As the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi (including Al Ain, a part of the emirate) has an abundance of heritage sites of cultural significance. These historical sites in Abu Dhabi are of great importance not only for their cultural value but also for the part that they play in educating current and future generations in the story of the city and the wider country.
So if you're looking for an interesting and educational way to spend some time in the UAE, why not check out these heritage-full historic areas in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain:
Qasr Al Hosn Fort
One of Abu Dhabi's most popular historical attractions, Qasr Al Hosn is the first permanent structure on the island of Abu Dhabi, dating back to the 18th century, Qasr Al Hosn started off as a watchtower constructed by the emirate's Bani Yas tribes. The primary function of the fort was to protect the communities that had sprung up around newly discovered water sources as well as monitor and manage trade routes along the coast. Made of stone and coral, as was common amongst many early buildings, Qasr Al Hosn features some of the ingenious trademarks of contemporary architecture, designed to make occupying the structure as comfortable as possible. These include the use of traditional wind towers or 'Barjeel' ventilation as well as cleverly made arches that direct sea breezes to the inside of the fort.
Painstakingly restored by a top-notch conservation team, Qasr Al Hosn is home to many important events throughout the year, including National Day celebrations. However, the fort also has an ongoing exhibition that takes visitors on a journey through the city's origins right up until present day, making use not only of artefacts and old photographs but oral accounts as well.
Between Al Nasr Street, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum Street, and Sheikh Zayed the First Street
AL SAMALIYA ISLAND
One of the many islands off the Abu Dhabi coast, Al Samaliya Island is a tranquil nature reserve that is a fantastic place for visitors, whether long-time residents or fresh off the boat tourists, to learn about the true flora and fauna of the country. The island is filled with exotic animals, like emus, ostriches, rabbits, wildfowl and graceful gazelles, not to mention a plethora of flowers and plants. In addition to its animal sanctuary, Al Samaliya Island is home to centres that aim to teach the youth about equestrian sports, camel racing, fish breeding, honey making and more, giving them a unique first-hand insight into some of the industries that built the country.
Get in touch with the Emirates Heritage Club to organise a visit to the island.
Five minutes from Al Raha Beach Hotel
Take a trip back in time at the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village. This remodelled village settlement is a snapshot of what life was like before the discovery of oil in the UAE and is complete with the traditional facets that would have been in such a village of yesteryear - a fort for protection, a souq for bartering livestock as well as foodstuffs and of course, a mosque. The Heritage Village also has wonderful examples of traditional palm-leaf thatched houses, a well powered by oxen and even the old falaj irrigation system that kept crops watered in the desert.
Visitors can also experience some of the crafts that were practised, such as weaving, tanning leather, making pots, glass blowing and even blacksmithing. The museum, housed in the fort, is kept cool thanks to the wind tower cooling system and hosts an exhibition of jewellery as well as the history of pearl diving, making it one of the top Abu Dhabi heritage sites.
Sat-Thurs 9am-4pm, Fri 3.30pm-9pm
Near Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi Corniche
One of the most unique of the historical sites in Abu Dhabi, The Zayed Centre charts the life of the UAE's Father of the Nation, Sheikh Zayed. Located in a delightfully unique collection of old houses (complete with wind towers), this intimate museum is a wonderful place to take a more personal look into the life of the great leader. Some of the exhibits that are on display such as Sheikh Zayed's beloved Mercedes, a well-used Land Rover, a rifle, falcon clock and various other eclectic artefacts including items presented to him by foreign dignitaries. We recommend booking a guided tour (available in English and Arabic) at least a week in advance to get the most out of your experience!
Sunday to Thursday
Al Bateen district
jebel hafeet tombs
To learn just how important sea trade was across the Gulf, as long as 5000 years ago, a visit to the dome-shaped Jebel Hafeet tombs in Abu Dhabi (more specifically, Al Ain) is a must. Located at the base of the eponymous mountain (that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the tombs were excavated by Danish archaeologists who discovered copper and ceramic artefacts in them - items from the start of the UAE's Bronze Age. However, several objects from the Iron Age have also been found in these tombs, suggesting that they have been reused - a usual practice. Contrary to some of the other tombs located in the UAE, these are made from rough, locally hewn stones and while the tombs have only one chamber, it is also believed that some families were buried en masse, as was common at the time. While 500 such 'beehive' tombs existed, several have fallen victim to development. However, authorities have been taking great steps to preserve and protect the remaining ones.
Guided tours of this archaeological site may be arranged via the Al Ain Museum
Other heritage sites and historical attractions in Al Ain that are worth the drive:
- Souq Al Qattara: Founded way back in the mid-20th century, the restored Souq Al Qattara is a historical area in Al Ain that's designed for the entire family to steep themselves in traditional UAE life. The souq is also home to a traditional handicrafts market (running from Thursday to Saturday, October to May) and is linked to the Al Qattara Fort, featuring an arts centre, library, cafe and exhibition space. On the road between Al Jimi and Qattara oases.
Qasr Al Muwaiji: The former home (and diwan or seat of governance) of Sheikh Zayed and the birthplace of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, this palace has been meticulously restored and hosts a permanent exhibition documenting the fascinating story of this cultural landmark. Khalifa bin Zayed Street.
Al Jahili Fort: Set in lush, landscaped greenery that welcomes visitors, historic Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain served as the HQ of the Oman Trucial Scouts, protectors of the mountains and those responsible of keeping the peace between tribes. Today, the fort consists of an information centre to educate visitors, temporary exhibition spaces as well as a collection of photographs by the famed explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, beloved for his love of Arabia. Al Mutawaa area.
Hili Archaeological Park: Testament to Al Ain's reputation as the UAE's 'garden city', Hili Archaeological Park is a gorgeously verdant environment of lush flora along with sites such as the Hili Grand Tomb as well as other structures dating from the Bronze Age, making it a unique combination of a garden and historic area in Al Ain. We highly recommend bringing the kids along, as there's a children's play area on site as well. Mohammed Bin Khalifa St.
- Al Ain Heritage and Cultural Village: Also known as the Heritage Theme Park, this interactive attraction in Al Ain allows you to get a taste of history with an incredibly popular market, poetry performances, art exhibitions and other shows, set amid a heritage-style theme park atmosphere. Al Ain Sportplex.
Now, we hope we don't have to say this, but when visiting these beautiful and culturally important historical sites in Abu Dhabi, remember to be respectful of rules and regulations. Check if you can take photographs and don't take (or leave behind) anything you're not meant to!