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Abu Dhabi, UAE - Experience a blend of Culture and Modernity

 Abu Dhabi has become more a home than a tourist destination over the last few months I have spent in the city. I came here for work which was about to get over within a couple of weeks - just if the client hadn't extended the scope to make it a couple of months in the city. In the meanwhile I have been shuttling between the two countries - the other being my home country. Well, work is one thing but if you are a traveler and a blogger on top of that, the first thing that you see in a city is avenues of exploration. The day I landed in the city, I took to the streets to identify my way around and get to know the city. Over this time I have grasped some understanding of the country and the city.

We have already discussed some of the attributes in an earlier post - Abu Dhabi, UAE - A Peek From An Outsider's Perspective

The city believed to be founded as a small village of palm huts when a wandering tribe was led to this island by an antelope in search of water. Gradually the tribe built coral buildings and fort as the city expanded. As the population expanded, the city of Abu Dhabi - meaning 'Land of the Gazelle' in Arabic - has since transformed both in form and size from an island settlement to a cosmopolitan city - one that is modern and chic with high rises and spread across multiple islands around the region. Such was the development of infrastructure and facilities that the city was named as capital of United Arab Emirates.

Gone are the days when Dubai was the only tourist destination of the region and other cities were believed to be there for locals and expats to find jobs and work. Abu Dhabi is coming up as a tourist destination rapidly and the government is putting a focused effort to make the city tourist friendly and provide options for tourists of all age, taste, and interests. While obviously, the focus of the city is to provide a cultural experience for those who take a trip to the city, there is enough for those interested in the thrill, nature or simply a laid-back time. Heavy investments have been made over the years to develop required infrastructure for this purpose and today the city definitely can boast itself as a tourist destination at par with any other, if not more. For a tourist, there are a lot of things that could find traction and tempt a visit to the city.

So here we try to guide you to some of the interesting things around the city. We have covered the landmarks and tourist destinations categorized by various islands that are part of this Emirati Capital so highlight how the city is developing each island with a different theme in mind.

Abu Dhabi Island - That's the Primary Part of the City

The main island that houses the major part of the city, its historical monuments and most common areas of activities. The island is home to the downtown area of the city with plush malls and palaces.

1. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque - The Big One out There

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque - In all its Might
Every big city in the world has an iconic site which becomes a face for the city or the region - The Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco, The Bellagio Musical Fountain for Las Vegas, The White House for Washington DC, The Red Fort for New Delhi and Burj Khalifa for Dubai are just some case in point for starters. The grand mosque in Abu Dhabi is the one for the city and has become the most known image of the city. Located on the southern outskirts of the city, the mosque provides an opportunity to delve into the rich cultural heritage of the region.

The mosque, one of its kind in the region, is one of the few mosques which are open to visitors (of course except on Fridays which are prayer days for Muslims) and provides guided tours for the visitors so that they can delve into the religious and cultural beliefs. The mosque is one of grandness - in many ways that one can think of. The size of the monument is such that allows a capacity of over 40,000 devotees to pray simultaneously. The entire interior of the mosque is beautifully decorated with artwork on walls and large chandeliers on roofs. In fact, the chandelier in the main prayer hall is one of the largest in the world. The long corridors with a courthouse in the center add charms to the grand structure that the monument is.

The exteriors are done in pristine white which highlights the monument as a center of religious and spiritual purity which allows people of all faith to celebrate the beliefs of the region. The entire monument is surrounded by waters - something that most of the religious monuments have in common. The reflective arrangments provide it a white and gold hue in the daylight. There is a special lighting arrangement which illuminates the building like a pearl in the desert.

Sunset View of the Presidential Palace - The Power Center
2. Qasr Al-Hosn - This is where it started

This is an ancient fort right in the heart of the city - within the contours of the Downtown area. The fort is a stone-throw distance from The Mall at the World Trade Center. We walked down to the place from our hotel in the evening and covered the periphery trying to get a glimpse of the inside. While the monument is under maintenance, for now, it still represents the history and heritage associated with it. It is planned to become the center of cultural tourism in the main city area. The fort is believed to be the first permanent structure of the city of Abi Dhabi and hence the birthplace of the city. Build on coral rock bricks and emballed with white covering the purpose of the fort was to be a watchtower to protect the only fresh water well in the area, this monument has great importance for the history of the city.

