The United Arab Emirates is increasingly becoming a popular travel destination in its own right beyond being an important travel hub. Consisting of seven independent city-states that are often confused as countries in and of themselves, the UAE is made up most famously of Dubai, then Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah, Umm al Quwain and of course the actual capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi.
In one respect Abu Dhabi is similar to its close neighbour Dubai, a stereotypical Gulf petro rich city with gleaming glass and chrome skyscrapers, mega project landmarks and a gleaming, futuristic sheen that oozes wealth and abundance across the whole city, but unlike Dubai, Abu Dhabi has managed to keep a lot of its culture and slower, laid back vibe as it transformed from obscure fishing village to gleaming metropolis just forty or so years ago.
Abu Dhabi has a lot to offer travellers and I genuinely fell in love with the city during my time here.
Culture And Etiquette.
Abu Dhabi is definitely far more laid back and relaxed than its neighbour Dubai, but as an Emirati state it is still predominantly Muslim and relatively conservative, so as such codes of behaviour are still expected. Modest dress is still expected, which means long trousers or a skirt and a top that covers your shoulders for most areas. Women are not expected to wear a scarf or abaya unless visiting religious sites and more leeway is given on the beach and resort areas where shorts and swimwear are acceptable. Public displays of affection are also heavily frowned upon, and policed. Many visitors do get into trouble by unintentionally breaching codes of etiquette or minor local laws, and getting yourself out of that hole can be very difficult indeed, so just be careful.
What You Need To Know.
Citizens of the UK, Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries receive a free 30 day visa on arrival. For other countries, check with your local consulates as to your standing as things do change from time to time.
There are no specific vaccinations recommended for Abu Dhabi, but you should always ensure your basic routine inoculations and boosters are up to date before travelling. Malaria is a very low risk and antimalarial prophylaxis is usually not prescribed for travel here, but you should still take reasonable precautions against mosquito bites.
Dubai’s health care system is as good as any in the Western world and standards of hospitals and clinics are very high. English speaking clinical staff are easily found in most places and pharmacies with well trained staff are common. Be aware that you will probably have to pay for treatment upfront, so ensure your medical insurance is up to date.
Crime and Safety.
Abu Dhabi is actually very safe, and it is highly unlikely that you will become the victim of any type of serious crime here. Crime rates are low, and crime against tourists especially so. The biggest problems travellers may face is inadvertantly finding themselves in legal trouble for breaching various local laws, by laws and cultural faux pas.
Costs and money.
The unit of currency in the UAE is the Dirham.
Abu Dhabi is expensive, there really isn’t any way around that. Whilst it can be very slightly cheaper than Dubai, although not by much, people spending any amount of time in Abu Dhabi will have to budget well for it. Prices are essentially comparable to travelling in any of the more expensive Western countries of Europe or the USA. Accommodation in particular will set you back a lot of money with the most basic hotels starting at about £40 GBP per night, averaging out at around £100 GBP in a comfortable mid range place and heading through the roof from there if you want real luxury. Tourist attractions and activities are likely to put a big dent in your budget too.
When to go.
Basically anytime is a good time to visit. The summer months can get extremely hot, but this is tempered by the fact you can enjoy off season prices in this otherwise expensive city and all indoor areas, attractions and malls are fully air conditioned. The winter months are often more comfortable temperature wise but prices do shoot up.
Places To See.
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.
Qasr Al Hosn.
This is a strange tourist attraction, but an extremely interesting one. On the surface it is nothing more than a former administrative building that now hosts a cultural center with rotating exhibitions, but when you consider that the watchtower was the city’s first permanent structure, designed to watch over trade routes and was built just over a few hundred years ago, it puts it in a whole new light. When you look at it in that context, and see the gleaming skyscrapers just beyond it, it is a stark reminder of just how much Abu Dhabi has changed in that short time period.
Umm El Emarat Park.
Umm Al Emarat Park is a srene and beautiful place to relax with a book or wander around enjoying the wide open gardens and public art installations. This ultra modern, man made oasis has huge water features, an ampitheatre and a playground for families with children, and is well worth a visit if you just want to enjoy the beauty of Abu Dhabi.
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.
You can’t come to Abu Dhabi without indulging in a bit of luxury shopping, that much is a given, but malls aren’t just for shopping here, they are man made, air conditioned oases from the summer heat, they are social and cultural centres, places to meet, relax, entertain yourself and socialise as much as they are places to flash some cash on branded goods. The Marina Mall is no exception to this and if you are in need of some entertainment in Abu Dhabi then you can’t go wrong here, this huge mall has a trampoline park. an awesome selection of restaurants and a food court, a bowling village and even one of the largest multiplex cinemas in the Emirates!
Mangrove National Park.
A true natural wonder, the Mangrove National Park is a protected, seven square mile home to 60 species of bird and animal life, not to mention the mangrove forests themselves that can grow to over 15 feet high. There are some areas where you can rent a kayak and enjoy some birdspotting from the water too.
Ferarri World 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 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.
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.
Things To Do.
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.
There are a dozen beaches to choose from including a few private beach clubs and hotel and resort owned beaches, but most travellers will head down to the stunning corniche beach. This is Abu Dhabi’s main beach which arcs around the corniche close to the Emirates Palace and Marina Mall.
The Corniche beach is seperated into three areas, the middle area is free public access where anyone can go on and just enjoy themselves, there is an area specifically for families and young children, with lifeguard patrols and floating barriers in the sea so children are safe as well as spacious changing areas, and there is a quiet area which is perfect for those looking to escape the fun and noise of the other beaches. The main beach is free whilst the family beach and the quiet beach cost AED 10 each, or around £2 GBP. Children are half price and kids under 5 go free.
Have A Desert Adventure.
Being in the Emirates wouldn’t be the same without taking the opportunity for a bit of sand surfing or four wheel drive dune bashing, and there are endless opportunities to do just that in Abu Dhabi’s seemingly endless desert landscape. You can even choose to go glamping under the stars and get a small taste of Emirati hospitality around a campfire too.
Party On Yas Island.
Yas island is Abu Dhabi’s party playground, and you have to experience at least some of the nightlife here. 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!
Eat, Work Out And Play On The Corniche.
Abu Dhabi’s Corniche is a five mile stretch of prime, picturesque waterfront and a wonderful place to spend a few days wandering round and enjoying the views. There are a vast choice of quality restaurants, street food trucks, art instillations, gardens, free to use open air gyms and basketball courts scattered along the long stretch of gentrified walkway.
Eat And Enjoy The Views At The Observation deck at 300.
A meal in Abu Dhabi should be 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.