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Abu Dhabi, UAE - Complete Travel Guide & Itinerary

The capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, is often overlooked as most visitors favor its more popular counterpart: the glitzy Dubai, with its world-renowned skyscrapers and shopping malls the size of entire villages.

That is most unfortunate, because this well-ordered, peaceful city, nestled along the azure coastline of the Arabian Peninsula boasts its own distinct charm. From its opulent skyline graced by equally futuristic skyscrapers to its labyrinthine souks and ornate mosques, it radiates an understated elegance.

I had the privilege of visiting on multiple occasions, each time being rewarded by fulfilling and enriching experiences. Venturing beyond the conventional tourist trails in the UAE was a choice I totally didn’t regret.

History

Abu Dhabi skyline. Credit: FritzdaCat / Wikimedia Commons

First inhabited by the nomadic Bani Yas tribe in the 1700s, Abu Dhabi began as a humble fishing village known for its pearl trade.

In the mid-20th century, the discovery of oil transformed the region into a prosperous city. Rapid economic growth led to modernization, with significant infrastructure developments, including skyscrapers, luxury hotels, and cultural landmarks like the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

Over time, Abu Dhabi strategically diversified its economy beyond oil, focusing on tourism, finance, and industry, establishing itself as a global hub for business and leisure.

Geography

Situated on the northeastern part of the Arabian Peninsula, Abu Dhabi is the largest of the seven emirates of the UAE. It encompasses a diverse geography that combines vast stretches of desert with coastal areas along the Persian Gulf.

Despite the arid climate, Abu Dhabi has made significant strides in creating green spaces and introducing innovative urban planning initiatives, including artificial islands, to enhance its appeal as a global city while preserving its natural environment. Additionally, the coastline offers picturesque beaches and mangrove forests.

Population

People of the UAE. Credit: Mostafameraji / Wikimedia Commons

As of recent estimates, the population stands at approximately 1.5 million people. Of this number, only 420,000 are citizens, each with an average net worth of USD 17 million!

The rest of the population is made up of the expatriate community. This multicultural blend contributes to a vibrant social fabric, with individuals from various nationalities calling Abu Dhabi home.

Language

Arabic serves as the official language in Abu Dhabi and across the United Arab Emirates. While Arabic is the primary language used in government, business, and daily interactions, English is widely spoken and understood, especially in areas frequented by tourists and in international business settings.

Additionally, due to the diverse expatriate population, languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Tagalog, and others are commonly heard in the city’s cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Currency

The currency used throughout the United Arab Emirates is the UAE Dirham (AED). The dirham is subdivided into 100 fils. Notes are available in various denominations, while coins come in different values, making transactions convenient for residents and visitors alike.

The dirham is widely accepted across the city in shops, restaurants, and other establishments, and major credit cards are also commonly used for transactions.

Best Time to Visit Abu Dhabi, UAE

Visiting Abu Dhabi in November

Abu Dhabi has a hot desert climate. In fact, it is the hottest major city in the area with an average high of 43°C in August, compared to 42°C in Doha, 41°C in Dubai, and 38°C in Manama.

The best time to visit Abu Dhabi is therefore in the winter season, between November and March, when temperatures range from mild to moderately hot. From mid-December to mid-February, the highest temperature can be around 25°C and the lowest around 15°C.

In the transition months of April and October, it is already hot, with temperatures hovering around 35°C. And if you can’t stand the heat, absolutely avoid the hot and humid summer months between May and September.

I visited twice, in April and November, when it was pleasantly dry and mild.

How to Go to Abu Dhabi, UAE

By Plane

Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) stands as the second busiest airport in the UAE, following Dubai, and serves as the main hub for Etihad, Abu Dhabi’s national airline.

Established in 2003, Etihad Airways has undergone significant growth, extending its reach to every inhabited continent from the UAE, except South America—although it previously operated flights to Brazil. Renowned for its exceptional service, especially on long-distance journeys, Etihad offers high-quality experiences across all travel classes.

