FOR THE LAST few years, Abu Dhabi, the capital city and largest emirate of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has been steadily stealing visitors away from its flashier neighbor, Dubai, enticing them with a growing collection of cultural attractions. The biggest bait, a 260,000-square-foot Louvre opened last year on Saaidyat Island, a short drive from Abu Dhabi city. If all goes well, a Guggenheim designed by Frank Gehry will soon follow, as well as Norman Foster’s Zayed National Museum, named for Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who became the first president of the UAE upon its federation in 1971. Some 200 islands—many man-made and linked by bridges—comprise the emirate, along with the mainland’s expanses of red-tinged desert, where men have been hunting with falcons long before the UAE existed. Here, four locals help visitors suss out the key sites and scenes.
A Savvy Traveler’s Guide to Abu Dhabi
From desert excursions to a blockbuster museum, the top sites and scenes of this Persian Gulf capital
The Art Curator
Director of Abu Dhabi Art
PREHISTORIC PALMS / Al Ain Oasis Human settlement in this oasis—about a two-hour drive east of Abu Dhabi’s center—dates back to the Stone Age. It contains some 150,000 palm trees irrigated by a natural water system created centuries ago. Hessa bint Mohamed St., alainoasis
SEA CHANGE / The Corniche The Corniche is no longer the simple beach front area I remember. Now it is much more a space for public entertainment with open-air concerts by contemporary and traditional musicians.
BASIC BOUNTY / Bu Tafish The setting for this historic seafood restaurant is no-frills, but the fish is always fresh and delicious. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Street
PORT CRAWL / Warehouse421 A warehouse district by the port of Mina Zayed, it’s now an art destination, hosting lively events and exhibitions year-round. warehouse421.ae
Author of ‘Sarareed: Emirati Cuisine from the Sea to the Desert’
CURRY WITH A VIEW / Ushna This bright, modern Indian restaurant has stunning views of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque from the terrace. Souq Qaryat Al Beri
ISLE OF CHEETAHS / Sir Baniyas Island Once abandoned, this island 150 miles off the coast of Abu Dhabi (part of the Al Gharbia region of the country) is dominated by the Arabian Wildlife Park and filled with gazelles, cheetahs and giraffes. anantara.com/en/sir-bani-yas-abu-dhabi
TIME TRAVEL / Qasr Al Hosn This gleaming watchtower, the oldest stone building in Abu Dhabi, showcases the history of the country through artifacts. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum St., qasralhosn.ae
The Real Estate Developer
Co-Founder and CEO, Zaya Real Estate
ON THE HORIZON / Zaya Nurai Island The chic private-island resort (a 10-minute boat ride from Saadiyat Island) features villas that give you endless horizons. Or buy a day pass and go for a meal and showstopping sunset views. From about $750 a night or $120 for a day pass, zayanuraiisland.com
PERSIAN BLUE / The Shore Abu Dhabi has such clear, beautiful waters. My favorite beaches include Al Bateen and the coastline that curves around Saadiyat Island.
SMALL SCALE / Al Sayyad Restaurant This restaurant in the Mina Zayed port, with only four tables, serves the freshest fish. It’s not luxury but offers a very authentic dining experience. Mina Fish Market, Al Meena
The Artistic Director
Executive artistic director of the Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi
FOREIGN LEGION / Tourist Club Area This neighborhood is filled with older architecture, small shops and a little bit of grit and funk. Al Sham is an excellent little bakery for manakeesh (Levantine flatbread). Al Zahiyah
KARAK BREAK / Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre Rather than coffee, I’d send people to the food court here for karak, chai with sweetened milk. Go after a stroll through the gold souk. Sultan Bin Zayed the First St., Madinat Zayad Mall
DUBAI DAY TRIP / Alserkal Avenue I love making road trips to this district in Dubai. It’s lined with galleries, Cinema Akil, the Fridge (live music), the Junction (theater) and the Flip Side, a vinyl shop.
BUY THE BOOK / ‘Table Tales: The Global Nomad Cuisine’ This makes a great souvenir. More than a cookbook, it’s a social history of the city told through portraits of residents from different nations. homemadeinad.net.
Plus, Don’t Miss…
Qasr Al Sarab This palatial resort in the Rub’ al-Khali desert offers up-close-and-personal visits with falcons, spa and hammam treatments and a standout breakfast spread. From about $570 a night, anantara.com/ Afternoon Middle Eastern Tea at Al Meylas Lounge An elegant lounge at the Four Seasons hotel, it serves an assortment of British standards and local nibbles, such as medjool dates and scones with clotted cream. Maryah Island, fourseasons.com / Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque The largest mosque in the UAE has what’s reportedly the largest handmade carpet in the world. Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed St, Sheik Zayad Mosque / St. Regis, Corniche An opulent beach resort set on Corniche Road, it’s decked out with a sprawling swimming pool, butler service, several restaurants and “the world’s highest suspended suite”—on the 48th and 49th floors—which serves a “brunch in the clouds” to 50 diners on the last Friday of every month. From about $200 a night, stregis.com / Mawal With lofty ceilings and red Moorish tones, this Lebanese restaurant at Emirates Palace hotel is all glitz and glamour. West Corniche Rd, kempinski.com/en/abudhabi/emirates-palace