This post is part of a series of posts based on our recent visit to Dubai. While we saw many of the highlights, this series includes:
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Abu Dhabi, approximately 90 miles south of Dubai, has been rumored to be the “next Dubai”. That is, it’s in progress of being constructed into the next desert playground.
Being just a short hour and a half drive from Dubai, it is also a popular day trip option for visitors to Dubai.
While researching day tours, I found that most tours to Abu Dhabi generally cover the same attractions: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a photo stop at the Emirates Palace (Abu Dhabi’s “7 star” hotel), the Heritage Village and/or the women’s handicraft center, drive down the corniche, and photo ops at the Yas Racing School and/or Ferrari World. It sounds like a lot to squeeze into 8 hours. Being unfamiliar with Abu Dhabi, we didn’t know what was truly “must see” so we opted to do a private tour of the city instead so that we had the freedom to spend as little or much time at a stop as we wished.
Now that we’ve been to Abu Dhabi, I’ll cut to the chase: the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the major attraction there and everything else is pretty much an afterthought as far as I’m concerned.
We’ve seen our share mosques in Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, and Malaysia. After a while, they all start looking the same.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, however, was truly something special and not because it is the 8th largest in the world (it holds 40,000 worshippers!) or because it has the second largest chandelier in the world or because it has the world’s largest carpet. It is just so… grand (oh maybe that’s why it’s the “grand mosque”) and opulent but in such an understated way! From the entrance, you can’t even see the whole mosque but one thing is for sure: the entire thing is a bright, glistening white. In fact, the whole mosque, constructed between 1996 to 2007, consists mostly of white marble.
Once you walk through the entrance, there is a magnificent courtyard graced with columns on its far right and left. Even when it’s blazing hot in Abu Dhabi, the white marble is stone cold.
The second largest chandelier in the world hangs in the main prayer hall and its size is hard to ignore (at least until we saw the world’s largest chandelier in the mosque in Oman). The prayer hall is decked in white with pink and green florals, gold accents, and a ceiling of intricate and delicate white, yellow and grey carvings. The carpet underneath stretches the entire length of the prayer hall.
As most guides do, ours discussed Islam’s five pillars and then let us roam around. Visitors must walk in a clockwise direction around the prayer hall so we followed the stream of tourists, snapped photos of the hall, and then made our way out. The huge inner courtyard and the main prayer hall was pretty much all there was to see at the mosque, and our visit lasted about 45 minutes to an hour.
After we left the mosque, we drove through the wealthy part of the city which had a lot of mansions and palaces belonging to the relatives of the current royal family.
Our next stop was Emirates Palace.
It’s a fancy schmancy palace turned hotel that garners a “7 star” reputation like the Burj Al Arab in Dubai (what’s up with all the 7 star ratings in the UAE, anyway?) and similarly, rooms there start in the thousands of dollars. Usually, the palace affords only a photo op but we got lucky and snuck in a visit inside the palace. The interior of the hotel is more upscale than the interior of the Burj Al Arab (of course the interior of the Burj Al Arab looks like it was done in the 70’s so that’s not saying much) but I have to admit, I’ve seen way more impressive hotels in Las Vegas or… just about any major city.
The only thing that caught our eye during our stop was the gold ATM inside the lobby and being that it was inconspicuously off to the side, we almost missed it! Upon closer inspection, it really does dispense gold! I wonder how often someone actually purchases gold this way.
We then stopped down the street for a photo of the city skyline.
And then we headed for the Heritage Village. When our driver said that we had 20 minutes to visit Heritage Village, I thought we were getting shortchanged, but upon entering there really wasn’t much to see. The village consisted of a row of vendors selling souvenirs and then recreations of what life was like “back in the day”. The problem was that the recreations had the level of authenticity you’d expect of a village within Disney’s theme parks.
We must have had plenty of time to spare on the tour since our driver asked if we wanted to visit the handicraft market or a date market — neither of which was included in our original itinerary. We opted for the date market since I suspected it was the one that was featured on last season’s episode of The Amazing Race. I was correct!
Unlike in the episode, all the dates were covered in plastic as opposed to stacked out in the open. Also unlike in the episode, every date store worker we walked by invited us to go into his store. We walked into the closest store to sample a high quality date and then a weird one that tasted like curry. Gross! I wish I could remember what the difference was between the high quality date and a normal date, but I’m neither a date connoisseur nor one with a sweet tooth so after a couple of samples, I told the store owner I was full and casually slipped out the store.
By now it was 1pm so we drove to the largest mall in Abu Dhabi for lunch which we thought was an interesting choice for a lunch stop. The driver told us that there wasn’t much nearby. At the mall, we noticed that other tour busses stopped there as well… so my only guess is that this must be where all the tourists go! Besides getting lunch, there was nothing about this mall that merited more of our time.
At 3pm, we arrived at Yas Racing School where the F1 Grand Prix takes place annually. This would be a cool stop for an avid car racing fan or for someone who wants an opportunity to drive a luxury sports car like the Aston Martin or the Mercedes AMG at top speeds around one of the most advanced tracks in the world. Alternatively you could also drive an Formula 1 race car. Cool stuff. As for Mr. T and I, unfortunately, we’d have had to pay our driver extra for the time we’d spend racing the track so we opted instead just to watch the others who were racing.
Our final stop was at Ferrari World. By then, we were pretty tired even though aside from the hour we spent at the Grand Mosque, we did minimal walking the rest of the day – like I said, the other attractions were ancillary to the mosque and not worth much time to visit. There must also be something about getting in and out of a car multiple times a day that does us in!
Ferrari World is the world’s largest indoor theme park (although, do you know of any other indoor theme parks? I can’t think of any.), has the world’s biggest Ferrari logo adorning its roof, and is shaped like a Ferrari from the outside. Opened in late 2010, it also houses the world’s fast roller coaster and as a result, attracts a ton of visitors. Being on a day trip, we didn’t have the time to go on any of the rides but we also aren’t huge theme park enthusiasts nor are we Ferrari enthusiasts so we didn’t feel like we missed out anything. If you’re actually staying in Abu Dhabi, though, you could easily make of a day at Ferrari World. We chose to check out the Ferrari Store (which they have in Las Vegas, as well) for 20 minutes and call it a day.
If you could sense it, there really isn’t a whole lot to Abu Dhabi besides the mosque, and given that everything we saw was really new and/or built in the last ten years, there probably wasn’t a scant reason to even go there more than ten years ago. I didn’t walk away super enlightened by the culture. Instead, I fear all the new construction (there’s still more ongoing) is wiping away any remnants of Emirate culture that existed. So, unless any of these sites really interest you, I’d recommend you to de-prioritize an Abu Dhabi day trip.