Abu Dhabi is a land of many contrasts. Within a single day, you can have an adventure in the wild and untamed desert and then be pampered in one of the most advanced and modern cities in the world. You can experience the finest of dining at a seaside resort, or go climbing and caving in historic mountains. Abu Dhabi truly presents something for everyone, and is a life experience you do not want to miss.
Abu Dhabi is one of seven Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain) that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the Arabian Peninsula. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi is the largest of the Emirates in size and population, and is also the wealthiest. Abu Dhabi serves as the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and Abu Dhabi city houses the residence of the UAE President. The city of Abu Dhabi is the 2nd most populated city in the UAE, second only the the city of Dubai.
Most of the people who live in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi live on an island in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf. The island is not far from the mainland and is connected to it by three amazing bridges. While the main city of Abu Dhabi is on the island, other cities and suburbs are located on the mainland and other islands (Saadiyat Island and Reem Island). The road system in Abu Dhabi is phenomenal, and the bridges that connect the various islands range from 5 to 27 lanes and allow the transit of tens of thousands of vehicles per hour.
The rest of Abu Dhabi is comprised of almost 65,000 square kilometers (nearly 90 percent of the UAE’s total land) of largely uninhabited desert. The Emirate is bordered by the Arabian (Persian) Gulf and the Emirates of Dubai and Sharjah to the north, Qatar to the northwest, Saudi Arabia to the south and west, and Oman to the south and east.
While most of Abu Dhabi consists of harsh, hot desert, the Emirate also sports 700 kilometers of coastline and several hundred islands to the north. There are also mountains in the east that reach to over 1500 meters above sea level. The deserts range from flat, barren lowland swaths to rolling dunes that can reach 300 meters in height.
When To Go:
Abu Dhabi is a year-round tourist location. However, there are some things to keep in mind. The summers are not just hot and humid, they are very hot and humid, and even many of the locals take their vacations elsewhere during the months of June-August. To get the best weather, enjoy the most outdoor activities, and see the most beautiful flora the months of November to April are recommended. Shopping sales are held in late January through February during the month-long Dubai Shopping Festival. If you are looking to spend quality time on the beaches without burning up, March-early May is your best bet.
Below are some
things to do
in Abu Dhabi…
Sheikh Zayed Mosque
If you go to one place in Abu Dhabi it needs to be the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. The mosque can host over 40,000 people, and is the 8th largest mosque in the world. It has four 107 meter minarets. The courtyard is the largest marble mosaic in the world. The nearly 61,000 sq ft hand-woven wool carpet weighs 35 tons and is one of the largest in the world.
Seven chandeliers are made up of literally millions of Swarovski crystals. One of the chandeliers is the 3d largest in the world. Ninety-six columns line the main hall. They are covered in marble inset with mother of pearl and display artistry not often seen. The reflection pools lining the outside reflect the phases of the moon and are highlighted by special lighting effects. This monumental legacy of Abu Dhabi’s founder is absolutely a must-see.
hotel and conference center is one of the most extravagant hotels in the world. With hundreds of acres of manicured gardens, nearly 1.5 km of private beaches, rugby and cricket pitches, tennis courts, regular and adventure swimming pools, fitness center, spas and so much more the Emirate Palace is the luxury hotel of luxury hotels.
Don’t worry about parking, the underground lot can accommodate 2,500 cars. Marble, jewels and gold highlight the rooms. World-class cuisine is found in several on-site restaurants, and museum-quality works of art line the halls. When world leaders visit Abu Dhabi they stay in one of the suites boasting several thousand square feet. While you may not be able to afford a stay, the property deserves a visit.
Observation Deck at 300
Observation Deck at 300
is located on the 74th floor of Tower 2 in the Etihad Tower complex. As the highest viewing portal in the city, the deck will provide you the most picturesque panorama of the city and the gulf. The stunning Abu Dhabi skyline is splendid. Don’t just go to view and take pictures though, enjoy the savory food and delightful beverage options that are available as well.
Abu Dhabi has dozens of malls and all of them are impressive. Best of all, the malls offer a blessed air conditioned reprieve from the city’s pervasive heat and humidity. The three most distinctive are the Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi Mall and Al Wahda. Most of the malls feature high end shops, theatres, fine dining options in addition to food courts, and entertainment options such as ice rinks and bowling alleys.
