Monday, February 5, 2018


Abu Dhabi has changed a lot since my last visit in 2009.

"Really, Captain Obvious?", you might ask. But with recent infrastructure developments complete, and more in the works, Abu Dhabi is finally flexing its tourism muscles. The emirate's tourism masterplan - which for so long promised so much - is taking shape, making the city and the emirate's regions a seriously good, anything-but-average stopover option if you're travelling through this neck of the woods.

For years, the jewel in Abu Dhabi's crown was the remarkable Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque - an astonishing expression of faith, a welcoming place of worship and, in 2016, TripAdvisor's second-most popular world landmark behind only Angkor Wat. For many still, it's worth a visit to Abu Dhabi just to spend time here.

In late 2009, just days before the inaugural Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix, I did a lap of the sparkling, new Yas Marina Circuit. Before you get too excited, but I was seated beside a very sensible driver in a tame, domestic ride. Even still, cruising this purpose-built Formula 1 track at a suburban clip, past the grandstands and marina that would soon berth gazillion-dollar playthings, and beneath the Yas Viceroy Hotel that straddles the tarmac, was a a 'pinch me' moment. The circuit and adjacent Ferrari World (the world's largest indoor theme park) along with the Grand Mosque were Abu Dhabi's big three attractions, and that's the way it seemed to stay for years.

With the November 2017 opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island, however, everything has changed.

Louvre Abu Dhabi is, quite frankly, astonishing. A million miles of cutlural sophistication from the thrill rides of Ferrari World, this is the first major play in Abu Dhabi's push to become a cultural destination of global significance. The museum and its enormous, low steel dome - 180 metres in diameter - seem to float both on land and water. Weighing nearly as much as the Eiffel Tower, the dome is comprised of eight layers, each with angular geometries that overlap and create a "rain of light" envisioned by the project's architect, Jean Nouvel. This remarkable feat of design and engineering shelters many of the museum's 55 buildings housing 23 galleries, one temporary exhibition space, a 1,200-seater auditorium, and a two-storey children’s museum.

Construction of Louvre Abu Dhabi is estimated to have cost more than 600 million Euros, which might make you think that tickets would be equally steep. But at just 60 dirham - about AU$20 - for adults (13-22 years-AED 30; children under 13 are free), the 10,000 year journey from the birth of civilisations and religions, past Da Vinci, Monet and modern masters in the museum's galleries is amazing value.

In time, Louvre Abu Dhabi will be joined at its Saadiyat Island home by some significant neighbours. Up next are the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and
Foster + Partners’ Zayed National Museum - institutions that will create a cultural precinct with as much clout as any on the planet.

Abu Dhabi city and the attractions and beaches of both Saadiyat and Yas islands are all now connected seamlessly by freeways and bridges. These touristic hot-spots now sparkle like jewels on a necklace that encircles the city. And with taxis cheap, clean, metered, air-conditioned, reliable and plentiful, getting around is a snap.

Come for the Louvre and the Grand Mosque. Stay longer for the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, desert safaris, island resorts, beach clubs, shopping malls, fine dining and the gorgeous urban beachfront of the Corniche. Farther afield you'll find inland oasis cities, and mind-blowing expanses of sculpted desert that is somehow simultaneously solid and liquid, alluring and hostile - it's a heady mix.

Fast Facts
  • Abu Dhabi is the largest of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
  • It's also the capital of the UAE.
  • The emirate of Abu Dhabi is home to more than 200 natural islands, and borders Oman, Saudi Arabia and the sparkling waters of the Arabian Gulf.
  • Abu Dhabi city sits on an island connected by bridges to the mainland, just 30-minutes from Abu Dhabi International Airport, and 90-minutes from downtown Dubai.

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