Despite common misperceptions (probably a result of huge promotional campaigns) Abu Dhabi, not Dubai, is the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Whilst most tourists seem to head straight for Dubai, Abu Dhabi actually has a lot to offer tourists and, for me personally, was the more enjoyable of the two cities – but that’s likely to be a contentious statement. The ‘mine’s bigger and shinier than yours’ culture in Dubai, whilst somewhat extending to Abu Dhabi, seems nowhere near as prevalent. For me, that makes it a much more relaxing and authentic Emirati experience (again, just my opinion before I get a barrage of hate mail from angry Dubai-fans). Put simply, if you’re looking to get a grasp of what it’s actually like to live in the modern-day Emirates then Abu Dhabi is your best bet.
Abu Dhabi Top Tips
Abu Dhabi International Airport has a reliable, cheap and comfortably air-conditioned (much-needed) public bus service that runs right through the city to the Al Zahiyah City Air Terminal. You can pick it up from the lower curbside outside the arrivals Terminals. Just look for the A1 numbered bus which runs every 40 minutes, 24 hours a day. Depending on traffic (which admittedly can get quite frustrating) it takes about 45 minutes to reach the end of the line.
Alternatively, and if you’re flusher for cash or perhaps a tad lazy, then taxis are also a viable option (and won’t break the bank). They’re metered which also negates the frustrating ‘negotiating’ (arguing) required to secure a fair rate. You’ll have no problem finding the taxi rank outside of the terminal building; and if you’re looking for a taxi at any point during your stay then they’re also easily spotted and flagged down on the street (they are silver with yellow roof signs).
If you’re looking for ideas on events that might be taking place, or if you’re looking for some bargains, then good news; both Timeout and Groupon operate in Abu Dhabi. I’ve added the links in the additional resources section below.
Big Bus Tours operate a hop-on hop-off service in and around Abu Dhabi. It’s a fairly comprehensive route with 24 stops and covers pretty much everything you’d want to see (it also includes a free dhow cruise). That said, it’s pretty damn expensive (and that’s coming from a Londoner). As such, you might decide it’s not worth it (particularly when you consider that taxis are fairly reasonably priced in UAE even if you’re going out as far as Yas Island). However, if you’re planning on traveling throughout the region, or are on one of the many cruise lines that operate throughout the Gulf, then the tri-city (Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat) ticket can provide decent value. If you buy the tri-city ticket you’ll essentially get a Big Bus tour in 3 cities (plus some other free attractions and add-ons) for less than the price you’d pay for two individual city tickets (in addition to a free transfer between Dubai and Abu Dhabi). All-in-all, pretty decent value!
UAE is an Islamic country; as a result you’ll want to consider you’re attire more carefully than you possibly normally would (I personally abstained from hot pants). But in seriousness, if you’re generally strolling around town then Abu Dhabi is fairly liberal; you’ll avoid offending people so long as you steer clear of tight and / or revealing clothing (shorts are just fine). If you’re planning to visit any religious sites (most notably Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque) or are heading a little off the tourist-beaten path then ladies should ensure you’re covered up (including wrists, ankles and hair) and gents should opt for long trousers and cover their shoulders.
Abu Dhabi Activities
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: Without doubt the highlight of a trip to Abu Dhabi and a mere 20 minute drive from downtown; which is easily accessible in the reasonably priced taxis or on the Big Bus tour route! With a monstrous Persian carpet, crystal chandeliers and enough room for 41,000 worshippers it’s fair to say that the overstated opulence of the UAE extends to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. But I just can’t deny what an amazing (and photogenic….and free!) sight it is. It may not have the history and romance of the Taj Mahal, but in terms of architectural grandiose it’s definitely up there! You’ll need to make sure that you’re suitably covered up if you want to visit (particularly the ladies). If you don’t have the appropriate clothing then you’ll be asked to don a rather fetching borrowed outfit which has seen the recent sweat of a thousand others (in other words – take your own long sleeved clothing). There are free tours throughout the day (follow the signs upon arrival) which are definitely worth doing. Beware; it gets extremely hot. Thankfully there’s an air conditioned café to cool off in!
