Abu Dhabi travel guide: 8 cultural must-sees in the UAE capital

As the Louvre Abu Dhabi celebrates its fifth anniversary, we spotlight the UAE capital city’s cultural highlights, from contemporary art in historical sites to an architectural Apple Store, and a waterside wellness ecosystem

Jean Nouvel Louvre Abu Dhabi travel guide
Exterior view of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel
(Image credit: Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi. Photography: Yiorgis Yerolymbos)

Abu Dhabi is a city of four base ingredients: sun, sea, sand and safety (earlier this year, it was crowned the world’s safest city for the sixth time). With immaculate beaches, jaw-dropping architecture, a climate that rarely goes south of 22 degrees, and a burgeoning cultural scene, there’s something for every mood, taste and traveller. 

Like other cities in the GCC region, including its close (but very distinct) neighbour Dubai, the UAE capital’s rapid urbanisation from desert to global destination (underpinned by abundant oil and gas resources) has transformed the city into a majestic metropolis of retail, commerce, hospitality and industry. 

Abu Dhabi tour: 8 highlights in the UAE capital

What sets Abu Dhabi apart is its cultural revolution. By 2025, the city's Saadiyat Island is set to become a cultural tourism masterpiece, firmly placing Abu Dhabi on the world stage for Emirati heritage, culture and international exchange. Arts editor Harriet Lloyd-Smith travelled to Abu Dhabi to uncover the best of the city now, and in the years to come.

Saadiyat Island

Abrahamic Family House by David Adjaye in Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island

Aerial view render of the The Abrahamic Family House by Adjaye Associates on Saadiyat Island

(Image credit: Adjaye Associates)

The natural island of Saadiyat, located 500m off the coast of Abu Dhabi island, is set to become something of an art and architecture mega-hub in the coming years. Already home to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, future additions, now under construction, include the Phenomena Abu Dhabi gallery (opening 2024), Adamson Associates’ Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (opening 2025) and Foster + Partners' Zayed National Museum (opening 2025). Elsewhere, David Adjaye’s Abrahamic Family House, opening in 2023, will comprise three religious spaces in one – a mosque, a synagogue and a church – seeking to nurture acceptance and peaceful coexistence across all faiths.


The Bridge Wellness Hub 

The Bridge Wellness Hub in Abu Dhabi

(Image credit: The Bridge Abu Dhabi)

Spanning a vast 8,000 sq m space – including a gym, a spa, a restaurant, a juice bar, a nutrition corner, a shop, an indoor running track and a rooftop garden – The Bridge Wellness Hub is Abu Dhabi’s all-in-one lifestyle ecosystem for the body and mind. The hub boasts a minimal design, a wide range of wellness therapies, and the latest Technogym equipment, topped off with stunning views of the Al Qana canal. Beyond a straightforward gym, the hub aims to transform members’ lives through a holistic approach to wellness, reforming the way ‘health’ is understood in line with the UAE’s National Strategy for Wellbeing 2031. If there’s anywhere to kick off a New Year’s Resolution fitness plan, it’s probably here. 


Al Maryah Island Apple Store by Foster + Partners 

Apple Store in Abu Dhabi designed by Foster + Partners

Exterior view of the Al Maryah Island Apple Store, designed by Foster + Partners

(Image credit: Foster + Partners)

Earlier this year, Foster + Partners unveiled their multisensory design for the Al Maryah Island Apple Store, offering a new model of retail experience. Perched atop a pyramid of Absolute Black granite stone steps cascading with water, the design is defined by a stainless-steel portal entrance welcoming visitors into the single-level interior offering panoramic views of the Abu Dhabi coastline. Elsewhere, a 72ft-long mirrored foil ceiling offers a kaleidoscopic effect, accompanied by a soundtrack of water flowing down the exterior glass walls. 


