A Culture Odyssey Through Abu Dhabi

A mosque over the water


Abu Dhabi city may be geographically small—just 375 square miles, about a third the size of Rhode Island—but when it comes to cultural riches and historic sites, the emirate looms large. This cultural itinerary includes ancient tombs dating back to the Bronze Age, as well as centuries-old desert oases and forts. The dynamic city of Abu Dhabi includes not only its dazzling skyscrapers, but architectural wonders like the grand mosque as well as world-class museums, most famously the new Louvre Abu Dhabi.

As you explore the history and art of Abu Dhabi, you’ll also have opportunities to dine on delicious dishes of homemade breads, grilled meats and fish, and desserts rich with honey and dates. In the emirate’s souks you can learn about traditional crafts and shop for one-of-a-kind souvenirs. And watching falcons and saluki dogs work together to capture prey in the desert is an unforgettable experience that provides insights into life in the fabled Empty Quarter.

A mosque


Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Explore the opulent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of Abu Dhabi’s most famous landmarks, where non-Muslims are warmly welcomed to explore both the building and the larger complex.
Abu Dhabi


Visit Abu Dhabi

Visit Abu Dhabi supports the evolution of the emirate into a world-class destination, while conserving and promoting Abu Dhabi’s heritage, culture, and tourism assets. The organization invests in a diverse array of leisure, entertainment, and cultural attractions, and organizes a comprehensive program of events. Visit Abu Dhabi also works closely with tourism partners to ensure they exceed global standards of excellence.
A woman stands under a grated ceiling


DAY 1Arrive in Abu Dhabi

You’ll want a fitting base for your deep dive into the culture and history of Abu Dhabi. Consider the Andaz Capital Gate, which is located in one of Abu Dhabi’s most distinctive buildings and features an art collection highlighting traditional crafts and the works of local artists. Or check out the Emirates Palace—one of the world’s most expensive hotels to build—which incorporates elements of traditional architecture throughout its buildings and interiors. These are just two of Abu Dhabi’s many hotels, each with its own appeal. Explore more of them by visiting Abu Dhabi’s Stay page.

After you’ve settled into your room, head out to visit one of Abu Dhabi’s most iconic sites and one of its newest cultural additions. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is an enormous gleaming building of white marble and semi-precious stones, capable of accommodating more than 40,000 worshippers and part of a complex that extends over 30 acres. Craftsmen from around the world were involved in the construction of this masterpiece of Indo-Islamic design. Unlike many mosques, it has an “open door” policy, inviting non-Muslims to admire this wonder.

Later, visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened at the end of 2017. The stunning museum by French star architect Jean Nouvel is located on Saadiyat Island, just to the east of the city, overlooking the Arabian Gulf. The museum’s mission is to highlight the best art of the Arab world in its permanent collection, alongside temporary galleries that present works on loan from France’s leading cultural institutions.
A large triangular structure with a fountain in the foreground


DAY 2The Corniche, and Nearby Sights

Start this morning with a walk along the Corniche before heading to Heritage Village, which faces it (and can be accessed via a causeway at the end of Corniche Beach). This re-creation of an oasis village offers a chance to learn about life in the emirate before all the contemporary glass towers across the water were built. With Bedouin tents and traditional stone homes, the village is a showcase of vernacular architecture. Craftsmen also provide introductions to arts like glass-blowing and metalwork at the village’s souk.

Then return to contemporary Abu Dhabi with a visit to the nearby Marina Mall. One of Abu Dhabi’s most popular destinations, the mall is home to hundreds of luxury boutiques, as well as restaurants serving cuisines from around the world. Whether you’re in the mood for a shawarma or longing for a bit of home at Shake Shack, the mall’s culinary offerings cater to every taste.

On your way back towards the Corniche, you’ll pass by the Founder’s Memorial—eight acres of landscaped grounds honoring Sheikh Zayed with an enormous sculpture, The Constellation, as its centerpiece.
A young girl takes a photo of a domed tomb


DAY 3Jebel Hafeet and Al Ain

A cultural journey to Abu Dhabi requires venturing beyond its big city. Today you’ll drive to Jebel Hafeet, the tallest peak in the emirate, out near the Oman border. Every history buff will want to visit the 5,000-year-old domed structures from the Bronze Age known as the Jebel Hafeet Tombs. Around 500 of them were built from 3200 to 2600 B.C.E. but were lost to time until being rediscovered in 1950. Archaeologists working at the site have established that even at that early point in time, traders were bringing Mesopotamian goods to this distant corner of the Arabian Peninsula.

The tombs are just one of the sites in or near Al Ain that led UNESCO to recognize it as a World Heritage site. Another notable landmark, the Al Ain Palace Museum, features a Bedouin architecture looks timeless despite being built in 1937. It was one of the homes of the emirate’s royal family until 1966, then converted into a museum in 1998 and opened to the public in 2001. The building may be relatively new, but its construction uses clay, adobe, plaster, and palm details in a design that is both traditional and surprisingly eco-conscious. Before making your way back to Abu Dhabi, a visit to the Al Ain souk offers an opportunity to do some haggling for unique souvenirs.
Green food n a bowl with rice.


DAY 4Emirati Cuisine

A country’s food is a central part of its culture, so take today to learn about the ingredients and flavors of Abu Dhabi cuisine. Start at the Fish souk at Al Mina and wander among dozens of stalls at this market next to the port. Purchase fish fresh from the Arabian Gulf at one stall and take it to be barbequed for an only-in-Abu-Dhabi breakfast. Across the road, the stalls at the vegetable and fruit market sell the freshest produce grown in the emirate, as well as imports from throughout the Middle East. A bag of dates or dried fruits can provide sustenance during your day exploring.

While it isn’t a culinary stop, you may want to take a look at the Carpet Souk in Al Mina here, too. You’ll find a colorful selection of rugs, cushions, carpets, and other fabric items. Be prepared to haggle over prices.

Having explored the markets that provide the ingredients of Abu Dhabi’s cuisine, head to Al Fanar on Yas Island for a leisurely late lunch. The restaurant’s atmosphere evokes the days when Abu Dhabi was a quiet fishing port, best known for its pearl divers. The menu is similarly traditional, featuring homemade breads, grilled fish and shellfish, and rice dishes flavored with saffron, turmeric, and other spices.
A parade of camels travels through the desert


DAY 5Journey Into the Desert

The Empty Quarter of Abu Dhabi is legendary. The world’s largest uninterrupted contiguous sand desert, it measures some 251,000 square miles and includes parts of Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The landscape is straight from the pages of Arabian Nights, with oases guarded by adobe watchtowers and surrounded by enormous sand dunes.

The Liwa Oasis is an arc of 39 small towns on the edge of the Empty Quarter that has special significance for Emiratis; it was the original home of the ruling families of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Explore the ancient date palm groves and some of the forts that have long protected them, and take photos of the golden and apricot-hued sands. Then continue on to the Qasr Al Sarab by Anantara Resort. Modeled after an oasis, the luxury resort introduces guests to many aspects of Abu Dhabi’s desert culture. Camel treks across the dunes and hunting demonstrations with falcons and saluki dogs provide insights into the landscape that has shaped the culture and people of Abu Dhabi.
A man overlooks an airplane


DAY 6Depart

Awake this morning to the dazzling sight of the sun rising over the dunes—perhaps starting your day with some yoga in a setting that assists your efforts to achieve serenity. After breakfast, drive back to Abu Dhabi for your flight home. While this may be the end of your first visit to the emirate, you’ll likely want to return, having fallen for the charms of both the timeless desert and the dynamic city.
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