As we drove from the Abu Dhabi airport to the city, the first thing that I noticed about it was its spaciousness — wide four lane roads with generous footpaths. You could view the orchards of palm groves, the flyovers, the subways and the signals from far. What a contrast to a city like Mumbai! There are rows of coloured skyscrapers on either side of the roads. Behind the multi-storied structures are blocks of villas. It’s evident that Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates [UAE], is a thoughtfully planned city that cares for the comfort and convenience of its residents.
The broad footpaths and many subways make Abu Dhabi a walker’s paradise. Even crossing the roads is tension-free as most of the signals have timers.
As you walk, palm trees lining the road dividers and cars parked neatly in the allotted space don’t fail to impress you. Public transport in Abu Dhabi is good with plenty of taxis and buses plying on the road. All it costs to reach any destination by bus is one dirham. Taxis too are metered, easily available and nominally charged. The roads are less congested than Dubai, with fewer traffic jams. So travelling within the city is convenient and hassle-free.
Of course, walking around the neighbourhood is the best way to explore the charm of the city. You don’t want to take this option if you visit Abu Dhabi in the summers [July and August] as the temperatures soar over 45 degrees. But not so in winter, when the weather is pleasant and you’ll actually enjoy going on foot. Don’t let this discourage you from visiting it in summer though, as the heat is hardly noticeable in the heavily air-conditioned homes, shops, buses and taxis.
When you tread on foot, you are bound to admire the varied colours and shapes of the tall buildings. Most residential buildings have money exchange centres and shops selling electronic goods, ready-made garments, footwear and jewellery. Every once in a while, almost at every street corner, you spot a mosque—out of the 5000 mosques in the UAE, Abu Dhabi has the maximum. In the evening when the whole city lights up, the mosques stand out with their green and yellow minarets and domes. They cast a divine glow over the surrounding.
Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand mosque is one of the world’s biggest and most beautiful. Laid out on an area of 22,412sq m, it can accommodate 40,960 worshippers at a time. With a thousand pillared outer area, 96 columned inner prayer hall and 82 domes to create the beauty of the marble mosque, it is indeed an architectural marvel. Inlay work of gold and semi-precious stones further enhances the beauty of the columns.
Reflective pools and manicured gardens embellish it from the outside while dazzling chandeliers of Swarovski crystals and Venetian glass light up the interiors. Indeed a marble wonder, the Grand mosque is the pride of Abu Dhabi. Avail of one of the many free guided tours that are provided to tourists at specific times of the day. Women visitors are given a hijab to wear over their dress before the tour and women, especially foreigners, love to get photographed wearing this garb.
There are as many malls as there are mosques in the city. In fact, you can spend an entire day exploring just one mall, especially if it’s a big one like Mushrif or Khalidiyah. With beautiful fountains outside and in the foyer, stunning decorative pieces, stalls, shops, supermarkets, coffee bars, food courts, children’s play area and theatres, the sheer variety of things that is offered in a mall will take your breath away. These malls serve as a cool eye-pleasing respite for tourists in harsh summer months. On days like Eid, Onam or Diwali, the malls take on a festive look and there are special events organised for shoppers.
Speaking of malls and shopping, one cannot leave Abu Dhabi without visiting its souks. The souk near Central Market is one of the oldest in the city and is a nice place to visit to get a feel of the old Abu Dhabi. With an impressive wooden exterior and pillared interior with shops on both sides of the narrow corridor, it is a favourite destination for tourists. From charms, baubles and semi-precious stones to jewellery, curios, perfumes and furniture, the souk lures you with its old-world charm. For ceramics, pottery and carpets visit the weekend Iranian Bazaar near the harbour. For the glitter of the yellow metal, go to the Gold Souk behind Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre. In this fully air-conditioned building, you will find lines of shops selling different kinds of jewellery in Arabian, Indian and Italian designs. During Eid, you can really strike a good bargain.
Parks too dominate the landscape of this emirate as it is dotted with 2000 well-maintained gardens and parks. Beautifully laid pathways, comfortable seats to relax, palm trees all around, a scenic fountain in between and a restaurant in the corner make these green zones in every locality pleasurable resting areas. Khalifa Park, near Sheikh Zayed Mosque, is one of the best in the city. An abra [ancient boat] welcomes you at the entrance. The park has a restaurant, colourful fountains, a water park, and a toy train to take you around.
Also, don’t miss the Corniche beach. With its golden sands, blue bay, palm-filled parks, beautifully-laid jogging and cycling tracks, and a great view of the Abu Dhabi skyscrapers lining the sea, all make your evening special. During weekends you will find families coming here to frolic in the waters, surf or play beach volleyball. Even lazing on the beach is pleasurable as you can watch the sunset, admire the Marina Mall tower, Cultural Centre, flag pole and Emirates Palace on the skyline.
To understand the culture of Abu Dhabi, visit the Heritage Village. At a walking distance from the Marina Mall and Cultural Centre, the Heritage Village is a great crowd puller. Mud homes, pigeon shelters, dresses, Bedouin villages, ancient excavations, forts and wooden boats all give you a glimpse into the ancient Arab civilisation. It also houses a women’s centre where embroidered textiles and craft items are available for sale.
A similar museum can be visited in Al Ain, the oasis city of Abu Dhabi. Also called the ‘Green City,’ Al Ain is 150km from Abu Dhabi and takes about two hours to reach. The small town has many large attractions. The Al Ain museum recreates the lifestyle, occupation, commerce, and attire of ancient Arabs. Here and also in the palace museum, you will be given a traditional welcome with a small cup of Arabian coffee and dates. The Palace museum unfolds the life of Sheikhs of the past who ruled and moulded the present day Abu Dhabi.
The main attraction of Al Ain are the oases. Enter any one of these green zones with thousands of palm trees to understand the planting and picking of delicious dates and the irrigation system here. Meandering through the narrow alleys of the oases you are likely to lose your way. However, it is pleasurable to walk through the palm groves and view the trees laden with date fruit. Out of the millions of palm trees in UAE, Al Ain has the maximum.
From any oasis, you can take a drive up to the second highest mountain of the emirates, Jebel Hafeet. At 1249m, it gives a splendid view of the city and bordering Oman. Coming down the limestone hill you can stop at the sprawling gardens of Mubazzarah to feel the hot spring water and admire the splendid scenery around. Al Ain is a great place to spend a quiet weekend.
Saadiyat Island, 500m away from the Abu Dhabi coast, is another place worth visiting. The future Cultural Centre of Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat, has an exhibition centre that reveals the future of the island through models, visual displays and a film. An art museum, a Louvre museum, a performing Art Centre, New York University Campus, an 18 holed golf course, residential complexes, beach resorts and hotels are some of the main attractions to look forward to. Just walking around the island, in its gardens with pools, palms and flowering trees is pleasurable.
Abu Dhabi has as much to offer as Dubai, but is greener, cleaner and more spacious. The wealthiest of the emirates, it is fast developing into a high class city with the best hotels, resorts, malls and expressways. You can drive down from Dubai to spend a few days here to get a feel of the old Arab world and the new modern emirate. But I suggest flying down straight to Abu Dhabi and exploring it for its own sake. It’s worthy of such respect.
Status: Capital of UAE
Best time to visit: October to March
To reach from India: Etihad Air flies from Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad to Abu Dhabi; from Dubai it is two hours by road.
Currency: Dirham. [1$ = 3.67 dirham, 1 dirham = (approx) INR 13-14]