Architecture of Abu Dhabi and Dubai

One of the things I was most excited about when planning our trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai was the chance to see, in person, some incredible architecture that I’d only previously heard about in books or on the web. Because the area is so new, and so rapidly developing, there is a tremendous amount of innovative, almost futuristic looking design on their skylines. Some of the skyscrapers will make you feel like you’re living in a science fiction movie. By contrast, there’s also an effort to create full-experience environments in some other cases. Those buildings seem to emphasize opulence, sometimes boast a specific theme, and have a bit of the feeling of Las Vegas or Disneyland. Going from one to the other can seem a little disjointed at times, but it’s all an important part of the look of the cities.

In Abu Dhabi, there was a recurring style element of buildings that almost looked like sliced sausages, with the roof sitting at an extreme angle. We saw this all over the city.

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Of course there’s the surreal environment I talked about last week created at the Grand Mosque. This design was the result of a combined effort by architects and designers from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

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We also stopped by Ferrari World to take a look at that architectural feat. It’s an indoor theme park (so imagine a structure big enough to house Disneyland), home of the fastest rollercoaster in the world. Designed by Benoy Architects, the scope of the structure is hard to describe. There’s no easy way from the ground to get a good view of the entire building, but from the pictures I’ve seen of it from above, it doesn’t look real! The design of the building and it’s entryway were quite modern and futuristic feeling. And very smartly, the architects included a light funnel to bring daylight into the center of the structure.

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In the more residential parts of Abu Dhabi, we came across a different kind of design style altogether. These buildings were much more modest, and seemed to embrace the desert and Middle Eastern cultures and traditions much more than the competitive skyscraper designs.

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I loved these bridges, which combined so many different shapes; they were geometric but also somehow organic at the same time. They were always a really interesting view on the water.

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Next to a museum we spent some time in, we also stopped to take a look at the UAE Pavilion. Designed by Foster and Partners for the 2010 Shanghai World’s Fair, the entire structure was reassembled in Abu Dhabi and is now used as an international art museum. Unfortunately it was closed the day we went, so I didn’t get to see the inside. (Side note: Right nearby they are working on building a Louvre and a Guggenheim museums, which promise to be spectacular!)

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Our friends who live in Abu Dhabi have an apartment high up in one of this cluster of buildings. They are new skyscrapers, built within the past couple of years, and definitely seem to fit with the efforts to build now with future design in mind.

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But then they have a view of Emirates Palace, which is just about as opposite as you can get. Emirates palace has a bit of the pretend-world feeling that Las Vegas tends to have.

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Dubai sometimes took that Vegas-like pretend world to another level. We took a stroll through Atlantis, a huge, over the top, themed resort that made me feel like I could be in the king’s castle in The Little Mermaid. No corner was left untouched by the ocean theme. They even had a very impressive aquarium.

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The Dubai Mall also had an amazing aquarium, sharks and all. And outside of the mall was a dancing water fountain, designed by the same people that designed the water fountain at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

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Dubai’s reputation in architecture is a bit more well-known, largely because of two buildings. One is the Burj Al Arab, designed by architect Tom Wright. Built to look like a sail, it is currently the fourth tallest building in the world. It’s a high end luxury hotel and sits on a manmade island, connected to the mainland by one bridge.

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And the other is, of course, the Burj Khalifa, by architect Adrian Smith. The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. It’s hard to mentally process just how incredibly enormous this building is. It only starts to become clear when you realize just how much taller it is than any other building that surrounds it. It is so tall in comparison that it gives the impression of being the only building in the sky. To put the sheer height of this incredible structure into perspective, there is a new project I heard about recently in Los Angeles to build the city’s tallest building, which will sit 78 stories high. The Burj Khalifa has 163 floors, and you would be able to see the curvature of the earth from the top. Aside from the extreme height of it, it is a beautiful building. It really seems like this perfect precious gem among all that surrounds it. This was my favorite building we saw, and having drinks on the 124th floor was one of my favorite moments of the trip. Only since I’ve been home have I begun to realize how rare of an opportunity that was.

Dubai106 Dubai125 Dubai141 Dubai152 Dubai165What do you think of the architecture in the UAE? Do you like the style?

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The Real Abu Dhabi

Admittedly, I did not know much about ABu Dhabi before we visited there a couple weeks ago. I knew it was a city with a lot of money, oil money, and I think I thought it was like a less developed Dubai. (Not that I knew a whole lot about Dubai either, for that matter.) But what I found was a city much more diverse. There are a huge number of ex-pats and immigrants living and working there. A majority of the immigrants come from India and Pakistan. And while the class structure there keeps an extremely wide divide between these immigrants and the native Emirates, there is an epic amount of construction happening at all times as the area grows, as well as tons of service jobs in any of the numerous upscale resorts and restaurants in the area. Not unlike the immigrant communities in the US, many of the UAE’s immigrants are sending money home to their families, working tirelessly toward a better future for their children.

Visiting a faraway country when you know someone who lives there offers a huge advantage in that you are able to see how people really live. To be fair, that also means mostly you see how your friend lives, and in this case we had the most exposure to the lives of ex-pats like them. But we were able to experience a much wider view of Abu Dhabi, and learn a bit about the history of Abu Dhabi and its social and political structure. We also were able to simply enjoy the refreshing beauty that it has to offer while we were on vacation. This is just a taste of Abu Dhabi, meant to give you a broad sense of my impression of the place.

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people lounging under the shade of public umbrellas at Saadiyat Beach

Abu Dhabi is essentially an island in the Persian Gulf. Interestingly, the beautiful beaches you see all around were man-made using sand shipped in from Japan.

