Whilst flying out to Australia, where I am spending my year abroad, I was fortunate enough to take advantage of a 21-hour layover in Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. The city must be one of the most well-equipped for a long stopover, with a Premier Inn a three-minute walk from the arrivals desk through an air conditioned corridor, meaning a 2:30am landing time wasn’t too much of a hindrance. Once refreshed after sleep, there is a reasonable amount to do around the city. If you do choose to stay in the airport hotel then there is a free shuttle bus service provided, which will take you to all of the major tourist attractions (though won’t bring you back) and, also, provide you with a free bottle of water.
I took advantage of this service in order to get to the Corniche, a sweeping walkway and cycle along a beach (which I couldn’t take advantage of as my swim shorts were in transit baggage). Head down it one way and you can go across to the Al Marina peninsula and visit the Marina Mall, one of the many shopping centres that are dotted around the city. I chose to go the other way, walking up toward the city centre along the beach. The skyline is pretty spectacular, with monoliths of glass and steel rising up out of the desert wasteland. It took about half an hour of walking to get into the city, by which time I was exhausted. The 40 degree heat had definitely hit me hard (friendly advice: don’t try to go walking if all you’ve had to eat and drink that morning is a croissant and cup of coffee) and it became obvious fairly quickly that no locals walk anywhere in the city, the majority of people on the pavements being westerners like myself, too foolish to just take a taxi.
Eventually, I abandoned the frying pan sidewalks for one of the cities abundant and affordable taxis, heading to the Abu Dhabi Mall; which was large, and had shops in it (I don’t really do shopping malls). After this, I got another taxi to visit what is probably Abu Dhabi’s main attraction – The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – just outside the city centre. Completed in 2007, it is large enough to hold 40,000 worshippers, mostly in the enormous courtyard; which sits at the centre of the complex. Having been informed by my hotel receptionist that the shorts I was wearing would be acceptable at the temple, I was informed by the guards that they weren’t, thus I was sent to obtain a traditional Arabic Kandora, which you pick up in the underground car park (for some reason) in exchange for a deposit of ID. If you wish to avoid this as a man, then you need to be wearing shorts that come to well below the knee. For women, you must have your head, arms and legs entirely covered (again, you can get a traditional robe at the temple).
The Mosque itself is stunning, with the entirely white façade being particularly eye-catching. The marble courtyard is vast and impressive, though disappointingly a no-go area for tourists; as it is only used for prayer. I didn’t manage to get on a guided tour, but the security guards dotted around the complex were very helpful both in guiding you around and answering any questions. Overall, it takes between 30 minutes to an hour to visit the Mosque and with admission being free it is obviously well worth a visit, especially if you have a layover (5 plus hours) this would be what I recommend doing with your time.
After the Mosque came another taxi ride to Yas Island, famous for hosting the annual Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix around the Marina circuit. On Tuesdays, they allow you to hire a bike and cycle the track for free; but on all other days the main attraction is the Ferrari World centre attached to the Yas Mall. However, your intrepid reviewer baulked at the £55 ticket; so, my visit didn’t extend past a wander around the gift shop and then killing time in the immense mall before returning to the hotel for my next flight.
Overall, Abu Dhabi was well worth the day trip. If I’d had longer, I could have visited the water park on Yas Island or the viewing platform at Etihad tower. However, my overwhelming memory of the place will be that it somehow lacked authenticity. Aside from the visit to the Mosque I may as well have been in London or New York, you are ferried from one destination to the next in your air conditioned taxi bubble, visiting shopping centres filled with western clothes stores and western or Asian food outlets, before retreating to your western-style hotel to hide from the heat by the pool. There is no sense of history or tradition in the city or on Yas Island; which leaves one feeling a little empty. But, for a day, it kept me entertained and the Mosque visit alone was worth the extra time on the stopover.
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