Abu Dhabi was a city that I didn’t think I would enjoy, but one that instantly won me over as the laid back, cultural and cosmopolitan heart of the United Arab Emirates. Many visitors stay for a short layover or weekend break, and if you only have 24 to 36 hours in Abu Dhabi this is the perfect itinerary to make the most of a short trip. This three day Abu Dhabi itinerary includes all the highlights as well as some extra travel tips to make your stay perfect.
Of all the Emirates in the UAE, Abu Dhabi is perhaps one of the most laid back and forward thinking at the same time. As unashamedly brash and globally sophisticated as Dubai could ever be, Abu Dhabi also retains a lot of the cultural heart and soul that developed from its more humble roots as a simple fishing village. As someone who wasn’t a huge fan of Dubai, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Abu Dhabi on my first visit, and subsequent trips have really let me delve deeper into this amazing city.
This guide is here to help you plan all you want to see and do in Abu Dhabi and make the most of your time in a short three day visit.
As with most itineraries you should take the suggestions and make it your own to suit your needs, you can very easily spread all of these suggestions out to a week or more if you want to take your time and enjoy them at your leisure, or pick and choose if you have less time.
So forget all the think you know about the United Arab Emirates and take the time to explore the UAE’s most dynamic and cosmopolitan cities.
Visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the absolute must see attraction in Abu Dhabi and should be the first stop on any itinerary. This exquisitely iconic building is as awe inspiring as it is beautiful and has to be seen to be believed. Most people breeze through the obligatory photo stops in a couple of hours and move on, but I genuinely recommend saving the whole morning to take your time strolling through the mosque and taking everything in, especially if you also want to take in one of the free guided tours which take around an hour.
After you have finished exploring the mosque you can stop at the underground visitors centre on the way out for a sit down and some refreshments, as it gets hot walking round the mosque and you can’t take any food or drink with you for obvious reasons. There are tons of fast food, coffee and ice cream options near the exit so you’ll be spoiled for choice.
If you are visiting on a Friday when the mosque is closed in the morning for local prayers, or you just want to time your visit to see the sunset and the mosque all lit up at night, then simply swap todays itinerary around and come here in the afternoon or evening instead.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi.
After the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the countries next largest jewel in its cultural crown. Like its name suggests this gallery exhibits art and sculpture from all over the world and even the building is an impressively artistic piece of architecture in its own right.
They run four major exhibitions a year on top of the regular galleries, so there is always something new to see, and I personally recommend a good 2 hours to explore the art. Major art lovers can easily get lost in here and spend a lot longer though.
Observation deck at 300.
For your first dinner in Abu Dhabi you are going to want to go somewhere special, and you can’t get much more special than the obligatory observation deck with full views of the city! Especially if you can manage to get a seat for sunset. The food isn’t spectacular and the menu is a little limited as it is more suited to high tea, but it is more than enough to satisfy you and the views absolutely make up for it. Try the range of specialty teas or mocktails too.
Spend the morning on the beach.
The beaches at Abu Dhabi may be largely artificial, but they are also beyond stunning. Perfectly clean, with celebrated Blue Flag status water, safety measures with lifeguards and floating fences put in place to help swimmers, separate beaches for families and young children and a whole variety of outdoor sports activities to keep you occupied if laying on the sand with a good book wasn’t enough for you, Abu Dhabi’s Corniche beach is an absolutely perfect way to spend the morning.
Entry to the public beach is free, but they do charge 10 AED for entrance to the sectioned off family and couples beaches. To be honest I don’t see any reason to pay when the public beach is this great, but others may find it beneficial.
Take a walk along the waterfront.
After you have had your fill of the beach and sand, take a stroll along the eight kilometres of manicured and gentrified waterfront that is the corniche road. The area is just a really pleasant place to walk and take in the atmosphere, but there are also a ton of children’s play areas, little food trucks, restaurants and even basketball courts and outdoor gym areas.
There are plenty of places to eat along the way where you can stop for lunch any time you like, just choose whichever cuisine takes your fancy! I found a little food truck serving Mexican food as good as you will find in Mexico itself!
If I lived in Abu Dhabi I would be out here every single day!
Go shopping in the Marina Mall.
Located at the end of the Corniche waterfront, the Marina Mall is huge! It has a plethora of local and international branded shops to browse through if you are in the mood for flashing some cash, and like all good malls you can spend a full day here enjoying all the entertainment on offer, from a trampoline park to a pretty awesome selection of restaurants, a bowling village and even one of the largest multiplex cinemas in the Emirates!
Take a peek inside the Emirates Palace.
The Emirates Palace is to Abu Dhabi what the Burj Khalifa is to Dubai. Nowhere near as tall it more than makes up for this in sheer opulent glamour. Even if you can’t afford to stay in one of its luxury suites, you can still come and check out the impressive domed gatehouses, lavish marble foyers and décor that makes you feel you would be arrested for even daring to look at it!
Make a point of coming to this iconic cultural wonder to enjoy a spot of Emirati hospitality with just a dash of old colonialism with high tea served in the foyer, or if you come in the evening head to the famously fashionable Hakkasan for cocktails or a really fancy meal.
Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.
There are a few theme parks in Abu Dhabi, and the Warner Brothers Theme Park with it’s Gotham and Metropolis zones should get a shout out too! But I have chosen the Ferrari World branded park because for the moment at least it is unique to Abu Dhabi.
If you are a fan of the Ferrari brand you will have an absolute ball here. Everything is branded with specific shows, simulators and other attractions specifically revolving around Ferrari. If you aren’t a huge car fan then there are still the fastest rolleroaster in the world and other rides like the worlds highest non inverted loop to enjoy!
There are even free shuttle buses running from most of the major hotels like the Sheraton and Sofitel, as well as other major theme parks and attractions around Yas Island. You can find the full list and locations of the free shuttle locations here.
You can very easily spend the full day here without seeing everything, but you should at the very least give it a full morning. There are so many international chain restaurants to choose from for lunch, and then after that you can either explore some more or go and discover the rest of Yas Island.
Discover Yas Islands nightlife.
Yas island is Abu Dhabi’s party playground, and after you have spent the day bouncing around the various theme parks here (as well as Ferrari World there is also Warner Brothers, Yas Waterworld and the Yas Marina circuit if you want to have a Grand Prix experience), you have to experience at least some of the nightlife on your last night.
You can surprisingly take in a burlesque show along with dinner, dine in a multitude of themed restaurants, party at Amber Lounge, Iris or Velocity or even take in a live concert! It’s all there at your fingertips!
This itinerary may be jam packed and you will be hard pressed to do everything on it in just three days, but it still only scratches the surface of Abu Dhabi, but gives you a good taste of what this amazing city has to offer.
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