With the arrival of hotly-anticipated Expo 2020, Abu Dhabi is gearing up to be one of this year’s must-visit destinations. Katie Wright finds out why.
Bringing together 192 countries for a six-month high-tech spectacle in a 1,000 acre site, Expo 2020 is going to be a big deal, to put it mildly.
While Dubai is the official host city, the Expo is located just an hour from Abu Dhabi, making the latter an ideal base from which to explore the multicultural event when it opens in October (expo2020dubai.com).
Held every five years, a World Expo is an international festival designed for countries to share ideas, innovations and eye-popping entertainment.
This year, the huge sprawl of 190 participating nation pavilions – from Algeria to Zimbabwe – will offer live performances, cultural experiences, local food flavours and a glimpse into the future with cutting-edge tech demonstrations.
With direct flights zipping over from the UK to Abu Dhabi in just seven hours, and the Expo taking place when the scorching heat of summer has subsided, it’s the perfect time to soak up some winter sun with no risk of debilitating jet lag (the time difference is only three hours).
Plus, there’s so much more to this Arabian gem, as I discover when I venture to the largest of the seven emirates.
Size matters, it seems, in Abu Dhabi, because everywhere I go, I encounter buildings so vast they cause my jaw to literally drop – and it’s not just the shiny skyscrapers that line the city centre’s Corniche Road.
The first time it happens is when I enter the main courtyard of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (szgmc.gov.ae), a gleaming expanse of white marble, topped with four minarets and 82 gold domes, that can accommodate some 50,000 worshippers at a time.
On days when the Grand Mosque isn’t populated with Muslims at prayer, it’s free for visitors, but you must be appropriately attired in long-sleeved clothing and, for women, a headscarf (‘abaya’ dresses and head scarves are provided on entry).
Despite its size – and popularity with tourists – the site remains a whisper-quiet haven of calm. The silence is broken only by the call to prayer, a melodic recitation broadcast five times a day over loudspeakers.
Inside, I’m surprised to find the pale marble makes way for a colourful, intricately patterned carpet, stretching as far as the eye can see, and a series of humongous crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
It turns out I’m looking at two of the mosque’s three record-breaking features: the world’s biggest chandelier and the largest handwoven carpet (the third is the largest dome of its kind).
Rivalling the Grand Mosque for gasp-inducing architecture is the Great Hall of Qasr Al Watan Palace (£12 for an adult ticket; qasralwatan.ae), a cavernous room you access through a door big enough to fit an elephant.
A working presidential palace that opened just two years ago, it has the kind of ornate white, gold and blue marble decor that gives the appearance it’s been around for much longer.
When I visit, preparations are underway for the arrival of Vladimir Putin, with TV cameras positioned at the end of red carpets rolled out ready to welcome the Russian president.
Just when I think the architecture can’t get any grander, I find myself gazing up in wonder at the ceiling of the Louvre Abu Dhabi (around £12 for an adult ticket; louvreabudhabi.ae), the sister museum of the iconic Paris institution.
Above the whitewashed walls of the gallery, a huge domed roof appears to float in mid-air.
Constructed from interlocking star shapes and weighing the same as the Eiffel Tower (whether that’s intentional or by chance is unclear), it lets only occasional rays of light shine through, creating a delicate dappled effect on the ground.
I could sit for hours in the shade, watching the rippling water, but there’s more to see inside.
The Louvre’s permanent collection of art and antiquities is set out in chronological order, starting with crude bowls and blades from the earliest human settlements and progressing to magnificent sculptures and intricate modern artworks.
It’s safe to say culture vultures will be content in Abu Dhabi, but a holiday here isn’t all about strolling sedately around museums and mosques.
Later that night, under a glorious hazy sunset that turns the sky lavender, I experience a serious adrenaline rush as I zoom around Yas Marina Formula 1 track by bike.
Home to the annual Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December, the circuit is open on Tuesday and Sunday nights during the rest of the year for members of the public to cycle, run or walk round the floodlit 5.5 km track for free (yasmarinacircuit.com).
Bikes are provided (either road bikes or racers) and there’s no pressure to peg it round at Lewis Hamilton speeds – unless you want to.
After a couple of swift laps I’m ready for a pitstop of my own, so I head back to my hotel and the appropriately named Hamilton’s Gastropub (mains from £14; rotana.com) to refuel with a selection of hearty culinary classics, like mac and cheese, juicy burgers and spicy sausages you can order by the metre (yes, really).
Hamilton’s is one of four main restaurants at Saadiyat Rotana, a stunning resort perched on the Persian Gulf that boasts sleek modern decor and its own private beach.
Like all the best hotels, it’s the little touches that make up the exceptional service here, such as the pre-packed coolers filled with ice and bottled water that you grab from the poolside bar before flopping down on a sunlounger.
After my exertions on the F1 track, I round off my night with a couple of refreshing pisco sours at the resort’s Nasma Beachfront Bar. But I don’t linger too long, because I’m up early the next morning for my final activity: kayaking through Eastern Mangrove National Park (£34 per person; sea-hawk.ae).
Taking the back seat in a two-person kayak, I paddle at a leisurely pace through the quiet, winding waterways of the grey mangroves, stopping half-way to take a dip in the warm water and laze on the sandy shore.
It’s a relaxing end to an incredible trip.
Before visiting Abu Dhabi, I thought it was nothing more than a collection of concrete skyscrapers in the middle of a desert. But this diverse and dynamic emirate has so much more going for it, and in 2020, that message will be broadcast to the rest of the world.
How to plan your trip
Doubles at the five-star Saadiyat Rotana Resort & Villas (rotana.com) start from 800 AED/£171 per night B&B (two sharing).
A return economy class fare departing from London to Abu Dhabi starts from £470pp and £2,096pp in business class.
Etihad Airways (etihad.com; 0345 608 1225) is the national carrier of the UAE and offers three daily flights between London Heathrow and Abu Dhabi. Flights also operate from Manchester and Dublin to Abu Dhabi.
For further information about Abu Dhabi, go to visitabudhabi.ae