9 things that any visitor to Abu Dhabi should do


It’s no secret that visitors to the United Arab Emirates associate the country more with sizzling Dubai than stately Abu Dhabi. Yet the UAE’s capital has never been one to chase pizzazz.

Instead, Abu Dhabi has taken initiatives that emphasize heritage and culture, as well as family-friendly offerings such as theme parks. With easy access to beaches, mangroves and a gorgeous swathe of desert aptly known as the Empty Quarter, there’s plenty for nature enthusiasts here, too.

It’s true that Abu Dhabi is noticeably conservative, especially when compared to Dubai. But don’t let that deter you: it doesn’t take long to realize that the city is as ambitious as it is tradition-oriented, a mix that leaves newcomers wanting more.

Here are nine can’t-miss experiences that will show you the best of Abu Dhabi.

The magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque blends a variety of Islamic architectural influcences © Christian Häcker / 500px

1. Soak up the spiritual allure of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Among Abu Dhabi’s many architectural wonders, none enraptures visitors quite like Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Occupying a site the size of four football fields, it can accommodate up to 40,000 worshippers and hosts millions of visitors every year. Despite the footfall, a sense of serenity always obtains – a mood accentuated by the lilting call to prayer that reverberates through the air five times a day.

A team of artisans, architects and engineers from across the globe worked on the monument for 11 years, producing a monument that fuses Mughal, Ottoman and Persian architectural influences. Gold-leaf spires, gilded chandeliers and columns inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones like amethyst lend a sense of opulence.

Visitors can explore the premises solo or with a guide. We recommend arriving late in the afternoon, when you can linger long enough to see the four minarets and 82 domes – all clad in gleaming white marble – bathed in the blue-tinted late-afternoon light.

Detour: Directly opposite the mosque, Wahat Al Karama (Oasis of Dignity) is another architectural feat whose award-winning centerpiece, The Memorial, features 31 aluminum-clad panels that lean against each other to symbolize unity. The Memorial Plaza is where you’ll find the ultimate view of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: behind a shallow pool of water that reflects it beautifully.

Interior of the church at the Abrahamic Family House, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
The interior of the church at Abrahamic Family House, which also has a mosque and synagogue of equal dimensions © milart / Shutterstock

2. Contemplate the value of religious tolerance at Abrahamic Family House

This interfaith complex features three houses of worship representing the shared values of the three Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism – a celebration of the spirit of tolerance that governs everyday life in the Emirates. A meeting in 2019 between Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb inspired the project, which features the first synagogue built in the Middle East (outside of Israel) in nearly 100 years.
 
Each of the three cubic sanctuaries is equal in scale, respecting the equality of the faiths they represent. Subtle architectural details – an abstracted crucifix in the church, a suspended bronze veil in the synagogue, panels of latticework in the mosque – salute the spiritual practices and traditions of the three faiths. Visitors are welcome to participate in prayer at any of the sanctuaries, while a guided tour provides a broad overview of all three religions.

Planning tip: Booking a (free) ticket online is required, as is dressing modestly. Women may borrow an abaya or headscarf at reception to visit the mosque.

Formula Rossa, the fastest roller coaster in the world, at Ferrari World, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Appropriately enough, the race car–shaped Formula Rossa roller coaster at Ferrari World is the fastest on the planet © Kritsana Laroque / Shutterstock

3. Keep the whole family occupied at a theme park

World-class theme parks are perhaps what Abu Dhabi does best – and four of them are conveniently located on Yas Island, its entertainment capital. Ferrari World is all about high-octane action: it’s currently home to both the world’s fastest roller coaster and first-ever sideways coaster drop, as well as a 290m (950ft) go-kart track and state-of-the-art simulation experiences. Nearby, Yas Waterworld offers over 40 rides and slides for all ages, tied together by an interactive theme involving the quest to find a legendary pearl. You can even plunge to the depths of an underwater tank to collect oysters containing precious pearls, a nod to the UAE’s pearl-diving heritage. At 1.65 million sq ft (153,290 sq m), Warner Bros World is the largest indoor theme park in the world – and ideal for those in town with the kids during the hotter months.

Elsewhere in town, Snow Abu Dhabi in Reem Mall makes the impossible possible: sledding, Zorbing and zip-lining inside a winter wonderland in the middle of a desert.

Planning tip: If theme parks are a high priority, look into Yas Island Multi-Park Experiences for discounted ticket bundles, which are ideally suited to large families.

Dune bashing with a 4x4 jeep, Al-Khatim Desert, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
“Dune bashing” in a 4×4 is an exhilirating desert experience © Sabino Parente / Shutterstock

4. Escape to the desert, however you choose

The vast wilderness of Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter) is the stuff of legends, the subject of tales of sunken cities and disappearing caravans. Spanning a staggering 650,000 sq km (251,000 sq miles) across multiple countries on the Arabian Peninsula, it’s the largest continuous sand desert on Earth. It also happens to cover 70% of Abu Dhabi, and there are plenty of ways to immerse in its otherworldly beauty, from nature excursions to adrenaline-fueled activities to luxury stays.

A “desert safari” is ideal for first-time visitors. The standard offering comprises a variety of activities: the thrills of dune bashing over and across rolling sand dunes in a 4×4 vehicle, as well as quad biking, sand-boarding, camel rides, belly dance performances and a barbecue dinner. An overnight stay in the desert takes the experience up a notch – think ultra-clear starry skies followed by a spectacular sunrise, and (if done correctly) Bedouin hospitality. At glamping retreat Liwa Nights, Salam Almazrouei – whose Bedouin family has inhabited Liwa Oasis on the northern edge of Rub’ Al Khali for generations – introduces guests to the region’s cuisine, customs and traditions.