How to Get from Abu Dhabi Airport to City Center

Currently, there is no metro service from the airport to the city center. You can take metered taxis, which will cost around AED90-100. The taxi stand is at the end of a long passageway, on the left of the arrivals area. Expect long lines during rush hour. You can also use e-hailing services such as Uber and Careem.

Bus stops are located in front of Terminal 1 Arrivals Hall and Terminal 2. However, you must first buy a bus card from one of the machines, or from the information counter at the airport.

How to Get from Dubai Airport to Abu Dhabi

An alternate option is to take a flight to Dubai International Airport (DXB) located in the adjacent emirate of Dubai and then proceed to Abu Dhabi by bus or, for those seeking quicker travel, by taxi.

A metered taxi from Dubai Airport directly to the Abu Dhabi city center typically amounts to around AED300. Although Dubai Airport is not directly connected to Abu Dhabi via public transportation, you can use the Red Subway Line at Terminals 1 and 3 to head to Ibn Battuta Bus Station or Al Ghubaiba Bus Station, from where you can take buses E101 and E100 respectively to Abu Dhabi.

By Land

Currently, there are no trains connecting Abu Dhabi and surrounding cities. The good news is that there are two exciting railway projects in the pipeline between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with one of them nearing completion.

The most common way to travel to Abu Dhabi from neighboring cities like Dubai or other emirates is by road. The 130km route from Dubai takes around two hours in normal traffic. You can take a bus from Ibn Battuta or Al Ghubaiba Bus Station in Dubai. Buses leave at 30-minute intervals, or if the bus gets full sooner. The bus fare is AED 25 for a one-way journey.

You also have the convenience of hailing any metered taxi along the streets of Dubai or anywhere else in the UAE and requesting a trip to Abu Dhabi. The fare for the journey between Dubai and Abu Dhabi typically amounts to approximately AED250.

Some choose to rent a car to explore the country at their own pace.

How to Get Around in Abu Dhabi

By Bus

Getting around Abu Dhabi by bus is a convenient and cost-effective way to explore the city. The emirate has a well-established public bus system operated by the Department of Transport (DoT), offering an extensive network that covers most parts of the city, including major attractions, shopping centers, residential areas, and transportation hubs like the airport and central bus station.

The buses are modern, comfortable, and equipped with amenities such as air conditioning, making travel pleasant, especially during warmer months.

To use the bus system, passengers can purchase a rechargeable Hafilat card from ticket vending machines at major bus terminals. The fares are relatively affordable and vary based on the distance traveled.

Real-time information about bus schedules, routes, and arrival times is accessible online.

Bus in Abu Dhabi. Credit: Ranged Enigma / Wikimedia Commons

By Car

Abu Dhabi is one of the cities that are built for cars, with well-maintained roads and modern infrastructure. It’s also the most convenient way to get around, especially if you’re venturing out of the city center to places that are less accessible by public transports.

Driving in Abu Dhabi needs some getting used to, due to reckless drivers on the road and a rather confusing street numbering system. However, just because some drivers in Abu Dhabi exhibit complete disregard for traffic rules, it doesn’t mean you should follow suit.

There are cameras at many intersections and fines are high. Non-citizens also run the risk of getting deported if they run too many red lights.

By Taxi

Taxis are a hassle-free and reliable way to navigate the city if you don’t have a car. They are available 24/7 throughout the city and are fairly cheap compared to other developed countries. You can either flag them down on the street or find them at designated taxi stands in malls, hotels, or tourist attractions. Some taxi companies also have booking apps that allow you to book and track your taxi, and make a cashless payment.

The regular taxis are silver with a yellow roof. They are metered, with a fixed starting fare of AED 5 or 6. There’s a sticker on the window that tells you how much they charge.

In addition to regular taxis, ride-hailing services like Uber and Careem operate in Abu Dhabi, providing an alternative option for getting around the city.

