Traveling to the Middle East for sight-seeing is not in most people’s plans. While politics may cause concern for most, the reality is the United Arab Emirates is a bastion of peace and stability. Though the UAE just celebrated its 42nd birthday, visitors will be delighted to see a paradox of old and new culture in and around the capital city of Abu Dhabi. While one could spend easily enjoying its luxury, there is plenty to see and do in the United Arab Emirates on a limited budget or for free.
Start along the eight-kilometer Corniche Road that runs along the waterfront. The greenbelt provides palms and flowering gardens, children’s play areas, bike and walking paths and white, pristine beaches awarded the coveted Blue Flag status - an eco-label guaranteeing safe and clean bathing water from the Arabian Gulf (don’t call it the Persian Gulf here). Family, singles and public beaches are attended by lifeguards and security personnel.
Visitors can rent bicycles, mountain bikes or cycles that fit two or three passengers. Along the green belt, you can see merchants sell their goods or you can stop for a coffee or a sandwich and watch the sun set. Parking is also free in many places with ornate mosaic pedestrian crossings worth viewing that run under the Corniche.
Fruit and Vegetable Souks
Where the Corniche Road meets the Mina Zayed Port, visitors can haggle with local fruit and vegetable vendors selling produce from their trucks and stands. Watch locals from around the Emirate navigate through the multiple vendors. The best time to visit is after sunset when the real activity begins. One can bring home a real taste of the local produce, the workers and UAE residents. On the same lot is a separate meat souk at the southeast end. Not far away is a separate fish market that will skin and even prepare your seafood before you leave.
Just down the road into the heart of Abu Dhabi, visitors will see a rainbow of architectural shapes and colored glass. Looking at buildings is not usually on one’s must do list, but the capital city boasts a vast array of unique architectural design. Visit the leaning and wavy Capital Gate Tower - certified as the “World’s Furthest Leaning Man-Made Tower” by the Guiness World Records. It leans four times more than the leaning tower of Pisa. Close to downtown, the conical Al Bahar Towers use cantilevered, geometric jackets to shade out the desert sun.
Outside the downtown area, you will be amazed by the world’s first disc-shaped building, the Aldar Headquarters, visible for miles. Also, the five-star Yas Viceroy Hotel on Yas Island is the only building that straddles an F1 race track and overlooks the Yas Marina. The grid shell covering the dual edifice illuminates the area with changing light schemes at night that fill the sky and reflect off the marina waters.
A short drive outside the city, whether you like racing or not, experience exciting camel races. Stare into the camels faces at the starting gate and even join the dusty convoy racing alongside the humped mammals. You’ll witness culture and entertainment as camels vie for prize money and their owners cheer them on, coaxing them with their robotic jockeys from their speeding SUVs.
Get there early to soak in the experience and even talk to locals. Many enjoy having their picture taken, but ask permission since photographing strangers unwittingly is illegal. Heading toward Al Ain, you can see races at the Al Wathba Camel Race Track on the Al Ain Road (follow the signs) or at the Al Maqam Track near Al Ain.
For the environmentally conscious, visitors see the future in Masdar City, a six square kilometer community outside Abu Dhabi’s center. Masdar City is an clean technology hub that escorts visitors with self-driving cars from the parking garage to the village. The self-sustainable community boasts solar panels, wind turbines and a large central wind tunnel to cool the outside courtyard. The model city forbids cars within its limits.
The Emirates Palace
This seven-star hotel is a tribute to opulence, greeting all with plush lawns and gardens. Inside, gold leaf adorns the foyer and the palace also boasts an ATM for gold bullion. One of the few ultra extravagant hotels in the world, the Emirates Palace hosts a world class art studio, the Barakat Gallery, numerous convention halls, restaurants and live music. You can catch a sunset overlooking its beach.
Abu Dhabi Heritage Village
The Heritage Village is located near the Marina Mall and the Corniche, on the Breakwater. Visitors can barter at a traditional souk or market, take a camel ride in a recreated Bedouin village, and interact with local merchants weaving on looms, making pots and blowing glass. Activity is best in late afternoon and parking is very limited so you may want to take a taxi, then walk to the Marina Mall to pick up a return ride.
Manarat Al Saadiyat
Saadiyat Island is Abu Dhabi’s developing cultural center, presently housing the Manarat Al Saadiyat, the “place of enlightenment”. This art venue features numerous galleries, a theatre, educational programs and a restaurant. Manarat Al Saadiyat offers numerous workshops for children and adults. Saadiyat Island soon will be an international art hub when construction is completed on The Louvre, the Guggenheim, the Zayad National Museum and the Performing Arts Centre.
Interact with a live falcon
The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is one of the pre-eminent falcon hospitals in the Gulf region. The world’s largest falcon hospital offers tours of its facility and museum and also allows visitors to hold some birds of prey. While children under four are free, all other visitors must pay for the interactive tour. You may call (02 575 5155) or visit them online: www.falconhospital.com.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is considered the father of the United Arab Emirates and the mosque named in his honor is one of the country’s crown jewels. Reflective pools, gardens and glass half-domes surround this magnificent structure, the epitome of the Abu Dhabi’s cultural diversity. It boasts building material from all over the world, including white marble, the world’s largest Iranian carpet, three large German chandeliers made of Swarovski crystals and inlayed mother of pearl. It can accommodate more than 40 thousand worshipers, making it one of the largest mosques in the world.
The mosque is not only a place of worship but also is a beacon of education providing classes in Arabic calligraphy, cultural seminars, courses on the Quran, and other lectures and exhibitions. Visitors must be advised there is a modest dress code for both men and women. Be respectful. The facility offers tours throughout the day which provide excellent information about the mosque, but the 5 p.m. sunset tour is best. It allows visitors to see the mosque in daylight, during sunset and illuminated colorfully at night.
While there are countless experiences around Abu Dhabi, these mostly free activities are a great beginning to any visitors’ journey within the U.A.E. For those willing to spend a little more money, numerous other adventures await!