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 heaps to be discovered there as well.
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 matters: Out of the 365 days a year, only six will drizzle a few drops of rain onto the city! That means, whenever you go, you’ll be in for a very good portion of sunshine!
These are the seven things we love to do most 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 is 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 world’s 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 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 colors 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 the 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 world’s 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 world’s third Warner Bros. World is scheduled to open on Yas Island.
- In 2022, the world’s 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 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.
- Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort – The best desert resort in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, a 2-hour drive from the city.
Tip: They’ll be the most affordable in June, which is low(est) season.
Where to Stay in Abu Dhabi, UAE
— Hostels are not allowed in the UAE. Please don’t book any online if you do find one, because they are illegal. —
Best Budget Hotel in Abu Dhabi, UAE – Ibis Capital Gate
The 3-star Ibis Abu Dhabi Gate Hotel is ideally located at the end of the creek between Abu Dhabi Gate City and
Bain Al Jessrain in Al Maqta area. Ibis Abu Dhabi Gate Hotel is perfect for both business and leisure. ADNEC (Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre) and Abu Dhabi Airport are just 15 minutes away while Yas water world and Ferrari world are just 20 minutes away.
Featuring 252 individually decorated, modern, spacious and comfortable standard rooms and 42 one bedroom apartments with kitchen facilities, 24-hour room service and safety deposit boxes. For entertainment, each room is fitted with a flat-screen LCD TV with satellite channels. Free high-speed Wi-Fi is provided in all public areas and rooms.
Guests can enjoy an eclectic dining experience at Belgian Cafe, a modern yet traditional Italian journey in Gabbiano Italian Restaurant and 24-hour service in Fusion Lounge. Wok & Co Restaurant serves an extensive quality breakfast buffet from 06:30 am – 10:30 am every day. For lunch, you can enjoy an extensive international buffet and an Indian dining experience for dinner in Horizon Restaurant. Access to the outdoor swimming pool on the 2nd floor with children’s pool, Sauna, Jacuzzi, Moroccan bath, Steam room and Spa is also available at the attached hotel for an additional fee.
Best Mid-Range Hotel Abu Dhabi, UAE – Millennium Corniche
The Millennium Corniche Hotel Abu Dhabi is a 30-minute drive from Abu Dhabi International Airport. The city’s ADNEC exhibition center is 15 km away. The Grand Mosque is just 20 minutes’ drive from the hotel. The Ferrari World and Yas Island are 30 minutes’ away by car. This property is 6 minutes walk from the beach. Located in the center of Abu Dhabi and a just short walk away from the Corniche, the Millennium Corniche Hotel Abu Dhabi offers 5-star accommodation and features views of Capital Gardens city park and the Arabian Gulf. It has free Wi-Fi access, an outdoor pool, and a health and fitness center.
The Millennium Corniche Hotel Abu Dhabi has luxurious rooms and suites with hardwood furnishings. All the spacious rooms and suites feature flat-screen TVs and floor-to-ceiling windows with garden or Gulf views. It has free Wi-Fi access, an outdoor pool, and a health and fitness centre.
The health club includes an outdoor swimming pool with sunken bar, a sauna, and a gym. Guests can also enjoy a rejuvenating body treatment at Millennium Hotel’s wellness center. The hotel has three restaurants featuring an international cuisine, Italian cuisine, and a Moroccan specialty restaurant.
Best Luxury Hotel Abu Dhabi, UAE – Jumeirah at Etihad Towers
Abu Dhabi International Airport is a 30-minute drive from the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel. Marina Mall is a 5-minute drive away. This property is 5 minutes walk from the beach. Overlooking the Arabian Gulf and Corniche, this modern hotel is part of the iconic 5-tower complex in Abu Dhabi. Apart from its landscaped pools and gardens, it also features a private beach and a spa. Guests can enjoy free WiFi Throughout the property.
With stylish furnishings and cutting-edge technology, all rooms offer views of the city skyline or the coast. Each includes a flat-screen TV and an iPod docking station. Some rooms include access to the executive lounge. Apart from its landscaped pools and gardens, it also features a private beach and a spa. Guests can enjoy free WiFi Throughout the property.
Fine dining can be enjoyed at Jumeirah’s two restaurants serving sophisticated world cuisine. For casual dining, guests can choose from 5 different venues, while drinks are offered at the hotel’s 2 bars. The Jumeirah has a full-service spa with 13 treatment rooms and a large fitness center with modern equipment. Located on level 74, the Observation Deck is the highest vantage point of Abu Dhabi.
Best Super Luxury Hotel Abu Dhabi, UAE – Park Hyatt Aby Dhabi Hotel and Villas
This property is 4 minutes walk from the beach. Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas is situated on a 9 km stretch of private beach on Saadiyat Island. Abu Dhabi International Airport is 35 minutes’ drive away.
This 5-star hotel offers air-conditioned rooms with a balcony. It has a health club with an outdoor pool. A spacious seating area with a 42-inch flat-screen TV and an iPod docking station are in Hyatt Abu Dhabi’s modern rooms. Each has floor-to-ceiling windows and is decorated in soft colours. An open-plan bathroom with an oversized bathtub and a separate rain-shower is included.
Relaxing massages and various beauty treatments are available at Atarmia Spa. It includes a gym and private treatment rooms for men and women. Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas has three in-house restaurants. Each offers a wide selection of international cuisine. The Beach House Restaurant features panoramic views of Saadiyat Beach and the landscaped hotel gardens.
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About the Writer
Hey! We’re Emma and Yannick! A travel blogging couple who met in Thailand in 2014, and since then we have visited over 20+ countries with no plans to stop! We travel the world in luxury, without paying the price for it, through travel hacking and insider knowledge. Through this, we love to help and teach others to travel well for less, just like we do! Happy Travels 🙂