On Foot

While the emirate is known for its modern infrastructure and widespread use of cars, walking can be an enriching way to explore certain areas. The city features pedestrian-friendly zones, especially along the Corniche, where scenic waterfront pathways invite leisurely strolls.

Exploring on foot allows for a closer look at architectural marvels like the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque or the bustling markets and souks. Some districts, like the Marina Village or the Al Bateen area, boast walkable streets lined with cafes, shops, and cultural attractions.

However, it’s important to note that Abu Dhabi’s climate, particularly during the hotter months, can be intense, so adequate hydration and appropriate sun protection are essential for a comfortable walking experience.

Things to Do in Abu Dhabi, UAE

1. Visit the Sheikh Zayed Mosque

With my host at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

This iconic masterpiece, the 6th largest mosque in the world, was named after the UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. It boasts gleaming white domes and minarets that punctuate the skyline, drawing visitors from around the globe.

As you approach, the sheer scale and intricate details of the mosque captivate the senses—the sprawling courtyard, adorned with marble floral patterns and reflective pools, leads to the prayer hall, where the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet and glittering chandeliers adorn the breathtaking space. 

Visitors are encouraged to explore the mosque’s intricacies, learn about its construction, and appreciate the fusion of art, spirituality, and cultural heritage within its sacred walls. There are guided tours several times a day.

You can easily get to Sheikh Zayed Mosque by public bus. Just ask the bus driver to let you know once you get there.

2. Walk along the Corniche

Walking along the corniche in Abu Dhabi.

The Corniche is a picturesque waterfront promenade that stretches for 6km along the sparkling shores of the Arabian Gulf, from the Breakwater near Marina Shopping Mall, up to the Mina Zayed Port.

As you stroll, the refreshing sea breeze accompanies breathtaking views of the glistening waters, while the meticulously landscaped gardens and palm-fringed pathways create a serene ambiance. 

It is a haven for leisure seekers and fitness enthusiasts, with dedicated cycling and jogging tracks, benches to soak in the panoramic vistas, and designated areas for picnics or simply enjoying the stunning sunsets. Along the way, iconic landmarks like the Emirates Palace and striking high-rise buildings embellish the skyline, adding to the allure of this vibrant walkway.

3. Appreciate art at the Louvre

File:Visiter-le-louvre-abu-dhabi.jpg
Credit: voyageway / Wikimedia Commons

Located on Saadiyat Island is the Middle East’s most spectacular museum, the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Upon entering, the museum’s captivating dome, resembling a floating canopy of stars, filters sunlight into a mesmerizing “rain of light,” creating an ethereal ambiance.

The museum’s collections, spanning millennia and civilizations, from ancient artifacts to iconic paintings by renowned artists, beckon exploration and contemplation. Beyond its collections, the museum hosts engaging exhibitions, cultural events, and educational programs, inviting visitors to partake in an immersive and enriching experience.

The Louvre is the first of three planned major museums to open on Saadiyat Island.

4. Tour the Presidential Palace

Qasr al Watan, Abu Dhabi
Credit: ykeiko / Wikimedia Commons

The Presidential Palace, also known as Qasr Al Watan is recently open to the public and has quickly become a must-visit for anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the UAE’s history and governance. 

It serves as the seat of the country’s government and houses grandiose state rooms adorned with crystal chandeliers, arches, domes, and intricate carvings, seamlessly merging tradition with modernity. The House of Knowledge exhibit area presents a thoughtfully curated assortment that encompasses the significant contributions of the Arab world to the development of modern science, literature, and art.

Guided tours as well as audio guides are available. 

5. Visit Qasr Al-Hosn

This iconic fort is the oldest stone building in the city, symbolizing the emirate’s heritage and evolution from a humble fishing village to the modern metropolis that it is today. Stepping inside, visitors are enveloped by the fort’s restored structures, which house exhibits detailing Abu Dhabi’s transformation and the ruling family’s legacy.

