Abu Dhabi sure knows how to dazzle. Its luxury shopping malls, strings of six-star hotels and towering skyscrapers combine to create a glittering metropolis that’s been recently dubbed the “Manhattan of the Middle East”.
The largest of the seven emirates in the UAE, Abu Dhabi is also the wealthiest thanks to the oil boom of the 1950s. Yet while Prada and Porsches may be a dime a dozen, the place has managed to retain a strong sense of history and heritage. At barely 60 years of age, the city is just a baby but its local Emirati people hold dear a culture that stretches back to the third millennium BC.
Get a taste of Bedouin life or an insight into Arabia’s rich Islamic tradition – Abu Dhabi’s cultural core is worth exploring.
ABU DHABI HERITAGE VILLAGE
The perfect place to start your tour of Abu Dhabi, the Heritage Village provides a fascinating glimpse into life before oil.
Here you can sit in a traditional goat’s hair tent, watch the falaj irrigation system at work, walk amongst a desert campsite and even ride a camel. During the cooler months you may even catch the occasional falconry display.
In the market, artisans demonstrate traditional crafts, including metal work, weaving and pottery, and the spice shop is the perfect place to pick up dried herbs and handmade soap.
The onsite museum is thoughtfully curated with English speaking visitors in mind and offers a fascinating walk back through the emirate’s past.
The Heritage Village is located next door to Marina Mall on the Breakwater and is open Saturday to Thursday from 9am-5pm (closed Sunday) and Friday from 3.30pm-9pm. Entry is free.
SHEIK ZAYED MOSQUE
Completed in the late 1990s, this dazzling mosque (also known as the Grand Mosque) may not historically rival its counterparts in Mecca or Medina, but what it lacks in age it makes up for in grandeur.
Suspended from the ceilings are seven solid gold and Swarovski crystal chandeliers. At every turn are ornaments encrusted with precious stones. Flawless marble sweeps along the corridors, up countless towering columns and forms the world’s largest marble dome. Most impressive however, is the hand-woven Persian carpet lining the main prayer hall – the largest of its kind in existence it was made by 1200 of the world’s finest Persian weavers. Considered the world’s largest mosque, it has a capacity for an astonishing 41,000 worshippers.
Non-Muslims can visit daily, except on Friday mornings. Complementary one-hour tours run at 10am and 11am (Sat-Thurs) and at around 4.30pm daily. Women must wear headscarves and be covered. www.szgmc.ae
Falcons enjoy a long and glorious history both in Abu Dhabi and right throughout the Arabian region. While the Bedouins originally used the birds for hunting, today falconry is a popular sport among the Emirati elite. In fact, so revered are the birds, they often fly first class during the peak hunting season.
To experience the historic sport for yourself, pop into the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. Here, guided tours run from Sunday to Thursday at 10am and 2pm and include a visit to the Falcon Museum, a falcon show and lunch in a Khaima, a traditional Arabian tent.
Bookings need to be made a couple of days in advance. www.falconhospital.com
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