Beyond the shops; however, the malls are works of art with courtyards, fountains, and inspired architecture. Even if you are not in the market for goods, just witnessing the “mall culture” is worth the trip.
The 9km picturesque walkway that runs along the gulf is one of the most popular locations in Abu Dhabi. Brilliant greenery, gardens, fountains, and places to relax are found regularly between the Breakwater on one end and a traditional port and the Heritage Village souq on the other. Many top hotels are also set along the
. From the Sheraton on one end to the Emirates Palace on the other.
Areas are set aside just for families to play and others for picnics and BBQs. Fitness enthusiasts love walking, jogging, biking, or roller blading along the well maintained boardwalk as street vendors sell their tasteful wares and trinkets up and down the strip. The corniche is also a wonderful place to people watch or just sit and watch the sunset over the sea.
is a reconstruction of an oasis village at one of the corniche. Set in lush gardens with fountains, the living museum features elements of traditional desert life such as campfires, tents made of goat hair, and old-time coffee pots. Craftsmen demonstrate skills in pottery and metal work, women weave and spin. If you spend time talking and accept their hospitality, the craftsmen may let you take a turn at the skills yourself. There is a shop with traditional spices and herbs, along with others that offer handmade items of leather, glass, clothing, and woven items.
This is a great place to practice your bartering skills and pick up some authentic souvenirs.
Don’t forget to take pictures of ‘historic Abu Dhabi’ and think about what life before oil was like. When you’re done, treat yourself to an authentic meal at the restaurant inside the village.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
The majestic falcon plays an important role in Emirati culture. The
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
is the world’s top care institution for falcons and one the world’s largest hospital for birds. Over 6,000 falcons receive care there each year. The hospital is the perfect place to learn about these incredible birds, their care, and the sport of falconry.
Al Ain Museum
Al Ain Palace Museum
, or Sheikh Zayed Museum, was once the palace of the late Sheik Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nayan the founder and first ruler of Abu Dhabi. The palace was built in 1910.
Turned into a museum in 1998 it now gives insight to the life before oil and the life of the ruling class. Several private quarters are open for viewing as are the many courtyards and meeting rooms.
Al Ain Oasis
The 3,000 acre desert oasis and its namesake city,
, lies in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi a couple hours outside of Abu Dhabi city in the foothills of the Hajar Mountains. The oasis is rich in ancient history and is the setting for many cultural events. Al Ain actually boasts seven oases with the Al Ain Oasis being the largest of the seven. From the oasis you can access Jebel Hafit the second largest mountain in the Arab Emirates.
Beyond its aesthetic beauty and respite from the coastal humidity, the Al Ain Oasis is home to almost 150,000 date palms and many hundreds of other flora and fauna. To truly get a sense of what the Emirate of Abu Dhabi is all about, you need to get out of the big city and see the desert, experience the oases and consider the Bedouin lifestyle that was prevalent in the land until only a few generations ago. Unlike many of the man-made structures, and even islands, in the Emirates, the Al Ain Oasis is the real deal – this is the very place that sheltered travelers for thousands of years.
Al Ain Desert Safari
Safari tours are available in the morning, evening, and overnight. You get to decide how you get to the camp either by camel or specially modified Toyota 4x4s. In the evening, if you choose the wadi-bashing 4×4 tours you will stop to see the sunset and then have an opportunity to ride camels at the desert camp. There is nothing like hurling over the giant desert dunes to work up a good appetite and a BBQ dinner is waiting along with traditional arabic water pipes. You can also take an opportunity to sand board and get henna tattoos.
If you choose the overnight trip, in addition to the glorious views of the star-filled sky, your trip to the Bedouin-style camp will include a tent, pillow, blanket, and breakfast the next day.
If you’ve never sailed across desert dunes, this is an adventure you do not want to miss.
About 250km outside of Abu Dhabi city you can catch a ferry from Jebel Dhanna to Sir Bani
. The island was once Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nayan’s personal retreat. He later turned this island into a wildlife preserve.
