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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrOften considered an inferior sister to Dubai, Abu Dhabi is making giant leaps forward in the international tourism scene. For years, the capital of the United Arab Emirates was seen as a sterile business hub, even though it was the destination of choice for frugal travelers; those who wanted an Arabian tasting vacation at about half the Dubai price. But things are changing fast.
Abu Dhabi boasts interesting attractions and a wide array of fine eating and shopping opportunities. It still boasts the same, enticing Arabian Gulf coast and an incredibly striking desert landscape. Perhaps it’s not nearly as glitzy as Dubai, but that’s not necessarily a negative aspect for the city. Some may even consider it a plus. When you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in Las Vegas when visiting Dubai, you’d never make the same mistake here. Inherently Arabian and much more authentic in aesthetics and atmosphere, Abu Dhabi is a fantastic holiday destination for anyone who wish they could’ve experience the UAE before the commercial madness took over.
Abu Dhabi HighlightsIt’s quite unfortunate that both Abu Dhabi and Dubai offer little in terms of cultural or historical attractions, yet at least Abu Dhabi does have a more Arabian feel, if that helps at all! Here are some of the city’s most prominent landmarks.
Sheikh Zayed MosqueOne of the world’s largest mosques and an utterly splendid vision of white marble, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is regarded as the most important in the UAE. This gargantuan place of worship measures over 400 meters in length and almost 300 in width. During Eid al-Fitr , at the busiest time of year, you can experience the jaw-dropping scene of 40,000 faithful followers diverging here for afternoon prayers. The mosque boasts 82 domes and a 100m tall minaret. This mosque is arguably one of the most magnificent sights you’ll ever see anywhere, and should be firmly placed as number one on your must-see list for Abu Dhabi. Guided tours are offered and do note that very strict dress rules apply.
Emirates PalaceBoth an über-exclusive hotel and an unmissable Abu Dhabi landmark, the Emirates Palace is one of the world’s most lavish hotels and was made even more popular thanks to it featuring in the second Sex in the City film. Everything about this place just screams opulence...golden fittings, mind-boggling chandeliers, intricately carved columns, and the size?! Oh, the size alone will blow you away! Head here for a sumptuous afternoon tea (or caviar and champagne perhaps?) and stay until sunset, when the gilded facade gains a most dreamy glow.
The CornicheAbu Dhabi’s waterfront esplanade is beautifully manicured and ideal for a long, relaxing stroll. It stretches for 6km and is framed by water, desert dunes and sky-high buildings. You’ll find lots to see and do here, including both private and public stretches of beach, kids’ playgrounds, restaurant, cafes, shops and even stages for music and shows. A wonderful, family friendly place in which to spend a relaxing afternoon.
Observation Deck at 300The highest observation deck in town is on the 74th floor of the Etihad Towers and offers breathtaking 360-degree views of the city, the Arabian Gulf, and the enticing desert landscape. Entry fee is 75 DHS although you can claim 50 DHS against any food or beverage purchases. Head here for a phenomenal sunset and stay for dinner. The views, at night, are stunning beyond words.
Ferrari WorldFerrari World is one of the city’s newest attractions and the world’s largest indoor amusement park. Fans of high speed indulge in the fastest roller coaster ever built (almost 150km/hr!) and the F40 simulator has been known to bring grown men to tears. Plan to spend a whole day if you want to indulge in every ride (about 20 in total) as the place does get very busy and queues can be extensive. Entry fee is 250 DHS per person. Ferrari Wolrd is one of the many attractions on Yas Island.
Yas IslandThe largest entertainment and shopping hub of Abu Dhabi, this man-made island is home to Ferrari World, the F1 Grand Prix circuit, Yas Waterworld theme park, a golf course as well as a plethora of shopping, dining and sleeping establishments. The beach at Yas Island is probably the nicest in all of Abu Dhabi. Beautifully decorated with a plethora of charming cabanas, throw pillows and all amenities, it’s a wonderful spot in which to spend a whole day.
Yas WaterworldThis water-based theme park is one of the best in the world and offers insanely fun rides for kids and adults alike. An ideal indulgence on a hot, sticky day in Abu Dhabi, and particularly great as a first-day activity after arriving on a long-haul flight. Make sure you don’t visit during school break and, if you must choose between this and Dubai’s Widi Wild Park, then we’d say this is the better choice. Waterworld is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day and entry tix are 240 DHS per person (above 1.1m in height).
Fun PursuitsAside admiring the city’s main landmarks, there are also plenty of fun and active pursuits in which to indulge. Here are the most popular:
Desert SafariMuch like Dubai, Abu Dhabi also takes full advantage of its desert enticement, and offers a wide variety of desert dune experiences; from gentle rides and luxury camps to afternoons of dune bashing and camel riding, followed by a night of cultural dance, feasting, and shisha smoking. You’ll find plenty of agencies offering the option of an overnight stay in a Bedouin-style camp. Although many people claim these are too touristy and ‘not the real thing’, do note that the real thing usually involves you sleeping on hay mattresses and sharing a small tent with 25 people and two stinky camels. So, you know, non-authentic is not always a minus.
Catamaran SailingBelevari Marine are the most reputed agency in town and offer fantastic afternoon sailing trips to different islands off the Arabian Gulf coast. On a typical half-day trip, you’ll sail for an hour before enjoying a couple of hours on a stunning, sandy island where you can swim, sunbake, or enjoy a relaxing walk. You’ll have a light lunch served on board and enjoy a wonderful few hours out of the city. Enjoy splendid sea views on your way out and striking city views when heading back. Sunset cruises around the city are also highly recommended.
