City guide: Abu Dhabi

A coastal city of natural beauty, diverse culture and robust commerce.

Whether it’s gold bars from an ATM, camel milk in your cappuccino or a hotel with a US$3 billion price tag, Abu Dhabi is sure to amaze.

Before oil was discovered in the late 1950s, Abu Dhabi was a modest fishing settlement with a declining pearl industry. Powered by petrodollars, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates has transformed into a thriving political, commercial and cultural hub. Futuristic skyscrapers, opulent hotels and sumptuous shopping malls harmonize with quaint souks and traditional mosques.

Leaders of the oil-dependent city are diversifying Abu Dhabi’s economy through financial services and tourism. Developers are prioritizing the construction of museums, convention centers and hotels. The ambitious Saadiyat Island project will house branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums.

Getting to and from the airport

Abu Dhabi International Airport is on the mainland, 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) east of the city; reaching the city center takes about 45 minutes, depending on traffic. Metered taxis and flat-rate limousines are available outside arrival terminals 1 and 2. Limousine rates are listed at the curbside pick-up point. You can get to the town center for 85 United Arab Emirates dirham, or AED (equivalent to about US$23). Public bus No. 901 departs every 40 minutes from all terminals and stops at several locations en route to the city. It’s the cheapest option at AED 3 (80 cents).

Getting around Abu Dhabi

With its well-planned road system, Abu Dhabi is easy to navigate. Taxis are reasonably priced and readily available. You can flag them down or book by phone through the TransAD hotline (Ph: 600 535 353). Trips around the city shouldn’t cost more than 10 AED ($2.70). Nighttime fares can be slightly more. Drivers don’t expect tips but do welcome them.

City buses run around the clock, and a one-way fare will set you back only AED 2 (55 cents). Weekly passes are available for AED 30 (about $8). For up-to-date bus routes and schedules, visit the Department of Transport’s website.

Abu Dhabi has no tram or metro service. Few people cycle or walk to get around; the city is spread out, and in the summer months of June to September it’s sweltering. Temperatures exceed 100 F (38 C), and humidity fluctuates between 80% and 90%. Visitors will feel more comfortable in the winter (December to March), when daily average temperatures are around 68 F (20 C).

Where to stay

For a luxury stay, try Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Abu Dhabi, 114304; Ph: +971 2 654 3333, or the Shangri-la Hotel Qaryat Al Beri, Between the Bridges, Abu Dhabi 128881; Ph: +971 2 509 8888.

Upscale options include Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi, Hamden Street, Abu Dhabi, 3541; Ph: +971 2 616 6166, or Intercontinental Abu Dhabi, Bainouna Street, Abu Dhabi, 4171; Ph: +971 2 666 6888.

If you’re looking for a midscale option, try Radisson Blu Hotel, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, 93725; Ph: +971 2 656 2000. And for an economy option, check out Hotel Ibis Abu Dhabi Gate, Road 34 Gate City, Bain Al Jessrain, Abu Dhabi, 92156; Ph: +971 2 558 9231.

Things to see and do

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque tops most visitors’ agendas; the position is justified. This extravagant work of architecture is the third-largest mosque in the world. It features 82 domes and seven Swarovski crystal chandeliers, and its hand-woven carpet is reputed to be the largest in the world. There’s enough gold and marble to make Louis XIV jealous. The mosque is open daily, with the exception of Friday morning, and has regularly scheduled guided tours.

Once you’ve taken enough pictures to kill your camera battery, head to Heritage Village. The village, in the middle of Abu Dhabi, is a living museum offering a glimpse into the country’s past. See how the Bedouin lived before modern irrigation and agricultural systems. The village is open Sunday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Friday from 3:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

When temperatures aren’t at their peak, consider a stroll along the Corniche. This manicured promenade stretches for 8 kilometers along the Persian Gulf. You’ll find pedestrian walkwaDune bashingys and cycling paths, lush gardens, an abundance of restaurants and, of course, the beach. Whether you’re marveling at the city’s architecture or taking in a sunset, the Corniche is the perfect place to unwind.

If you’re craving a day trip out of the city, the desert is only a short drive away. Adventure seekers shouldn’t miss out on a dune-bashing safari. Zooming over sand dunes in a desert-adapted (and air-conditioned) sport utility vehicle is an experience to write home about. Most tours include a camel ride, as well as a barbecue dinner under the stars to cap off the day.

Where to eat

Abu Dhabi’s multicultural makeup is reflected by its diverse restaurants. The finest restaurants are in five-star hotels, but these are also the most expensive. Only hotel restaurants have liquor licenses.

The city’s wide selection of Indian restaurants typically offer quality at reasonable prices. Ushna is a prime example; its innovative dishes put a spin on classic north Indian cuisine. Guests can enjoy gourmet courses with vintage wine pairinUshna restaurantgs, scenic views and a relaxed ambiance. Dinner for two comes in around AED 300 ($80). Souk Qaryat Al Beri, Ph: +971 2 558 1769.

Porto Bello, in the Grand Millennium Al Wahda, does a fine job modernizing traditional Italian favorites. Diners will be pleased with the friendly and attentive staff, as well as the elegant and inviting décor. Friday brunch is a special delight with unlimited champagne and a live pianist; it’s priced at AED 395 ($107). Hazza Bin Zayed Street, Al Wahda Complex, Ph: +971 2 443 9999.

Tarbouche Al Basha is a popular Lebanese eatery that prides itself on simplicity and freshness. Hummus connoisseurs won’t be disappointed by the nine variations listed on the menu. For an upgrade in ambiance, asked to be seated on the roof—a terrace garden furnished with carpeted canopies, sofas and a few tables, all lit by lanterns. An average meal costs AED 75 ($20) per person. Al Markaziyah, Ph: +971 2 628 2220.

If you’d likea truly lavish experience, indulge in French contemporary cuisine at Bord Eau in Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri. Paintings of delicate ballerinas, fine white linens and soft lighting set the mood for authentic dishes flown in from France. If it weren’t for the large windows offering picturesque views of the Grand Mosque, you might actually forget you were in the Middle East. Between The Bridges, Ph: +971 2 509 8511.

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