Top Attractions in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is all about the extremes. Whether you’re into the opulent, the futuristic, or the quirky, here’s what to do in Abu Dhabi.

Nurai Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
One of Abu Dhabi‘s great pleasures is the ease with which one can escape to a seemingly remote paradise within minutes. If you’d like a tropical getaway without a drive or flight, take a 10-minute ferry from Saadiyat Island and stay at the luxury villas at the Zaya Nurai Island resort. Those who can tear away from the private infinity pool that comes with every villa will find nature walks, snorkeling, outdoor movie nights, and just about any water activity imaginable, from kitesurfing to Flyboarding. Nurai’s dining scene offers a variety of memorable experiences, too—from Book Cellar, a library where guests recline and read with cheese and wine, to Smokin Pineapple, an unapologetically fun beachfront pizza grill.
Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates
Pity the poor traveler who finds herself in Abu Dhabi in the scorching heat of July, when high temperatures top 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day. But don’t despair—if this happens to be your fate, the Liwa Date Festival promises to lift your spirits, if not lower the temperature. The annual 10-day event takes place in Liwa, a desert region outside the city of Abu Dhabi in the Western District, , part of the Arabian Peninsula’s famous Empty Quarter. Why trek to the hot desert in Liwa in the middle of the summer? Why, to enjoy the fresh harvest of half-ripe dates, a rare and beloved delicacy in the UAE.The festival features a photography contest, poetry readings, a traditional market, and workshops just for children.
Al Wathba - Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates
As the blazing-hot summer cools into a pleasant autumn balminess, Emiratis’ attentions turn to...camel racing! The pastime has been a part of Middle Eastern culture for millennia, but in the 20th century the races evolved from impromptu affairs to professional events at the Al-Wathba Camel Racetrack, about 27 miles east of the city of Abu Dhabi. In recent years, young boys have been replaced by small robots (yes, robots) as jockeys, and the camels’ remote-control-wielding owners pace the camels around the track in SUVs. As the owners remotely swing the mechanical riding crops attached to the robots, crowds cheer from the stands. You must see camel racing to believe it, so arrive early, as races kick off at 6 a.m.
Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates
Expats here will probably tell you about their favorite “carpet guy” (the fellow who will “give you a deal” if you drop your friend’s name), but the carpet souk on Mina Road near the main port is a great place for the uninitiated to buy gorgeous Middle Eastern rugs. Whichever style you choose, from tribal kilim to hand-knotted silk Persian, your salesperson will help you either fold it into a small parcel that you can carry onto the plane or arrange to have it shipped. Get ready to haggle for the best price, and be sure to shop wearing sandals—you’ll want to slip them off to feel the rugs with your bare feet!
If you want to take to the sea when in Abu Dhabi, hire a boat to ferry you to Sir Bani Yas Island. Anantara operates three resorts on Sir Bani Yas, and any one of them can arrange for a wildlife drive around the 34-square-mile nature reserve that covers half of the island. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan, the founder of the UAE, set aside the land on Sir Bani Yas in the ’70s and stocked it with numerous species of animals, allowing them to roam freely within the reserve. Today, you can be driven around the isle in a comfortable modified 4x4 that allows you to stand and take selfies with the island’s cheetahs, oryx, giraffes, or any of its 13,000 creatures.
Eastern Mangroves Marina Promenade, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Street, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Water sports abound in Abu Dhabi, especially in its many inland tributaries. One of the more popular kayaking spots is the Mangrove National Park, which emerges in a tangle of roots from the Khor al-Baghal Bay, southeast of Al-Reem Island. Kayaking during the day allows you to see the beautiful herons and flamingos that nest in the park, but Noukhada Adventure Company offers a special twist on the mangrove kayak tour. Once a month, on the evening of the full moon, you can be a part of a guided kayak tour of the pristine lagoon and appreciate the natural beauty of the mangrove trees under the moonlight. The tour is ideal for people over 10 years of age who have previous kayaking experience; it costs about $60 per person.
Yas Marina Circuit,Yas Island,Bedside Yas Mall - Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates
The annual Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Yas Island is one of the UAE’s top annual tourist attractions, but you may wonder: What is the track—the Yas Marina Circuit—used for during the other 51 weeks of the year? Well, of course, there are races at other times (you can even take the sports car of your dreams out for a spin yourself), but every Tuesday night, the track is turned over to TrainYas. TrainYas welcomes the public to use the 3.5-mile circuit for bicycling, running, and walking. The adrenaline rush of just imagining the Formula One cars speeding by you on the track at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour certainly keeps you motivated during your workout! Admission is free with advance registration.
Zayed Port, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
While the United Arab Emirates is young, the region’s rich heritage is timeless. Warehouse421 is an Abu Dhabi space like no other—it serves as a cultural center, museum, art gallery, and creative-community hub for regional artists who put together exhibitions and events based on Emirati traditions. Presentations focus on everything from the classic garb to the legendary perfumes of the UAE and the bedouin tribes whose existence here precedes the nation’s founding. Warehouse421 also hosts workshops where you can learn traditional art and object-fabrication skills from experts in their fields. On your way out, take a look across the street at the lot filled with old dhows waiting to return to the waters of the Persian Gulf in the shadow of the Abu Dhabi skyline.
Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Just a few short years after its opening, the NYUAD Art Gallery has made its presence known on Abu Dhabi‘s growing contemporary-art scene, with its unexpected exhibitions by students, local artists, and international creators like Chinese sculptor Ai Weiwei and Syrian-born Diana al-Hadid (Phantom Limb). The gallery hosts plenty of events, too, like an interactive spray-paint-art experience and the Seed, a “live-music, video, dance, and spoken-word performance mash-up.” After viewing whatever’s currently on display, be sure to stop by the new Blacksmith Coffee Company on campus for an espresso. The gallery space is easily accessible at the front of the NYUAD campus on Saadiyat Island, and admission is free.
Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Whether you’re rolling with kids or hunting for a bar and DJ by the clear waters with other partygoers, the amenities at Yas Beach will be sure to accommodate your needs. It’s situated along Al-Raha Creek, an inlet off the Persian Gulf, and the first decision you’ll need to make here is whether you want a beach chair, a draped cabana, or a private chalet with an air-conditioned indoor lounge, a shower, a TV with karaoke, and a minibar. Or if you’re the restless type, you can just wander from the complex’s pizza bar, to the infinity pool, to the volleyball court...and, well, you get the idea. Take off on a Jet Ski to cruise the waterways surrounding Yas Island if all of the decision-making gets to be too much.
Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street, 5th Street, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
No matter where you are staying in the UAE, you can’t leave without visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The mosque, the third-largest in the world, is the final resting place of Sheikh Zayed, the nation’s founder. Even on the hottest summer day, the white marble floors—inlaid with mosaic flowers and vines—remain cool underfoot, and the scale of the space will impress even the most casual observer: The main hall can hold about 7,000 people. Take a tour and learn about the iconography of the intricate tiles and mosaics. Marvel at the huge rug that covers the floor in the main worship space; it’s the largest handmade rug in the world. If you happen to be visiting during Ramadan, you could consider joining one of the community iftar dinners, which sometimes serve as many as a thousand people in an evening.
West Corniche Road, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Some experienced travelers would never consider a hotel a “sight,” but Emirates Palace is a full-blown spectacle. A world onto itself, this luxurious spot opened in 2006 to the tune of roughly $6 billion with every conceivable amenity—plus a few you never knew you needed. There’s a beach club with a lazy river, football fields, and nearly four miles of jogging paths; a golf course where you can get tips from a PGA pro; a Bedouin tent for relaxing before a beachfront camel ride; and a luxury spa complete with Moroccan hammam. Marble and gold embellish surfaces everywhere on the property, including in the magnificent tiled dome above the lobby. Whether or not you feel like shelling out serious dough to say you stayed here, you won’t regret a stroll in the lobby for curiosity’s sake.
Whether or not you’re into cars, you won’t regret checking out the over-the-top automobile collection of Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan al-Nahayan—a royal-family member fondly called the Rainbow Sheikh. True to his nickname, he has assembled Mercedes vehicles in every color of the rainbow here. The space is also home to 200 different kinds of cars, from off-road machines to American classics—and even the world’s largest truck. This fascinating study in extravagance is a great place to stop on the way to or from Liwa. To prepare for a trip, watch the “Mercedes Rainbow” episode of the BBC show Top Gear.
About 20 minutes from downtown, there’s a long, flat stretch of sand called Kite Beach because local kitesurfers flock here every afternoon when the wind picks up. You can rent a kiteboard and hire a coach for the day to teach you the basics—or take it easy and bring a picnic while you watch the kites dip and swoop like huge butterflies across the aquamarine sea. Just want a swim? You can splash around until midnight thanks to two “Smart Power Poles” that light up the water.
Masdar City, Presidential Flight, Khalifa City A - Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates
Remember the movie Bio-Dome? Masdar City is a zero-emission community with a research institute, shops, restaurants, and even apartments. Park outside the self-contained complex and take a driverless car to the Knowledge Centre, where you can read up on the ambitious urban-design project’s plan to become a “greenprint” for cities all around the world as they move to reduce emissions. When you get hungry, grab lunch at one of the nearby cafés—Barbacoa is a local fave—and enjoy the fact that all the energy being used to cook your food comes straight from the sun.
Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Highway, Al Saadiyat Island, Cultural District, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Manarat al-Saadiyat, Arabic for “place of enlightenment,” is a unique gallery and visitor center dedicated to the future. As Saadiyat Island undergoes a massive transformation into a modern cultural hub, Manarat al-Saadiyat tells the story of its booming development. Two main spaces here are open to the public: one houses a permanent display on the history and culture of Saadiyat Island; the other, an ever-changing series of exhibitions and educational displays. The center is on the northwest side of Saadiyat Island just off the Sheikh Khalifa Highway.
15th Street, Mushrif Area, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
As a visitor in Abu Dhabi, you often ask yourself: “But where are the Emiratis?” Many of the attractions in the city were designed specifically for tourists, and you may not get a sense of how the typical Emirati family spends their leisure time. Open until midnight daily, Umm Al Emarat Park is a wonderful place to seek out such interaction with the locals. An oasis in the heart of Abu Dhabi, Umm al-Emarat offers visitors a botanic garden, a small zoo, and an amphitheater that hosts films and performances from all over the world. Be sure to enter the Shade House, an open-air structure that houses warm-climate plants and trees and employs louvered mechanical shades to regulate the sunlight, providing a cool space with no artificial air-conditioning.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: South America
Journeys: History
Journeys: Canada
Journeys: Canada