Modern, sleek and shiny, it's hard to believe that the sprawling city of Abu Dhabi was just a bleak fishing and pearling village 40 years ago. Founded in 1761, Abu Dhabi became the home of the ruling Al-Nahyan family when they moved from Liwa in 1793.
It became a moderately successful pearling centre in the 19th century, but the collapse of the pearling industry decimated the town and it sunk into squalor. Oil concessions were granted in the 1930s in a desperate bid to salvage the emirate.

When oil revenue started pouring in thirty years later, the reed and mud-brick huts were rapidly replaced by banks and boutiques, and the settlement has now spread to occupy virtually all of the T-shaped Abu Dhabi island in the centre of the UAE's northern coast.

Abu Dhabi is by far the richest and most politically important of the UAE's seven emirates. Al-Husn Palace, commonly known as the Old Fort or the White Fort, is one of the few buildings in the city over 30 years old.
The original fort was built by the first ruler of the Al-Nahyan dynasty, but this was replaced by the present structure in the late 19th century. Now modernised and restored and used as a document centre, its whitewashed walls are still eye-catching amid the slick skyscrapers. The courtyard and the tilework over the main gate are particularly noteworthy.

Next to the fort is the large, faceless Cultural Foundation, which is much more interesting inside than its exterior suggests. It's mainly used as a library, research and documentation centre but often has exhibits on local history, Islamic art and old manuscripts. There's also a government-run Women's Craft Centre about 5 km south of Abu Dhabi where traditional weavings and other crafts are displayed and sold.

For a touch of local colour head to the north-east of the city and check out the dhow wharf and fish market. It's hardly comparable to Dubai's waterfront but there's a decent amount of bustle, an excellent fish restaurant and a good view of the city. The old souk on the city's northern waterfront has a small gold market and lots of houseware vendors, though it's slated to be replaced by a modern market.

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