The center hosts an exhibition which brings the history of the city to life through photo exhibitions and oral testimonies. The exhibits give the visitors a glimpse of how the city has evolved over years. As per the plans, the cultural heart of the city would get landscaped gardens with indigenous plants and provide cultural insights to visitors and locals. Host to the annual festival, this would become an important tourism center in the heart of the city.

3. The Corniche - A Beautiful Beachfront with Promenade

The Beach - Relax and Unwind over Free Waves
The Arabian Gulf or the Persian Gulf provides the city with a long coastline and an opportunity for residents to experience a beach in this desert world. The authorities have exploited this opportunity and have invested heavily to set up a sort-of promenade across the shoreline of the city. There are wide paved pathways with separate lanes for bikes which provide this coastline as a destination for evening walks and getaways.

Today, the entire stretch of road measuring about 8 kilometers is a well-manicured waterfront housing parks, beaches, children activity areas, restaurants, and other activities. There are beaches at various locations within this coastline and each has been named and developed for a specific audience. The Corniche Beach specifically has separate sections for families and singles. There also is a public beach session which allows free entry for anyone interested. The beaches have lifeguards on duty during public visit timings.

One may also opt to try their hand on pedals as there are avenues to hire a bike or multi-passenger bicycles to enjoy the waterfront in its true raw form.

The Speed Boat Zipping Through Persian Gulf
4. Observation Deck at 300 - That Many Meters High

It seems to be a fashion on the tourist circuit in today's world to have a platform within the city - one so high which allows you a view of the entire city. Most big cities in the world have one and if you are in a country known for its construction involving vivid engineering and tall structures, such a platform is an inevitable necessity. So yes, Abu Dhabi has its own high point - something similar to the famed At the Top at Burj Khalifa in Dubai - at the Etihad Towers just on the northwestern corner of the city.

Etihad Towers - Elevate to the Top @ 300
Located on the 74th floor of Tower 2 at the Etihad Towers complex, the Observation Deck at 300 - named after the height in meters of the observation platform - offers unbeatable views of Abu Dhabi’s cityscape and surrounding islands. There is a cafe at that level where the visitors can enjoy some delicacies - a part of the ticket can be used to pay for them partially.

Yas Island - The Exotic Destination for Enthusiasts

This island is being developed as a destination for enthusiasts and tourists who love everything associated with adventure. While it hosts the annual F1 race, it also offers theme parks which carry forward the passions associated with the race year-round. The island is well connected by public transportation and is about a good 40-minute drive from the city center. While one may think of combining a visit to all the attractions here, each deserves a day for its own given the energy that they demand and the experience that they offer.

1. Ferrari World - The Only One Around World

Ferrari World - Iconic Roof from Air
Does World's Fastest Roller Coaster and Highest Ride attract you?

We have all been to theme parks across the world and these have traditionally been associated with speed and thrill. However, is there a better synonym of speed than the word "Ferrari" - the brand that has for years tempted youth because of the thrill that it promises. Now, it isn't anyone's guess about what is on the plate when the same brand offers a complete theme part to fans for the first time. The promise of the brand is well-lived in this park housed under the gigantic iconic red roof visible from the air with the Ferrari logo. The coveted destination for any tourist offers numerous high-adrenaline rides within the set of rings away from the otherwise desert and barren lands that the region is. The list of attractive rides includes the highest roller coaster loop in the world and the fastest roller coaster in the world - Formula Rossa along with other family-friendly attractions, various simulators, go-karts and various live shows which cater to every audience who visits here.

2. Yas Waterworld - To Shake-away the Heat

If you have enough time at hand, this is a destination worth running towards - an idyllic experience with relaxed thrill - this is on offer at this water park which spans an area of about 15 football fields. The water park has been designed around the heritage of the region and takes the theme of  "The Lost Pearl". Visitors follow the story of a young Emirati girl on a quest to find a legendary pearl as they make their way around the attractions, which include a souk and pearl-diving exhibits.

