The impressive Qasr Al Watan in numbers

Gazing out over the picturesque expanse of Lisbon from my hotel’s rooftop bar, its pastel-shaded, higgledy piggledy buildings interspersed with verdant trees, I try to take it all in. The sky, amber-hued as the sun sets; the Tagus river and accompanying Ponte 25 de Abril bridge, sparkling roguishly in the distance; the storybook-perfect Castelo St Jorge, set high upon a hill in all its glory. I look, and look and look – but I don’t reach for my smartphone.

Yes, ladies and gentleman – I may be the only travel writer on the planet who doesn’t have Instagram. I’m not alone but I’m certainly in the minority if a hasty Twitter poll is anything to go by; of 57 respondents, 82 per cent claimed to be on the ’gram.

Friends and colleagues never fail to meet my app absenteeism with disbelief. “But you go to all those amazing places!” they say. “It’s such a waste!”

We’ll tell you what’s true. You can form your own view.

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My standard response is a curt, “I don’t like taking photos or looking at other people’s.” Which usually stumps them.

They’re right in one respect. I do get the opportunity to visit some phenomenal spots – luxury hotels with infinity pools, white sand beaches lapped by cobalt waves, Michelin-starred restaurants with tasting menus so damn good I feel drunk on decadence. (Do you hate me yet?)

Much of it is Insta-heaven, just begging to be caught, captioned and catapulted onto the internet’s favourite photo-sharing platform. But, while I obviously love heading out into the world to explore and experience, I haven’t the slightest desire to distil each destination into one staged shot, timed to perfection and filtered beyond all recognition. That doesn’t feel like telling the story of a place to me. 

By its very nature, Instagram demands that users pick and choose what to show (and show off). Inevitably it’s the ugly, the uncomfortable or the just plain boring aspects of travel – and of life – that get edited out. Journalists are, first and foremost, storytellers, and the idea of highlighting only the bright and shiny parts of somewhere – the parts guaranteed to garner those all-important likes – doesn’t sit quite right with me.

It probably (read definitely) sounds pretentious, but the most exciting aspect of travelling for me is the act of wrestling each fresh place into language: how to best describe the colour of those leaves? The taste of that dessert? The feel of that breeze? How to extract the essence of each experience in all its gritty, gorgeous reality? A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words can reflect a trip in a way one over-saturated image cannot.

Travel influencers also have a lot to answer for when it comes to promoting “bad behaviour” to get the money shot – just this summer, influencer Elisabeth Brentano, otherwise known as Elizabeth on the Road, started her petition “Encouraging the social media generation to behave more responsibly outdoors”, calling for individuals to understand the negative impact their actions can have on the planet.

Of course, that’s only half the story. Truth time: what really freaks me out about Instagram is the idea of how closely tied my fragile ego would be to my travels.

It would be nice to think that, when we post things on social media, it’s done merely for the pleasure of sharing our lives and connecting with others; we just want to be part of that big, beautiful conversation. 

It would be nice – but it wouldn’t be true. For most of us, it’s the endorphin rush of seeing those numbers climb – follows, likes, shares, comments – that keeps us coming back for more. Whether we like it or not, we are all approval junkies for whom those figures are inherently bound up in our self-worth. In the era of the ubiquitous selfie, how could you not associate thousands of likes with the idea that thousands of people like you? And, conversely, that a dearth of interactions means you’re essentially an online pariah?

It happens on every platform, but Instagram is one of the worst offenders when it comes to filtering the realness out of real life and making us feel our value can be measured numerically. 

To be frank, I just don’t think I could hack it. I can already see how things would go – here’s me enjoying that Lisbon skyline. Here’s me honing the shot to find the best angle, filtering it so the buildings really pop, cropping out the messy table in front of me. Here’s me posting it. And, several hours later, here’s me checking it, and rechecking it, and rechecking it, ad infinitum, to see how many interactions I’ve had. I ignore the sweeping landscape before me; I ignore the cocktail in my glass; I even ignore the person sitting opposite me. I don’t need a crystal ball to see my inescapable Instagram future.

