What springs to mind when you think “exotic” vacation? An Eat Pray Love tour of Italy, surely; a trip to Bora Bora, or Barbados, or another remote tropical island; maybe even a jaunt down under. It’s unlikely that Abu Dhabi, the Middle East’s luxurious playground and the epicenter of cultural cool, is your first bet—but maybe it should be.
The capital of the United Arab Emirates, the city of Abu Dhabi is remarkably progressive yet highly underrated. You’d be quick to assume its placid beaches and historic hotspots might be overrun with those hoping to check another box off their bucket lists, but the capital’s business mentality, home to the UAE’s governmental base, makes it a tourist haven that lacks many actual tourists.
But Abu Dhabi won’t stay under the radar for long. While 2010’s Sex and the City sequel certainly proved major in the city’s branding as a dream destination, the recent thawing of relations between the United States and the Middle East has also contributed to an uptick in American visitors—making the city a must-visit for the rich and famous seeking refuge.
Where to stay?
At the center of the action is the city’s superior hospitality, which has surpassed platinum standard, each hotel gleefully rising to the challenge. While Emirates Palace—the world’s most expensive hotel, with its gaudy gold interior reminiscent of a Trump penthouse—is perhaps the best-known option, it’s the Hyatt brand that has established itself as the sole choice for any type of vacation-goer.
With three diverse locations, the Hyatt hotels are best described as attractions rather than accommodations. The 18-degree-leaning Andaz inspires sensory arousal with every step, boasting its own art gallery and a taste bud-altering Middle Eastern-fusion menu that’ll make you forget about your local kebab shop back home. The Park Hyatt, situated on Abu Dhabi’s only natural beach, specializes in subtle luxury. But it’s the Grand Hyatt that truly has it all, with a balcony-cum-running-track around the property, a view that’ll induce envy from even your most worldly Instagram followers and a pork-serving cigar bar—quite a big deal in this Muslim majority city.
The Park Hyatt
The Andaz Capital Gate - Abu Dhabi
The Grand Hyatt
Each are examples of Abu Dhabi’s growing Westernization, the byproduct of which is a palpable liberalism running amongst the city’s younger generation. The mix of contemporary work and ancient artifacts sourced nationally and beyond at the new French-approved Louvre Abu Dhabi is echoed in many aspects throughout the city. Yas Island’s club culture easily rivals the world’s party capitals with weekend watering hole, MAD, supplementing its steady rotation of American hip-hop with local and international performers. On nights out, girls forgo traditional garb for teetering heels and mini dresses, ushering in a new Middle East.
Despite its progression, there is still ample opportunity to immerse yourself in the country’s historic culture. Fly across the desert dunes (though not for the weak-stomached) via four-wheel drive and arrive to an array of activities like sand-sliding, henna and an up-close-and-personal interaction with camels. Pay homage to Sheik Zayed, the founding president of the UAE, with a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque—the biggest mosque in the country, catering to 40,000 worshippers at any one time—or The Founders Memorial, which features an illuminated monument by American sculptor Ralph Helmick.
Of the world’s most bustling metropolitan areas, very few manage to mediate tradition and innovation, tourism and business, luxury and livability; but Abu Dhabi delivers each time. It’s a city that caters not only to its visitors, but its locals, too—facilitating, for the former, an experience like no other.