There has been a significant shift in Abu Dhabi tourism in recent years to focus on the city’s cultural attractions.
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 with in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi throughout the year.
1. The Shiekh 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Children’s Library. There is a daily program of cultural events and special events held on the grounds throughout the year.
7. UAE Heritage Village
Based on Abu Dhabi’s corniche breakwater with stunning views back to the ultra-modern Abu Dhabi corniche skyline.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 seven other smaller oasis 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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
We are awaiting confirmation of 2020 event dates, we expect from late December 2019 into January 2020.
Want to learn more about visiting Abu Dhabi and the UAE – don’t miss these guides
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- 40+ Things to do for FREE or really cheap in Abu Dhabi
- The UAE’s top Eco-Tourism attractions
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- Complete guide to Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island Theme Parks
- Family Guide to the UAE