There are many ways to explore a city. For some people, it's all about the architecture; for others, the food is what matters. It won't come as any great surprise to discover that here on the Arts & Culture desk at The National, we believe a city is defined by its cultural institutions. Museums and historic sites illuminate the past; contemporary art galleries and popular night spots capture the current mood of a place and hint at what might happen next.
The cultural landscape in Abu Dhabi is evolving at a remarkable rate. Louvre Abu Dhabi opened in 2017, Qasr Al Hosn welcomed visitors for the first time in a decade last year, and major new projects, including Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum, are expected in the next few years. It is as exciting a time as ever to visit the UAE's capital city.
With that in mind, we have selected some of the cultural highlights to ensure that your trip to Abu Dhabi is as satisfying and inspiring as possible.
Qasr Al Watan
This is the hottest ticket in town. After years of watching the palatial district painstakingly built at the edge of the Corniche, Abu Dhabi residents now have a new cultural hotspot to call their own.
Qasr Al Watan is home to the formal offices of the UAE's President and Vice President and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. The public can now visit its surrounding grounds and savour the exquisite Arabian architectural craftsmanship and artworks. Book-lovers and history buffs should enjoy the Qasr Al Watan Library, which has a large array of tomes focusing on the growth of the UAE and its institutions.
A night-time visit holds its own pleasures – a light and sound show will run that's designed around a three-part theme of past, present and future of the UAE. Up to five dining options, from cafes to finer spots, are available, in addition to ample free parking. It's important to note that the dress code is smart-casual. That means long trousers for males and long sleeve shirts and long skirts or trousers for females. For more details, read this detailed guide to Qasr Al Watan.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, this extraordinary building is home to one of the finest collections of art anywhere in the world. The ever-growing permanent collection, which currently consists of more than 600 objects, tells the story of humanity in an unusual and stimulating way. The artworks are not grouped, as is the norm, according to religion or region; instead, they are all displayed together under headings such as "Civilisations and Empires" or "Universal Religions". The idea is to promote the message that we are all bound by shared values.
Highlights from the permanent collection include a vast sculpture of Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, Giovanni Bellini's Madonna and Child (1480-85), as well as 20th-century masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
Keep an eye out on the temporary exhibitions, too, which have so far been spectacular.
Qasr Al Hosn
After a decade of renovation, Abu Dhabi’s oldest heritage site, parts of which date back to the 1760s, re-opened last year and has quickly established itself as one of the must-see destinations for visitors to the city.
Qasr Al Hosn is made up of an Inner Fort – or 'Hosn' – that was built with coral and sea stone by Sheikh Shakhbut bin Dhiyab in 1795 and an Outer Palace – or 'Qasr' – added by Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 1939. It now functions as a museum celebrating Emirati culture and history. Here, in the heart of this ever-changing city, is a physical timeline of the story of Abu Dhabi. At 9am every morning, you can watch the opening ceremony by the Al Hosn police force, established in 1957.
The adjacent Cultural Foundation hosts a variety of exhibitions and theatre events.
This trendy cultural destination in Abu Dhabi’s port area of Mina Zayed regularly hosts contemporary art exhibitions, film screenings and workshops. It’s a great place to hang out at and meet like-minded people.
Sheikh Zayed Founder’s Memorial
This peaceful spot on the Corniche features a Sanctuary Garden with a traditional "falaj" or water channel, as well as a variety of desert plants. Make sure you visit after sunset, though, in order to appreciate The Constellation, a three-dimensional portrait of Sheikh Zayed made up of 1,327 suspended geometric shapes that light up in the dark. It's a beautiful place.
The attraction also includes a visitors' centre that celebrates the life of Sheikh Zayed, which is open to the public from 9am to 10pm daily.
Manarat Al Saadiyat
This vast cultural centre is an oasis of calm, where you can take part in workshops, watch films, browse the three art galleries, play a game of chess or simply sit on the terrace outside the excellent restaurant, L'Arte, and soak up the atmosphere on the stunning Saadiyat Island.