The 5 Best Things to Do in Abu Dhabi

From a world-class museum to a kayak excursion through mangroves, this Middle Eastern capital city has something for every traveler.

Exterior of the white Abu Dhabi Louvre, surrounded by water

The Abu Dhabi Louvre takes visitors through the course of human civilization and, in doing so, draws comparisons between disparate cultures.

Photo by Tasneem Alsultan

Abu Dhabi packs a lot of life into a relatively small square footage. For visitors, the city—meaning, the capital city of the emirate of the same name—contains cultural experiences, architectural wonders, shopping excursions, and even outdoor adventure. But somehow, the city feels more akin to a relaxed coastal town than a busy metropolis. I traveled to Abu Dhabi in January 2024 with my husband and toddler, where we got to dip our toes into what the Middle Eastern city has to offer.

The culinary scene in Abu Dhabi is constantly evolving, and overall, standards are high. We did not have a single bad bite of food during our time there. Given that the UAE is home to people from over 200 countries, it’s possible to sample delicious food from dozens of global cuisines. Nicola Chilton shared with Afar readers her personal favorite places to go in Abu Dhabi for Emirati food. We enjoyed inventive pan-Asian food at Mamafri, beautifully presented Indian food at Mynt, and a more casual Thai lunch at San Thai Diner (save room for the mango sticky rice). Beyond eating, read on for five of the best things to do on a trip to Abu Dhabi. (And if you’re looking for a truly local stay across the emirate, these are the best hotels in Abu Dhabi.)

Exterior of the white Abu Dhabi Louvre, surrounded by water

There are a variety of tours on offer at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, including a guided mindful experience.

Photo by Tasneem Alsultan

1. View art with a global lens at the Louvre Abu Dhabi

Twenty minutes into my visit at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, I was entranced. Unlike most museums of its scale, it starts with a strong point of view and uses its exhibition space to expand on it. The Louvre prides itself on having a global perspective. It eschews traditional divisions of art collections by geographic region, which may subconsciously lead visitors to marvel over some cultures’ primitive art forms and other cultures’ highly advanced techniques.

Through 12 rooms (and a grand vestibule at the beginning), the museum takes a visitor through time—and for each time period, displays paintings, sculptures, masks, and other art pieces to tell the larger story of human civilization. On an entrance wall, text reads, “The chronological journey . . . highlights the characteristics shared by humanity throughout its history. The thematic presentation of the works draws attention to the similarities and particularities of our forms of artistic expression, surpassing any geographical limitations.”

For example, within the grand vestibule, three gold funerary masks are placed together. The first is from Peru (100 B.C.E.–700 C.E.), the second from the Philippines (900–1200), and the third from either Lebanon or Syria (600–300 B.C.E.). They are from different continents and times, yet throughout human history, we have adorned our dead in precious metals. Celebrating the similarities of humankind, in an age of increasing division, to me felt revolutionary. (Some museum reviewers have considered such groupings as these to be “simplistic and historically inexact,” but I found them refreshing.)

Even if you’re not in the mood to read every plaque, the Louvre Abu Dhabi makes for a lovely half-day trip. Jean Nouvel’s architecture is stunning: a porous half-dome sits above modern gray walls and a series of canals. Visitors can enjoy it from multiple vantage points, including at the Art Lounge on the rooftop, which offers unobstructed views of Abu Dhabi’s skyline.

How to visit

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is on Saadiyat Island, which the city is developing into a larger cultural hub with theaters, hotels, and other museums, including a Guggenheim Abu Dhabi set to open in 2025. It is easily accessible by taxi from the city, by public transportation (bus or water taxi), or also by the Cultural Express bus from Dubai. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. until midnight. Galleries and exhibitions close at 6:30 p.m. on weekdays and 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

To visit the museum, timed tickets are available directly from the website. The admission fee is 63 AED (about US$17) per adult; children under 18 years of age and “people of determination,” meaning people with physical and/or mental impairments, are free of charge. Visitors can also choose to take a private 45-minute tour through the permanent collection for 600 AED (US$163) per person.

Corniche Beach in Abu Dhabi

Corniche Beach is comprised of three different sections and features showers, changing rooms and cabanas.

Photo by Tasneem Alsultan

2. Sunbathe at the Corniche Beach

Given that the beach overlooks giant skyscrapers, the aquamarine water at Corniche Beach is shockingly clear. This five-mile stretch of white sand also contains walking and cycling paths, manicured gardens, and elaborate children’s play areas (which I had to peel my daughter off of).

While at the beach, I saw two signs that prompted further inquiry. First, signs designated specific areas of the walkway for “people of determination,” a term with which I was unfamiliar. Later, while at the Louvre, I learned that this is Abu Dhabi’s more inclusive way of naming people who are physically impaired and/or neurodivergent, and that the city has a five-year action plan to empower such individuals and include them in society at large. Second, I noticed that Corniche Beach has Blue Flag status, an international eco-label that means it meets “a series of stringent environmental, educational, safety, and accessibility criteria.”