The site offers a glimpse into the daily lives of early settlers, showcasing artifacts, photographs, and interactive displays. The fort’s captivating architecture, traditional courtyard, and cultural performances transport visitors back in time, fostering an appreciation for the emirate’s past and its people’s resilience.

6. Shop till you drop

The city’s scores of modern malls, traditional souks, and boutique stores offer a treasure trove of delights for avid shoppers. From designer labels to local artisan crafts, Abu Dhabi’s shopping scene is as varied as it is upscale.

The Marina Mall and Yas Mall are renowned for their expansive selection of international brands and entertainment options, while the traditional markets like the Central Market (Souk) and the Carpet Souk exude an authentic Emirati ambiance, showcasing unique handicrafts, spices, textiles, and souvenirs.

Visitors can relish the opulence of luxury boutiques on the Avenue at Etihad Towers or explore the cultural richness of the Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre, known for its gold, jewelry, and traditional attire.

Whether seeking high-end fashion, traditional goods, or local treasures, Abu Dhabi’s shopping destinations promise an indulgent retail experience for all.

 

7. Enjoy speed and spectacle at Ferrari World

Aerial view of Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi. Credit: Floness / Wikimedia Commons

A tribute to the famed Italian racing brand, the Ferrari World theme park offers you an exhilarating journey into the world of speed, thrill, and automotive excellence with its array of attractions, including record-breaking roller coasters like Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster, and the Flying Aces, with its exhilarating loops and twists.

Beyond thrill rides, Ferrari World also provides immersive experiences like the Ferrari Factory Tour, where visitors can witness the making of a Ferrari GT. The interactive exhibits, simulators, and family-friendly rides cater to all ages, ensuring a day filled with excitement and entertainment.

8. Bring out your inner child at Warner Bros World

This indoor theme park on Yas Island is a celebration of Warner Bros.’ extensive universe, featuring six “lands” dedicated to its cartoon, movie, and comic book characters.

As you step into the park, you’re greeted by themed zones like Gotham City and Metropolis, each meticulously designed to transport visitors into the worlds of DC Comics superheroes like Batman and Superman. The Bedrock area brings the Flintstones to life, while the colorful Cartoon Junction rekindles childhood memories with beloved characters like Bugs Bunny and Scooby-Doo.

The park boasts thrilling rides, interactive attractions, live shows, and meet-and-greets with beloved characters, promising an action-packed day filled with entertainment and nostalgia for all ages.

9. Kayak in the mangroves

Kayaking through Abu Dhabi’s mangrove forests allows you to see a different side of Abu Dhabi’s beyond its steel and glass exterior. As you glide through the labyrinthine waterways, the tranquil surroundings and lush greenery create a picturesque escape from the city’s hustle and bustle.

The mangroves serve as a sanctuary for diverse wildlife, and while kayaking, you might encounter various bird species, fish, and even glimpses of marine life thriving in these rich and protected habitats.

10. Fulfill your racing dream at Yas Marina Circuit

Another attraction on Yas Island, the Yas Marina Circuit is the host of the prestigious Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix every year. However, even if you can’t make it to the actual race, you can still get a taste of Formula One throughout the year.

Visitors can enjoy guided tours and get a behind-the-scene look at the circuit, pit lane, grandstand and podium that have witnessed legendary races. For those seeking a taste of racing thrill, driving experiences allow enthusiasts to unleash their inner racer on the same track as Formula 1 champions.

The circuit isn’t solely for motorsport aficionados; its lively atmosphere, array of dining options, and stunning marina views make it an exhilarating destination for visitors of all interests.

11. Chill out on the beach

With soft sands and azure waters, the beaches like Corniche Beach and Saadiyat Public Beach invite visitors to unwind under the warm sun. Families can enjoy designated play areas and water sports, while those seeking tranquility can find secluded spots for peaceful contemplation or a refreshing dip in the clear waters. The beachfront facilities, including loungers, beachside cafes, and on-duty lifeguards ensure a comfortable and laid-back experience.

