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Abu Dhabi: Simon Ostheimer takes a Big Bus Tour of this fast-emerging city

By: Simon Ostheimer

In the 1930s, Abu Dhabi was a quiet, barren place, home to pearl divers living in simple houses made of reeds, who eked out a living from the surrounding seas, while the Empty Quarter – the vast desert interior – was roamed by Bedouin. Then came the oil.

Today, the ever-expanding emirates is home to 2.4 million people, witnesses to one of the world’s biggest ever construction projects.

The best way to see just how fast Abu Dhabi is changing is by riding up top on a Big Bus Tour. Part of a global network of bus tours, these hop-on, hop-off rides allow visitors to easily visit and view all of the city’s major attractions over a 24-hour period. Tickets are priced from US$49.50 per adult.

With 11 stops, the route takes in all of the city’s major sites, beginning with Saadiyat Island. Featuring buildings by famous architects Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando and Frank Gehry, this art hub will house branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim.

From this stop, you have the option of switching to a shuttle bus to Yas Island, which hosts an F1 race at the futuristic Yas Marina Circuit every November, as well as being home to the world’s only Ferrari theme park.

Here you can ride Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster, or if that’s not your speed, perhaps instead take a stroll through the Galleria Ferrari, where you can get up close to some of the greatest cars ever made.

The next stop after Saadiyat is Central Market. Razed by a fire almost a year ago, it has recently emerged from the ashes as a chic, Norman Foster-designed mall. For 40 years from the 1960s, this was the city’s hub of commercial activity, full of the sound of merchants from around Asia.

The modern souk couldn’t be more different: a chic, 250-shop space with full air-con and mod cons. As well as picking up a souvenir camel statue, T-shirt or key ring, shops to watch out for here include the honey-obsessed Laverne, and a branch of Shakespeare & Co., a rather odd Alice in Wonderland-themed tea-house.

As the new souk shows, Emiratis love their air-conditioned malls, and none more so than the Marina Mall, just a few stops further along on the Big Bus Tour. The first thing you’ll notice is the soaring Sky Tower. Standing some 100 metres tall, it rises up from the centre of the mall and offers great views.

Back down on earth, you’ll find more than 250 stores that cater to everything from Louis Vuitton to the Manchester City FC store, where you can buy replica shirts of the Abu Dhabi-owned English football champions. The kids should also be happy with the entertainment, including tenpin bowling, ice skating, a cinema, and a “Fun City”, which features arcade games, bumper cars and even a roller coaster.

When you’ve had your fill – there’s also a decent food court serving fast food from around the world – board the bus for the short hop to the Emirates Palace Hotel. Determined to outdo Dubai’s US$1billion sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, Abu Dhabi spent a staggering US$3billion on this huge Arabian Nights-themed building.

If you’d like to stay a while inside without paying for a room for the night, book a table at the hotel’s Mezlai restaurant, which serves traditional Emirati cuisine in sumptuous surrounds. (However, homesick Canadians might want to make a pilgrimage to bagel and coffee institution Tim Hortons at the Mushrif Mall. Mmm. Tim Hortons’ French vanilla cappuccino….

The Big Bus Tour saves the best for last: The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Considered to be one of the modern treasures of Abu Dhabi, construction of this majestic place of worship was initiated by the late President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Able to hold up to 41,000 people, the mosque is open daily to tourists, except Friday mornings, when prayers take place.

Reflective pools are lined with dark tiles, while coloured floral marble and intricate mosaics pave the 17,000-square-metre courtyard. The best time of day to visit is at 5pm, when you can watch the sun go down as people rush to evening prayer. It has obviously been built to be a landmark, Abu Dhabi’s version of the Taj Mahal.

In the end, as your day-long tour on the red Big Bus makes readily apparent, Abu Dhabi is a city in a rush to meet its future – you’d best get there before it arrives.