There are over 43 rides across the park - each showcasing a futuristic design and offering something unique to its visitors. One of the rides which stand out is the first hydromagnetic-powered tornado ride which at 235 meters length is the largest one in the world. This is accompanied by large surface waves simulating ocean streams and a 550-meter coaster with water & laser effects. Riders can shoot jets of water at targets, drop water bombs and trigger special effects, while people below can spray them with water as they pass.

Zayed Bridge - A Scenic Construction

3. Yas Marina Race Track - The Host to the Speed Carnival

One of the events that put Abu Dhabi on world tourism map is the annual Formula One racing held here. Yas Island is the host of the event with its long Marina Circuit circling across the island. While the scene is abuzz with activity and visitors in November when the race happens, visitors have an option to have a glimpse of behind the scene activities during other times. The Yas Venue tour takes visitors to the processes and logistics that go into maintaining this facility.

While one may be tempted to buy a seat for the extravaganza during the race season, there are multiple options to enjoy the charm of racing cars. The easiest may be to book a room at the Yas Hotel which is right in the middle of the action - the hotel has its pillars in the middle of the race zone - providing the best and longest visuals of the cars zipping past each other. When you are at that height to observe the race, you get to actually witness much more than what you can from you ticketed seat - where the cars provide a microsecond glimpse. Of course, you need to book well in advance to get an accommodation there. The second option is to rent a berth at the jetty where you could take your boat and park out for the day. Boats are available for hire and provide a waving platform to enjoy the speeding adventure. The slots though get booked almost a year ahead of the race and during a race, one could see negotiations on for the next year. So in any case, plan ahead.

Marina Village - A chic modern touristic island facility

Marina Promenade - Can't Help Posing!

The village built on a stand-alone island facility is house to a happening culture round the clock where it offers various activities and sites. While the Marina Mall is the center stone of the island, it is surrounded by many other activities. The marina eye is one of the most iconic sights from Corniche across the island. Then there is the Heritage Village where visitors get insights into the life of artisans and glimpse of how the handiwork of these hard working people creates marvelous pieces of art, textile, and decoratives.

1. Marina Mall - More than a Shopping Complex

Marina Village - Marina Mall, Marina Eye, Sky Tower and Boat Club
The mall is a landmark for the city and a tourist spot in itself occupying the center stage at the island. The mall is house to various international brands as one would expect but that is not what makes it a unique offering. The mall offers a 100-meter high viewing platform - Sky Tower - which provides a panoramic view of the city and the gulf across. The mall also offers a huge children activity area including the BOUNCE - a world where the wall becomes the floor, a slam-dunk is within your grasp and the rules of gravity no longer apply. There are numerous cafes and restaurants along with Carrefour for your grocery needs. It is also a place to hang out with friends over the weekend and frequently hosts various shows within its premises. We got a chance to catch up on a show with World Got Talent artists - one mimicking various sounds of nature while other playing over a tightrope as if it was a dance floor.

2. Marina Eye - A Different Perspective

Right outside the Marina Mall is the eye-catching giant wheel which provides scenic views of the Corniche and the Gulf waters. The electrically operated wheel offers cabins for passengers and takes them on the verticle ride of the city. The Marina Eye observation wheel has 42 capsules, as well as a select number of luxurious VIP capsules for those wanting to take the ride to 'new heights'.

The Emirates Hotel - The Mesmerizing View of Golden Tribute

While the ride is available almost through the entire day, the best time to take it up is during the twilight - the time when the sun is easing its plight and is planning to retire for the day. The reddening sky shading the sky scrappers across the Corniche is a site worth putting an effort for. I would say the idle time is to board around 5:30 PM on a winter evening and slightly later on a summer and stay ready to take up some of the wonderful pictures you may want to.

