Jutting out into the Arabian Gulf, Abu Dhabi is the ultra-modern and sparkling clean capital of the United Arab Emirates. With 1.5 million residents, it is the second-largest urban area in the Emirates, after Dubai, which lies 87 miles to the northeast. Geographically, Abu Dhabi is the largest of the seven emirates, taking up roughly 80 percent of the country’s landmass. Nearly two-thirds of the UAE’s economic activity takes place here, with the majority of tourist attractions dotted along a handful of islands just a stone’s throw from the mainland.
According to global crime indexes, Abu Dhabi is also the world’s safest city, a title it’s held for three years running. This honor stems from its penchant for luxury, expensive lifestyles, and squeaky-clean reputations. For tourists, this makes the UAE capital an increasingly desirable vacation spot. From the extravagant to the austere, here is how you can experience some of Abu Dhabi’s cultural highlights and culinary delights.
Tour the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Named in honor of the UAE’s first president, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the largest in the country. The main hall is 5,400 square meters and can hold up to 7,800 worshipers, surrounded by a nearly 30-foot-tall complex that is easily viewed from afar. The mosque’s 82 domes vary in size, with the highest reaching 275 feet. Twenty-two of the complex’s 1,096 white marble pillars project light, and its floor is covered with the world’s largest hand-made carpet.
Photography is allowed with the exception of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s grave. Guided tours start at 10:00 AM and are available every hour until 8:00 PM. Be sure to address your dress before arriving — women are not allowed to expose their arms. Men are, as long as they do not have any tattoos. Entrance is free, including guided tours.
Check out the Abu Dhabi Dates Market
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The Emirates produce more than a half-million metric tons of dates annually. The Abu Dhabi Dates Market is located at Port Zayed, with many shops opening at 7:00 AM and some remaining open until midnight. Although you’re likely to see several tour vans parked in front of the dozens of shops, the market offers some of the best prices you’ll find in the city. And, unlike many markets in the Middle East and North Africa, visitors are generally able to stroll past the shops free of harassment from the owners.
Once you step inside the compact (and air-conditioned) stores, the famous Arab Hospitality will be on full display. Expect to see dozens of different varieties of dates in every shop, the subtle differences between stores most noticeable when you look at the pre-packaged items, like date jams and date flavored coffee, for example. More than half of the shops are likely to offer you some sort of sample. If they don’t, just point to any, encased behind glass barricades, that you’d like to try and ask. The dates market is also an ideal place to buy dried fruits, nuts, spices, and other sweets.
Unless you plan to visit every single vendor, one hour is enough time to experience the dates market. You can easily spend a half-day in the area if you also want to explore the other nearby markets: Running counterclockwise, the dates market is surrounded by the fruit and vegetable market, flower market, fish market, carpet souk, and cruise terminal. Each Port Zayed attraction is worth a visit, but the dates market is the best local experience.
Window shop and eat around the world in The Galleria
Shopping is serious business in Abu Dhabi. Even if you don’t buy anything, the city’s massive air-conditioned malls can be a welcome respite in a place where average high temperatures reach in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit for half the year. At The Galleria, sections are lettered from A to E like five lines of the New York City subway, and that’s not the only nod to The Big Apple — in some sections, every other store brand says, “New York.”
If you’re not a shopper, or have been hit by heat-induced hunger, head straight to one of the four food courts. There are two on each side of this mega-mall, which in addition to its plethora of food options has 7,000 free parking spaces (there’s also a Four Seasons Hotel connected to the mall because it wouldn’t be the Emirates if everything weren’t completely over the top). The Galleria oozes luxury, but you can window shop at the higher end brands and admire the 16 different award-winning fine dining restaurants from a distance and instead head one of the 5-plus more affordable cafes and food carts. In this city well known for international fare, you can find dozens of options here, from Peruvian and Mexican to Greek and Italian.
You may be on a different continent, but the UAE is an ideal place to check your thirst for authenticity at the door. After all, at least 85 percent of the country is foreign-born.
Although you can find delicious Arabic food throughout Abu Dhabi, many people who live here speak no Arabic. It has become a cliche to say of heavily touristed countries that “Everyone speaks English,” but in Abu Dhabi, that’s true. If you’re feeling homesick, chances are you’ll find something at The Galleria which will remind you of home.
Spend an afternoon at the Louvre Abu Dhabi
Though open for fewer than three years, the Louvre is already one of the Emirates’ top tourist attractions. Six hundred pieces of art are spread out among the four wings and 12 galleries. You don’t have to be a connoisseur to appreciate the floating dome-like structure, which juts out into the Arabian Gulf. The building is made up of 7,850 stars and angles which the sun filters through, and that’s before you reach the labyrinth-like museum exit.
Historical artifacts include a 13th-century Hebrew Bible as well as George Washington and Napoleon oil-on-canvas paintings from the early 1800s. The museum is located at the west end of Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District. To the east are luxury hotels like the St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, which have beach access, though you can head to Saadiyat Public Beach a little over a mile east if you aren’t throwing down top dollar on lodging.
