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The brash, bold city of Abu Dhabi is a modern marvel, capital of the wealthy United Arab Emirates and headquarters of the world's richest oil operating companies. The pulsating city, with futuristic skyscrapers and wide tree-lined boulevards, is capitalising on its sophistication, amazing duty-free shopping zone, luxury hotels and top-class transport and communication infrastructure to attract tourists. They come not only for the 'retail therapy' and glitz, but also to explore the fascinating culture of the vast Abu Dhabi Emirate itself (it is the largest of the seven Emirates), with its miles of desert and interesting oases.
The city juts out into the Persian Gulf, with land having been reclaimed from the sea to make way for a long seafront Corniche lined with lush gardens and gushing fountains. It is a relatively young city, the area having been first settled by nomadic tribesmen in the mid-18th century. It remained little more than a fishing village until oil was discovered in the 1950s and the financial and trading boom began.
Today the international airport and deep water port bring in visitors from around the world, most clutching credit cards and cash, set on spending as much as possible in the enticing shopping malls and buzzing souk (market). Limousines are a common sight in the congested streets, and restaurants that offer the cuisine of many nations do a roaring trade, especially along the waterfront. Shopping fever is at its height during the annual Shopping Festival. Those taking a break from modern luxury can escape to the desert for a Bedouin feast under the stars, or a camel ride through the dunes.
Ferrari World opened at Abu Dhabi's Yas Island in November 2010 and, at over 2 million sq feet (200,000 sq m), is one of the largest indoor amusement parks in the world. The park's many attractions include the largest Ferrari gallery outside of the brand's headquarters in Marinello, Italy; the Speed of Magic immersive 4-D film experience; the G-Force space shot tower; Bell'Italia, which reproduces Italy's main attractions in miniature; and various state of the art racing simulators. An enormous red-domed roof encloses the facility, creating a futuristic and unique structure that has been nominated for several architectural awards.
The oldest building in young Abu Dhabi is the Al Hosn Palace, known colloquially as the White Fort. It was constructed in the early 1790s as the official residence of the former ruling family, also serving as a fort to command nearby shipping routes, and was extensively renovated between 1976 and 1983. Today it houses the Cultural Foundation, featuring a museum of traditional artefacts and historical photographs. The Palace is renowned for the magnificent tile work over its main gate.
Designed as a living museum depicting traditional Bedouin life, the Heritage Village over the Abu Dhabi Corniche features tents, courtyard houses, an ancient irrigation system, a museum, an old-world souk, and a mosque. The traditional oasis village is also home to public workshops, where craftsmen demonstrate the region's most famous skills, such as metal and glasswork, pottery, weaving and spinning yarn. Travellers should also check out the village's spice shop for its range of dried herbs, handmade soaps and souvenirs.
Numerous local tour operators in Abu Dhabi offer trips from the city to the famed Liwa Oasis, about three hours drive away along a modern highway. This green, agricultural strip at the edge of the Rub Al Khali ('Empty Quarter') is surrounded by desolate desert with farms abutting towering sand dunes. Visitors enjoy overnight camel trips to camp in the desert. The oasis, made up of a string of small towns and villages, is resplendent with pools of fresh water and date plantations, and is the ancestral home of the Bani Yas tribe from whence sprang Abu Dhabi's ruling family.
The merging of ancient and modern Arabic culture is no more evident than in the fascinating city of Al Ain, about 100 miles (160km) east of Abu Dhabi. Known as the 'Garden city of the Gulf' because of its tree-lined boulevards and green public spaces, this historic, scenic oasis is surrounded by red sand dunes and dominated by a vast mountain range in the eastern UAE. Al Ain's heritage is still evident in the bustling camel market, located near the Meyzad border crossing. Hundreds of camels are bought and sold each day, and traders are very friendly to tourists. The Al Ain Museum and Fort is another historical attraction worth visiting.
The Fun City at Marina Mall is a great place for kids, offering an exciting range of arcade games and rides to enjoy. On the gaming front, kids can look forward to the latest universal releases as well as classic titles. Favourite rides at the amusement centre include the thrashing shark rollercoaster, the whizzy little bumper cars and the 'Extreme Shock' machine, which is actually very safe! There are also play areas with climbing frames, crawl tunnels and giant slides, and parents can plan their visits around dress-up events, with dates appearing on the Fun City website.
Kids in Abu Dhabi will love honing their skills in the bowling alley at the Armed Forces Officers' Club, or perhaps playing a game of paintball or table tennis. There is also a large playground and an Olympic-size swimming pool at the club for kids to cool off in after all that action. The Armed Forces Officers' Club also has a Ladies recreation area with massage tables, a swimming pool, steam bath, sauna and gym.
A great attraction for children and often called the 'Disneyland of the Middle East', Hili Fun City is the largest theme park in the Gulf. Completely refurbished and modernised in 2009, the park offers a number of rides and amusements, including a mini train tour, an ice skating rink, a rollercoaster and sky-flyer, and the Dynamic Motion Theatre. There are also beautifully landscaped gardens and various picnic spots to enjoy at the park.
Belonging to the Hilton Abu Dhabi Hotel, the Hiltonia Beach Club is an exclusive beach with excellent facilities. Open to non-guests on weekdays for a fee, the beach offers lounge chairs and umbrellas in the sand, and sports such as sailing, snorkeling, fishing, windsurfing, water skiing, kayaking, jet-skiing right off the beach and bicycling the Corniche. Visitors can also enjoy the café and cocktail bar, sumptuous international cuisine, three swimming pools with water slides, live music and camaraderie.
