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Abu Dhabi is a lovely city with green boulevard-lined streets, large gardens and parks, opulent shopping malls, high-rise buildings and several luxury hotel chains. Don’t forget one of the greatest joys on offer – desert safari in Abu Dhabi! The city might lack Dubai’s overwhelming glitter and glamour, but has a magnificent old-meets-new aura of its own. A number of airways fly to Abu Dhabi, from every part of the world. You can get to Abu Dhabi via bus, car or taxi from the other Emirate cities as well. Here’s a travel guide to Abu Dhabi, with everything that you’ll need to plan a trip to this lovely city.
Getting Around The City
- Taxis: Taxis are the best travel option within the city. Taxis carry a yellow sign, which lights up when the taxi is free. You can tip taxi drivers if you want to, but it’s generally not expected.
- Buses: There is also an efficient bus service that offers airport transfers. Obtain a bus route listing from the airport and use the bus service to visit famous landmarks. You can buy a bus pass if your visit lasts beyond a month.
- Car Hire: You can opt to rent a car and drive yourself around. The city offers free parking areas, but stringent fines apply for non-compliance. Abu Dhabi drivers can be reckless, so be careful. Also, drinking even a tiny bit and driving can mean a month’s incarceration or more.
Exploring The City’s Attractions
Abu Dhabi’s attractions are diverse and unique. Here is a sampler of the best things to see and do.
1. Sheikh Zayed Mosque
Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Mosque is the largest mosque in the UAE, and the sixth largest in the world. The mosque is a stunning sight with its snowy-white domes and minarets that can be seen from afar. Women are expected to wear a black abaya robe and men must cover their knees to enter the mosque.
2. The Corniche
The Corniche is a 6-kilometer-long walkway that stretches from the Breakwater near Marina Shopping Mall up to the Mina Zayed port. You’ll find many sandy beaches, go-kart tracks, stage shows, playgrounds and picnic areas along this stretch. From the Corniche, you can capture some pictures of downtown Abu Dhabi’s impressive towers.
3. Al Maryah Island
The Al Maryah Island contains a collection of dramatic skyscrapers that surround the Abu Dhabi Global Market Square, the heart of the financial center. Do visit the chic Galleria shopping mall for luxurious shopping. Walk along the square’s promenade and have a cup of coffee at one of the cafes and restaurants set beside it.
4. Al Reem Island
Al Reem Island, next to the Al Maryah Island has colossal skyscrapers topped by a huge skybridge that connects the buildings. It’s a very futuristic architectural achievement, and worth a look-see.
5. Yas Island
Yas Island is Abu Dhabi’s premier entertainment destination, a sort of playground for big and small, old and young where there is everything to bring you back to your childhood year. The Yas Marina Circuit hosts the Abu Dhabi annual F1 Grand Prix and you can actually try out being an F1 driver for the day. Or you can brave it all at the world’s first Ferrari Themed amusement park, the Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. The island is also a paradise for yatchies and water babies. You can cool off in the hotter months of the year at Yas Water World which has a 238-metre long, hydromagnetic-powered, six-person tornado waterslide. If you prefer to stay on land and take up more relaxed pursuits, the Yas Links Abu Dhabi golf club is considered one of the top-25 best golf clubs in the world according to Golf Digest. If you are looking for a less flashy day, head out to the beach where a USD15 fee will give you a towel and lounger.
Don’t miss the Yas Viceroy Hotel which is topped by a 217-meter-long steel-glass canopy studded with 5000 LEDs. Watching the changing light display shows from the Yas Marina is a true treat.
6. Heritage Village
The Heritage Village is a great place to pick up local handcrafts and miniatures of Abu Dhabi’s buildings. Designed to reproduce the former oasis villages that bedouins lived in, here is the only place you can get a feel for what life in the desert used to be before Abu Dhabi’s riches changed thanks to oil. The Heritage Village marina offers a fabulous view of the entire city. The 123-meter-high Abu Dhabi Flagpole is located near marina, proudly displaying a massive UAE flag.
