12 Abu Dhabi cultural attractions not to miss

There has been a significant shift in Abu Dhabi tourism in recent years to focus on the city’s cultural attractions. 

Abu Dhabi Cultural Attractions - Sheikh Zayed Mosque lit up at night

Whilst we love the family entertainment offering in Abu Dhabi from the Yas Island theme parks to the beautiful beaches and parks, these cultural attractions should be a must on every visitor’s itinerary for Abu Dhabi.

Most of these attractions can be easily accessed staying in central Abu Dhabi, by taxi or as stops accessible on the Abu Dhabi Big Bus Hop-on-hop-off service.

We will also share with you further attractions you can add on a day trip to the second largest city Al Ain, and cultural festivals visitors can get involved within the Emirate of Abu Dhabi throughout the year.

1. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The unmissable first attraction on most visitors lists, and with good reason.  The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is not just a stunning landmark but an active house of worship, open to all religions to admire and reflect.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque reflective view over Wahat al Karama

There is a minimum dress standard expected but this only adds to the experience. It is free to enter the mosque and free to hire appropriate attire and join a guided tour. 

Few places in the world offer such an amazing experience, open to all.

Learn more about visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque here

Find more free & really cheap experiences to enjoy in Abu Dhabi here

2. The Louvre Abu Dhabi

Although not directly Emirati or Bedioun culture, The Louvre Museum Abu Dhabi is an unmissable part of the UAE’s modern culture, reflective of blending so many different cultures and traditions.

Inside the Louvre Abu Dhabi

The Louvre Museum’s main galleries take you on a journey through humanity, from early civilisations and communications through to the modern era of art, seamlessly blending between East and West. 

The building itself is an architectural masterpiece, proudly standing as the cornerstone to the new Saadiyat Island cultural district.

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Learn more about visiting the Louvre Abu Dhabi here

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3. Qasr al Qatan – the Presidential Palace

Part of the new Presidential Palace complex, Qasr al Watan is one of the most beautiful examples of modern Islamic architecture.

Qasr Al Watan
A glimpse inside Qasr Al Watan

Whilst you cannot visit the working parts of the Palace, visitors are invited to explore the public areas of Qasr Al Watan, enjoy daily guided tours, explore the expansive gardens, the Great Hall, library and an evening sound and light show at 7.45pm.

You can learn more about visiting Qasr Al Watan here

4. The Founders Memorial

Launched during the Year of Zayed – the 100-year anniversary of the country’s founding father HH Sheikh Zayed – the Founders Memorial is a stunning sculptural display, set at the end of the Corniche on the corner of Emirates Palace before you cross to the marina. 

Open day and night but is most impressive to see at sunset when the 1327 dangling geometric shapes become illuminated by 2000 lights to form a 3D image of HH Sheikh Zayed.

Free tours can be arranged of around 30 minutes in Arabic and English.

Learn more at www.thefoundersmemorial.ae

5. Wahat al Karama

Situated opposite the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a memorial and Pavillion of Honour were opened in 2016 to immortalise the sacrifices made by UAE nationals in active service for their country.

Wahat al Karama
Wahat al Karama memorial

Translated to English, the “Oasis of Dignity”  is made of 31 aluminium-clad tablets that lean on one another in support, and inscribed with poems and quotations.  This is an incredibly sad yet important chapter in the UAE’s modern history, a country rarely involved in conflict.

Learn more at www.abudhabiculture.ae and a detailed description of how to combine with a trip to the Grand Mosque

6. Qasr al Hosn

The oldest standing building in Abu Dhabi, built in the 1790s, the stone fort was originally constructed to overlook the coastal trade routes and protect the growing island settlement.

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Recently reopened after extensive renovation work, Qasr al Hosn is now the city’s centrepiece of culture and learning.

As well as a history museum, it is also home to the Cultural Foundation and the city’s new Abu Dhabi Children’s Library. There is a daily program of cultural events and special events held on the grounds throughout the year.

Learn more at www.qasralhosn.ae

7. UAE Heritage Village

Based on Abu Dhabi’s corniche breakwater with stunning views back to the ultra-modern Abu Dhabi corniche skyline.

Old dhows at Emirates Heritage Village

The Heritage Village is run by the Emirates Heritage Club, giving you a taster of traditional bedouin housing, an old-style souk, artisans producing handicrafts including pottery and weaving.

