Abu Dhabi enjoys a reputation that’s very different from the “superstar” image of its glamorous neighbor Dubai. If you venture outside the city center, where most of the hotels in Abu Dhabi are, to areas like Al Ain, there’s plenty of heritage to explore — in the walls of old forts, a dusty camel market, and a facility that cares for falcons. If it’s heritage and culture you’re after, here’s a list to get you started. Presenting a guide to Abu Dhabi for the culture lover.
A Guide to Abu Dhabi for the Culture Lover
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Photo by Natasha Amar
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is deservedly one of the top sights in the country. Even from a distance, it’s difficult not to be awe-struck by the imposing white marble exterior that stands tall against the city sky. The shell of the main dome is the largest in the world. Reflective pools surround the building and provide some relief from the scorching sun.
Expect to be wowed by the details both outside and within, with amethyst adorned marble columns in the courtyard and an intricate floral mosaic on the floor. In the prayer hall, Austrian Swarovski crystal chandeliers catch the eye with their myriad colors. The carpet on the floor is the world’s largest and was handmade in Iran.
Visiting times: Saturday to Thursday between 9:00 am – 9:30 pm
Guided tours: Sunday to Thursday at 10:00 am, 11:00am and 5:00pm, with additional tours on Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm. Friday tours are 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm.
Al Ain Camel Market
Image by Travelturtle via Trover.com
Love of camels is an important part of local culture, deeply ingrained in the region’s history. It’s no surprise this love was handed down through the generations; the beasts helped the desert tribes survive the harsh conditions by providing them a means of transportation, milk, and meat.
For an experience that beats any other for authenticity, head to the camel market in Al Ain, the largest livestock market in the UAE. It has all the characteristics of an authentic market: loud dramatic negotiations, invitations by sellers to get up close and photograph newborns and race-bred camels, and wealthy buyers assessing the beasts from the comfort of their SUVs.
Tip: Expect to tip the owner if you do decide to shoot a camel portfolio!
Al Jahili Fort
Al Jahili Fort, one of the largest in the UAE, was built in 1898 and can be found in Al Ain, a short drive from Abu Dhabi city. The fort served as the summer residence of the ruler and helped him protect and unite the desert tribes of the region.
Built using mud brick, the interior of the fort provides a cooling effect, further enhanced by the cold water pipes inserted into the mud plaster walls during later renovations.
The two main buildings are a square fort and round watchtower. Don’t forget to spend time at the cultural center where you can learn about the region’s history and that of the Bedouin tribes who settled here. There is also an exhibition dedicated to the life and work of the great British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger who crossed the harsh desert region of Rub Al Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter in the 1940s. He had a warm friendship with the visionary leader, Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and was fondly called ‘Mubarak Bin London’ by locals.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
Photo by Bohemia.life via Trover.com
Just like camels, the majestic falcon also holds a special place in the heritage of the UAE and the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is a great place to learn about this aspect of culture. Though off the beaten path, this is an interesting activity that’s not just for the kids.
Take the Falcon World Tour to visit the falconry museum where you’ll see the tools used for falconry and watch as experts treat or repair the feathers of the birds. The aviary is a sight to behold, with falcons flying freely in the large area.
Tours: Sunday to Thursday, 10.00am and 2.00pm
Saturdays: 10.00am only
Visiting the UAE? Here’s a week’s UAE itinerary to help you plan.
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For general information to help you plan your trip to the UAE or Dubai in particular, including money-saving advice and recommendations for off-the-beaten-path day trips from Dubai, cool hotels, or popular places of interest such as the Dubai Miracle Garden and At The Top Burj Khalifa, check out my UAE Travel Blog.