Top 10 Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage Attractions

The unique culture and heritage of Abu Dhabi is showcased at numerous landmarks across the emirate. Explore one of the UAE capital’s ancient forts and archaeological parks to relive history, or visit the local museums and religious sites to learn more about Arabian customs and traditions. With so many options, choosing where to start can be a challenge.To get the most from your holiday or stopover in Abu Dhabi, read our suggestions on the emirate’s top 10 culture and heritage attractions.

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Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

A trip to the world-renowned Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is highly-recommended during a visit to Abu Dhabi. The impressive monument is located on a 22,412 square metre site (the equivalent of five football fields) and has enough capacity for 40,960 worshippers. Leading artisans from around the world were involved in the mosque’s design and construction, with a major focus on materials such as ceramics, marble, gold, semi-precious stones and crystals for their long-lasting qualities. Once inside the mosque, keep an eye out for the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet, which was completed by 1,300 Iranian artisans and can be found in the main prayer hall, where one of the world’s largest chandeliers has also been placed, weighing a staggering nine tonnes. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is open daily to visitors, except on Friday mornings, which is only for worshippers. General admission is free and complimentary guided tours are available for individuals and groups with a maximum of ten people.

Abu Dhabi Heritage Village

Abu Dhabi Heritage Village

A traditional oasis village has been reconstructed at Abu Dhabi Heritage Village, offering a unique opportunity to step back in time and experience the UAE capital’s past. The landmark attraction, which is run by Emirates Heritage Club, can be found on a 1,600 square metre site overlooking Abu Dhabi Corniche, in close proximity to Marina Mall. It includes an open museum with examples of desert campfires, old-fashioned tents made from goat hair, sea houses made from palm tree fronds, traditional water wells, and the ‘falaj’ irrigation system. Demonstrations are often held at the village too, with skilled craftsmen focusing on pottery and metal work, while women use their netting and weaving skills to make woollen socks, carpets and trays. In addition, there are opportunities to shop around for handmade soap and dried herbs at the village store, and if you’re really lucky, falconry displays might also take place during your visit.

Al Ain Palace Museum

Al Ain Palace Museum

HH the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the UAE, resided at Al Ain Palace (Qasr al-Ain) from 1937, when the building was constructed, until 1966. During the late 1990s, it was decided to convert the private dwelling into a museum, with the restoration of family rooms, administration facilities, a schoolroom and other areas to their original form. In addition, replicas were introduced of Sheikh Zayed’s Land Rover, used to visit tribes in the desert, and his courtyard tent, where guests were treated to coffee, meals and poetry recitals. During the restoration, a couple of towers were added to each side of the main entrance, designed to resemble the multi-storeyed tower of Al Jahili Fort, while portraits and other material about the ruling family were placed on display. The museum, located in the south-eastern section of Al Ain City, has been acclaimed for showcasing everyday life in a ruler’s fort with free entrance to visitors.

Al Maqtaa Fort

Al Maqtaa Fort

Despite the rapid transformation of Abu Dhabi into a modern, world-class metropolis, there are a number of important monuments in the UAE capital that showcase its rich cultural history. Al Maqtaa Fort, for example, was initially developed to protect the local area from invading bandits over 200 years ago. Located in the shallow waters that connect Abu Dhabi Island to the mainland, the simplistic design of Al Maqtaa Fortoffers a remarkable contrast to the modern splendour of Al Maqtaa Bridge, with both attractions located side-by-side. Following a series of renovations, the well-preserved landmark now includes a visitor information centre operated by Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, where historical insights are provided about the local area. Although tourists are normally eager to have their photos taken at the fort, it’s important to note that the location also serves as a military zone and caution should therefore be exercised.

Al Hili Archaeological Park

Important historical remains were discovered in the remote village of Al Hili, around 12km north of Al Ain City, following more than 50 years of excavation work. The discoveries were unravelled on a 10-hectare settlement with circular towers, mud-brick houses and a ‘falaj’ underground water system, offering a remarkable insight into farming habits, technical developments and trade activities during the Umm Al Nar period (2700-2000 BC). Archaeologists also found a collection of tombs used for collective burials at the site, the largest of which (known as the Great Hili Tomb) measures 8 metres in diameter and 2.5 metres in height. Although some of the remains are safeguarded in a protected area, sections have been made accessible at Al Hili Archaeological Park, offering tourists and residents an unforgettable journey into the Bronze Age. In addition, the park is a popular location for family picnics, with beautiful landscaped gardens, water fountains and a small children’s play area.

