Dubai and Abu Dhabi: two dazzling UAE cities with overnight stopovers. Make the most of your visit with after-dark adventures, says night-owl resident Rob Garratt
Like nearly every expat you will encounter in Dubai, I came for a year – and half a decade later, I can’t imagine calling anywhere else home. But while many residents get sold on the sun, for me, it’s always been after dark when the city shines brightest.
Quite literally – the UAE’s most-populated city might be known for its rampant, relentless vertical ascension towards the heavens, but Dubai’s daring, jagged assortment of skyscrapers never look better than when brazenly lit up at night. Forget the bygone, postcard glories of New York or Hong Kong, Dubai is the digital age’s flagship of bountiful architectural ambition, as any after dark excursion down the central Sheikh Zayed Road strip will reveal.
The jewel in this most illuminated crown remains the Burj Khalifa – still sitting pretty at 828 metres as the world’s tallest building, since 2009. But the Burj’s greatest gift might be the dizzying views it offers of the jumbled, neighbouring high-rise metropolis from the classy 122nd floor lounge, At.mosphere (www.atmosphereburjkhalifa.com).
Further north, the streets and souks which make up the city’s historic creekside lifeblood imbibe a hearty dose of adrenaline after the sun sets. The quintessential “Old Dubai” experience has to be riding across the creek at dusk, in a crowded abra amongst workers clocking off for the day – the ride between the Deira and Bur Dubai districts costs just a dirham (22p). Afterward, I like to dine on traditional Arabic mezze while suspended on stilts over the water, at the humble, basic Bayt Al Wakeel restaurant, hidden down a narrow alleyway (www.wakeel.ae).
As a music and arts writer, my most memorable evenings lately have been spent at the young Dubai Opera. Long derided as a city without culture, the best performance space in the Middle East is now undisputedly found in Downtown Dubai. Since opening in August 2016, the state-of-the-art, 2,000-capacity venue has hosted everything from West End musicals and top-notch orchestras to Arabic superstars and family shows. Check the programme when you’re in town (www.dubaiopera.com).
Of course it’s a different tempo of nightlife for which Dubai is known – and it rarely disappoints. For world-class clubbing the options are limitless, and the trends ever-changing. But even hardened locals remain drawn to 360°, the circular, rooftop hangout set 1km out to sea, in the shadows of the renowned, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab – and pumping some of the finest house music in town.
For a quieter night, I head to Jumeirah Public Beach and take a plastic outdoor seat at Bu Qtair, a casual, neighbourhood “seafood shack” where instead of a menu, you choose from the day’s catch lined up on the counter – an untamed experience that rebukes all stuffy Dubai clichés.
I don’t let any visitor leave without first taking a twilight boat cruise from Dubai Marina – the views back to shore of this huddled mass of twinkly towers encapsulates everything the city is after dark – big, brash, buzzing and utterly immutable.
Of course Abu Dhabi is at its best after dark – because for at least half the year, it’s too hot to endure direct sunlight. But aside from the seasonal summer peak, the evening climate is ideal all year round, thanks to a refreshing coastal breeze blowing in from the Arabian Gulf.
Which is why Abu Dhabi’s arching seaside corniche – from which the city slowly unfolds inland – transforms when the sun goes down, attracting every element of the capital’s cosmopolitan population out under the night sky. Soaking up this inclusive ambience – watching kids throw balls, families sit down to picnics and workmen play cards – remains my favourite pastime.
I like to start at the Corniche’s northern end at dusk, and slowly stroll the sweeping 5km (3 mile) curve before sitting down with a mojito at the excellent beachside lounge Asia De Cuba (asiadecuba.com/abu_dhabi). If you follow in my footsteps, be sure to soak up the grandiosity of Emirates Palace, gleaming gloriously golden when lit at night. Then turn to consider the unflappable vertiginous ascent of Etihad Towers, an interconnected complex of five futuristic skyscrapers, between 54 and 69 floors high, which you might recall from a death-defying stunt in Hollywood blockbuster Furious 7. The ludicrous image of Vin Diesel’s super-car crashing, mid-air, out of one tower and gliding into the next is never far from my mind whenever I walk past.
Abu Dhabi’s nocturnal skyline possesses that rare power to stop strollers in awe – just try to avoid staring at the beguiling coin-shaped Aldar HQ, or the architectural marvel of Capital Gate, set at an incline of 18° and recognised with the Guinness World Record for “farthest manmade leaning building”.
Sometimes, all those shiny surfaces get too much, which is when I like to head out of the city, and into the desert. After just a short drive, the high-rise majesty disappears like a dream, replaced by the humbling visage of endless swathes of wild, yellow sands. To really soak up the serenity of this age-old, untamed land, camp overnight. If that sounds scary, check out the range of tour operators offering well organised overnight excursions.
As bizarre as this sounds, Abu Dhabi’s greatest asset might be city planning. The tight, Manhattan-esque grid system of the capital’s main, T-shaped island colludes to create a fascinating street life – thrusting together the emirate’s colourful and contrasting communities in a way you won’t find in the sprawl of neighbouring Dubai.
Nowhere is this clearer than the slightly faded Emirates Plaza Hotel (www.emiratesplaza.net) which, over six floors, hosts a dozen restaurants and nightclubs, each catering to distinctly different expat communities. Tour the globe in a single evening – indulge in a Sri Lankan dinner at Soorya then head to hear a kicking live Ethiopian band at Mombasa, before ironically hitting Filipino disco Manila Bay – or perhaps Iranian nightclub Shiraz, or Bollywood hang-out Sargam.
In Abu Dhabi after dark, all the world is at your fingertips.