7. Green Abu Dhabi
Parks here are dotted with lovely fountains, sculptures and neon light displays at night. Khalifa Park near the Grand Mosque has its own play parks for kids, kids train, formal gardens, aquarium and a museum. Al Safa Park is a place where you can play various sports, enjoy video arcade games, as well as ride the Ferris wheel and bumper cars. There’s an enchanting maze and several picnic spots on offer as well.
8. Saadiyat Island
The Abu Dhabi Louvre art gallery is one of this island’s attractions. From 2017, you won’t have to fly to Paris to see the Louvre, as the French Government and the city of Abi Dhabi have agreed to open a second location branding the same name on Saadiyat Island. This dome-like structure is shaped like a web, allowing sun to filter through, much like sitting in an oasis under palm fronds. Originally set to open its doors in 2012, this $650m, 24,000 square metre (260,000 sq ft) mega-project has been delayed three times and is said to officially open in 2017. It will showcase artworks from around the globe including famous names such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Henri Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh, and Claude Monet. But it will include a specific focus on Middle Eastern art, with an emphasis of east meets west.
The pristine, world-class Saadiyat Public Beach can also be found on this island. Gorgeous fine white sands, bistros, cafes, regular patrols and lifeguards await you on this beach. Visit the Manarat al Saadiyat for an exhibition of Abu Dhabi’s upcoming developments.
9. Downtown Abu Dhabi
Enjoy Abu Dhabi’s lively street life, food stalls, cafes and shops offering locally-made goods in downtown Abu Dhabi. Visit the Madinat Zayed Gold Centre for some contemporary and traditional Arab jewelry. While it has a focus on jewelry, with over 70 jewelry stores that offer everything from gold to diamonds, it also is a great place for fashion. It offers a wide array of brands and stores from household goods to high end fashion. You can also visit the Madinat Zayed Gold Centre, the only Gold Centre in Abu Dhabi.
Things To Do In Abu Dhabi
1. HH Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan Heritage Festival
If you’re in Abu Dhabi during winter, don’t miss the HH Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan Heritage Festival at Sweihan. Here you can watch traditional camel races, the Saluki race, as well as camel beauty and milking contests. There is usually also a souq (market), a heritage village and many photography or other exhibitions. Well-equipped tents are provided for outside participants, along with safety measures and transportation facilities. Visit the Emirates Heritage Club website here for more information.
2. Abu Dhabi City Tour
The Abu Dhabi City Tour will take you to the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, the Emirates Palace, the Marina Mall, the Corniche, the Heritage Village and much more. Several local companies also offer day tours on fully air-conditioned buses.
3. Boat Tour
Sign up on a boat tour of the waterfront, on a vessel of your choice. Several agencies conduct boat, yacht and dhow tours of the oceanfront in the city. Some of the tours offer a full complement of meals on board, including live entertainment. The night boat tours are very exciting; you can see the enchanting Abu Dhabi skyline laid out under the stars. Contact any reputable tour company or you can also ask the concierge at your hotel to get you information on boat tours in the area.
4. Helicopter Ride
Enjoy a helicopter tour and watch the majestic beauty of the city open up to your eyes – the beautiful red desert dunes, the pristine blue waters, the Corniche, the city’s landmark buildings. You can get the best out of the ride by customizing it to your sightseeing needs.
5. Desert Safari
Sign up for a lovely desert safari; enjoy riding camels and SUVs on the dunes, and participate in the local entertainment on offer. Several tours are available: Morning Desert Safari which includes plenty of dune bashing and other desert adventures. The Evening Desert Safari which is more romantic, exploring the red dunes under a canopy of stars. The Overnight Desert Safari includes an Emirates dinner and a full breakfast. Nothing is more romantic than the wide, open desert in the darkness of the night. There are full day tours as well those that combine various desert adventures and camel treks in the evenings.
Shop till you drop at Abu Dhabi’s many malls. Abu Dhabi Mall, the Marina Mall, the Al Wahda Mall, the LuLu Hypermart and Khalidiya Mall are all beautifully designed and great for shopping.
