Andy Sherwood, Editor of What’s On Abu Dhabi, explains why the city makes the perfect summer stopover for families who need to catch their breath on journeys to Southeast Asia and beyond…
Towering over the glittering waters of the Arabian Gulf, Abu Dhabi may not be as famous as her Emirati sister, but with glorious beaches, exhilarating theme parks and a booming restaurant scene, she’s beginning to edge Dubai out of the limelight. The city’s name, meaning ‘father of the gazelle’, reflects its history. Legend has it the city was founded in 1761, when Bedouin hunters tracked gazelles from the Liwa Desert to the shores of the Gulf. Finding the coast for the first time, they settled here, and the emirate grew into a sleepy fishing port, until the discovery of oil 50 years ago. Now, it’s a gleaming multicultural metropolis, with jaw-dropping skyscrapers dominating its skyline. And while the desert might seem unforgiving, Abu Dhabi knows how to keep visitors chilled in summertime, with a host of special events.
10am: It’s a roller coaster ride
The first thing you’ll want to do when you leave the airport is cool down, so your initial port of call should be Yas Waterworld. There are 43 rides, slides and attractions including Dawwama, the world’s largest hydromagnetic, six-person tornado raft ride. Next door at Ferrari World, Formula Rossa is the world’s fastest roller coaster, accelerating to a nippy 149mph in under five seconds.
2pm: On the menu
Abu Dhabi is a melting pot of cultures where around 80% of the population is expat. A mix of Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and Westerners make the food scene spectacular. Celebrity chefs are big news – try Indian superstar Sanjeev Kapoor’s Signature restaurant. The Hub, a dining destination in the city’s World Trade Center, is worth a visit for the fragrant coconut chicken dosas on the Indian tapas menu at Tamba alone. But then the fresh ceviche at pan-Latino destination Bu! is wonderful too. Japanese outlet Zuma, by German celebrity chef Rainer Becker, has a branch in up-and-coming Al Maryah Island and its fluffy, miso-marinated black cod wrapped in hoba leaf is the talk of the town. You’ll even find pork dishes on some menus: at Dai Pai Dong the crunchy and juicy pork belly is the finest in the city.
4pm: Out and about
A trip to Abu Dhabi wouldn’t be complete without a stroll along the famous Corniche. This five-mile, man-made coastline is full of cafés, has a cycle track and a section of beach reserved just for families. Also in downtown, and just a short taxi ride from the beach, is Qasr Al Hosn. Abu Dhabi’s first permanent structure was built as a coral and sea stone watchtower in the 1760s and offers insight into the country’s history. The tower was later expanded by Sheikh Shakhbut Bin Dhiyab Al Nahyan (who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1795-1816) and turned into a fortress. Home to the emirate’s ruling Al Nahyan family for two centuries, Al Hosn was used as their seat of government until 1966.
7pm: Showstoppingly good
Abu Dhabi Summer Season is one of the city’s flagship events – it’s a two-month festival of magic shows, comedy nights, live music and kid-friendly entertainment. Previous years have seen performances by illusionist David Blaine at the majestic Emirates Palace Auditorium – where he held his breath underwater for 17 minutes – plus an all-singing, all-dancing Broadway-style show from the cast of Sesame Street.
6am: A city escape
It’s worth getting up early for a trip to Al Ain. Fed by natural springs, it’s a surprising desert oasis, referred to as the Garden City. The UNESCO World Heritage site includes housing, towers and circular stone tombs that date to 2500 BC, and there are forts and a zoo where kids can meet Arabian antelopes, oryx and gazelles. It’s a 90-minute drive from Abu Dhabi, a highlight of the journey being the sweeping views of the vast Empty Quarter – real desert, just as you imagined it.
2pm: Cultural hub
The Abu Dhabi art scene is thriving – spend your afternoon at Warehouse421 in the Mina Zayed port area or at Manarat Al Saadiyat arts centre on Saadiyat Island. The name means ‘place of enlightenment’ and previous exhibitions include Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection, featuring pieces by international artists including American installation artist Robert Irwin. Big news is the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, scheduled for December 2016. Some 300 works will be on display, including Portrait of a Lady by Pablo Picasso.
4pm: Money to burn
Before you head back to the airport, flex your credit cards in the city’s mega-malls. Yas Mall opened in November 2014 and has become one of the city’s most popular destinations, encompassing 370 shops, 60 restaurants and cafés, a 20-screen state-of-the-art cinema and a Fun Works family entertainment zone. The Souk at Qaryat Al Beri sits next to the idyllic waters of the Maqta Creek and offers a contemporary twist on a traditional Arabian market. Here, you can buy everything from local dress, such as abayas and dishdashes, to carpets and cookies made using camel milk. Or marvel at the glittering Avenue at Etihad Towers as you window-shop for Givenchy and Cartier.
Read more about Abu Dhabi’s special summer events at abudhabievents.ae