Emirates Palace: Well, what can you really say about a hotel that cost £4.9 billion (yes, billion) to build and has its very own Gold bar ATM machine inside? I don’t usually put hotels on my activities list (I mean, other than in Vegas, who visits hotels as a tourist attraction) but the sheer ridiculousness of a hotel with 114 domes, its own art gallery and a private marina seems worth a mention. Even if you aren’t staying there you can visit (although you’ll need to wear long trousers to enter) and have brunch (for an extortionately priced cheese sarnie and a sausage roll – only kidding, I doubt they’d serve you a sausage roll).
Abu Dhabi Heritage Village: Yet another free activity (and in UAE that can count for a lot!). It’s essentially an open-air museum that recreates a traditional village from the Emirates past (of which there isn’t really a lot left given all of the glass and steel). Craftsman are on hand to show you traditional pottery and metal work and the resident camel is on the scene to ensure you end the day smelling delightful. The village is located over by Marina Mall so it’s fairly easy to get to (including being on the Big Bus Route).
Yas Island: About 30 minutes outside of the city, Yas Island is probably best known by Formula 1 aficionados as the home of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The Yas Marina circuit is open to the public for tours, or even better, a whole host of driver experiences (I’ve dropped the booking website link in to the additional resources below). Just make sure you book in advance as the calendar seemed to fill up pretty quickly. Also on Yas Island is the Ferrari World Theme Park. If you haven’t had enough speed at the Yas Marina circuit then Ferrari World is also home of the Formula Rossa; currently the World’s fastest rollercoaster at 149mph.
The Corniche: 8km of pristine beach front with sand shipped in all the way from Australia (apparently the abundantly available desert sand wasn’t quite right!). The Corniche has a great bike and walking path the entirety of its length, so if baking like a turkey on the beach isn’t you’re your thing then you can rent a bike from one of the rental stations along the corniche and get a nice case of saddle sores instead! Just to let you know, there were plenty of people in western bathing suits on the beach, so I guess there are some exceptions to the ‘cover up’ rules I mentioned above.
Dune Drives: Just like in Dubai you can jump in a 4×4 and head out in to the desert for some dune bashing, desert safaris and dune barbeques (which also typically include entertainment like belly dancers, whirling dervishes, camel rides and falconry). If you’re prone to a little car sickness then dune bashing probably isn’t the best choice for you; it’s pretty exhilarating for the first ten minutes but then it can pretty quickly feel like you’re on a small boat in rough seas. There are a whole host of tour companies that offer desert experiences locally, but a good place to start some research in to the options before you leave is the Viator website (www.viator.com).
Abu Dhabi Mangroves: Mangrove National Park is right outside the city center (even closer to town than the Grand Mosque). If you’re looking to get back to nature then the desert and the mangroves are your best options. There are a number of companies that offer kayaking tours in the mangroves (I’ve added the website address of Seahawk in the additional resources below). As well as being relaxing to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city you might also see flamingos, dolphins and the dugong (which is a bit like a manatee i.e. a big piece of floating blubber).
Saadiyat Cultural District: Built on Saadiyat Island (the island of happiness), just 500m off of the coast of Abu Dhabi (a mere 5-minute drive) the Cultural District is one of those developments that seems to only be possible in the Emirates. The natural 27-km² island is home to world class exhibitions, collections and cultural productions and performances and includes the Louvre Abu Dhabi; the Zayed National Museum; the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Maritime Museum. The island’s Marina District is also home to hotels, leisure and entertainment facilities making the island the perfect place to spend a day.
Abu Dhabi Additional Resources
Big Bus Tours Website: www.bigbustours.com
TimeOut Abu Dhabi: http://www.timeoutabudhabi.com
Groupon Abu Dhabi: https://www.groupon.ae/coupons/abu-dhabi
Yas Marina Driver Experience: https://www.yasmarinacircuit.com/en/experiences/
Seahawk Website: http://www.sea-hawk.ae/
Louvre Abu Dhabi Website: https://www.louvreabudhabi.ae/