For an experience that combines architectural wonder with spiritual contemplation, no trip to the United Arab Emirates is complete without a visit to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. A 90-minute drive from Dubai, this breathtaking mosque is one of the largest in the world, spanning 30 acres and with capacity for up to 40,000 worshippers. More than just another photo opportunity for your Instagram feed, a visit to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a soul-stirring experience–and one that will leave a lasting impression.
A Brief History
Completed in December 2007, this spectacular space was built in honour of the first ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is buried within the grounds. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque took 11 years to construct and cost and eye-popping 2 billion dirhams ($545 million). The result is an architectural marvel of gleaming white marble, 24-karat gold details and intricate stonework featuring semi-precious stones, such as lapis lazuli, amethyst, red agate and mother of pearl.
The mosque has 82 domes, more than 1000 columns, and one of the world’s largest chandeliers, a 33-foot, 12-ton extravaganza that graces the main prayer hall. Underneath this eye-popping light fixture lies the largest hand-knotted carpet on Earth, which took 1,200 artisans two years to make.
And while all of this opulence may sound excessive, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is far from gaudy. Instead, this spiritual site is a place of serenity and introspection, with graceful reflection pools and a sprawling central sahan (courtyard) surrounded by colonnaded walkways.
Best Time to Visit
This marble masterpiece is spectacular at any time of day, but it becomes other-worldly come sunset. Time your visit to coincide with the evening call to prayer, as the muezzin’s melodic chant echoes through the courtyard and worshippers flock to the main prayer hall. Once the sun goes down, the mosque is illuminated in an awe-inspiring light show that mirrors the phases of the moon, bathing the white marble facade in ever-changing shades of lilac and blue.
As this is a place of Muslim worship, modesty is a must when visiting Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. That means no short, transparent or tight clothing–men and women must wear loose-fitting, ankle-length trousers or skirts, and have their arms covered.
Ladies, you’ll also have to wear a headscarf at all times, and even if you feel like you’ve nailed the dress code and brought your own scarf along, chances are you’ll be ushered into the changing rooms at the entrance and handed an abaya, a long hooded robe to wear over your clothes.
It’s also worth noting that the mosque is a shoe-free zone, so be prepared to leave your footwear at the communal racks inside.
Don’t Leave Without…
Paying a visit to the washrooms. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is home to some of the most stunning facilities we’ve ever seen. As ablution (ritual washing of the feet and hands) is central to Islamic worship, the underground washrooms are astonishing spaces of marble and semi-precious stones.
Food and Drink
You can’t take any food or drink inside the mosque grounds, but there is a branch of The Coffee Club at the North Gate entrance (near the souvenir shop) to refuel before or after your visit.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday to Thursday (last entrance at 9:30 p.m.). On Friday mornings, the mosque is open to worshippers only, with general admission commencing at 4:30 p.m. During the Holy Month of Ramadan, the mosque is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. (closed Fridays). As prayer timings change each day, it’s worth checking the timetable when planning your trip.
Complimentary one-hour guided tours run each day, offering insight into the architectural elements of the mosque and providing an introduction to the Islamic civilization. Tours run at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Friday; and 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday.
If you’re based in Dubai, you could join a one-day bus tour to Abu Dhabi, including a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, with pick-up and drop-off at your hotel. If you’d prefer a more personalized experience, jump in a taxi for the 90-minute drive from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, for a cost of around 250 dirham each way. While you’re in town, pay a visit to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a 20-minute drive from the mosque.