1. Louvre Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi, UAE
Abu Dhabi is the cultural lighthouse of the UAE, home to ancient forts, traditional villages and unique ‘falaj’ irrigation systems that have maintained life in the desert for thousands of years. The Al Ain Oasis, which became the UAE’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, is believed to be some 4,000 years old and was once an important agricultural centre for the entire Arabian Peninsula. Today, the emirate is looking outwards, celebrating the cultural and artistic history of the entire world with its ever-growing collection of museums.
The current jewel in the cultural crown is Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island, the second outpost of France’s iconic museum. Designed by award-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the museum has 23 permanent galleries as well as areas dedicated to temporary exhibitions celebrating local and regional artists. Vincent Van Gogh’s Self-portrait made an appearance when the museum opened in November, as well as Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronniere. In the future, the Norman Foster-designed Zayed National Museum and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi – both on Saadiyat Island – will add yet more strings to Abu Dhabi’s cultural bow.
WHY NOW: It’s going to be a big year for the luxury hotel scene on Saadiyat Island, as Jumeirah and Rotana prepare to open gleaming new resorts. In downtown Abu Dhabi, new hotels from EDITION, Fairmont and W are also in the making this year.
HOW TO VISIT: Stay at The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort and enjoy access to Louvre Abu Dhabi and Fashion Afternoon Tea in addition to your stay. Starts from AED 950 (US $25) per night.
2. Dubai Opera
Although it’s known more for its shopping malls and beaches than history and culture, there’s plenty of the latter out there for visitors who care to look. A stroll through the historical neighbourhood of Al Fahidi at the edge of Dubai Creek is a fantastic way to dive into the world of ancient Arabian life, before continuing on to the spice and gold souks or one of the area’s traditional restaurants or galleries. But while one eye’s on the past, the other is always looking to the future in Dubai, and nowhere represents its worldly view better than Dubai Opera – a multi-format performing arts centre that seats up to 2,000 guests at full capacity.
Some of the world’s greatest performers in the worlds of opera, ballet, music and theatre have taken to the stage since it opened in 2016, with an opening night spectacle by Plácido Domingo and subsequent performances including Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. The experience doesn’t have to stop when the curtain falls; visitors can take a tour of the remarkable dhow-shaped building, designed by architect Janus Rostok, and check out the VIP hospitality suite – inspiration for your next night at the opera.
WHY NOW: This year sees a season brimming with big-name acts, including Monty Python’s Spamalot and the Polish National Opera performing Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Verdi’s Aida, plus man of the moment Ludovico Einaudi in concert on February 8 and 9.
HOW TO VISIT: Check into a Deluxe Room at Renaissance Downtown Hotel, Dubai, from AED 1,350 (US $368) per night and you’ll be picked up from Dubai International Airport in a luxury sedan and given a luxurious gift on arrival.
3. Pyramids of Giza
Few constructs in the world bear testament to man’s indomitable spirit as clearly as the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, the greatest monuments of the ancient Egyptian Empire and the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing today. The well-heeled have travelled to Egypt for hundreds of years to visit these awe-inspiring buildings, and today, many visitors continue their Egyptian tour to explore the temples of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, or the desert towns along the coast of the mighty River Nile.
Many of the relics of this ancient world can be found in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, including the burial treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb. But the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum on a plateau between the pyramids and Cairo in 2020, will bring together the world’s largest collection of Egyptian treasures, providing a new home to some 100,000 exhibits. Built at a cost of some US $1 billion, the museum will be an iconic architectural achievement when it opens, putting a much needed modern cultural spin on one of the world’s most historic cities.
WHY NOW: It’s a great year to visit the Egyptian capital: The St. Regis Cairo makes it debut on the banks of the Nile this summer and Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at the First Residence is soon to emerge from a major overhaul of its 262 rooms and suites.
HOW TO VISIT: Abercrombie & Kent’s 10-night Classic Egypt itinerary will take you on a journey via some of the country’s top cultural attractions in style, accompanied by a private Egyptologist. Starts from £2,245 (US $3,193) per person.