2. Emirates Heritage Village - All about carrying the traditions ahead

A glimpse into the life of deft artisans at work creating marvelous handicrafts is what this place offers to tourists. The showcase of traditional art and craft is designed after an old oasis village with gardens and huts where age old craft is in the making. Visitors get a glimpse of how these masterpieces are created and the effort that goes into their creation. The craftsmen in the workshops are photo friendly and would let the visitors try a hand at the crafts. The village is a reconstruction of the village architecture with fishing harbors, mud huts, and tents which bring the Emirates past live for tourists. In all this is one big open museum housed within the natural environment.

While the creations are available for sale and visitors are welcome to contribute, one may want to calibrate their shopping expectations. Most of the work is done by hand and hence the prices are bound to be on a higher end given that a lot of effort goes into their creation. Visitors may be habituated to cheaper mimics available in the market and haggle accordingly with the artisans. So stay prepared to pay a bit higher

3. Water Sports Club and Dhow Cruise - Right in the Water

The Dhow Cruise - On the Waves in Traditional Wooden Vessel

The village also is the house for the Emirates Water Sports Club which allows tourists to hire a boat and enjoy time over the waves of the Persian Gulf. One could seek away to one of the numerous islands using the available facilities - all you need to do is appear here and negotiate with one of the boat owners or drivers. There are also regular cruises conducted for tourists - most onboard Dhows or traditional wooden cruises. There are sightseeing tours, dinner cruise and other special party trips that visitors could choose from. The Dhow cruise takes you along the Corniche coastline and showcases the skyscrapers of the city along with the activities on the beach. The hour or two-hour long ride depending on the one you have chosen, you could witness the life of this city as it happens while on the water waves.

Saadiyat Island - The Culture Center

This island is being developed as the cultural center for the entire country and the government is trying to bring in all the iconic marks of culture to this piece of land. There are multiple museums and beaches here which try to bring in the limelight, rich culture from across the world.

1. Louvre Museum - European touch to Arabic Culture

From France to Abu Dhabi is the punchline for this iconic monument which brings the famous museum of France to the Emirate. Designed as a micro-city, Louvre Abu Dhabi is a landmark out at sea. The iconic and interesting building is a house to a multitude of activities enticing visitors of varied taste. One finds the peace, art, culture, history, and scenery - all at one place at this corner of the Saadiyat Island. What makes a visit more interesting is the options to arrive at this recent addition to the city - one may arrive via road or through the sea. The monument has a direct connectivity from the city center through a regional bus (route 94) and taxis who are more than willing to take up the long journey. If you are so inclined, one may opt to take the ferry from the city jetty and arrive here in style.

Louvre Museum - Evening Beauty
The architecture of the building showcases the effort that went into creating this lively destination worth its brand from Europe. While the theme and brand are imported, the exhibits pick from local culture and traditions and amalgamate them to the world creating an interesting fusion. The entire complex is built around 55 detached buildings connected through corridors which replicate the structure of a traditional Arabic Madina. Twenty-three of these buildings are devoted to galleries, which were inspired by the low-lying homes of the local region. There are artifact galleries, exhibitions, and children museum within the complex thus catering to a wide audience who are interested in art, culture, history, and mankind.

Clouds Unveiling the Sun or is it Vice Versa

While interiors are obviously the talked about part of the spot, the exteriors are no less important. The dome-shaped roofed building built out in the sea is surrounded by water on most sides. Huge stairs allow tourists to go down to the water level overlooking the imposing structure and creates a sight for memories - read photographs. The promenade walkway around the monument allows visitors to experience a sunset across the Abu Dhabi skyline and creates an environment idle for walks and conversations. I would actually recommend taking out an entire evening to absorb the rich cultural heritage on display and then enjoying the picturesque views.

While we have tried to put together the most iconic monuments and coveted activities from the city of Abu Dhabi, no city can be truly captured in a single article. This was just an attempt to provide you a glimpse of this cultural hub inching to contemporary modernity. There would be more articles coming your way so keep a watch on what more is to come.

In the meanwhile, go ahead and express your views in the comments and pour in your experiences and views of the city!

Parting "Shot" - Reflections in Dark @ Galleria Promenade

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