Module 4: Abu Dhabi City and Islands

Abu Dhabi Module 4 - Abu Dhabi CityAbu Dhabi City and Islands

Abu Dhabi City


Abu Dhabi is an impressive modern city by any standard with its high-rise buildings, busy streets, high quality hotels and impressive shopping malls. Yet it retains a distinctive traditional character in the souks and dhow wharfs.

Add to the mix the sensational beach and desert setting, the sights and smells of the traditional Arabian culture, great weather and the great swathes of green land and parks – and you can get some idea of why Abu Dhabi offers more than most cities.

Abu Dhabi’s location on an island makes it compact and accessible. It’s easy to find your way around and the city is fascinating to explore on foot, by hire car or by hopping a taxi.

A busy metropolis of spectacular high rise office towers, shopping malls, restaurants and superb hotels, interspersed with gracious residential districts; the layout of the city even today reflects its origins as a fishing village.

Key facts

  • Abu Dhabi is an impressive modern city with a traditional Arabian ambience
  • The city is built on an island making it compact and accessible and easy to explore
  • The Corniche (the seafront) is the city’s scenic showpiece
  • The Breakwater features the impressive Marina Mall shopping and entertainment complex, as well as Abu Dhabi Heritage Village
  • Other heritage attractions include Qasr Al Hosn (built in 1793 as the official residence of the Rulers of Abu Dhabi), and the Cultural Foundation
  • Any trip to Abu Dhabi must include visits to the fascinating souks – including the Iranian and fish souks
  • Abu Dhabi has 20 lush green parks and – as the city is an island – you are never far away from the turquoise seas and gorgeous beaches
  • The emirate’s Gulf coastline is studded with more than 200 islands of various sizes, most of them flat, sandy and uninhabited
  • Over the next few years, there is expected to be rapid tourist development on several of these islands, and they are expected to become one of the many reasons why visitors will want to experience Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi not only looks outwards to the blue waters of the Gulf, but many of the places of interest to visitors and the main centre of commercial activity lie within five blocks of the sea. This is also the area where the majority of the leading hotels are located and given their proximity to the water front, a beautiful sea view is almost guaranteed.

The Corniche and Breakwater

The recently renovated Corniche is the city’s showpiece, with its beachfront location, paved walkways and lush greenery. You will find visitors and residents out and about enjoying this beautiful area at any time of day – strolling, jogging, cycling or rollerblading along the waterfront or taking their families to one of the many children’s play areas or grassy parks.

At the western end of the Corniche is one of the newest jewels of Abu Dhabi’s burgeoning tourism sector – the magnificent Emirates Palace Hotel. From there, a road leads to the Breakwater, an area of reclaimed land off the main Abu Dhabi island. Featuring a luxury shopping mall, water sports club and Heritage Village, this area has a number of Arabic cafés and restaurants along the waterfront and a new marina and housing development are currently under construction.

To explore these areas from a different perspective, visitors can cruise along the Corniche on a traditional wooden boat (‘dhow’), enjoying the changing vistas of the skyline, parks and fountains. Cruises generally last for an hour, and can be booked through a tour operator.

Heritage Attractions

Between Khalidia Street and Airport Road, is the impressive heritage site of Qasr Al Hosn, built in 1793 as the official residence of the Rulers of Abu Dhabi. Adjacent is the Cultural Foundation, a modern complex designed in traditional architectural style, and home to the National Library, an auditorium, exhibition halls and a cinema. The Foundation is the hub of Abu Dhabi’s cultural life, staging concerts, plays, lectures and a variety of other events.

Traditional arts and crafts, such as weaving and producing hand made souvenirs, are practiced at The Women’s Craft Centre on Al Maktoum Street. Visitors may purchase these artefacts at fixed prices.

The new Heritage Village on the Breakwater provides a taste of life before the oil era. It offers an insight into Bedouin life, as well as courtyard houses, wind towers and an example of the ancient irrigation system used in the region’s oases. In different workshops craftsmen and women demonstrate traditional skills and the museum has displays of garments, coins, Holy Qurans, diving equipment, jewellery and weaponry from a bygone era.

