM. Tickets cost cost 60 AED. Children between the ages of 13 and 22 are at half price. Children under the age of 13 are free. More information at louvreabudhabi.ae
For a glimpse into UAE life pre-oil era head to this reconstructed village for a great introduction to real Arabian culture. In many areas outside of the big cities, life still continues in this way.
Wandering around it was a relief to show the girls the UAE is not all about fast cars, fancy restaurants and the next record-breaking architectural structure.
We immersed ourselves into Bedouin life, learning about the barasti traditional homes whilst watching craft men at work at a tannery, pottery and glass-blowing workshops.
The swordsmiths even trusted us all to hold the impressive blades. The smaller blades are an important part of the ceremonial costume across the region. For the record, health and safety was observed at all times. No humans were harmed in the production of this blog post.
Most of the village is outdoor based, so for kids it’s a great runaround space. There is plenty of opportunities to go souvenir shopping at the market stalls too or in the gift shop, where you can buy a range of dried herbs, spices, and handmade soaps.
Free entry – Open daily 9AM to 4PM and Friday 3.30PM to 9PM. More information at visitabudhabi.ae
Abu Dhabi City Tour
A city tour is one of the best ways to help gain your bearings when you arrive in an unknown destination. Arabian Adventures offer the perfect half day tour of the capital city. You can either opt for a group or private tour, both offer a hassle-free pick up and drop off from your hotel.
Our private tour guide began with the spectacular Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Entry and moving around the mosque felt effortless with a local guide. The tour continued with a drive along an impressive eight kilometres of manicured waterfront through the city, known as the Corniche. Driving by the city’s famous architectural wonders too, like Emirates Palace Hotel and Capital Gate the world’s furthest leaning hotel.
A big hit with the girls was the stop at the Heritage Village. They loved watching local craftsmen at work and learning about the traditional way of life in the city.
Meeting the local market traders in the traditional vegetable, date and fish markets in Port Zayed, was one of our highlights. We tried so many delicious dates. Mr S, in his element made the perfect customer. He would have bought the whole shop if he could.
The girls were fascinated by the fish market and the array of sea goods on offer. Watch the whole process from the moment the catch arrives, right through to the preparation of the fish and the final sale.
The beauty of a private tour is, if time permits the guide will include extra stops. Whilst at the Mina Zayeb port I expressed an interest in the moored dhow boats. Our knowledgeable guide took us on a walk through the dhow boats, and told us the story of the Gujarati fishermen who have formed a community and way of life on these boats over the years. The girls were agog imagining how their great-grandfather would’ve lived and worked when he made his way from India to South Africa almost a century ago on a very similar dhow boat.
The tour was the best way to get know Abu Dhabi without transport worries, such a bonus when travelling with little ones in the heat.
Available all year round, a private city tour of Abu Dhabi costs around 1,200 AED, the group tour can be booked for 160 AED. You can find more information and booking details at Arabian Adventures.
Well when in the desert, do as the Bedouins do I say – Well almost! You can’t fly nearly eight hours to the Arabian desert and not see the dunes. We chose an evening dinner desert safari, so we could witness the breathtaking sunset.
Our six-hour adventure began in a 4WD off-road vehicle. Once we approached the dunes, the tyre pressure came down and the seat belts were securely buckled. It was time for dune bashing! With adrenaline pumping, there were squeals of excitement as the convoy of vehicles attacked the dunes. Driving up and down the undulating dunes, this is not a trip for the faint-hearted.
Before making our way to camp for the evening meal we stopped off at the local camel farm too. After a game of dodge the camel poop, it was onwards to the Bedouin-style camp.
Prior to the start of our Arabic style BBQ buffet and evening entertainment there is plenty to keep you occupied. From sandboarding to falconry, try smoking a shisha or paint your hands with henna. Even playing dress up in traditional attire is an option, if you so desire.
The belly dancing performance kept everyone entertained. The girls were mesmerised by all the hip-shaking, although not quite enough to join in the last dance.
To end the evening all the floodlights are switched off, which in itself is quite dramatic in the middle of a desert. Time to lie back on the cushions and enjoy a spot of star-gazing. The experience is a great way to introduce the desert to kids and left us with some magical family moments.
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