Although Abu Dhabi's glittering skyscrapers and opulent boulevards suggest more of an adult wonderland than a children's paradise, visiting parents will be happy to learn that there are plenty of amusements that promise to keep the children entertained during their time in the city.
The many beaches and water parks are a sure way to keep the whole family occupied. For visitors seeking an escape from the sun, there are plenty of malls and amusement parks that specifically cater for children. Hili Fun City, for example, is the United Arab Emirates' answer to Disneyland, and the amusement centre at the Marina Mall offers a wide variety of arcade games and thrilling rides. The Armed Forces Officer's Club has many facilities for kids too, and even features a spa for weary parents in need of some pampering. Khalifa Park is well worth a visit, featuring an aquarium, museum, play parks, a train and even formal gardens to enjoy some time out under the shade of a tree. With all these options, Abu Dhabi is ideal for travelling families.
Sunshine and blue skies are guaranteed almost every day in Abu Dhabi. Temperatures between June and September can be unbearably hot for most Westerners, exacerbated by high humidity and ranging between 85ºF (29ºC) and 109ºF (43ºC) in July and August. Air-conditioning is the norm in all buildings. The best time to travel to Abu Dhabi is between October and May. In January and February it even becomes cool enough to warrant wearing a cardigan outdoors, with temperatures ranging between 55ºF (13ºC) and 75ºF (24ºC). Rainfall is almost non-existent.
While quieter than Dubai, Abu Dhabi has a very festive nightlife. Most of the bars and clubs are located in the city's upmarket hotels, which are allowed to serve alcohol under UAE law. The nightlife only really kicks off at around 11pm. Many venues have a strict dress code to adhere to, but still offer a relaxed and safe atmosphere to enjoy. There are a number of English, Mexican and American-style bars and pubs in Abu Dhabi. Some of the most popular include the Harvester's Pub at Sands Hotel, the Jazz Bar at Hemingway's and the McGettigan's Irish pub. Live performances, happy hour, ladies nights and quiz evenings are regular events in Abu Dhabi bars. The local nightclubs feature international and local DJs, as well as live performances from Arab singers and belly dancers. Exotic cocktails, vintage brandies and Arabic mezzes (snacks) are also offered by most venues. Popular Abu Dhabi nightclubs include Le Meridien's Gauloises Club, and the Havana Club.
Shopping in Abu Dhabi is a very rewarding experience with souks, malls and the airport duty free shops offering some of the lowest prices in the world on a wide range of goods, thanks to very low import duties. Most shopping malls are open Saturday to Wednesday from 10am to 10pm, on Thursdays from 10am to 11pm, and on Fridays from 2pm until late. Independent shops close for lunch from 2pm to 4pm, and then stay open until at least 9pm.
There are a number of souks (markets) in Abu Dhabi offering a vast selection of oriental carpets, gold and antique jewellery, electronic gadgets, designer clothes, cosmetics, spices and souvenirs. The Al Nasr Street, Sheikh Hamdan, Sheikh Khalifa, Iranian and Al Meena souks are among the most popular in Abu Dhabi. Local souvenirs include items such as traditional coffee pots, Bedouin jewellery and antique chests.
There are around 15 shopping malls and centres in Abu Dhabi offering a variety of brand-name outlets, hypermarkets, cinemas, cafés, restaurants and fast-food joints for shoppers to enjoy; two of the biggest are the Marina and Abu Dhabi malls. Some of the international outlets at these malls are IKEA, Woolworths, Body Shop, Virgin Megastores, Versace, Burberry and Gucci. The Abu Dhabi Shopping Festival is held each year in malls throughout the city and consumers can find excellent bargains and win a number of shopping prizes.
Abu Dhabi is well supplied with a vast number of metered taxis offering very reasonable fares. These are the best way of getting around in town and outside of it, and most taxi drivers speak English. Along with public bus services, most hotels offer bus services to principal destinations, including the airport. Ride sharing apps also operate in the city.
Car and limousine rental is slightly more expensive but of course petrol is cheap. Driving in the Emirates, however, can be a hair-raising experience, with an established hierarchy as to who has right of way, so it is often best to hire a vehicle with a local driver. There is also the Abu Dhabi Metro Rail system, which is convenient and aims to relieve traffic congestion. It provides optimal connectivity between Abu Dhabi Island and the suburbs.
Abu Dhabi is not typically considered to be a tourist destination, but there is a whole lot more to see and do here than shopping or business meetings. More good news is that many of Abu Dhabi's quality attractions are free. Travellers should take note that getting around the city by foot is not much of an option due to the extreme heat and the best time of year for sightseeing in Abu Dhabi is between October and May.
Famed for its amazing shopping opportunities, many visitors might choose to scrap any sightseeing and spend their time wandering the seemingly endless malls and districts. For those less interested in shopping, a good place to start is Corniche, Abu Dhabi's spectacular waterfront that stretches for miles. Holidaymakers can stroll along the walkway, stop on one of the sandy beaches or take the kids to the playgrounds or go-karting track. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and a must-see for visitors to the city.
Most of Abu Dhabi's hotels have their own beaches, and swimming or simply lazing in the sun is a popular pastime for weary travellers looking to get their feet up.
No direct flights from Heathrow to this Destination
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