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Saadiyat Beach

The water is beautiful, bright blue, almost tropical looking, and the beaches are so perfect it feels surreal.

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a view of one skyline from the Corniche

The buildings there make you feel like you might be in a sci-fi thriller. The city is very new, only around 45 years old, so each new building uses the very latest in design and technology, and almost seems to try to out-do its predecessors.

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a walk on the Corniche

The city seems to make a real effort to create spaces for people to gather, walk, ride bicycles, etc. Since we went at the beginning of summer it was already getting very hot during the days, but in the evenings around sunset you could see all kinds of people taking their evening jog or pushing baby carriages for a stroll as the air began to cool down. Corniche is the word the locals use to describe this boardwalk-like walkway, which stretches pretty far through the city. It’s also the name of this beach area. It seemed like any public space we visited while we were there had workers on standby to clean up any little piece of trash that might fall, so every park and walkway was spotless.

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the fruit market in Abu Dhabi

Away from the resorts and sky rises, we visited the markets where plenty of locals go for fresh local fruits and vegetables. There were dozens of stands cascading with tempting produce. So many sellers to chose from, most with the same items for sale as the next guy, so it was tough to chose who to buy from. They try persistently to sell you on their own so you don’t wander off to someone else’s.

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sellers at the fruit market in Abu Dhabi

We went toward the end of the day, so it wasn’t very crowded. People mostly seemed to be waiting for the next customer to pop by.

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piles of dates covered in plastic to ward off flies

In the same industrial port complex you could find dozens of date salesmen as well. This particular one is a favorite of our friends we were visiting.

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We like to call this a sheik date.

These were the best of the dates, housed indoors. Posted above them was a poster featuring Sheik Zayed and his two sons. Sheik Zayed was the much loved leader of Abu Dhabi (the capital of the Emirates) who is responsible for the arrangement regarding oil between the British and the Emirates that lead to the widespread wealth that is so apparent in the city today. No longer living, his older son is the current leader of Abu Dhabi. Photos of Sheik Zayed seem to pepper the city, sometimes in the most unexpected places.

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the fish market in Abu Dhabi

My husband, the master chef of our house, was in heaven in the fish market. You’ve never seen such beautiful fresh fish.

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colorful fresh fish

The fish in the market were so colorful, and almost seemed to still be swimming.

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taking a rest after a long day

Once you pick out the fish you want to take home, you can have it cleaned out at a station like this, although this guy seemed to be done for the day.

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delicious prawns, fresh from ocean to oven

Then, you can take that fish to any of the cooks in the market if you’d like. You could walk out of the market eating one of the freshest meals you’ve ever had.

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a fisherman takes a rest on his boat after a long day

Just outside of the market, there are probably 100 of these boats docked, ready to go out fishing the next morning.

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rusty old fishing boats out of service

And in the parking lot next to the fish market you will find these boats, clearly not fit for use, just resting sleepily. We saw lots of feral kittens living around these, probably waiting for the next little piece of fish to drop.

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the infinite pool at the Shangri-La Resort

In contrast, we got a taste of resort living in Abu Dhabi as well. We had a morning of swimming and lounging at the pool, where the service was incredibly luxurious. The service people there make sure you have plenty of water and walk around with cold towels, fruit to munch on, and even clean your sunglasses for you if you’d like.

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A view of the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque

The Shangri-La also had this incredible view of the Grand Mosque. It is such an enormous structure, dominating the skyline. After seeing it like this I couldn’t wait to go there and see it up close.  (Come back Thursday for more on this spectacular place.)

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sunset at the St. Regis

Later that same night we went to the St. Regis for some outdoor yoga at sunset, and the view from my mat was magical.

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getting into the first pose of the evening

Our friend we were visiting was the yoga instructor for the class, and I was so pleased to finally be able to take one of her classes! We were incredibly relaxed at the end.

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a Muslim couple in traditional dress walk along the beach after dark

I loved catching this little glimpse into another way of life, actually not all that different from my own. Plus the skyline across the water was so bright. Abu Dhabi at night could almost be a completely different city than Abu Dhabi during the day.

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one of many stray cats by the beach

Even though I mentioned earlier that the public parks were all spotless, that doesn’t make them immune to cats. We encountered tons of stray cats, surprisingly affectionate but infected with fleas. They all seem to be pretty well fed though.

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a view of Emirates Palace from the 58th floor next door

One of the most opulent places we saw while we were there was Emirates Palace. It’s mainly a hotel and houses a variety of wonderful upscale restaurants and cafes. And yes, it is as huge as it looks. We barely scratched the surface when we went there for dinner on our last night in Abu Dhabi.

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top left: the most expensive scotch in the world

Emirates Palace is home to a scotch and cigar bar that sells the most expensive scotch in the world, a 57 year old Macallan that sells for over $4,000 per shot. No, we did not try it, but wouldn’t that be a story to tell!

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Gold To Go

And yes, the rumors are true, you can indeed buy gold from a vending machine there.

Are you intrigued? What would you most like to see in Abu Dhabi?

This Week I Loved… Travel Edition: United Arab Emirates

(aka This Week in the UAE We Hope To Have Seen…)

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (Photo Credit – http://visitabudhabi.ae)

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UAE Pavilion (Photo Credit – http://www.constructionweekonline.com)

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Emirates Palace (Photo Credit – http://commons.wikimedia.org)

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The Arabian Desert (Photo Credit – http://www.nature.com)

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The Burj Khalifa (Photo Credit – http://architecture.about.com)

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Ferrari World (Photo Credit – http://www.bestdubaiholidays.com)

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Sunset Yoga (Photo Credit – http://www.timeoutabudhabi.com)

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Next week we’ll be moving on to Turkey! Stay tuned to follow us along on our journey.