KayakingMeandering your way through the city’s mangroves and water channels is a great way to explore a different side of Abu Dhabi. You’ll get a good workout and enjoy a few hours in relaxing natural landscapes to boot. Make sure you go only during high tide and wear plastic boat shoes rather than flip flops as they are much more comfortable in muddy waters.
ShoppingThere’s no denying that the UAE has taken to commercialism like a duck to water, yet Abu Dhabi is still quite a few steps behind Dubai in this particular regard. Nevertheless, considering there are only so many colossal malls one could visit on a single visit, you’ll still find plenty of places to give your plastic an almighty workout. As opposed to Dubai, however, Abu Dhabi is home to a wide range of small malls spread out all over town, so no matter where you stay you’re bound to find a mid-range haunt right nearby.
Here are the most popular malls:
Marina MallIf you only have time to visit one mall when in town, make sure it’s the Marina Mall. It’s large enough to boast everything you could ever need, but not large enough that you’d need hours just to work out where anything is. You’ll find an enormous Carrefour supermarket, plenty of fine dining and cheaper eating options, endless trendy clothing shops, kid’s entertainment areas, a lovely fountain display, and even a skating rink. Not overly busy and, it should be said, not nearly as elaborately designed as Dubai’s grander malls, although this is overlooked for the positives.
Yas MallYas Island’s signature shopping mall is much grander and more sumptuous than Marina Mall, yet it is also more expensive, in every way. This is more of a Dubai-style mall with the usual supply of high-end boutiques, restaurants, and coffee shops. Due to the distance from the city, it’s wise to incorporate a visit here with a stay on Yas Island.
The Galleria on Al Maryah IslandGalleria is Abu Dhabi’s most upmarket shopping hub, offering an endless array of designer shops, beautiful outdoor cafés (Godiva in particular) and even an interesting art exhibition space. Al Maryah Island is one of the largest construction sites in the city and located just north of the city center. Buses ply the route between this and Marina Mall, but a taxi ride to reach this mall is both cheap and convenient.
Dining OutTypical of all things in the UAE, the best and most expensive meals can be enjoyed in the city’s most exclusive hotels. Only these restaurants are allowed to serve alcohol to foreigners. Abu Dhabi doesn’t offer nearly as much cuisine variation as its most popular neighbor, yet the usual smattering of Indian and Italian joints abound. Thanks to the overwhelming numbers of Eastern expats, cheap Indian eateries are scattered throughout town, although both quality and quantity of meals at these can be somewhat substandard.
For an unforgettable splurge, head to Stratos Lounge Bar & Restaurant, Abu Dhabi’s most revered ‘dine with a view’ spot. This revolving, high-class establishment offers unparalleled city views and an amazing dining experience. Arguably the best sundowner spot in the whole city.
AccommodationOnce upon a time, Abu Dhabi was renowned for being the cheap half of Dubai, with everything from hotels and restaurants meals costing half as much. Not anymore. As the popularity of this Emirati continues to rise, so have the prices, although we still think you get a lot more for your dirham here than anywhere else in the UAE.
Luxury hotels abound and almost all come with the usual plethora of eating and drinking establishments, pools, beauty spas, and gyms. Frugal travelers looking for cheaper digs ought to look for apartment hotels, where all those amenities are not included. In high season (November to April) you’d have to be Houdini to find a room below $ 80 USD per night, but your chances of getting an incredible hotel room in a luxury resort for the same prices are very high in low season.
How to Get ThereAbu Dhabi is the home hub of Etihad Airlines and home to the second-busiest International Airport in the UAE. Quickly asserting itself as one of the world’s leading carriers (with an impressive price/quality ratio), Etihad flies to all corners of the globe and offers some of the most competitive prices on the market. Abu Dhabi is swiftly becoming one of the favored stopovers between Australia and Europe.
Abu Dhabi International Airport is a 45-minute drive away from the city’s center. Metered taxi rides cost about 75 DHS and you’ll also find quite a few public bus services connecting passengers to different parts of the city. Etihad runs a shuttle to and from Dubai but this does not include a stop in Abu Dhabi’s center.
From Dubai, you could either get here by taxi (300 DHS) or bus (Emirates Express, 25 DHS).
How to Get Around Abu DhabiThe city is well spread out and, considering the heat, walking around is not really a pleasant option for many tourists. There is an extensive public bus system which is cheap, safe, and convenient. The dark blue/green buses are air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible, and all fares cost 2 DHS within city limits and 4 DHS for outer city suburbs. Do make sure you have the correct change as drivers don’t give change.
Taxis, however, are arguably the best and fastest way to go around. Silver colored taxis (yellow signs) are metered, clean, air-conditioned, and speed limited. Prices are cheaper than in Western countries making taxis here a favorite with both tourists and expats.
If you're wanting a day full of tourist sightseeing, then your best bet will be the convenient hop on/hop off bus, which starts from Marina Mall every hour and takes you past all of the major landmarks. Tickets include free passage to Yas Island and cost $ 60 USD per person, which only make it a worthwhile investment if you intend on visiting all the landmarks covered by the route.
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: Mar 20, 2015