48 Hours In... Abu Dhabi

How to make the most of your time in the UAE capital

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Visiting a city for the first time, you're usually drawn to its oldest building or landmark. It's how, in the parlance of the weekend traveller, you attempt to 'get a feel' for a place, its history and mood.

In Abu Dhabi there is reasonable chance you're older than anything you see around you. If you're over 50, it's a dead cert. Prior to 1971, when the ambitious president Sheikh Zayed took power and began using the areas natural riches to build a city, most of the sprawling metropolis you can see now was sparse desert.

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This is why you will frequently hear travellers dismiss the UAE, claiming that, because has no history, it has no soul. It's a snooty line, but not one without truth.

On the other hand, there is a thrill in witnessing a city enjoying its growth spurt, where skyscrapers are sprouting like well-watered grass seeds and a youthful pluck permeates everything it tries to do. One of the richest cities in the world, Abu Dhabi is spending hard and fast to counter its image as businessman's stop over and a location for the unimaginative super rich.

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2007 saw the opening of two significant places of attraction (albeit aimed at very different crowds), the Yas Marina Formula 1 circuit and the huge Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the eighth biggest in the world.

The same year it was announced that, a few miles away, the city would begin building its own version of the Louvre in partnership with the Paris museum, hosting both Eastern and Western art. A version of the Guggenheim, under a similar arrangement, was already underway. Both are expected to be open for business by 2017.

But beneath the pomp and extravagance of its building projects, Abu Dhabi is also using art to slowly weave a sense of cultural identity into its rapidly expanding streets. Integral to this has been the less well-known but extremely vibrant (and rapidly growing) Abu Dhabi festival.

Now heading for its 12th year, the Abu Dhabi festival is the largest celebration of the classical arts in the UAE, and the strongest sign yet the city is slowly growing a cultural heartbeat all of its own.

Driven by the passion of its founder, Her Excellency Hoda Al Khamis Kanoo – the woman who convinced the Crown Prince that art and culture was a worthy investment for some of Abu Dhabi's oil billions – the festival nominates a country of honour each year to help fill its main bill, but also runs a concurrent series of impressive education and community programmes.

So this year, for example, in partnership with the USA, audiences could watch the American Ballet Theatre perform 'Coppélia' at the city's absurdly decadent Emirates Palace (where a vending machines offer the chance to buy real gold), while at the same time local musicians flooded the city' hospitals to sooth recovering patients with live performances. It's a two-week marathon of ballet, opera, classical music and (increasingly) visual art, and it constitutes the very best time to visit the city.

Whether you're in Abu Dhabi for a business trip or just because you want to make your own mind up about this rich person's playground in the sun, here are some of our tips on where to go.

To stay
Abu Dhabi is a city of hotels, each competing with the other to be the most impressive shiny vision in the skyline. One of the very newest is the Rosewood. Based in the developing area of Sowwah Square, it boasts four serious and diverse restaurants, a stunning rooftop pool with views of the city and, at around £150 a night for a basic room, it's relatively affordable.

To visit
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque is a place of worship for the city's majority Muslim population but also designed as its main tourist attraction. The decadence of the interior is its stated draw – 24 carat gold gilded chandeliers and the like – but the best thing to do is visit at dusk when its cool enough to walk around the gardens that surround the 82 perfect white domes and enjoy the sense of tranquility.

To eat and go out
Yas Island, the man-made island that also hosts the city's F1 track, is the closest you'll get to nightlife in a city where alcohol is prohibited except for in hotels. Quality restaurants and bars are plentiful, and you can pass the time gazing longingly at the yachts anchored at the marina.

To catch some sun
Corniche Beach, at the northern point of the city, is beautiful strip of soft sand and swimmable water. Walk West to hit the opulent Emirates Palace or East to see the developing museum sites via a fish market selling beautifully grilled catch of the day.