Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Most of you would probably think of Dubai as THE place to go in the Middle East, and that’s for a reason. But the actual capital city of the United Arab Emirates is Abu Dhabi, located just a 90 minute drive along the coast from Dubai, and there are so many things to do in Abu Dhabi, you’ll be surprised!
Internationally, Abu Dhabi is most famous for its impressive mosque or the annual final Formula 1 race of the season, which takes place there by the Yas Marina every November.
If you decide to come to the United Arab Emirates, you should spend at least three or four nights of your time in Abu Dhabi to see some of its main attractions. It’s got a large international airport with home carrier Etihad Airways, but it’s also easily reachable from Dubai by bus or rental car. We have done both, and while a bus only sets you back around five dollars, a decent rental car only costs about US$40 for 24 hours, including insurance. Rental cars are very affordable and definitely the easiest mode of transport in the UAE, if you’re over 21.
If you don’t like hot weather too much, try and go between November and March. From June to September, temperatures usually peak at 45 to 50°C, which is 113 to 122°F, combined with a drenching humidity. In our opinion, April and early May as well as October and early November are the best times to go with nice daytime peaks around 35°C (95°F), and evenings are still nice and warm to sit outside.
But the thing that really matters: Out of the 365 days a year, only six will drizzle a few drops of rain onto the city! That means, whenver you go, you’ll be in for a very good portion of sunshine!
7 Awesome Things To Do In Abu Dhabi:
1. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is definitely the most famous attraction of the city and it’s packed with superlatives. The mosque is made almost entirely out of 15 sorts of white marble from several different countries, and richly ornamented with expensive materials such as gold. The main dome is the largest mosque dome in the world with a diameter of over 100 feet and there are more than 40 other domes placed atop the mosque. Another impressive thing are the german made chandeliers in the inside part, of which the largest one measures almost 50 feet in height. To date, only two larger chandeliers have ever been built on our planet.
Inside the central prayer hall you’ll find the worlds largest carpet at more than 60,000 square feet. It weighs an unbelievable 47 tons and it took over 1,000 carpet knotters more than two years to complete it.
With its stunning architecture it’s certainly one of the most beautiful mosques existing. And as if all that wasn’t enough, it gets even more fascinating as soon as the sun goes down, when different light installations turn the whole building into a shiny and glorious blue piece of art that you can even see from a plane.
Best of all: The entry is completely free of charge. Just make sure you check the opening times before you go, which might be restricted due to religious events. They also offer free audio tours and free guided tours.
When you go, make sure to wear appropriate attire. Generally no shorts, women have to either bring or borrow (for free) a non-transparent abaya and headscarf to wear for the entire time of being in or around the mosque. As this gets really, and we mean really hot in summer, make sure to take plenty of water. It’s definitely worth it though.
2. Saadiyat Island Beach Club
Saadiyat Island is home to a perfect beach that you would rather place somewhere in the Caribbean by the looks of it. The UAE are known for broad, wide beaches, but usually the colours aren’t the prettiest around. This one is an exception though, and definitely as good as it’ll get in the UAE.
Unfortunately, two resorts occupy most of it (the Park Hyatt and the St. Regis, which are both fantastic), but there is a little beach club that is open to the public. If you can’t afford staying at one of the resorts, make sure to check it out. It’s not a bargain at around US$20 to 100 per day (depending on season, date etc.), but you’ll have unlimited access to the sauna, jacuzzi, steam room, beach, pool and loungers for as long as you want.
3. Go on an adventure in the desert
There are many different options for this. With the desert right at your doorstep, don’t miss the chance to explore it. The typical way for tourists is a desert safari, where you can try out sand boarding, camel riding or dune buggies to name just a few activities. There are a whole lot of tour operators though, so be sure to check which ones are good before you go. We have only done one from Dubai with Arabian Expedition and it was a nice experience with excellent value, therefore we cannot speak for Abu Dhabi.
If you stay longer and make friends with locals (also expats) who live in Abu Dhabi, they might be able to take you out there for a picnic, which is a really popular thing to do in the evening.