For a bit more luxury, you can get day passes to the private Saadiyat Beach Club or Yas Beach that will give you access to all their amenities, including pools, restaurants, sports equipment, and various lounge areas.

12. See the city from the top of Etihad Tower

Perched atop the iconic Etihad Towers, the Observation Deck at 300 provides a breathtaking vantage point from the 74th floor. As visitors step onto the deck, they’re met with a 360-degree view that encapsulates Abu Dhabi’s striking architecture, glittering coastline, and sprawling cityscape.

The deck’s floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor terrace give an unparalleled bird’s eye perspective of Abu Dhabi, allowing guests to soak in the grandeur of landmarks like the Corniche and Emirates Palace against the backdrop of the Arabian Gulf.

Klook.com

13. Go on a boat tour

The marina. © Ralf Roletschek / Wikimedia Commons

Another way to catch the most stunning vistas of Abu Dhabi’s dazzling skyscrapers is by exploring the waterways. Numerous tour operators cater to various budgets, providing diverse options. Daytime island hopping tours remain a favored choice, offering a serene and scenic exploration of multiple islands within the bay, along with beach visits and snorkeling opportunities.

However, for captivating cityscapes, sunset or evening dinner cruises are recommended. These tours offer a remarkable view of the city’s transition into an illuminated spectacle as night falls over the skyline.

Additionally, you can also try the pearl tours to take you through the mangroves on a traditional dhow, offering insights into Abu Dhabi’s pearl diving legacy and heritage.

Klook.com

14. Get up close with falcons at the Falcon Hospital

The Falcon Hospital. Credit: Kishore Kumar / Wikimedia Commons

This renowned facility, dedicated to the well-being of falcons, offers a unique experience for visitors curious about these majestic birds. The guided tours, that run from 2 to 3 hours, provide insights into falconry, a centuries-old tradition integral to Emirati culture, and offer an up-close encounter with these revered birds.

Visitors witness specialized treatments, learn about falcon health, and observe the intricate relationship between falcons and their handlers. Exploring the hospital’s facilities, including examination rooms and aviaries, provides a deeper understanding of the dedication to preserving this ancient practice and the vital role falcons play in Emirati identity. 

15. Go dune bashing

File:Dune bashing, Dubai, 2007 (15).JPG
Credit: Bahnfrend / Wikimedia Commons

Embark on an unforgettable desert safari tour from Abu Dhabi, delving into the heart of the majestic Arabian Desert for an exhilarating experience of dune bashing. This adventure begins with a thrilling ride in a robust 4×4 vehicle, expertly driven by skilled guides over the undulating sand dunes.

But the tour isn’t solely about adrenaline; as twilight descends, the experience unfolds into a traditional Bedouin camp, where you’re welcomed with Arabian hospitality. Indulge in cultural activities, including camel rides, sandboarding, henna painting, and relish a sumptuous BBQ dinner under the stars while enjoying live entertainment with mesmerizing belly dance performances.

How Long to Stay in Abu Dhabi

Some people prefer staying longer in Dubai, where all the fun is, and only make a day trip to Abu Dhabi. However, this wouldn’t do the city any justice. There are plenty of things to do in UAE’s capital, and it’s also laid-back enough if you just wish to chill for a few days without packing too much into your itinerary.

Personally, I would say 4-5 days would be ideal for Abu Dhabi alone, which will give you enough time to explore the city center and perhaps some of the islands.

What to Wear in Abu Dhabi

T-shirts and other casual Western attire are common in Abu Dhabi.

Contrary to people’s belief, women don’t have to cover everything up in Abu Dhabi. The UAE in general is more easy-going and tolerant than most other Middle Eastern countries.

Although Abu Dhabi is slightly more conservative than Dubai, there are still many expats, tourists, and foreign workers who are not Muslim, so the sight of women without hijab or abaya is pretty common. However, it is best to avoid clothing that is too tight, transparent, or revealing.

