The Emirati capital has been developing at a slower and more considered pace than its flamboyant neighbour Dubai, meaning its traditional side still shines through. It also holds an ace card – its annual Grand Prix at the winding Yas Marina circuit. If you’re heading over to catch the culmination of the F1 season, or visiting at any other time of year, here are the places to eat, drink, party and crash (and not in a Romain Grosjean way).
The UAE’s vast exposure to civilisations over history has left a lasting mark on the national cuisine and the collision of Asia and Arabia has made for some remarkably tasty food. Just head to any local restaurant like the historic Bu Tafish on Hamden Street to tuck into mounds of houmous, piles of grilled meats, tagines and heavily spiced stews. For a high-end interpretation, Mezlai at the Emirates Palace sticks to the region’s culinary roots.
Most of the other fancy dining spots have European leanings and the past decade has seen the arrival of top-notch French restaurants like Bord Eau, which imports the majority of its ingredients from France and is an unmissable gourmet attraction. The imminent arrival of Le Petit Maison will further bolster the desert city’s Gallic flair.
Unless you choose to eat every meal in the souk’s rustic restaurants, it’ll be impossible to avoid Abu Dhabi’s unabashed glitz, so you might as well embrace it and head to Pearls & Caviar at the Shangri-La Hotel. As the name suggests, it targets Abu Dhabi’s great and good so the cooking (and prices) are top-flight – but the chefs have really nailed classic Mediterranean seafood dishes.
In contrast to the scene in Dubai, it’s taken a while for big-name London restaurants to catch onto the city’s hunger for contemporary cooking, but Hakkasan has lead the charge and it’s perhaps a little better than the Mayfair original – the Asian fusion cooking feels more suited to the desert setting. It goes without saying that all of these places require advanced booking, especially when the F1 is in town.
There was no drinking culture in Abu Dhabi until the expats rocked up in numbers and the authorities became a lot more liberal towards casual boozing – although it’s ill-advised to act in a drunken manner anywhere public.
Start your evening with cocktails at Ray’s Bar on level 62 of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers. Set back from a cluster of skyscrapers the views of the tower-spiked skyline are knock-out and the service is flawless.
Formula 1 fans can survey the track from the terraces atop the Yas Viceroy Hotel. Choose between Longitude, with its open-air pool and light lunches, or the livelier Latitude, which also takes in views of the yachts in the marina. A third space, Skylite, opens every September when summer temperatures have dropped and the F1 crowds descend.
Down at sea level, there’s the Saadiyat Beach Club which fills up an hour before sunset. Bag one of the sofas by the sand or a poolside cabana and make yourself comfortable as you’ll want to stay right up until kick-out time at the strike of midnight.
Grand Prix fervour builds in the week running up to the race with a number of parties at clubs like Sax and Rush, two of the city’s main late-night hangouts throughout the year.
But the biggest ticket in town is to the Amber Lounge, which hosts after-parties on the evenings of qualifying and race day. International DJs are flown in, and drivers and their A-list friends make regular appearances. You’ve got the highest chance of securing access to the parties if you book a spot on board Amber Lounge’s trackside yacht to watch the daytime action.
You may also hear whisperings of the Code20 party, which keeps its line-up secret until the last minute. The only way to get entry is to visit the website (thecode20.com) and request a table with bottle service.
Another club making a big noise during the race weekend is O1NE Yas Island, with DJs like Armin Van Buuren gracing the decks. The weekly night here, The Experiment, is worth checking out once race fever dies down, too.
As Dubai reaches ever higher into the sky, it seems neighbouring Abu Dhabi is not going to be outdone. The Burj Khalifa may be the world’s tallest building, but Abu Dhabi has recently opened its own record breaker – the world’s highest suspended suite. Wedged between the Nation Towers 200 metres above the ground, the two-storey St Regis Abu Dhabi suite has three guest rooms, a study, library, cinema, gym, kitchen and huge living room.
As Dubai reaches ever higher into the sky, it seems Abu Dhabi is not going to be outdone
For something less ostentatious, try the Park Hyatt or a vertiginous room in the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers. To stay in the middle of the Yas Marina Circuit, try the Viceroy Hotel, but rooms get booked up early.
Alternatively, if you’re keen to explore beyond the city limits, Ananatara’s Al Sahel Resort on Yas Island offers villas surrounded by the open plains of the Arabian Wildlife Park. It’s worlds away from the modern metropolis glimmering on the horizon.
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