Beyond the Tourist Trail: 8 Things to Do in Abu Dhabi

Qasr al Hosn fort

As far as things to do in Abu Dhabi go, there is loads to do and yet the same old things keep coming up – you know the drill – Ferrari World, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, walk along the Corniche and so on. And whilst those are all great things to do, I want to highlight some of the equally amazing but lesser well-known things to do in the city, so here’s another 8 things to do in Abu Dhabi that are a bit beyond the usual tourist trail suspects:

1. Qasr Al Hosn Exhibition

This should be one of the number one things to do in the city that everyone – tourists and residents alike – make sure they do while they’re in the city. Whilst the whole area only opens to the public once a year for the Qasr Al Hosn Festival each February, there is a lesser known permanent exhibition on the site that is open daily (except for public holidays).

Qasr al Hosn fort
Qasr al Hosn fort

WHY VISIT?
Qasr Al Hosn is the symbolic birthplace of Abu Dhabi and is home to the oldest stone building in Abu Dhabi. Qasr Al Hosn means ‘Old Fort’ and was originally built as a watchtower to defend the freshwater well on the Island in 1761. In 1793 the tower was expanded to a small fort by the ruler at the time and then became the permanent residence of the ruling Sheikh. The nearby grounds are also home to the National Council Chamber, built in 1968 with the vision that the unification of the Trucial States would happen there.

Qasr al Hosn fort entrance
Qasr al Hosn fort entrance

The exhibition tells the story of the city and its progress from the one freshwater well Island it was, to where it is today.
The exhibition is open daily from 9am to 8pm, or during Ramadan from 9am to 2pm and 8.30pm to 11.30pm. The entrance to the exhibition can be found at Qasr Al Hosn itself on the Khalidiya side. There is also a small amount of parking – it looks closed, but for visitors to the exhibition security will let you through.

2. Al Maqta Fort and Watchtower

As a visitor or a resident you’ve probably driven past these many a time as you zip over the Maqta Bridge en route both on and off ‘The Island’ and never thought too much about them. The buildings are both over 200 years old and have both been restored. The Al Maqta Fort used to house a tourist information office but sadly this has long since closed.

Al Maqta Fort Arabian Notes 2016
Al Maqta Fort

Aside from a quick peek as you zoom over the bridge, both buildings are well worth a stop from a historical point of view – such significant historical buildings seem worthy of this at least.

Al Maqta Watchtower Arabian Notes 2016
Al Maqta Watchtower

And if you’ve read Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, this is the watchtower in Abu Dhabi you’ll be familiar with from many of his images.
You can get to the Fort by taking the last right hand turn before you go over the Maqta Bridge when travelling in the direction of the Corniche. Travelling in the other direction take the exit for the Shangri-La and Fairmont Hotels then turn right at the immediate first roundabout and follow the road round under the bridge.

3. Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey

We all know that Abu Dhabi was built on the culture of fishing and pearling. Spend some time learning about this part of the culture on a traditional Jalboot and how crews survived out on the Gulf for extended periods of up to four months at a time! Learn how to open an oyster yourself and even find your own pearl to take home.

abu-dhabi-pearl-journey-0019
Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey

Each tour is around 60-90 minutes long and costs Dhs500 including your own pearl to keep (kids under three go free). The tours depart from the Eastern Mangroves Marina.

4. Camel Racing

This one is pretty well-known, but notoriously difficult to get accurate information on. The season runs from October to February in the cooler months and starts early in the mornings. The race track is at Al Wathba Camel Race Track outside of Abu Dhabi city on the road to Al Ain and entrance is free. Visit Abu Dhabi keeps an updated link to the season schedule (but still no times available!) on their website here.Camel racing

5. Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital

There are plenty of places and events locally where you can get up close with Falcons, but if you really want to know more about the birds, see them in flight and learn about the amazing work the hospital carries out, then the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is not to be missed.
You can find the hospital out near the airport on the Sweihan Road. All tours must be booked in advance – contact the centre directly for information and booking: www.falconhospital.com.

6. Women’s Handicraft Centre

To find out more about the traditional handicrafts of the Emirates and see them in action, check out the Women’s Handicraft Centre. Weaving, basket making, embroidery are just a few of the skills represented and you also can find handmade souvenirs amounts other things.
Open from Sunday to Thursday from 9am to 3pm, the Women’s Handicraft Centre is located in the Women’s Association Complex in Mushrif, near the Royal Stables. For more information call 02 447 6645.

7. Manarat Al Saadiyat

Well known to the residents of the city, Manarat Al Saadiyat is also well worth a look if you’re looking for some culture on your holiday. As well as hosting regular local and international exhibitions, it is also home to The Saadiyat Story which illustrates the future plans for the island including of course, the long-awaited Guggenheim, Louvre and Zayed National Museums.
Close to Manarat Al Saadiyat, you’ll also find the noteworthy structure, the UAE National Pavilion which was designed with the shape of sand dunes in mind.  The pavilion was relocated piece by piece after the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai.

The quirky UAE pavilion at Manarat Al Saadiyat
The quirky UAE pavilion at Manarat Al Saadiyat

Any visit to Manarat Al Saadiyat is also not complete without a refreshment stop in Fanr Restaurant – one of the unsung heroes and hidden gems of the city.
Entry is free to Manarat Al Saadiyat. Located on Saadiyat Island it is clearly sign posted from the road.

8. Warehouse 421

One of the more recent additions to the city’s cultural scene, Warehouse 421 opened in 2015. Converted from an industrial warehouse into a home for exhibitions for local, regional and international artists and designers to showcase their work. Many talks and lectures by the artists themselves along with other interesting workshops also take place frequently. Exhibitions revolve throughout the year – currently two different exhibitions are open for viewing. Check the website for the latest information on what’s on.
Located in Mina Zayed the space is open daily from 10am to 8pm except on Mondays when it is closed.

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