The Louvre Abu Dhabi

Louvre Abu Dhabi

(Image credit: Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi. Photography: Yiorgis Yerolymbos)

Conceived of an agreement with the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Louvre Abu Dhabi celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. The Jean Nouvel-designed structure of gleaming white geometric buildings enveloped by a colossal dome of intersecting aluminium lattices proved an instant international sensation when it opened in 2017. Considered the first universal museum in the Arab world and the first addition to the major Saadiyat Island cultural development, the Louvre Abu Dhabi seeks to promote historical and contemporary cultural exchange through its vast permanent collection and temporary shows, including its current Art Here 2022, an exhibition of ten GCC artists shortlisted for the Richard Mille Art Prize.


Abu Dhabi’s Supreme Council for Motherhood & Childhood by Studio Roar

Abu Dhabi offices of UAE’s The Supreme Council for Motherhood & Childhood by Studio Roar

The interior space at the Supreme Council for Motherhood & Childhood, designed by Studio Roar

(Image credit: Chris Goldstraw)

For its latest project in Abu Dhabi, interior design and architecture studio Roar has blended work, play and functionality for the UAE’s Supreme Council for Motherhood & Childhood. Spanning three levels, the space is a haven for traditional Emirati design codes with a contemporary edge, from dynamic Lego walls to pastel-hued furnishings, play areas and workspaces. As founder and creative director of Roar, Pallavi Dean, told us: ‘We wanted the design narrative to subtly allude to different cultural elements from the region while drawing attention to the SCMC’s core mission: to foster innovation and creativity in the fields of motherhood and childhood.’

The Abu Dhabi Edition Hotel

Market restaurant at the Abu Dhabi Edition hotel

Market, an all-day dining concept at the Abu Dhabi Edition hotel

(Image credit: The Abu Dhabi Edition)

For those seeking a home-from-home with a luxury Emirati twist, the Abu Dhabi Edition Hotel has it all, three signature restaurants, a three-storey social space, two pools, two state-of-the-art fitness centres and a spa. The hotel’s 198 guest rooms are accented by a grey oak herringbone pattern that draws on local basket weaving techniques and photography by Brett Weston, which references Abu Dhabi’s desert surroundings. Three distinct culinary offerings are helmed by Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens: Market, an all-day dining concept that uses local ingredients for an imaginative, no-waste menu; the Oak Room, offering a dose of British rock ‘n’ roll flair; and the al fresco Alba Terrace, which evokes elegant Mediterranean summers. 


Abu Dhabi Art: Artist Commissions in Cultural Sites

StillTheyKnowNotWhatIDream by Shilpa Gupta for Abu Dhabi Art

StillTheyKnowNotWhatIDream by Shilpa Gupta 

(Image credit: Courtesy of the artist)

Unveiled for the opening of the Abu Dhabi Art fair on 16 November 2022, public art installations are now in situ across sites of historical significance as part of the fair’s Commissions in Cultural Sites programme. On view until 22 January 2023, the project sees leading contemporary artists occupy locations in the historic Al Ain in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. At Al Jahili Fort, Al Saadi’s Quipu Alphabet draws on the Incan writing system of the same name, while Shilpa Gupta’s video StillTheyKnowNotWhatIDream uses the artist’s signature double flat board format, reminiscent of notice boards in railway stations. At Al Ain Oasis, Conrad Shawcross’ Patterns of Absence (Bb36D10) - Desert Beacon responds to the contemplative potency of the desert. 


The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

(Image credit: Harriet Lloyd-Smith)

For anyone visiting Abu Dhabi, the landscape-dominating Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a must-see. With 82 domes, 1,000 columns and 24ct gilded chandeliers, this architectural feat was unveiled in 2007 to embody the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s vision to convey the Islamic message of peace, tolerance and diversity. Notable features include the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet in the main prayer hall, and the Mosque’s astonishing 2,000 sq m floral marble decoration, designed by British artist Kevin Dean. 


Harriet Lloyd-Smith was the Arts Editor of Wallpaper*, responsible for the art pages across digital and print, including profiles, exhibition reviews, and contemporary art collaborations. She started at Wallpaper* in 2017 and has written for leading contemporary art publications, auction houses and arts charities, and lectured on review writing and art journalism. When she’s not writing about art, she’s making her own.