From every angle, modern day Abu Dhabi is a rapidly developing city, with a skyline which is ever changing. But if you’ve ever wondered what the UAE’s capital city was like before all the glass skyscrapers and sculpted topiary, then Downtown Abu Dhabi is the place to go. The Qasr Al Hosn fort marks the traditional heart of the nation's capital, where from 1760 it was the economic hub of the area. While today it is dwarfed by towers, it still offers a view of what life was like in days gone by.
Today things are somewhat different, with pearling now confined to the history books, replaced by oil, banking, construction, and hospitality.
The district is one of the most vibrant in the city, where you can peruse the high-end fashion chains one minute and bargain-hunt in the back streets the next.
Downtown Abu Dhabi isn’t an area as such, but more of a general central location. It includes the Al Hosn district to the west of old Airport Road, and the western side of Al Danah on the east of old Airport Road. The most notable landmark from afar is the two World Trade Centre towers.
Good for Being central. It doesn’t matter if you want to hit the beach, shop in the mall, shop in the streets, get cultural, hail a taxi, or grab a bite to eat, you don’t have to go very far.
Bad for Traffic and parking. As is the way with any central city location, traffic and parking can be a nightmare. Street parking is charged at the normal rate of Dh2-3 per hour, but after 8pm, parking is only for permit-holding residents. There are several decent size car parks, but they do fill up in the evenings. Traffic in the surrounding area can be heavy, especially at peak times.
Taxis are in numerous supply, and the best place to catch them is under the bridge at the main entrance of WTC Mall on Khalifa Bin Zayed Street. There are several bus routes running through the area too. As mentioned, there are several car parks around the area, but they can fill up quiickly.
If you want to stay nearby, then the best hotel is the new Courtyard by Marriott at the World Trade Centre. The hotel officially opened in March 2015, exploiting an area which is strangely lacking in high-quality hotels. Although it may “only” be a four-star hotel, the service and design would have you believe it was a five.
The rooms are well-appointed and are of a good size, not to mention being well-equipped, and with views looking out over the city. The entrance to the hotel is located on Hamdan Street (5th), the southern side of the World Trade Centre complex.
Facilities include fitness centre, sun terrace, room service, dining, 24-hour front desk, airport shuttle, laundry, maid service, business centre, meeting rooms, valet parking, disabled facilities and a fantastic pool and hot tub on the roof, complete with bar. You can also directly access WTC Mall.
If you’re looking to explore the Al Hosn district or central Corniche, then the Courtyard by Marriott makes an excellent base.
Sometimes getting outside and lapping up the sun is all one wants to do. The Corniche is a five minutes walk from WTC Mall. There you can enjoy Lake Park, one of the most scenic stretches of greenery along the Corniche. A footbridge crosses the lake, which makes for an excellent photograph. Whether you choose to have the sea or the skyline as your background is up to you. To the west is Urban Park, a small, but no less satisfying, green space ideal for chilling out.
Cross over the Corniche road to the other side and enjoy the waterside promenade. A further 10 minutes walk and you’ll reach Abu Dhabi beach.
The Family Water Park and Skate Park are also a great way to spend a few hours.
5 restaurants to try
Fifth Street Café
Fifth Street Café ticks all the boxes that a laid-back, multipurpose eatery should. Casual and well-appointed, the food won’t disappoint. They have a couple of TVs which show live sports, which means you can also enjoy premium beverages at the same time. Ideal for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You can read our full review here. Cost for two Dh120 Timings 7am to 1am daily Phone 02 698 2222
Ok, it may be a high street name, but love it or hate it, Nandos is popular - especially with Abu Dhabi’s vast community of Western teachers. Located on the third floor of WTC Mall, the restaurant offers a small degree of outdoor seating. It doesn’t feel like your conventional “mall restaurant”. Cost for two Dh100 Timings 12pm to 12am Saturday to Wednesday; 12pm to 1am Thursday and Friday Phone 02 631 0002
Abu Shakra Restaurant & Grill
Take a walk off the beaten path and try out Abu Shakra. Just off Khalifa Bin Zayed Street, this Arabic restaurant is an ideal place to taste authentic Arabic cuisine. Cost for two Dh80 Timings 12am to late Phone 02 644 7770
Café Layali Zaman
Café Layali Zaman is located in Lake Park and is the ideal place to twin Arabic cuisine with shisha. It does trade off its location, but it is well worth a visit. Cost for two Dh80 Timings 9am to 2am daily Phone 02 627 7745
On the first floor of the Courtyard by Marriott hotel is The Bistro. It’s an open-plan restaurant offering both a la carte and buffet options. It’s a great setting for a business lunch, as well as pleasant evening dining experience. Cost for two Dh150 Timings 7am to 12am daily Phone 02 698 2222
Naturally, the air-conditioned haven that is WTC Mall is the logical place to begin. You can expect to find the majority of high-street brands in this very well fitted-out mall. Not least the House of Fraser, Disney store, H&M and so on.
The Souq can be reached by crossing the first floor level bridge from WTC Mall. An inside market place, the Souq is the ideal place for tourists to pick up Arabic trinkets and souvenirs. It doesn’t matter if you’re after lanterns, soft-toy camels, brass elephants, or t-shirts that, weirdly, say “I love Dubai”, the Souq has you covered.
Khalifa Bin Zayed Street
It may sound vague, but the back streets which surround the World Trade Centre and Qasr Al Hosn are a treasure trove of bargains, particularly if you’re after textiles. We recommend that you walk along Khalifa Bin Zayed Street, between Liwa Street and Sultan Bin Zayed the First Street. There are several textiles merchants and tailors. Consider it Abu Dhabi’s answer to Savile Row for the more thrifty shopper.
Up and Below
Up and Below is a brand new roof-top bar at the Courtyard by Marriott. The “sliced” Trust Tower and Burj Mohammad Bin Rashid – the capital’s tallest building – tower either side of the bar. It’s spacious and central, ideal for either a quiet or vibrant night. Dress code Casual Timings 12pm to 1am daily Phone 02 698 2222
Qasr Al Hosn
Qasr Al Hosn in one of the UAE’s oldest known buildings and is the symbolic birth-place of Abu Dhabi. Dating back to 1760, this historic fort sits in the heart of the city between Hamdan Street and Zayed the First Street.
It’s an excellent place to go if you’re hoping to learn more about the history and expansion of Abu Dhabi over the years. Originally the fort served as a watch tower and a base for pearl traders, but over time the fort was expanded, and at one point was a village in itself with a population of 5000. The decline of the pearling industry and rise of oil exploration between the thirties and fifties saw further expansion, which gives the fort several time-layers that clearly highlight the progress of Abu Dhabi.
Qasr Al Hosn is an archeological site and recently underwent further renovation and is one of the most important destinations in the Emirate. Sometimes you may not be able to get inside, but enjoying it from the surrounding grounds will still give you an insight into its history.