It might not be as well known internationally as Dubai, but Abu Dhabi is a bustling city, and surprisingly verdant for its position on the edge of a desert. The relationship between Abu Dhabi and Dubai is perhaps comparable to that found in a number of countries around the globe where the federal and commercial centres are separate. Life in Abu Dhabi, like Canberra and Washington DC, is seen as being more sedate and relaxed, whereas Dubai, like Sydney and New York City, is seen as the place where things happen and where all the action is.
Not so, say the residents of Abu Dhabi. In between the calm green gardens, high-rise apartment blocks, elegant fountains, stunning corniche and the luxury villas, is a city brimming with vibrancy and plenty of places to explore. The island city of Abu Dhabi is growing rapidly, and its evolution from quiet village to thriving metropolis has been remarkable, a testament to the vision of the late Sheikh Zayed, and the energy and drive of its people.
The high-rise central business district is home to imaginatively designed buildings, a mix of big business and apartments that provide a dramatic backdrop to the corniche area. The corniche itself is designed for play, with beautiful parks, walkways, cycle paths, and picnic areas, all bordering the turquoise water of the Arabian Gulf. Further inland, the skyscrapers make way for beautiful villas, low-rise apartment blocks and quieter, tree-lined, streets, where residential life plays out among public gardens and hidden palaces.
Travelling around the island will provide plenty of photo opportunities. The city is known for its many fountains and its public art; Canon square dominates the surrounding buildings with its magnificent water fountain and enormous concrete replicas of traditional Arabic artifacts.
The city is constantly evolving and growing. Older buildings are demolished to make way for sleek new ones, and there are always new malls, apartments and villas under development. The island’s growth is spilling over into the mainland of Abu Dhabi emirate, with new residential areas springing up from the desert.
Essential to traditional life in the Middle east is the souk, and no visit to the UAE is complete without sampling the hustle and bustle of these marketplaces. Originally, souk were also places for people to meet friends, catch up on news, and sit and enjoy shisha. Abu Dhabi has a number of thriving souks selling everything from plastic buckets and gaudy costume jewellery, to fresh fish and hand-woven carpets. The souk is the place to test your haggling skills, and to find some bargains.
The following section gives an idea of what where is to see and do in Abu Dhabi – interesting places to visit, including museums, heritage sites, parks and beaches. The list is by no means exhaustive, and you will find other suggestions elsewhere in the book. The organized tours section provides information on tour operators and a description of the tours on offer. Unless otherwise marked as being in Al Ain, the activities mentioned are available from Abu Dhabi.
The sea has always been hugely important to the people of Abu Dhabi, in the early days for fishing and pearl diving, and now for recreation. The heart of the city is still the area around the corniche, and along with Breakwater, is a great place to start exploring from.