Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is the largest of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the nation’s capital city. Spanning 26,000 square miles, it’s home to spectacular landscapes ranging from the deserts of the vast Rub’ Al Khali Empty Quarter to palm-filled oases and more than 200 natural islands that speckle the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. Established as the capital in 1971 with the founding of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi city has a more relaxed feel than nearby crowd-pleaser Dubai. But it still gives visitors a memorable experience, thanks to its impressive amount of sunshine, appealing venues for action and adventure, exceptional cultural landmarks (including the Louvre Abu Dhabi), fantastic dining, and enviable shopping. Whether you choose to spend your days exploring inland oases, kayaking through mangroves, climbing dunes, or sipping sundowners at the top of the iconic Etihad Towers, Abu Dhabi’s welcome is always warm, and it’s a place where you’ll feel true Arabian hospitality.

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Photo by Tasneem Alsultan

Overview

When’s the best time to go to Abu Dhabi?

Abu Dhabi’s sunny and warm winters are perfect for escaping colder climes in the Northern Hemisphere. The mild temperatures from mid-October through March make for a comfortable visit, compared to summertime temperatures that can hover around 100°F.

The UAE’s workweek used to run from Sunday to Thursday, but in 2022 the government shifted it to Monday to Friday, with weekends falling on Saturday and Sunday.

If your stay occurs during the month of Ramadan, there may be some restrictions regarding venues that serve food and drink during daylight hours, although restaurants in most hotels and some shopping centers will largely be open to cater to those who are not fasting. Note that the majority of Muslims throughout the UAE will observe the fast during daylight hours and that restaurants and hotels will put on lavish iftar meals to break the fast at sunset. Joining one can be a way to experience the Holy Month and to feel the spirit of this special time. Ramadan dates are different each year, so check the calendar.

How to get around Abu Dhabi

Major airlines and their partners fly directly into Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH). Etihad Airways, based in Abu Dhabi, is the national carrier and flies routes to destinations around the world. Neighboring Dubai International Airport (DXB) is another port of entry and is also served by major carriers, including its own airline, Emirates. The drive from from DXB to downtown Abu Dhabi is about 90 minutes. The newer Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC)—also in Dubai—is 30 minutes closer to Abu Dhabi but is not yet served by as many commercial carriers.

Unless you plan on staying in one neighborhood, like Sir Bani Yas Island or the Corniche, a car is the best way to navigate Abu Dhabi. Cars drive on the right like they do in the U.S. Parking can be a challenge at busy times and a color scheme denotes which spots fall into which payment category, but taxis are reasonably priced should you decide to leave the car behind. Taxis originating at the airport cost slightly more. Typically taxis take cash, but it’s also possible to pay by credit card or Apple Pay by downloading the Abu Dhabi Taxi app. Uber and local equivalent Careem are also available. They usually work out to be slightly more expensive than local taxis but can be convenient, especially if you’re going to a location that a taxi driver might not immediately know.

Can’t miss things to do in Abu Dhabi city

The Emirati capital is a seaside city with a five-mile corniche lined with hotels, restaurants, and beaches—both public and next to stylish beach clubs—to enjoy along its stretch.

No one should visit Abu Dhabi without going to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The impressive white domes, inlaid stones, chandeliers, carpets, glass, and light come together in a marvelous, architecturally masterful place of worship that dazzles by day; it transforms into a place of reflection by evening, when the arches and columns are reflected in the water features. The Qasr Al Watan presidential palace, which opened to the public in 2019, is also worth a visit for its sheer scale and the striking craftsmanship that went into its construction. Thrill seekers will want to head to Ferrari World on Yas Island to try the world’s fastest roller coaster, and neighboring Saadiyat Island is blessed by some of the most beautiful waters in the region: warm, clear, calm, and inviting, with a shade of turquoise that’s almost impossible to believe. Abu Dhabi is also home to Jean Nouvel’s architectural masterpiece, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and will soon welcome the interfaith Abrahamic Family House, combining a mosque, synagogue, and church and due to open in 2023, as well as the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (in 2025).

Food and drink to try in Abu Dhabi

More than 200 nationalities live in the UAE, and you can find food from nearly everywhere in the world. Don’t miss the opportunity to try Emirati food in the capital, as well as other favorites from across the Arab world, like shawarma, shish tawook (skewers of marinated chicken), fatoosh salad (mixed greens and fried bread topped with a dressing of sumac and pomegranate molasses), kunafa (a sweet dessert made from spun pastry), and kebabs. If you have a hankering for Japanese, Peruvian, Italian, Greek, pan-Asian, regional Indian, or Afghani cuisine, you’ll find it here. The first Michelin Guide to Abu Dhabi arrived in 2022, with three restaurants receiving stars. On the other end of the scale, Visit Abu Dhabi has recently compiled a list of Urban Treasures, low-key, long-established outlets such as bakeries, sweet shops, and restaurants, some of which have been operating since before the UAE became a nation.

