As one of the richest cities on earth, Abu Dhabi is a superlative city and an expert at showcasing the sublime. Picture white-domed mosques, candy cane minarets and sweeping romantic deserts; it is the essence of Arabia, from camel racing at dawn to burning-red sand dunes at sunset.
But alongside this storybook slice of the Gulf, the capital of the United Arab Emirates has a more indulgent, contemporary side that is anything but subtle. Combining the biggest and the brashest with the flashiest and the fastest, Abu Dhabi is home to some of the world’s most exciting new adventures.
The world’s most expensive mosque
It may not predate the ancient mosques of Mecca or Medina or outclass the iconic turquoise-and-gold domed prayer halls of Esfahan, but the venerable Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has a more audacious calling card. Built in the late 1990s, it has become the world’s most expensive mosque. As its outer perimeters are growing every year to house even more worshippers, no one quite knows what the final bill will tally up to.
Inspired by both Mughal and Moorish mosque architecture and paved with floral marble from – count them – 28 different countries, the mosque has a trifecta of superlatives. Beneath your feet spreads out the world’s largest carpet, made by a 1200-strong army of the finest Persian carpet weavers. Above your head, hang the mosque’s seven gold and Swarovski-crystal chandeliers: usurped as the world’s largest by neighbouring Qatar, they remain incomparably the most expensive disco glitter balls ever made. And then the pièce de résistance towering above the 1000 columns outside is the glistening main white marble dome. At 85 metres in height, it is the largest of its kind.
The world’s fastest rollercoaster
Here, it pays to choose your lunch carefully. Ferrari World, the world’s largest indoor theme park, is also home to the world’s fastest rollercoaster. An extreme white knuckle ride for adrenalin junkies and petrol heads, the Formula Rossa ride reaches speeds of 240km/h in less than five seconds and recreates the Formula 1 cockpit experience in all its glory. After flying through chicanes with a maximum acceleration G-Force of 1.7Gs, you’ll end up having a face that looks like a sand-blasted desert dromedary. Go regardless; it’s worth it.
The world’s most expensive hotel
Big, brash and bold: even the cakes served at the Emirates Palace are made from gold. Like a cross between a fairy tale castle from Sleeping Beauty and Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders, the capital’s self-proclaimed seven-star Emirates Palace was the world’s most expensive hotel when it was built – to a tune of US$3 billion. Unashamedly grandiose, it epitomises the regal opulence that the world has come to expect from the Gulf: where else would a hotel become a star attraction?
Wander past the fountains, water features and landscape gardens, and follow any number of gold-painted corridors to a surreal backdrop of excessive chandeliers, ballrooms and decadent restaurants and drinking saloons, thankfully open to non-guests. For those with cash to splash, the Emirates Palace also offers the world’s most expensive tailor-made holiday at US$1 million.
If the bling becomes too much, don your sunglasses to explore the kilometres of golden beaches on its doorstep or throw moderation to the desert wind and attempt to eat your own weight in edible gold, with the hotel’s famous desserts and cakes. Come in December, and you’ll be blinded by the world’s most bejewelled Christmas tree.
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