Planning tip: If you’re prone to motion sickness, it’s best to take your medicine 30 to 60 minutes before your desert safari begins, for between the dune bashing and quad biking, you’re in for a couple of wild rides. It’s also best to avoid alcohol and heavy meals beforehand.

Interior of the Louvre Abu Dhabi under the “rain of light” dome, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
An amazing latticework dome covers galleries of world-class art at Louvre Abu Dhabi © Oleg GawriloFF / Shutterstock

5. Discover the city’s ambitions at Louvre Abu Dhabi

Louvre Abu Dhabi draws art and culture enthusiasts with its striking architecture; a growing permanent collection that features 700 artworks from every civilization; another 300 pieces on loan from partner museums; and temporary exhibitions that bridge East and West. Masterpieces on permanent view include The Subjugated Reader by René Magritte, Portrait of a Woman by Pablo Picasso and Young Emir Studying by Osman Hamdi Bey.

You could spend many hours in this palace of culture; those pressed for time can book an Express Tour to discover the highlights. However long you spend here, you’ll be able to take in Jean Nouvel’s extraordinary 7500-ton dome, which seems to float over the museum, its perforations creating a “rain of light” effect below.

Planning tip: For an alternative perspective of the architectural grandeur of Louvre Abu Dhabi (which is perched on the lip of the Arabian Sea), you can kayak around the museum come golden hour.

Residents enjoy Corniche Beach, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Residents and visitors mix along the short at Corniche Beach © Eusaphzae / Shutterstock

6. Immerse yourself in local life along the Corniche

Abu Dhabi’s beloved Corniche, or waterfront esplanade, is where sunburned tourists most often intermingle with residents taking a break from the bustle of urban life. Here, young couples with squealing kids, fitness enthusiasts and elderly promenaders spill out along a promenade dotted with cafes, manicured gardens, volleyball courts and play areas. Dedicated pathways separate cyclists from pedestrians.

Lifeguarded Corniche Beach attracts those looking to beat the heat with a dip. Visitors can expect all the essentials – showers, cabanas, umbrellas and more – at this Blue Flag site. You’ll find dedicated areas for singles, groups and families, making your beach day both safe and convenient. If you’re looking to really get out on the waves, rent a Jet Ski to whiz along the waterfront and enjoy views of the city’s gleaming skyscrapers.

Planning tip: You’ll want to refuel right after, so look for the food trucks that cluster together under the name In Between (it’s located right by the Corniche stop of the city’s new, tram-like electric bus).

Sun beds by the pool at Saadiyat Beach Club, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Saadiyat Beach Club offers all you need for a leisurely and luxurious afternoon © Cipolina / Shutterstock

7. Cool off in style at a luxurious beach club

Since year-round sunshine always prevails in this part of the world, pool and beach days are the ultimate leisure pursuit. At Saadiyat Beach Club, white sand and turquoise waters are accented with Mediterranean fare, fitness facilities, a hot tub, private cabanas for when blissful seclusion is desired, and an infinity pool that steals the show every time. The average day here may entail an encounter with a world-class DJ or critically endangered hawksbill turtles – both have been known to make appearances at this stylish place.

The more relaxed Nation Riviera Beach Club and Bayshore Beach Club can both be found within luxury hotels (the St Regis Abu Dhabi and InterContinental Abu Dhabi, respectively), and promise quality family time.

Planning tip: Check DayPass and Best Bites for details on the best day passes offered by hotels and beach clubs across the city.

An aerial view of walkways at Jubail Mangrove Park, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Where the desert meets the sea, mangroves flourish © malangusha / Shutterstock

8. Paddle through the waters of Mangrove National Park

Deserts and mangroves don’t seem like a natural pair, but they’re intrinsically linked. Dominating the coastal vegetation of the Arabian Peninsula, dense mangrove trees help purify and calm tidal flows while removing and locking away impressive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In Abu Dhabi, their biodiversity – not to mention their beauty – are protected by a local environmental agency.

In Mangrove National Park, mottled crabs, greater flamingos, western reef herons and even famously skittish dugongs (sea cows) congregate. Kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding through the still waters here is the best way to get up and close with these locals. Check with trusted local tour operators like Noukhada Adventure Company and Husaak Adventures.

Fruit and vegetables vendors at night at Al Mina market, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
The vendors in the neighborhoods of Al Danah and Al Zahiyah have helped shape the character of modern-day Abu Dhabi © Matyas Rehak / Shutterstock

9. Step back in time in the city’s most historic neighborhoods

Concealed amid the mega malls, luxury hotels and golf courses are the old neighborhoods of Al Danah and Al Zahiyah, both rarely visited by tourists. Mom-and-pop stores have been standing here for over 40 years, suggesting a much simpler past.

On a stroll through their lanes and alleys, you’ll see family-owned bakeries, kebab restaurants, textile stores, tailor shops and salons – a living lesson in how expats from Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, India and Pakistan have shaped this city’s social and cultural fabric. The government has (rightfully) designated these areas as “Urban Treasures.”

Local tip: A go-to for the city’s long-standing residents, Abu Al Afwal Cafeteria is a humble joint run by Sudanese immigrant Al Zahiyah. Be sure to order a portion of the foul, a hearty stew made with fava beans – a recipe that has been drawing lines of customers since its debut in 1975.



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