Culture in Abu Dhabi

The skyline of modern-day Abu Dhabi may be filled with gleaming skyscrapers, but this is a place that values its culture, and there’s a depth and richness of tradition here. In the center of the city, the Qasr Al Hosn fort, parts of which date back to 1790, is a good place to get an understanding of Abu Dhabi’s evolution, and at the adjacent House of Artisans you can learn about traditional local crafts from the craftspeople who make them. At the nearby Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, housed in a building that fuses brutalism and Arabian modernist touches, you can discover contemporary art from the region.

Holidays are marked by large celebrations and feasts. During the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, the evening iftar, the meal at sunset that breaks the day’s fast, is a time of celebration. For National Day in December, the town paints itself red, green, black, and white—the colors of the flag. Most public holidays, such as Ramadan, Eid Al Fitr, and Eid Al Adha, follow the Islamic lunar calendar. This shifts backwards in respect to the Gregorian calendar, so be sure to check what festivities might occur during your stay.

Local travel tips for Abu Dhabi

A hospitable city, Abu Dhabi warmly welcomes visitors, regularly appearing on lists of the world’s safest places. Travelers are unlikely to encounter any crime here, but if you’re driving, do bear in mind that it can feel fairly intense on the highways, with tailgating being common. Although Abu Dhabi is less conservative than some of the other emirates and neighboring Gulf countries, save your short shorts and tube tops for the hotel—while it is a seaside city, wearing beachwear and overly revealing clothing in public may be considered offensive. Also, do note the laws of the country. For instance, it’s illegal to swear or make rude gestures at others, and being drunk in public is a definite no-no.

Practical Information

The official language of the UAE is Arabic though those who just speak English can wander Abu Dhabi confident that they’ll be able to communicate without having to engage in faux sign language or pointing.

On the electric front, you can plug in as long as you have adapters for 220 v. and round prongs (plug types C, D, and G).

Guide editors

Jonathan Burr is an assistant archivist at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Akkasah Center for Photography.

Andrea Rip was born in Vancouver, Canada, and raised in Washington State. Andrea calls North America home and favors the Pacific states. She most recently lived and worked in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, where she relished long weekends on the neighboring islands and searched for the best fish taco on O‘ahu.

Yorkshire-born writer Nicola Chilton has lived in Mexico, Japan, Hong Kong, and Thailand and has called the United Arab Emirates home for the past eight years. She loves exploring the country’s deserts, mountains, oases, and beaches, as well as the UAE’s neighbors throughout the Gulf.

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The Gate building leans more than the Tower of Piza. The Yas Viceroy is a hotel built within a racetrack. And the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque gives its audience an entirely new perception of grandeur. In this young country where architectural dreams still come true, Abu Dhabi’s towers, bridges, and structures are meant to awe. And a drive by each will introduce you to a different part of the city.
The earliest references to drinking coffee come from the Middle East, and cafés and coffee shops still encourage guests to sit, meet friends, and talk to each other while sipping. Abu Dhabi’s coffee comes in various forms: sweetened creamy espresso shots, Arab or Turkish coffees, high tea (in hotels), lattes, and cappuccinos. For something a bit different, served piping hot and delicious, try karak, a chai tea.
Shopping, the perfect pastime, in a country where fashion meets excruciatingly hot summer temperature. From traditional souks to air conditioned shopping center, many of Abu Dhabi’s most popular shopping spots offer an out-of-the-heat place to gather, dine, sit and talk over coffee...and shop. The large malls all include a supermarket along with international shops from jewelry and fashion to home goods and technology. Each place has its own speciality, whether it be a fruit, meat, and fish market, or, even, a ferris wheel.
Families visiting this coastal city will find outdoor adventure at beaches, waterparks, and islands. Above it all, a thrilling Ferris wheel with air-conditioned seats (really!) beckons view seekers. Back on land, kids may encounter camels and wild animals, and learn about desert culture. Yes, the younger set can easily have fun in this largest emirate.
From Abu Dhabi, several day trips (or overnight trips) make easy destinations for explorers. A 45-minute morning flight takes you to Muscat, in Oman, and has you back in time for a late dinner. Or, the entire family can enjoy Sir Bani Yas Island, where animals roam free. Both Dubai and Al Ain lie within easy driving distance. Dubai’s shops, cultural activities, and architectural sights will keep you busy for a day—or longer, if you can extend your trip.
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