The exterior of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi can accommodate some 40,000 worshippers.

Photo by Tasneem Alsultan

3. Gape at the sheer scale of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is, in a word, grand. It’s the largest mosque in the UAE and the third-largest in the world. In addition to thousands of visitors, the mosque can accommodate over 40,000 worshippers. Inaugurated in 2007, the scale of the mosque is impressive. It consists of 82 domes, 1,096 columns (many adorned with semi-precious stones), the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet, and chandeliers bejeweled with thousands of Swarovski crystals.

While the mosque is gorgeous during the day, when dusk hits, the lighting design comes to life. The passageways and the columns become softly illuminated, drawing attention to the arches and design details. The design draws from Islamic architectural traditions from around the world, including Persian, Mamluk, and Mughal styles. I later learned that the mosque’s lighting design is connected to the lunar cycle (similar to how the Islamic faith uses the lunar calendar). When the moon is full, the lights are white, and when there is a new moon, the lights take on a deeper blue tint.

How to visit

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is free of charge to visitors. From Saturday to Thursday, it is open from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. Note that the mosque is closed to visitors on Fridays from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. Visitors can book their visits in advance on the mosque’s website. The mosque offers free guided tours, which last up to 45 minutes. On the tours, visitors will learn more about the architecture, the Islamic faith, and Emirati culture. There is a dress code to enter the mosque: All genders must keep shoulders and knees covered, and women must wear loose-fitting clothing and a headscarf. Please learn more by reading the “mosque manners.”

4. Paddle through the trees at Jubail Mangrove Park

When the large-scale, air-conditioned modern city feels too much, head toward the trees—specifically, the vast mangrove forests across the emirate’s coast. According to one estimate, there are more than 60 square miles (156 square kilometers) of mangroves across the United Arab Emirates as a whole. The more I have learned about this unique ecosystem, the more I have come to appreciate it as a humble eco-warrior. In addition to protecting vulnerable shorelines from erosion, mangrove trees can naturally desalinate salty seawater while also trapping thousands of tons of carbon dioxide in their root systems. The forests in Abu Dhabi are also home to dozens of species of shoreline birds, including herons and flamingos, as well as crabs and fish.

The best ways to explore Abu Dhabi’s mangrove forests are either by kayak or by walking along boardwalks at Jubail Mangrove Park, a sanctuary located between Yas Island and Saadiyat Island, about 30 minutes from downtown Abu Dhabi. The boardwalks, which stretch more than a mile, meander through the trees and offer views of the complex root systems and the sea creatures that they help sustain. Structures that look like fishing nets are perfect for relaxing above the clear turquoise water; children love to use them as makeshift trampolines. A guided kayaking tour, meanwhile, lets travelers explore the area from a wholly different vantage point. The park offers kayak tours at sunrise as well as at night, lit with LED lights under the boats.

How to visit

Tickets to Jubail Mangrove Park can be prebooked online. A single kayak is 120 AED (US$32), which includes the entry fee to the boardwalk, which is otherwise 15 AED (US$4). Most parts of the boardwalk are accessible for wheelchairs and strollers. Before or after touring the forest, visitors may enjoy an iced cappuccino at the Crane Cafe, near the entrance.

It might take some time to get a taxi to pick you up from the mangrove park; I recommend booking a round-trip transfer in advance if possible.

5. Hit up the souks

They say no trip to the Middle East is complete without shopping (“It’s not Dubai,” my cousins in India once told me. “It’s ‘Do Buy!’”). While Abu Dhabi has its share of luxury retailers and multistory malls, I have a special place in my heart for the traditional souks.

To get a taste of the glitz associated with this region, check out the Gold Souk, located in the Madinat Zayed Mall. Here, you will see rows upon rows of elaborate necklaces, bangles, earrings, and even pure gold coins and bricks (subtler jewelry is available, too, if extravagant bling isn’t your style). You can also find shops stocked with semi-precious and precious gems.

At one end of Mina Road, bargain your way to a new living room rug at Abu Dhabi’s Carpet Souk. The Middle East is known for some of the finest carpets in the world, and there are hundreds on display at this market. Shopping can be overwhelming, especially when assistants are unfurling carpet after carpet and watching you expectantly. I recommend doing some research beforehand into what makes for a high-quality carpet and set parameters for yourself before going in, such as size, color scheme, and material.

Nearby, the Mina Zayed Dates Market taught me that a date is not just a date. There are Medjool dates that are large and sweet. There are Ajwa dates that look like giant raisins and taste like caramel. There are dates dipped in chocolate, dates rolled in nuts, dates to be eaten with tahini. There are date jams and date spreads. Heck, given how intoxicating the market is, perhaps it’s a good spot to bring a date (sorry).

Sarika Bansal is the editorial director of Afar Magazine and editor of the book Tread Brightly: Notes on Ethical Travel.
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