Instead, free from such constraints, I’m able to live – not just in the moment, but in the place. I devour the view with my eyes, rather than observing it second-hand through a screen. I savour each sip of the velvety espresso martini in my hand. I talk and listen and laugh with my companion, who is far more deserving of my attention than a collection of strangers online. 

And that will always be worth more to me than a million meaningless pats on the back from people who don’t know me: the chance to turn outwards to see the world, rather than turning inwards so the world sees me.

Qasr Al Watan is unique cultural landmark in the heart of Abu Dhabi. It offers the world an insight into Arab heritage and the governing principles that shaped the history of the UAE and its vision to the future. With so much to absorb, here’s a breakdown of Qasr Al Watan by numbers.


It took 150 million hours to build the Palace that’s the combined efforts of all the workers involved in its construction. There are 5,000 unique geometric and floral patterns that have been designed especially for decorating the Qasr Al Watan, inspired by iconography across the Arab world.

Each door in the Palace took 350 hours to construct. They’re made of solid maple, selected both for its pale colour and its durability.  The detailing is carved by hand and embellished in 23-carat French gold.


The Great Hall is the largest room in the compound, measuring 100 metres long by 100 metres wide. It’s soaring dome is the architectural highlight, and one of the largest in the world, with a diameter of 37 metres. The room was designed to reflect a sense of vertical proportion by division in thirds, with the first skyline measured at 6.1 metres, the second at 15.5 metres and the third at 21 metres. There are four mirrored cubes that have been placed cleverly inside the Great Hall. The art installations allow visitors to view the room’s architectural detailing and intricate craftsmanship from a variety of perspectives.


  • 6 unique presidential gifts at Qasr Al Watan
  • Step back in time at the House of Knowledge
  • Visiting Qasr Al Watan? Here’s the best things to see


The hall features a 12-tonne chandelier as a centrepiece comprising 350,000 individual pieces of crystal. It was designed to host meetings of the Federal Supreme Council, as well as meetings and summits of organisations such as the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.


There are approximately 149,000 pieces of silver, crystal and china used to lay the table for official dinners in the Presidential Banquet Hall, when extending Emirati hospitality to representatives of close nations and allies.


There are three things to consider when choosing a presidential gift: culture, religion and personal taste. The Presidential Gifts collection at Qasr Al Watan is just a selection of the diplomatic gifts the UAE has received from dignitaries during state visits including carpets from Turkmenistan, an ornate sword and shield from Kazakhstan, armour from Japan and a beautiful khanjar from Oman.


Located in the East Wing, the House of Knowledge contains an impressive collection of artefacts and manuscripts that highlight the origins of libraries in the Arab world. In one exhibit alone, the Historia Naturalis encyclopaedia, there are 20,000 facts as compiled by Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder. It is the most important source for geographic and scientific knowledge in ancient times.The collection is also exhibiting 3 holy books in honour of the 2019 UAE Year of Tolerance. The Holy Qur’an, the Holy Bible and the book of David’s Psalms are on display together as a symbol of tolerance.


There are 50,000 books in Qasr Al Watan’s Library, covering the UAE’s political, social and cultural history which can be accessed free of charge once registered at the Visitor Centre. As well as books, there are many important resources that have been collected over the past 35 years, including magazines, pamphlets and periodicals bringing the total number of reading titles housed in the Library to 483,937. If you add the Library’s digital collection, there are more than 16 million items that can be accessed online from anywhere in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.


A 15 minute sound and light show is projected onto the facade of the building each evening at 7:30pm, reflecting on the UAE’s journey of the past, present and future.


• Qasr Al Watan is situated on a 380,000 square-metre site within the UAE’s Presidential Palace compound.

•There is only one ticket, 60AED general admission ticket (Qasr Al Watan Ticket) and children under 17 half price.

• Guided tours run for 60 minutes and cost AED30 on top of the admission price. They depart every 30 minutes and can be taken in either English or Arabic, mandarin or Russian. Private tours are also available on request and cost AED600 for up to 20 visitors.

For more info and buying your tickets online visit:

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