4. Royal Opera House Muscat
History books recall the ancient city of Muscat taking shape more than 2,000 years ago, making it one of most well established cities on the Arabian Peninsula. The traditional Islamic architecture and whitewashed buildings of its old town also make it one of the prettiest, and sites such as the Muttrah Souq and Fort Al-Mirani draw in visitors with the enchanting allure of the stories of 1001 Arabian Nights. The opening of the magnificent Royal Opera House Muscat in 2011 brought to fruition a long-term dream of Sultan Qaboos: to make Muscat a regional centre of cultural engagement and appreciation of the arts.
Seven years on, the Royal Opera House remains the zenith of Muscat’s high society scene, with regular performances celebrating the best of regional musical talent as well as international acts, drawing well-dressed crowds every weekend. Set in manicured gardens, the opera house and cultural centre is faithful to the city’s all white appearance; built in a contemporary Islamic style of architecture that’s both forward thinking and anchored in the city’s rich past.
WHY NOW: A handful of major luxury hotels are coming online in the Omani capital this year, including Jumeirah, W and Kempinski properties; the latter on the new Al Mouj (The Wave) development, which is also home to a 124-berth marina and Greg Norman golf course. Ritz-Carlton’s Al Bustan Palace reopens after a major face-lift in September, and Shangri-La’s Barr al Jissah is segregating its uber-luxury Al Husn wing as a separate resort.
HOW TO VISIT: The Chedi Muscat’s ‘Night at the Opera’ package includes two nights in a Chedi Club Suite, two tickets to a performance at Royal Opera House with limousine transfers and dinner for two at The Beach Restaurant from US $3,560.
5. Yves Saint Laurent Museum
Wandering through the labyrinthine alleyways of Marrakech’s ancient medina and haggling over the price of an elaborate carpet while sipping mint tea are all part of the cultural whirlwind that is Marrakech. But the opening last year of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent provided another reason to visit for fans of haute couture. Designed by the late Pierre Bergé and Parisian Studio KO, the museum is an homage to the French fashion icon, who spent weeks in the city each year to work on new collections.
As well as a permanent collection housing some of the most iconic YSL pieces, early sketches and some wonderful photographs, there’s a rotating programme of temporary exhibitions built around themes such as art, décor, fashion and ethnography. The 4,000-sqm space also hosts concerts, film screenings and live HD performances from opera houses and theatres around the world. Adjacent to the museum is the Jardin Majorelle (garden), where YSL – one of many creatives drawn to this enchanting yet hectic city – sought peace and inspiration.
WHY NOW: This beautiful museum is reason enough to visit for anyone interested in fashion history, but the opening this year of The Oberoi Marrakech on the outskirts of town make Morocco a must for 2018.
HOW TO VISIT: a stone’s throw from the city but far enough out to feel like you’ve escaped the hubbub, Mandarin Oriental Marrakech is a gorgeous escape set in 20 hectares of gardens. Rooms start from EUR 850 (US$1,061) per night, including daily breakfast and airport transfers.
South-Western Desert, Jordan
Home to the super-saline Dead Sea, the eerie expanse of Wadi Rum, and ancient city of Petra, Jordan is one of the most diverse and rewarding countries in the Middle East. Once home to the Nabataean Kingdom, which made its capital in Petra some 2,400 years ago, it’s no surprise that Jordan is home to some of the greatest cultural relics in the region. The rock-hewn city is a marvel of engineering and once an important stop-off on trade routes between east and west. Petra first came to the public attention when it appeared in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), but it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.
Today, the Rose City reveals itself to visitors after emerging from a kilometre-long canyon known as the ‘Siq’, where the 43-metre high façade of the Treasury rises above, carved into the sandstone cliffs. Tour it with a guide to learn about the history of the Nabataeans, and discover the cavernous Monastery up a flight of 800 steps and an ancient amphitheatre that once held 3,000 visitors. Visit at night and the grand old city glimmers in the light of hundreds of candles.
WHY NOW: Jordan welcomes a raft of new luxury hotels this year, with St. Regis and W making their debuts in Amman, and Jumeirah and Luxury Collection resorts opening their doors in the Red Sea town of Aqaba.
HOW TO VISIT: Lightfoot Travel’s eight night ‘Highlights of Jordan’ itinerary winds up in Petra after days spent exploring the historical sites of Amman, the Dana Nature Reserve and Wadi Rum. Finish up in the Dead Sea to wind down after a week of cultural immersion. Starting from US $6,200 for two guests.