Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, is often overlooked for the Vegas-like decadence of neighboring Dubai. But that dynamic is shifting. Investments in culture set into motion a decade ago are now blossoming. Combined with an already impressive suite of architectural and design superlatives, a trove of natural treasures, and a contemporary population rooted in Bedouin traditions of hospitality, Abu Dhabi is more than just a one-day destination. Here are 10 reasons to go right now.
1. Winter temperatures are the most comfortable
After months of visible summer heat shimmering over the city streets, the regular 100-degree temperatures are cooling just enough for people to emerge from their air-conditioned cocoons, making winter the best time to experience all the city and its surroundings have to offer.
2. The events calendar kicks into gear
From concerts to sports and art to food, Abu Dhabi’s calendar starts filling up in November. The crown jewel is the weekend-long frenzy surrounding the Etihad Formula 1 Grand Prix where yacht parties reign, pop stars perform, and racecars whiz. And for an experience you won’t find anywhere else, attend the Al-Dhafra camel beauty pageant deep in the desert.
3. Now is an important time to learn about Islam
With divisive rhetoric over immigration and terrorism dominating headlines around Brexit and the U.S. presidential election, now is the time to learn about Islamic culture firsthand. Each experience and story shared helps shape a deeper, more personal narrative of an often-misunderstood religion and culture. Abu Dhabi, rooted in Islamic tradition but with eyes set firmly on the future, is a safe, contemporary Middle Eastern destination for an introduction to Islam and the Arab world.
4. Famous museums are opening outposts here
Abu Dhabi is spending billions to develop a trio of starchitect-designed museums as centerpieces for a new cultural district. The first is set to open in 2017 and it’s far from what you’d expect in the Middle East: the Louvre. Next up? The Guggenheim. Abu Dhabi has partnered with the most renowned museums in the world, a testament to the Emirates’ determination to become a global culture powerhouse. Get there now for the first look at this expansion of the local art scene.
5. It’s a surprisingly diverse city
With international residents making up 80% of the population, you’re just as likely to overhear conversations in Hindi, Farsi, Tagalog, English, or Chinese as you are in Arabic. Stroll along Abu Dhabi’s corniche, a popular landscaped promenade between the sparkling skyscrapers and sea, to get a snapshot of the city’s diverse daily life. Among other things, you’ll see women power-walking in traditional abayas, construction workers napping from shaping the city’s ever-evolving skyline, waiters balancing plates of hot coals to fuel shisha pipes in cafés, children playing with soccer balls, suits closing deals over cell phones, and expat families walking barefoot in the white sand and splashing in the turquoise waters.
6. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is exquisite
Whether you have an entire day or simply a spare hour on a layover, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a must-see. This majestic house of worship, made of pure white marble, seems to float like a cloud against the blue sky. Stroll barefoot around columns inlaid with intricate floral designs made from semi-precious stones, under the Swarovski crystal chandeliers, and over the largest handwoven carpet in the world. You’ll leave in awe.
7. There are more and more options to fly there in style
Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways has been busy adding new routes and opening new airport lounges around the world, making its luxurious flying experience even more seamless. In the spirit of Bedouin hospitality, Etihad pampers its guests with thoughtful touches and generous service no matter where they sit. From noise-canceling headphones in the elegantly designed economy seats to private butler service in the three-room “residence,” the flight alone is worth the trip.
8. You can easily explore the beauty of the desert
Discover Abu Dhabi’s desert landscape by foot, four-wheel drive, or camel. Be one of the first to wander 3,000 acres of date palm plantations in the newly opened Al Ain Oasis, part of the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the UAE. Enjoy dune-bashing over waves of sand. Drive to the top of Jebel Hafeet, the tallest peak in the emirate, and then explore the ancient dome-shaped tombs in the foothills below. After an active day, ride camels into the sunset and count shooting stars under a pristine night sky.
9. Abu Dhabi’s seafaring past is alive and well
For a glimpse of Abu Dhabi’s seafaring past, head to Dhow Harbour at dawn. Dhows—traditional long, narrow wooden sailing vessels—arrive with the day’s catch, which you can buy and then have gutted, spiced, and grilled to perfection at the adjacent fish market. Jump aboard a pearl diving tour where you’ll glide through protected mangroves while sipping local coffee, nibbling dates, and learning proper oyster shucking techniques. You get to keep the shiny bounty you discover.
10. You can buy gold from the souk . . . or a vending machine
Controlling the majority of the UAE’s oil reserves, Abu Dhabi is the wealthiest of the seven emirates and the signature souvenir to show off that superlative is gold: gold-flaked cappuccinos, gold-dusted camel burger buns, and an ATM machine dispensing gold bars are all available at the opulent Emirates Palace. Away from the hotel, shop for that special someone at the gold souk, where you can haggle for a deal on 18- to 24-karat jewelry and watches.