Abu Dhabi: Mysterious, exotic, warm, and a lot of fun! The capital of the United Arab Emirates is the more chilled-out sister to Dubai. Smaller, easier to get around, and lighter on the wallet. If you find yourself in Abu Dhabi on a stopover or for a bit of winter sun, below are some of the essential experiences to get you started.
Walk amongst some of the world’s most iconic art at The Louvre
Come for the art, stay for the building. The Louvre’s first international outpost opened in 2017. The galleries are housed in a spectacular bird nest style building that is truly breath-taking.
The galleries house some of the true masters, Da Vinci, Basquiat, Picasso, Gauguin, etc. It is the artifacts as opposed to the art that truly captured my imagination – Greek sculpture, Pharaohs’ Sarcophagi, and my personal favourite an enormous globe from the 17th century showing the world as it was ‘known’ at the time. Make time to stop into the Children’s Gallery, It’s a lot of fun and very hands-on.
If you have a bit more time on your hands, there are a couple of activities I definitely recommend:
- Take the architecture tour for an interesting insight into the building and its design
- Jump in a kayak for a paddle around the building for an up-close and personal perspective.
- Stick around for a sumptuous afternoon tea or a sunset beverage in the Marta bar for spectacular views.
- Do check the website to plan your visit, opening times can vary, and some galleries can be closed for maintenance or conservation.
- Only take a small bag with you. Cloak rooms are not currently available.
- Wear comfortable shoes. It does take a few hours to properly explore the gallery.
- Bring a light jumper / jacket – some of the galleries are a little cooler than others.
- Download the app (available for both Apple and Android) prior to arrival, for the galleries map and audio tour (don’t forget your headphones)
Location: The Lourve is located on Saadiyat Island, and is a short taxi ride from the central Abu Dhabi.
Entry: Tickets for adults are AED (approx. £12) and can only be purchased online (see website below.
Visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Often touted as one of the most beautiful buildings on the planet The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is also one of the world’s largest mosques.
Dominating the eastern Abu Dhabi skyline, The mosque from afar is epic, however, nothing quite prepares you for the grandeur and the spectacular detail of the buildings up close.
Highlights include The 82 domes, the 12 massive crystal chandeliers (the largest weighs a whopping 12 tonnes), the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet in the main prayer room. But it is the smaller details in the artistry of the mosque that are truly stunning – the intricate mosaic on the inside walls, the flowered floor in the center of the mosque, the reflection pools
Did you know The Grand Mosque can hold 41,000 worshippers (indoors and outdoors)!
- Dress modestly. Guidelines for what to wear can be found here
- Bring a scarf if you have lots of hair. The abaya I borrowed couldn’t really contain the sheer volume of hair on my head. Take a scarf with you and ensure your hair is covered up.
- Time your visit for the late afternoon for epic photos.
- Take a guided tour for insights into the mosque’s architecture and learn about Islamic and Emirati culture.
- Don’t forget to look up….trust me.
Location: Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street، 5th Street. Taxi is the easiest way of getting to the Mosque.
Entry: Free, however pre-booking a visit slot is required (at the moment) and can be done via the website.
Hours of entry: Saturday to Thursday 9am – 10pm, Friday 4pm – 10pm. Note: During Ramadan, opening hours for visiting are decreased please check the website.
Opulent and completely ostentatious, Emirates Palace is as over the top as you would expect, but it is definitely worth a visit even it is for a quick nose around the gold and marble lobbies and then off to grab a meal or a drink. Stopping for the ‘obligatory’ palace cappuccino (sprinkled with 24K gold flakes on top) is up to you, personally, I found the coffee itself to not be the best.
Whilst you are there satisfy your appetite at Hakkasan (some of the prettiest food you will ever see) and grab a table on the terrace for views of Etihad towers, afterwards, indulge in a beachside cocktail at sunset at Breeze Lounge.
Location: West Corniche Rd – Al Ras Al Akhdar.
Discover the art of Falconry at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
Something a little different. Falcons and the art of falconry is a big deal in the middle east. If you are curious about these beautiful and intelligent birds take a tour (especially if you get Hassan as a guide) of this facility. Featuring a very interesting museum, the tour also includes a visit to the aviary and a tour through the hospital.
Location: Sweihan Rd Street. approximately 6kms from Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Entry: ‘The Falcon World Tour’ must be pre booked. Tickets are 170 AED (£35) per adult
Tour Qasr Al Watan
This majestic landmark also known as the ‘Palace of the nation’ is a wonderful tribute to Arabian craftsmanship and heritage. Qasr Al Watan, a presidential palace, is not used as a ‘palace’ in a traditional sense, it is rather used for diplomatic visits, and government meetings. A tour here should be included on every itinerary for Abu Dhabi.