The Desert Islands Resort and Spa not only provides visitors with luxury accommodations, but offers numerous activities including tours of the lush green preserve. Enjoy a jeep ride into the preserve and imagine you are one safari. Seeing animals enjoy their lives in natural habitat is great for all ages, but remember that it is not a zoo and animals run free.
Some animals like the Eland are dangerous when startled. If you are very lucky you may see a cheetah or giraffe, but they blend in to their surroundings so you have to be on the alert if you want to spot them.
Sea life is also protected around the island and fishing is prohibited. Snorkeling and kayaking is encouraged as a way to get close to the marine life without harming it.
Yas Marina Circuit
The second Formula One track in the Middle East,
Yas Marina Circuit
boasts numerous options for sport and adventure. Go Karts, drag racing, and an assortment of racing cars are all there. Twenty one corners take racers all throughout the island, past sand dunes, the marina, and even through the Yas Marina Hotel. Adults and children alike will enjoy the excitement of racing. Ferrari World Theme Park is adjacent.
Next to Yas Marina Circuit on Yas Island,
is the world’s largest indoor theme park and the first Ferrari themed park. The gigantic 200,000 sqm red dome featuring the unmistakable ‘Prancing Horse’ is home to the world’s fastest roller coaster (0-100km in 2.9 seconds and reaching 240 km/hr), one of the world’s most advanced racing simulators, and stomach turning 4-D speed adventures.
The Ferrari theme is carried through every ride, simulator, gallery and show including Karting Academy where skill and racing prowess can be demonstrated on electric powered go carts that reach 80 km/hr.
When you need to take a break from the action, enjoy a cirque-style theatre performance paying tribute to the history of racing, or enjoy a cinema special that takes you through the life of Enzo Ferrari, the Ferrari collection, and a peak behind the walls of a Ferrari factory.
The entire park is filled with replicas of the Italian landscape to help bring your Ferrari experience to life. Of course, to bring it all home you need to stop by one of the specially themed restaurants to put a ‘taste of Italy’ in your belly as well.
is the largest water park in Abu Dhabi. Located next to Ferrari World in the Yas Island entertainment complex the park has 45 attractions that include rides, slides, and pools. Waterwold is considered a ‘Theme Park’ because it is centered around the theme of “Dana” a young Emirati who seeks a magical pearl that brought her village peace and prosperity. With the heat and humidity of the Emirates, a visit to the water park is a must-do during your stay.
Swimming in Abu Dhabi is something special. Not only is the water warm and inviting, but you will see many expats in traditional swim attire while many of the local women will be covered head-to-toe. While it is allowed to wear swim wear on the beaches, it is wise to remember to respect local customs and culture when you leave the beach especially if you’re female. There are many, many beaches in Abu Dhabi with its 700km of coastline, but the most popular are the beaches on Yas Island and the newer public beach that extends off the corniche near the Hilton.
Most beaches have established swim areas marked by floating fences. It is important to swim in designated areas because jet skis and boats are popular among the youth and they often race along the marked areas of the beaches. Beach umbrellas and benches are placed for those wishing to relax on the beach or simply sit and watch the sun rise or set of the gorgeous water. Changing areas and bathroom facilities are nearby.
UAE University National History Museum
Also known as the
Museum of Living Resources
, the museum has a collection of over 10,000 specimens of indigenous flora and fauna. The purpose of the museum is to improve awareness of the role plants and wildlife play in the environment and how they relate to the culture and heritage of the Emirates.
Teaching children how to care for the environment is also very important to the continued health of the region’s ecosystem. Beyond the information, the museum simply has a great collection of birds, insects, reptiles, plants, and mammals. While this all sounds academic, the displays are very well put together and worth seeing.
Emirates Park Zoo
Emirates Park Zoo
is about 40km outside of Abu Dhabi city. It is a smaller zoo by global standards, but it has a unique approach. The idea is that children should interact with as many of the animals as possible by feeding them. While carnivores are obviously off-limits the elephants and zebras are not. For smaller children there is a petting zoo. The zoo also has animals that one does not see in most western zoos.
To get the maximum experience, it is recommended that you go on a weekday morning when the children are in school and the zoo is not packed at all.