The Centre for Documentation and Research at the Presidential Court on Airport Road contains a collection of old photographs tracing Abu Dhabi’s development from the 1930s. Other exhibits cover the emirate’s natural history and old weaponry.

City Districts

Inland from the Corniche and Breakwater, Abu Dhabi has many other areas of interest to the visitor. Airport Road is lined with shops, cafés and restaurants, and forms the spine of the city. On the west side of the island is Al Bateen, with several large parks and the Bateen shipyard, which is well worth a visit to view the ancient skill of dhow building.

Al Markaziyah is a centrally located business and shopping area, while Al Safarat, on the southern side of the island, houses the General Exhibition Centre (GEC) – purpose built as a venue for major exhibitions. The port district of Al Meena, on the northern tip of the island, features several traditional markets (souks), as well as modern shopping malls. All of these areas can easily be reached by taxi or car hire.

Street Life

While Abu Dhabi today presents a predominantly modern face to the world, the past is still very much in evidence. Walking through the streets you will feel the unmistakable ambience of the city’s heritage and history; its modern buildings, spectacular mosques and luxury cars are framed by traditional architecture and evidence of the simple lifestyle that existed not so long ago. Even the sounds and aromas you encounter evoke a taste of the past.

Whether or not you have shopping on your mind, the hustle and bustle of the souks offers an authentic experience of day-to-day commerce and are a sharp contrast to the stylish modern malls nearby. In the port area east of the Corniche are the Al Meena, Iranian and Afghan souks, as well as markets specialising in fish, meat and vegetables. The fish souk is especially interesting to visit.

Sales pointers

  • The city of Abu Dhabi is compact, making it easy to explore
  • The facilities in the city are of the highest international standard
  • Abu Dhabi is a city of contrasts – where the modern mixes perfectly with true Arabian history and culture – a great combination for today’s traveller
  • Abu Dhabi’s coastline is studded with 200 island, offering outstanding potential for future tourism development

The nearby Dhow harbour, a working port from which these traditional vessels ply the fishing waters and trade routes of the Gulf and beyond, provides another fascinating taste of Abu Dhabi’s living traditions set against a backdrop of the city’s towering skyscrapers.

Parks and Beaches

Abu Dhabi has almost 20 well maintained parks. These lush pockets of greenery reflect the commitment of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family to the beautification of this desert city, and most contain water features and children’s play areas.

Located on an island and surrounded by the warm and welcoming turquoise waters of the Gulf, Abu Dhabi is well endowed with a number of golden beaches. Some of these have been developed into beach parks, offering facilities such as changing rooms, adjacent gardens and food outlets.

Abu Dhabi Islands

The emirate’s Gulf coastline is studded with more than 200 islands of various sizes, most of them flat, sandy and uninhabited. Island hopping is a popular activity, and visitors can hire a boat and explore at will. Directly opposite the Corniche is Lulu Island, a large manmade island protected from the sea by a breakwater.

Saadiyat Island, to the east of the Corniche, is popular for weekend breaks and daytrips. Its facilities include an entertainment hall, restaurant, water sports, a boat mooring facility and chalets for overnight stays. A massive planned development project will soon begin transforming the island into a major tourism hub.

Five kilometres south of the city is the privately owned Futaisi Island, whose ancient inhabitants used to supply sweet water and stone for building forts and Rulers’ houses on the main Abu Dhabi island. There are still signs of their existence such as a historical mosque, graveyard and several old wells.

Sir Bani Yas Island lies 250 km to the west of Abu Dhabi, and has been transformed into a nature reserve. It is home to several indigenous and African species, and runs an active conservation and breeding programme. A visit to this island makes a fascinating excursion, but such trips currently have to be arranged through tour operators. A new hotel is under construction for completion soon.

Bahraini and Cut Islands are also popular getaways, situated 40 minutes and 25 minutes by boat from Abu Dhabi Island respectively.


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