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Top 5 things to do in Abu Dhabi | Insight Guides Blog

Top 5 things to do in Abu Dhabi

The capital of the United Arab Emirates has plenty to offer visitors, from inspiring architecture to modern souks, and (soon) world-class museums too. Here are the best things to do on your holiday to Abu Dhabi
Things to do in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates Palace Hotel
Gate to the Emirates Palace. Photo: Shutterstock

Gate to the Emirates Palace. Photo: Shutterstock


The capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has many must-see attractions. Read on to discover our top five favourite things to do in Abu Dhabi


1. The Grand Mosque

This is undoubtedly Abu Dhabi’s single most worthwhile attraction (Sat–Thu 9am–10pm, Fri 4.30–10pm; free; free guided tours, several daily). 
Rising imperiously over the southern city, the spectacular snow-white mass of domes and minarets are visible for miles around – the vast courtyard alone is capable of accommodating some 40,000 worshippers. Completed in 2007, the mosque is one of the world’s biggest – and certainly the most expensive, having cost some US$500 million. It is also one of only three mosques in the UAE (along with the Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai and the Al Noor Mosque in Sharjah) open to non-Muslims. If visiting, you will be expected to dress conservatively; female visitors not suitably attired will be offered a black abaya robe to wear.


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Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Photo: ShutterstockSheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Shutterstock


2. The Central Market

The spectacular Central Market, open daily 10am–10pm, Fri–Sat until 11pm, replaced Abu Dhabi’s old city souk and adds a welcome touch of contemporary style to the city centre in a location close to Al Hosn Fort and the Cultural Foundation. Designed by Foster & Partners, the market comprises a magical new souk, blending elements of traditional Arabian architecture with suave modernist decor and an environmentally sensitive design. An emphasis on sustainability means shops in the souk focus on traditional crafts and products, dotted with a range of restaurants and coffee shops. They also offer a beguiling taste of traditional Arabia reinvented for the 21st century.


Typical souvenir from the UAE. Photo: ShutterstockTypical souvenir from the UAE. Photo: Shutterstock


3. The Emirates Palace

This is hands-down one of the city’s most eye-catching landmarks, and one of the world’s most spectacularly opulent hotels. Constructed in traditional Arabian style, this red-sandstone colossus sprawls for the best part of a kilometre (0.75 mile) down the beach, topped with around 100 domes, while the interior is a riot of Arabian chintz, best appreciated over afternoon tea in the vast foyer or an evening meal in one of the very upmarket restaurants scattered around the ground floor.


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Aerial view of The Emirates Palace. Photo: ShutterstockAerial views of The Emirates Palace. Photo: Shutterstock


4. Heritage Village

The Heritage Village (open Sat–Thu 9am–5pm, Fri 3.30–9pm; free) commemorates life in Abu Dhabi before oil revenues changed the city forever. Exhibits include old Bedouin tents, a reconstruction of a barasti (palmthatch) house, and a recreation of a traditional souk in which local artisans can sometimes be seen at work. There are also superb views from here to the corniche across the water, with the two distinctive Etisalat towers rising behind – immediately recognisable (like their cousins in Dubai) thanks to the enormous golf balls which sit perched on their summits.


Emirates Heritage Village in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Shutterstock


5. Saadiyat Cultural District 

Keep an eye on the new Saadiyat Cultural District, located on Saadiyat Island, about 3km (2 miles) from the city centre. The centrepiece of the island will be a remarkable cluster of five museums all housed in jaw-dropping neo-futuristic buildings designed by world famous architects, set to open from 2016 onwards. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, has been created in an unprecedented collaboration with the French government and will be home to collections of both Eastern and Western art (due to open by the end of 2016). Norman Foster’s Zayed National Museum will showcase the life and achievements of the late Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Meanwhile, 2017 is to see the much-anticipated opening of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by Frank Gehry (of Guggenheim Bilbao fame), which will showcase high-profile contemporary art. There are also works under way for the Performing Arts Centre by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid and the Maritime Museum by Japanese architect Tadao Ando.


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The Louvre Abu Dhabi museum construction site. Photo: ShutterstockThe Louvre Abu Dhabi museum construction site. Photo: Shutterstock


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