You will find that loose-fitting clothes are more comfortable in the hot climate anyway, as they shield your skin from the stinging rays of the sun without clinging too much to your body. Lightweight and breathable fabrics such as cotton or linen are best. Hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen are also essential to protect against the sun.

Swimsuits are acceptable at private beach resorts or pools, but once you leave the beach area, cover up with a beach cover-up or wrap. Ensure the swimwear isn’t too revealing, and respect the local culture when walking to and from the beach.

When visiting mosques or religious sites, both men and women should dress modestly. Women should wear loose-fitting clothing that covers the arms and legs, and a headscarf may be required. Men should avoid shorts and sleeveless shirts.

Due to the weather that was neither too cold nor too hot during my visit, I was comfortable in T-shirts and jeans by day, but I brought along a scarf and long-sleeved sweater to layer on in case it got too windy / chilly in the evening.

Where to Stay in Abu Dhabi

During my visit in Abu Dhabi, I was fortunate enough to have a friend who was working there, so I didn’t have to worry about finding my own accommodation. However, I have selected a few accommodation options for you, to suit different budgets:

Budget

International Abu Dhabi Hostel – Features a terrace, shared kitchen, and shared bathrooms. Selected rooms come with a balcony with city view. From USD 15 for a single bed in a dormitory room.

Top House, Abu Dhabi – All rooms come with air-conditioning, a fridge, oven, kettle, desk, shared bathroom, and free toiletries. Towels and linens are provided. From USD 13 for a bunk bed in a mixed dormitory room.

Mid-Range

Southern Sun Abu Dhabi – A few minutes’ walk from Abu Dhabi Mall. Offers an outdoor pool, sauna and gym. From USD 57 for a Deluxe King or Twin Room.

Traders Hotel Qaryat Al Beri, Abu Dhabi – Features a private beach, gym, pool, and spa. Rooms come with a pillow menu, an executive writing desk, minibar, and a bathroom with a monsoon shower. From USD 67 for a Superior Twin Room.

Luxury

The St. Regis Abu Dhabi – Overlooks the corniche, with its own beach club, a 200 m private beach, infinity pool, fitness facilities, spa, and children’s club. Also features a suite on the skybridge between its two towers, offering a 360-degree view. Complimentary butler service for every guest. From USD 213 for a Superior Room.

Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental, Abu Dhabi – Located on the shores of the Arabian Gulf with its own 1.3 km stretch of private beach. Boasts 14 food and beverage outlets, 2 swimming pools, a spa, fitness center and kids’ club. All rooms come with spacious marble bathrooms, an iPad mini with integrated room controls, an interactive HD TV with over 150 channels, and 24-hour butler service. From USD 436 for a Deluxe City View King Room with balcony.

Final Thoughts

Probably one of my favorite destinations now.

After having heard stories from a few other travelers I met who had been to the UAE, I got the impression that it was just a desert with flashy buildings and a bit of a fake vibe — what with all the artificial islands and everything.

However, upon setting foot in this city, my perceptions quickly changed. Abu Dhabi revealed itself as a captivating blend of heritage and modernity, a vibrant metropolis with a soul. True, there were those gleaming towers but they were complemented by a rich culture, warm hospitality, and genuine experiences.

And what I loved the most was how safe I felt as a solo female traveler, even walking alone at night in secluded areas. The law is strictly enforced in the UAE, with hefty penalties for those who go against it. The quality of living is very high, and those who go there to work get paid well enough that they wouldn’t want to risk doing anything that might get them deported or banned from the country.

Abu Dhabi truly surpassed my initial impressions, unveiling a destination where tradition harmoniously coexists with innovation, inviting exploration beyond the surface into a world of depth and genuine charm

Have you been to Abu Dhabi before? What did you like most about it? Share your experience in the comment section below.

Posted in United Arab Emirates

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