Abu Dhabi’s diverse experiences surprise first-time visitors. Most come to see awe-inspiring sights such as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, chase thrills at Ferrari World and partake in the world-class shopping and dining in this cosmopolitan capital. Still, other lesser-known sides of the city deserve exploration.
We’ll let you in on the city’s best-kept secrets — from the city’s tranquil green spaces to its vibrant art scene — so that you can travel deeper in Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi’s ample green spaces
Abu Dhabi is noticeably green, even more so when you compare it to neighboring Dubai, which offers plenty of beaches but not nearly as many parks. The city’s significant allocation of parks is the product of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s first president, who understood that green spaces were vital to the quality of life and community development.
From October to April, you’ll find Abu Dhabi residents playing sports, attending open-air concerts, shopping at pop-up markets, riding bicycles or picnicking lakeside at Umm Al Emarat Park, Lake Park, Formal Park and Al Fay Park.
For those looking to go deeper into nature, the emirate’s mangroves lie just a 10-minute drive away. At Jubail Mangrove Park and Eastern Mangrove National Park, leave the city behind for lush mangroves and go kayaking in tidal lagoons.
Abu Dhabi’s long history
The UAE was only founded in 1971, but Abu Dhabi’s history stretches further back. Discover the emirate’s rich past in places like the Empty Quarter’s desert, Liwa’s oases and the heart of the island city.
To truly appreciate the resilience and ingenuity of the communities that have inhabited and moved through the region over its long history, visit the city of Al Ain, where a series of cultural spots has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At Al Ain Oasis, traditional aflaj (irrigation channels) belonging to a 3,000-year-old network still water date palm and fruit farms. At Jebel Hafit Desert Park, 5,000-year-old beehive tombs indicate there were settlements here with trade ties in the region during the Bronze Age.
To learn about Abu Dhabi’s modern history, visit the fortress Qasr Al Hosn, a royal-residence-turned-museum. It houses Abu Dhabi’s oldest structure: a stone watchtower built around the 1790s.
A robust art scene
The Louvre Abu Dhabi might be the most famous of the city’s museums and is worth visiting, but the city’s diverse contemporary art scene is equally as exciting. Take the time to peruse art venues around the city, including Warehouse 421, Manarat Al Saadiyat and Etihad Modern Art Gallery, which regularly host exhibitions by Emirati and regional artists and events such as talks and film festivals.
The most tranquil desert experience
If the adrenaline rush of dune bashing doesn’t sound appealing, there’s an alternative way to experience the desert. Head to the Liwa region, which lies at the edge of Rub’ al Khali, a vast desert of gigantic dunes also known as the Empty Quarter. Here, you can find a dune and watch the sunset or sign up for a gentle desert drive or stargazing experience at Qasr Al Sarab by Anantara, a hotel built like a desert fortress.
See Abu Dhabi’s future at Saadiyat Island
A visit to Saadiyat Island offers a taste of what defines modern-day Abu Dhabi — whether it’s the emirate’s commitment to preserving its natural environment as seen around the island’s protected coastline where turtles nest in beachfront dunes, or its cultural development, as seen in the Saadiyat Cultural District with world-class museums such as Louvre Abu Dhabi and the planned Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum.
The Abrahamic Family House is a complex with a mosque, church and synagogue that’s open for worship and visits. As you visit the three beautifully designed buildings, you begin to understand Abu Dhabi’s commitment to the values of diversity and tolerance. If you decide to stay longer, Forbes Travel Guide’s Five-Star The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort Abu Dhabi offers luxurious rooms and suites, each with butler service; a stunning private beach; top-notch dining; and a lavish spa.