Play sultan for a day at the Emirates Palace
The Emirates Palace has a spot on most lists of the world’s top luxury hotels. With marble from 13 different countries and more than 1,000 crystal chandeliers, staying at the Emirates Palace is the closest that most of us will get to living like a sultan. The property is a little over a half-mile long from the east to west wings, and then there are the restaurants and cafes.
At Le Cafe, you can hum along to David Byrne singing “Once in a Lifetime” in your head as you sip cappuccino with 23-karat gold flakes drizzled on top of the foam. If caffeine is not your thing, try a dessert (chocolate cake is a popular one) topped with the same gold flakes. Either way, this will be one of the few opportunities you’ll ever have to hear someone say, “You got some gold flakes on your lips.” According to the staff, people from all over the world come to try this $20 cup of rich espresso topped with milk and gold. Japanese women, in particular, love this drink. And you don’t have to be a guest to enjoy the experience.
You can also dine in one of the other dozen restaurants and cafes. They have fine dining options that specialize in Chinese, Indian, Italian, and Lebanese, but Mezlai offers the best local experience. In Arabic, the term translates to “the old lock of the door.” The interior has the feel of a spacious Bedouin tent. and the extensive menu is heavy enough to do a bicep workout with. If you’ve been yearning to try camel meat (tongue or chop), this is the place to do it.
Just below the main entrance, you’ll find one of the best photo ops for the Etihad Towers.
See where the important decisions are made at Qasr Al Watan
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This is the Presidential Palace, or Palace of the Nation. Qasr Al Watan has been open to the public since 2019. The 380,000-squar-meter complex is located across Al Riyadah Street from Emirates Palace. The west wing is dedicated to governance while the east wing is all about knowledge. Its 50,000 book library documents the young nation’s history.
Try to resist the temptation to just gawk at the shiny white marble and limestone facade from the outside, get a few Instagram pics, and move on the next attraction. The inside is worth visiting, as well, especially if you are any kind of architecture geek or history buff. Each interior door, made of maple wood, took 350 hours to build. Palace and garden tickets are about $16 for adults. Guided tours are available upon request. Just don’t embarrass yourself by asking where the president lives — nobody lives here.
If your visit to Qasr Al Watan piques your interest in local history, check out the nearby Heritage Village, which is a reconstructed desert village run by the Emirates Heritage Club.
Take a side trip to the Rubʿal-Khali desert
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As you head south out of Abu Dhabi city along E65, ultra-modern skyscrapers and world-class architecture give way to desert. Located two hours south of the city and just 25 miles from the Saudi border, the Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort has been called the world’s most Instagrammable hotel. It takes up a measly 26 square miles in the roughly 251,000 square mile Rub’ al Khali desert, which is also known as the Empty Quarter. The small, village-like resort is shaped like a crescent and employs 350 people from 32 different countries. And no matter where you are, there always seems to be someone ready to help. All rooms have a sunrise view, and each villa has its own pool. Golf cart drivers transport guests around the property.
Guests can ride one of the 28 Arabian camels on site or watch Greyhounds race, and falcons fly through the Middle East’s largest sand desert. The falcon is the UAE’s national bird. It’s also the world’s fastest. Falcons can see up to a mile away and fly up to 250 kph. In the UAE, falcons get special treatment. They have their own passports and when they travel bereft of their own efforts, they fly either first or business class.
Dining at this resort is a unique activity by itself. You can have an immersive Bedouin-style late evening dinner in the desert with your own personal chef, or you can watch the sunset from the rooftop Suhail grill as you eat steak and lamb, which is aged for 21 days in the restaurant’s visible meat cooler. Al Waha offers daily breakfast and lunch with different themed buffets each evening. There are also afternoon cooking classes available by appointment.
Practical tips for visiting Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi is not the ideal place for budget travelers. This is one of the world’s richest capital cities, and luxury is ingrained into the fabric of the urban area’s culture. You won’t find youth hostels dotted throughout the tourist areas, and there is no metro. With that said, if you plan ahead, you can spend a night or two in a luxury hotel like the St. Regis and then move on to more affordable accommodation for the rest of your stay. If you do your research ahead of time, you can find clean rooms in convenient locations, starting at $30 per night. So, if you’re on a budget, spend the majority of your nights in a budget hotel and splurge for a night or two at Qasr al Sarab, Emirates Palace, the St. Regis, or one of the other famous luxury hotels.
There are affordable dining options as well. You can splurge once or twice and then take in the rest of your necessary calories at one of the many mall food courts or a reasonably priced sidewalk cafe. Renting a car for your entire trip is preferable, but if you can’t, then consider staying in an area where the necessities are within walking distance. Taxis are available, but fares add up fast if you need to hail a cab just to get a cup of tea. And if you do rent a car, please do not spend your entire time in the tourist area. Allow at least one or two days for side trips. Ideally, one to the desert and one to nearby Dubai (unless you are planning a separate trip to Dubai). Most hotels and malls offer free parking. Some tourist attractions do as well.