Katie Bray

You don’t have to journey far from the dynamic city center for a serene desert escape.

Hannah Walhout
July 26, 2018

Most luxury resorts in the emirate of Abu Dhabi are buried deep in the sandy Empty Quarter or in the region's remote outer islands, far from the heart of the the lively city. But the capital of the United Arab Emirates is becoming a destination in its own right thanks to its energetic art scene, classic cuisine, and proximity to nature.

Courtesy of Jumeirah Al Wathba Desert Resort

The new 103-room Jumeirah Al Wathba (doubles from $299) will let you have the best of both city life and Arabian desert relaxation. Opening in October, the property offers traditional earthen villas, an offsite desert camp, and dune backdrops just a 30-minute drive from metropolitan Abu Dhabi.

Courtesy of Jumeirah Al Wathba Desert Resort

Those traveling in the cooler high season can add on a few days at sister property Jumeirah Saadiyat Island (doubles from $407), opening in November on a secluded stretch of private white sand beach. It will be even closer to the city sites, with a full-service hammam, eight private villas, and uninterrupted views of the Gulf.

When you’re ready to venture into town, start with an art tour. The Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi is the latest high-profile addition to this burgeoning cultural capital, but no visit would be complete without a tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Centre, a white marble behemoth that houses the largest hand-knotted carpet in the world. Head to the indie Warehouse 421 for rotating exhibitions and crafts classes or the Etihad Modern Art Gallery, which promotes up-and-coming UAE-based artists.

Aleksandar Tomic/Alamy

The industrial neighborhood around Mina Zayed port, where a fleet of traditional trading dhows still dock between trips to South Asia, is home to the city’s best markets. Wake up early to visit the fish market when the boats come in; sidewalk vendors will grill up fresh catch like hammour, or Arabian grouper, on demand. Visit the carpet souk for rugs and majlis sets, or wander the plant souk and its alleys full of tropical flowers and terra cotta. The city’s many outdoor offerings are a must for visitors in the cooler months.

If you’re traveling between November and February, when the weather is cooler, get outside. Stroll along the waterfront Corniche, or visit Mangrove National Park, where kayaking tours of city’s inner channel islands show off the biodiversity of this dense ecosystem; you'll spot herons, flamingoes, and even the occasional dolphin. For an evening walk, wander the date palm-lined paths of the city’s new central green space, Umm Al Emarat Park.

Buena Vista Images/Getty Images

After a day of exploring, you’ll find that traditional Emirati foods — like lgeimat, the syrupy cardamom doughnuts — at Al Mrzab (entrées $12 - $35) hit the spot. The restaurant also has an extensive repertoire of Kuwaiti dishes such as murabyan, a shrimp and rice dish seasoned with turmeric and dried lime. At casual Jordanian-Lebanese cafeteria Bait el Khetyar (entrées $3 - $10), follow the regulars' lead and order the moutabbel, a smoky eggplant dip, with puffy, freshly-made pita bread. Other favorites like busy Ethiopian spot Bonna Annee (entrées $7 - $18) or the humbly delicious Russian Kitchen House Cafeteria (entrées $3 - $9) also provide a taste of the city’s diverse immigrant populations.

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