Sheikh Zayed Centre

Sheikh Zayed Centre

Known as the ‘Father of the Nation’, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is a much-loved figure in the UAE. To celebrate his extraordinary life, the Sheikh Zayed Centre was opened back in 2009, with a prime location in Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen district. The centre, which has a traditional ‘Emirati village’ design, contains an exclusive gallery with over 200 photos of Sheikh Zayed relaxing with his family, meeting various dignitaries from around the world, and even performing Hajj in Mecca. Personal memorabilia are also displayed, such as Sheikh Zayed’s favourite hunting rifles and daggers, together with some of the cherished gifts that he received from well-wishers over the years, including stuffed lions and cheetahs. What’s more, visitors can have their photos taken with Sheikh Zayed’s blue Mercedes, white BMW and purple Maybach, which were often driven without a bodyguard. Please note, guided tours are available in English and Arabic, although visitors are advised to book at least a week in advance.

Al Jahili Fort

Al Jahili Fort

One of the largest and most impressive forts in the country, Al Jahili is located in the stunning ‘garden city’ of Al Ain, around one-and-a-half hours from Abu Dhabi. It was built in the late 1890s by Sheikh Zayed The First to serve as a defence stronghold, as well as a royal summer residence, with the cooler temperatures of Al Ain offering a welcome escape from the midsummer heat of Abu Dhabi. Following an extensive renovation in 2007-2008, the fort has emerged as a major tourist attraction, with most of the rooms and towers open to the public. It also includes a visitor information centre, retail outlet, café, and permanent exhibition about Wilfred Thesiger, who twice crossed the Empty Quarter (considered one of the world’s largest sand deserts) in the 1940s. Also known as Mubarak bin London, the noted British travel writer and explorer was a lifelong friend of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

Al Ain Heritage and Culture Village

To learn more about local culture and traditions in the UAE, head over to the Heritage and Culture Village in the ‘garden city’ of Al Ain. The attraction, which measures around 66,000 square metres, has been divided into a number of different themes, each of which has its own dedicated section. The maritime section, for example, focuses on the country’s historical relationship with fishing and pearl diving, while an old-fashionedneighbourhood has been recreated in the town section, complete with narrow alleys and mud houses. Other themes include the agriculture section, with its showcase of farming environments, and the mountain section, where visitors can explore common landscapes found in Al Ain and the Northern Emirates. Al Ain Heritage and Culture Village, which is located in Al Ain Sportplex, also includes a museum, indoor and outdoor theatres, a traditional market (‘souk’), and a classic cars exhibition.

Khalifa Park Maritime Museum

Khalifa Park Maritime Museum

If you’re looking for a fun-filled way to learn about the UAE’s past, head over to the Maritime Museum at Khalifa Park. Children (and the young at heart) will love the Time Tunnel educational ride, where visitors embark on a 20-minute ride that showcases the country’s history. After being strapped in a pod-like car, your experience commences with a look at the pre-union days, as human waxworks weave clothes, prepare meals and interact with each other. You might even spot some camel waxworks resting near the sand dunes and between the trees. As the rail journey continues, there’s a nostalgic overview of the local pearl industry, during its peak and demise, followed by the creation of a flourishing oil industry and other recent developments. The importance of retaining age-old values and traditions are also highlighted while looking into the UAE’s future. Expert commentary is available throughout the ride in English or Arabic and there’s even a chance to view an impressive aquarium with local species of fish.

Sougha – Handmade Handicraft

Sougha – Handmade Handicraft

In partnership with Etihad Airways, Sougha has been launched by the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development to preserve the ancient and much-cherished tradition of Emirati handicraft. Each of the unique products available through Sougha has been skilfully handmade by dedicated craftswomen in Abu Dhabi, the Western Region and Northern Emirates using techniques perfected over the generations. With the word ‘sougha’ actually translating to ‘souvenir’ in English, why not treat yourself or a loved one to something special, from exquisite handbags, purses and pouches to eye-catching bracelets, key chains and pillows? Sougha products are available on Etihad Airways flights or the Etihad shops at Marina Mall and Madinat Zayed Mall in Abu Dhabi. In addition, they can be purchased at the Sougha kiosk in Abu Dhabi’s Central Market Souk, MORE cafés in Dubai, and Sougha booths at selected exhibitions. View this video, filmed at the Etihad Airways headquarters in Abu Dhabi, to learn more about Sougha.