- The buildings themselves, if you arrive in the late afternoon / early evening the glistening white granite and limestone facade practically glows reflecting the last rays of the sun.
- The Great Hall – see the video above, it is even better in person.
- The Halls of Knowledge – two rooms with incredible exhibitions about arabic culture.
- The Library, I love a bookcase and this library albeit small (and frankly quite bare) does have some wonderful titles on its shelves – take your time to peruse them.
- ‘The Power of Words’ This is a stunning golden sculpture that is actually an inscription of the following quote:“Wealth is not money and oil. Wealth lies in people, and it is worthless if not dedicated to serve the people” ~ Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan
- The ‘Palace in motion’ light and projection show in the evening is simply spectacular and not to be missed – tickets are sold separately for this 30-minute show, so ensure you book a ticket for this.
- Pre-book your tickets for speedy entry.
- Time your visit to catch the ‘Palace in Motion’ show in the evening.
- You only need around 90 – 120 mins to explore the palace.
- Minimise what you take with you, all belongings of a certain size are required to be cloaked (Smokers: this includes all lighters, cigarettes, rolling papers, et al too)
Location: West Corniche Rd (Just up the road from Emirates Palace)
Entry: Palace entry 60 AED + 25 AED for the ‘Palace in Motion’ show. (£20 total)
Get your heart racing at Ferrari World
If you have a need for speed this one stop you must make, this amusement park is a mecca to all things Ferrari. Yes, the place is a little tacky but there are two experiences you must have:
- The Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster- can reach a top speed of 149 miles per hour. For any roller coaster fanatic (me!) this is one to tick off the bucket list. The park also offers simulators and other Ferrari themed rides (Don’t miss G-Force)
2. Drive a Ferrari! Drive or be a passenger in a Ferarri 795 AED (approx £161) a passenger ticket is 595 AED (approx £120) and take it for a burn around the track (Supervised of course by a co-pilot)
Location: Yas Island
Entry: 295 AED for an adult ticket (around £60)
Take a relaxing paddle amongst the Mangroves
Take a relaxing morning paddle at the Mangrove National Park. Only 20 minutes from the city center, it’s the perfect tonic for an already action-packed trip. a wildlife haven, keep your eyes peeled for crabs, flamingos, herons, a variety of fish, and if you are lucky you may see a dugong or dolphin that are known to occasionally frequent the mangroves.
A kayak tour here takes around 2 hours and is suitable for beginners like me. You will get wet – so definitely wear your swimming costume underneath your clothing.
Location: It can be tricky to navigate to for ease head to the Anantara Eastern Mangroves Hotel, Al Salam Street – Zone 1Eastern Mangrove
Tour Cost: around 168 AED (£35 ish)
Stuff your face at an epic brunch
Who doesn’t like a bunch? As an Australian, I thought I knew all about brunch but it seems the UAE does on an entirely different level. A 4-hour affair with unlimited booze (danger, danger) and every cuisine you can think of. Times have changed now, due to the pandemic this year, brunches are now a fully seated affair.
No brunch is created equal, and usually, the more you pay the better it tends to be, here are a couple of my favorites:
The St Regis
Location: Nation Tower, Corniche Road
Cost: between 345 AED – 595 AED (£70 – £120) dependant on which drinks package you choose.
The best brunch I went to during my time in Abu Dhabi, this Peruvian restaurant housed within the Four Seasons hotel is not to be missed.
Location: Four Seasons Hotel, The Galleria.
Cost: Between 285 AED – 498 AED (£57 – £100) dependant on the drinks package selected.
Getting around Abu Dhabi
Unless you have rented a car, Taxi is definitely the best option to get around Abu Dhabi – it is reasonably priced and more reliable than Public Transport. Uber is widely available throughout the city.
Public Transport is available throughout the city, but it does seem to be a little ‘roulette’ in terms of the timetable, and if you are not familiar with the city, a Taxi is the best option.
Accommodation in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi has something for every taste and budget, from total luxury to something a little tamer. Decide where you would like to be situated – either amongst the action of Yas Island or surround yourself with the serenity of Saadiyat Island In all my visits. Unlike Dubai, you get way more ‘bang for your buck’ in Abu Dhabi so you can treat yourself even if you are on a budget. On previous trips, I’ve stayed with the Rotana chain of hotels which tend to be aimed at the business traveller but there are of course other options.
Abu Dhabi in Summary
Abu Dhabi is a wonderful city to visit – perfect for a stopover with a free visa offered for many nationalities) or for that winter sun escape. It is easy to get around and is one of the safest cities on the planet. The experiences listed above give you a good range of some of the best things to do in the city but this is simply scratching the surface. For more information about Abu Dhabi take a look at visitabudhabi.cn and do check if any restrictions are in place when you are planning your trip.