7. Exploring Fossils
Abu Dhabi’s mountains have surprising waterfalls, freshwater lakes and even cliffs lined with fossils. A few tour companies organize weekend trips into the Hajar Mountains. Tours include a visit to a special cliff face between Madam Roundabout and Maleiha, in Sharjah, where large fossilized chunks of coral are exposed. Check this site for more info.
Where To Stay At Abu Dhabi
Hotels in Abu Dhabi are a little cheaper than Dubai hotels, but the prices are catching up. The very best hotels are the following:
- The Emirates Palace Hotel. The 5-Star Emirates Palace, set close to the Corniche, is the ultimate in luxury hotels. It has a more than a mile long private beach stretch, never-ending lawns and gardens, and 114, 80-meter high domes. The hotel has 394 residence suites and rooms, and offers food from fabulous international and Emirates fare. It’s also the most expensive hotel in Abu Dhabi.
- The Grand Continental Flamingo. The 3-Star Grand Flamingo is relatively cheap when compared to other luxury hotels in Abu Dhabi. It offers reasonably-priced spacious and clean rooms and the food is good. It’s not a very grand or top-notch place, but it’s located near the Corniche, which makes it a favorable place to stay.
- The Hilton. Situated very close the Corniche, the conveniently-placed Hilton is a 5-star hotel that has 326 air-conditioned rooms with LCD TVs and minibars. There’s also a private beach and shuttle service to nearby attractions. The Hilton has 15 restaurants and a coffee shop/café; the food is fantastic with of multiple different menu items. A complimentary airport shuttle is part of the deal.
If you want somewhere cheaper to stay, look for budget hotels that are located at a distance from city center. If you’re planning to travel to Abu Dhabi often, it makes more financial sense to rent an apartment than stay at a hotel.
Where To Eat In Abu Dhabi
Note that during the holy month of Ramadan, food is not served during the day. Eating or drinking anything during the day in public is a finable offense. Abu Dhabi contains many bars and restaurants that sell alcohol, but you’ll need a special permit to host a private party involving drinks. While the nightlife is vibrant, it’s always safe to observe the Islamic code with regard to drinking and partying.
A few recommended eateries and restaurants:
- Marrakesh. This Moroccan restaurant is located in the city center. Visit this restaurant to enjoy a gastronomic journey of Morocco, with dishes such as tagines, couscous, seafood, meat grills and grilled fish. Enjoy the opulent interiors, and dance to live music performances each night. Located at the Millennium Corniche – Mohamed Bin Khalifa St.
- Li Beirut. If you like Lebanese food, you’ll enjoy eating here. Rated as one of Abu Dhabi’s top eateries, the award-winning Li Beirut offers Lebanese dishes influenced by European tastes. You’ll enjoy the spectacular view of the surrounding sea. The menu includes zaatar crusted rack of lamb, foie gras kebbeh, sweet potato and truffle and honey fudge dessert. Located at Jumeirah in the Etihad Towers.
- Al Maqam. This restaurant offers the complete package – a romantic experience of the desert accompanied by a palm-thatched, floor seated traditional Arabian eatery ambience. Live artistic performances add to the flavor as you consume amazingly-cooked traditional Emirati and Arabic recipes. Located in the heart of Arabian Nights Village.
Abu Dhabi improves upon each visit, and each time you’ll discover a quaint old-world corner or fact that you didn’t know before. Despite all its rapid development, Abu Dhabi still holds on to its origins. Be sure to respect the various dress and moral codes and you’ll be sure to enjoy a wonderful trip to Abu Dhabi, time and again.
Neha is a postgraduate in Mass Communications, who is an avid traveler and passionate writer. When she is not mountaineering, she is exploring different cultures and meeting new people from around the world. Ambitious to travel all corners of the globe, Neha believes in the Gandhian principle – “simple living high thinking”. You can visit her facebook page Dubai Wikia.
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