Photo Courtesy of Junhan Foong
A city, an island on the Persian Gulf, and the largest of seven emirates, Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Founded in 1971, the city has a slightly quieter environment than nearby Dubai. But Abu Dhabi still gives visitors a memorable experience, thanks to its impressive amount o…f sunshine, great venues for action and adventure, fantastic dining, and enviable shopping. Make sure to end each day with a drink in the iconic Etihad Towers, looking out over the desert city and the surrounding turquoise waters.
What to know before you go to Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi's sunshine and Arabian breeze-filled winters are perfect for escaping colder temperatures elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. The mild temperatures from mid-October through March make for a comfortable visit, compared to summertime temperatures of 96–104°F. Be mindful that the UAE’s workweek is Sunday to Thursday; If you’re visiting friends, their weekend will start on Friday. Similarly, know that if your stay occurs during the month of Ramadan, bars will close, and no eating or drinking will be allowed in public while the sun is up.
Major airlines and their partners fly directly into Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH). Etihad Airways is the national carrier, is based in Abu Dhabi, and flies routes to destinations around the world. Neighboring Dubai airport (DXB) is another port of entry and is also served by major carriers, including its own airline, Emirates—though the drive from DXB to Abu Dhabi is nearly two hours. The newer Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC) in Dubai is 30 minutes closer to Abu Dhabi, but is not yet popular with commercial carriers. If comfort and service are important to you, Etihad, Emirates, and Qatar Airways all recieve some of the highest rankings in the industry. It’s difficult to secure visas to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, so driving across the border to and from KSA is challenging. It is much easier to cross the border with Oman, but check with your car rental agent and insurance carrier to understand any visa requirements ahead of time.
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. Parking can get a little difficult, but taxis are reasonably priced. Prices start at AED 3.50 during the day, and a trip from Emirates Palace Hotel to Reem Island or Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque costs about AED 25–30 each way. Trips from the airport to the Corniche in special airport taxis are a bit more expensive, and cost about AED 80–90.
Recommended over and over again for good reason, a visit to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque makes for lasting memories. The impressive white domes, inlaid stones, chandeliers, carpets, glass, and light come together in a marvelous, architecturally notable place of worship that rivals the Taj Mahal.
With expatriates outnumbering Emiratis nearly four to one, international flavors abound in the capital. Arab cuisine—including shawarma, shish tawook, fatoosh salad, kunafa, and kebabs—is easy to find and enjoy as delivery or in fine-dining restaurants. Asian, Indian, and Italian cuisines are also quite popular, as is Moroccan, Greek, Chinese, and Mexican food.
Modern-day Abu Dhabi is a little less Lawrence of Arabia and a little more The Fast and the Furious, but as much as Emiratis appreciate their exotic cars, luxury accessories, and caviar, they still hold on to the heritage that ties them to the sands, the sea, and the oases of the Arabian Peninsula. It doesn't take long for travelers who spend time in Abu Dhabi to begin to see the depth and richness of cultural tradition in the young country of UAE.
Holidays are marked by large celebrations and feasts. During Ramadan, mini-celebrations are held at sunset, when Muslims begin eating iftar, the meal that breaks the day's fast. For National Day in December, the town paints itself red, green, black, and white—the colors of the flag. Most of the 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.
A hospitable city, Abu Dhabi warmly welcomes visitors. The culture caters to individuals who expect service provided at their doorstep. Everything comes delivered—including food, groceries, laundry, and cakes. The country is incredibly safe and sees very little crime. Although Abu Dhabi is less conservative than some of the other Emirates and neighboring Gulf countries, save your daisy dukes and tube tops for the hotel—both men and women should avoid exposing shoulders and knees in public out of respect for local culture. Also, do note the laws of the country. For instance, it’s illegal to swear or make rude gestures at others.
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).
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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, Hawaii, where she relished long weekends on the neighboring islands and searched for the best fish taco on Oahu.