On occasion, they also have falconry displays and craftsmen demonstrations. Entry is completely free.

Learn more at www.visitabudhbai.com

8. The Falcon Hospital

This humble building on the cities outskirts offers a fascinating insight into Emirati culture and the importance of falconry.

A 2-hour guided tour of the facilities in Sweihan will guide you through the historic importance of falconry to the Bedouin people through to the hospital itself where these majestic birds are cared for and you have the opportunity of up-close encounters.

It comes with a heftier price tag than some of the other attractions listed here, but in our own experience, it was worth every dirham. A really in-depth tour is provided with narrative, a chance to see the Falcons up close, even see an operation take place. Pre-booking essential.

Learn more about Falcon Hospital tours here

Al Ain Cultural Attractions

The next four cultural attractions are based in Al Ain, the Oasis city that sits 160kms south of Abu Dhabi city centre.  It is also known as the cultural capital of the UAE, home to the country’s founding father and steeped in history.

You can read more about all the activities and attractions to enjoy Al Ain here.

9. Al Ain Palace Museum

The historic royal residence of the UAE’s founding father HH Sheikh Zayed. This beautifully restored homestead in Al Ain is a vast contrast to the modern-day Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi city.

In the grounds of Al Ain Palace Museum
In the grounds of Al Ain Palace Museum

The palace was his primary family home until 1966 and has been restored and turned into a museum of the Al Nahyan families history, delving into HH Sheikh Zayed’s personal and political life. It gives you a good taste of what life was like in the UAE before the discovery of oil.

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Learn more www.visitabudhabi.ae

9. Qasr al Muwaiji

Also situated in Al Ain, this much more modern museum complex sits on the grounds of the original birthplace of the country’s president HH Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed al Nayhan.

Explore the historic buildings, listen to oral narratives and follow the significant achievements of HH Sheikh Khalifa’s life.

Learn more at www.qasralmuwaiji.ae

11. Al Ain Oasis

The 3000-acre oasis can be found in the centre of Al Ain.  Home to over 147,000 palm trees, the oasis was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011, along with six other smaller oases across the city.

Almost compulsory for everyone who lives in the UAE to understand the way of life. Explore the 3000-year-old falaj irrigation system – a grid of waterways for channelling fresh clean water from off the mountains and into the oasis. You will also find the miniature oasis which is an interactive display breaking down the workings of the oasis.

Learn more at www.abudhabiculture.ae

12. The Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre

Situated inside the Al Ain Zoo, this is definitely one of the country’s best learning resources for culture, heritage and natural history – and completely deserving of more attention, arguably where we’d recommend all visitors to the UAE start their learning journey!

Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre Al Ain Zoo

There are five interactive galleries spread over multiple levels that take you on a journey from the desert past, local geology and neolithic period life, all the way through to the country’s present and future along with sustainability education and initiatives.

Learn more at www.alainzoo.ae

Check out all the best accommodation options for families in Al Ain.

More Cultural Events in Abu Dhabi

As well as these permanent cultural landmarks, other seasonal events to consider working into your travel plans to Abu Dhabi:

How to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

The Al Dhafra Festival

If you are living in the UAE, or are visiting during December then attending the Al Dhafra festival in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi is a must.

A beginners guide to attending the Al Dhafra Festival
Judging taking place at the camel Mazayna at the Al Dhafra Festival, Abu Dhabi’s Western Region

Established in 2007 the festival was established to educate younger generations about their country’s indigenous heritage, traditions and culture. Events range from the ever-popular camel beauty contest through to date packing, camel milking, Saluki racing and falconry.

Information on the event’s program, in English at least, has been scant in the past but is improving.  It’s one of those events you should simply turn up to and absorb the atmosphere, situated in Madinat Zayed Park, approximately 2 hours from Abu Dhabi city.

Learn more about how to attend the Al Dhafra Festival and make the most as a foreign visitor here

Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival

A great new addition to the UAE culture calendar, this annual event is held in a purpose-built centre for culture in Al Watha, just outside of Abu Dhabi city. It showcases local foods, dance and traditional events while taking visitors on a journey from ancient times to a prosperous society.

We are awaiting confirmation of 2020 event details – we understand the event is due to be held 29 November 2019 until 1 February 2020. $pm to 1-pm Daily.

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