4. Eat where the locals eat
Eat where the locals eat is probably a good thing no matter where you go. However, “local” is generally hard to specify for the UAE, because 50 years ago there was hardly anything there apart from some desert bedouins and fishing villages. Today, almost 90% of the people living there are not actually Emirati. And of course, neither is most of the food you’ll find. There is a nearly unlimited variety of food choices that exist in the UAE today, but the food typically associated with “local” nowadays is a mix of emirati and lebanese cuisine.
It’s very easy to result to international chains inside all the shopping malls, or to eat at one of the many fancy hotel restaurants everywhere around. But first of all, where the locals eat, it’s actually still very affordable (for example, soft drinks under a dollar), and of course it tastes at least as good as elsewhere while being way more authentic.
An easy area to find lots of the above mentioned food lies between the Corniche Beach and the Madinat Zayed shopping complex. We have been to Chagh Kebab and Shish Shawerma, which were both really delicious and good value.
5. Visit the many attractions of Yas Island
Yas Island was nothing but a stretch of sand in the early 2000s. Since then, it’s grown to the leading spot for local and international tourism in Abu Dhabi. These are some of the things to do on Yas Island:
- Yas Marina Circuit – A Formula 1 racetrack hosting the final race of each Formula 1 season ever since 2009. The race takes place in late November and lasts from about an hour before sunset to long after dark, which is spectacular to watch. We’ve done it ourselves!
Also, one of the most stylish hotels in the world, the Yas Viceroy, is actually built right across the Formula 1 track. It looks more like a spaceship than like a hotel.
- Yas Ferrari World – A large Ferrari themed park, also hosting the worlds fastest roller coaster with a top speed of 240 kph (150 mph).
- Yas Water World – Being the largest waterpark in the whole country, it’s a fun place to come for people of all ages.
- In 2018, the worlds third Warner Bros. World is scheduled to open on Yas Island.
- In 2022, the worlds first SeaWorld without orcas is set to open on Yas Island.
6. Go kayaking in the mangroves
Would mangroves have come to your mind when thinking about the desert of the Arabian Peninsula? Probably not. But in Abu Dhabi they actually do have large areas of mangroves thanks to the many shallow lagoons and the humid climate. You can see some parts of them literally right next to the city, for example from the Anantara Eastern Mangroves hotel. There are several kayaking tours offered, which is a great and unusual experience that most people going to the UAE would never have heard of. Just don’t mistake the little crabs on the trees for spiders! 🙂
7. Experience one of the ridiculously amazing hotels
Abu Dhabi has some hotels that are such an experience, they deserve their own spot here. From extravagant desert resorts to impressive skyscrapers to luxurious private islands, it’s all your choice. Just to name some:
- Emirates Palace – The most expensive hotel building ever constructed in the whole world.
- Jumeirah Etihad Towers – Best-rated hotel in Abu Dhabi and most impressive building along the Corniche.
- The St. Regis or Park Hyatt Saadiyat Island – Remember the beach from earlier? This is where to stay.
- Yas Viceroy – Illuminated incredibly at night, built right across the Formula 1 racetrack.
- Zaya Nurai Island Resort – Recently opened private island with unbelievably nice pool villas.
- Anantara Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort – The best desert resort in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, a 2 hour drive rom the city.
Tip: They’ll be the most affordable in June, which is low(est) season.
Where to stay:
— Hostels are not allowed in the UAE. Please don’t book any online if you do find one, because they are illegal. —
Budget: Ibis Capital Gate
Mid Range: Grand Millennium Al Wahda
Luxury: Jumeirah at Etihad Towers
[Super Luxury: Zaya Nurai Island Resort]
One final piece of advice:
Abu Dhabi is still a little more conservative than Dubai. Please be sure to behave appropriately according to local traditions, such as not kissing or holding hands in public, having your shoulders and knees covered when outside and in malls, etc.
You’ll most likely find people not respecting this and not encountering any problems, but decide for yourself whether you want to be a considerate visitor or not.
Within the premises of international hotel complexes you’re usually not bound to these rules. Do note however, that you or your partner have to be 21 years of age to check into a hotel room. The enforcement of this rule varies.
Nevertheless, the UAE are an example for tolerant behaviour of its citizens. There is hardly any crime or terrorism going on, despite at least four world religions commonly being practised in the country: Islam (locals and expats), Christianity (mostly Western and Philippine expats), Hinduism (mostly Indian expats), and Buddhism (mostly Southeast Asian expats).
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