11 Essential Abu Dhabi Experiences

Following on from my recent post about things to do in Abu Dhabi that aren’t necessarily on the tourist trail (read those here), here’s the list of the most popular things to do that you won’t want to miss if you’re visiting (or new to) Abu Dhabi:

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1. Emirates Palace

Ever a favourite, you can’t come to Abu Dhabi and not pop in and at least take a peek at the ultra-luxury that is the Emirates Palace Hotel. You can pop in and take a wander around even if you’re not staying there, just be mindful that you might be turned away if you’re not dressed appropriately (nothing too revealing and no shorts allowed). If your budget will stretch to it, after a good nosy around the cavernous hallways, take a worthy break at Le Café and get your coffee on with the obligatory Palace Cappuccino sprinkled with real 24 carat gold.

Gold Leaf Coffee at Emirates Palace Hotel
Gold Leaf Coffee at Emirates Palace Hotel

2. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

No visit to Abu Dhabi is complete without a visit to the Grand Mosque. You’ve heard about it, you’ve read about it, so don’t miss out. For visitor’s to the city it’s easy to get to by taxi or, for those on the Big Bus sightseeing tour, there’s of course a stop right outside. It’s free to enter and you can take a free tour most days, just check the website for the latest schedule.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Arabian Notes

3. Relax on the Beach

If you’re staying in one of the fabulous hotels of the city that have their own private beach then you’re set. But even if your hotel isn’t blessed with a stretch of the white sandy stuff you needn’t despair. Luckily for us, Abu Dhabi itself is actually a series of islands, meaning that there is plenty of serviced beach complete with all the necessary facilities to go around for everyone.

Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful beaches the city boasts is the Saadiyat Beach. Find out for yourself by visiting the Saadiyat Public Beach where you can opt to sit on your own towel (or rent one for Dhs10), or to go the whole hog and pay the extra to rent a sun bed for the day. Open daily from 8am to 8pm, a sun lounger will set you back Dhs50 per person on weekdays or Dhs75 per person on weekends [Link to website].

If budget isn’t a consideration then think about splurging on a luxurious day at Saadiyat Beach Club (read more about it here).

Saadiyat beach
Saadiyat beach

If for whatever reason you can’t make it, or don’t want to venture out to Saadiyat, there are still plenty of other options:

Closer to town for those staying on Abu Dhabi Island, check out the Corniche Public Beach which will cost you just Dhs10 to enter the family beach (this is the more comfortable choice for women and families), or enter the general access beach for absolutely nothing.
Check timings and further details here.

Al Bateen Public Beach is one of my personal favourites as it tends to me much quieter. As well as the open beach there is also a separate section for women and children. Entrance is completely free, facilities are basic.

Al Bateen beach Arabian Notes 2016
Al Bateen Public Beach

For those over on Yas Island, Yas Beach is at your disposal. Most of the hotels on Yas Island have agreements with the beach allowing the facilities to be available for hotel guests, but even if this isn’t you, you can still enter for Dhs50 per person on a weekday or Dhs200 on weekends.

4. Desert Safari

Almost as essential as visiting the Grand Mosque, a desert safari should be high on the list for any visitor (or new resident!) to the Emirate. Operators will pick you up direct from your hotel and venture out into the desert for an afternoon of 4×4 dune bashing, sand boarding, camel rides, belly dancing show and a barbecue dinner hosted within a bedouin style camp setting.

Desert Safari
Desert Safari

For the more adventurous, there are also options for overnight desert safaris. There are many desert safari operators and hotel concierges will happily recommend their preferred provider.

5. Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and Yas Waterworld

Bell'Italia ride with small scale 1958 Ferrari 250 California
Bell’Italia ride with small sc

Visiting theme parks may or may not be to everyone’s taste on holiday, but there is a lot of fun to be had at both Ferrari World and Yas Waterworld. From the fastest rollercoaster in the world to keeping cool in the water all year round, both parks have something for all ages. In fact, Ferrari World is largely geared towards younger children with many gentle and young-child friendly experiences on offer. Find out more about my experience at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi here.

Yas Waterworld
Yas Waterworld

If you choose to do both parks, make sure you investigate the options for combo tickets valid for either one or two days.

6. Take a Mangrove Tour

Did you know that Abu Dhabi has its own National Park? More commonly known as simply ‘the mangroves’, they are in fact officially the Mangrove National Park and line the coastal areas of Abu Dhabi island. A number of tour operators are licensed to lead kayak tours through the Mangroves where you’ll get to see a different side of Abu Dhabi, not to mention a host of birds and other wildlife.

Kayaking in the Eastern Mangroves. Image via CaitofAus.com
Kayaking in the Eastern Mangroves. Image via CaitofAus.com

Find out more information about the Mangroves here, along with a list of the licensed tour operators.

7. Eat a World Class Meal

Pearls by Michael Caines Feb 2016 Arabian Notes Feat

With an emphasis on luxury, Abu Dhabi has quickly become synonymous with food – lots of it, and with world-class restaurants and famous names on every corner. You can’t come to the city and not experience a bite of the good life. As for where to eat, well that’s up to you but for an experience to remember some suggestions include: Hakkasan, Sontaya, Asia De Cuba, or Zuma.

8. Taste some Authentic Local Food
After you’ve eaten at the top end of the city, it’s only right to dip your toe in the water at the other end of the scale, and for something authentic to the region. Those who are adventurous enough to wander the side streets may come across tiny back street bakeries baking breads – a bread filled with cheese or zaatar will be about as fresh as you can get and will only set you back a measly Dhs2. The scent of fresh bread will lead you in the right direction, let your nose be thy guide…

Lunch time wandering - investigating a local bakery
Lunch time wandering – investigating a local bakery

Other renowned favourites for Lebanese and Gulf cuisine in the city include Zaytinya, Lebanese Flower and possibly the most authentic of them all is Najd Palace, a restaurant where guests can dine seated in the traditional manner on the floor.

Zaytinya Family Brunch Oct 2015 Arabian Notes 6

9. Visit Al Ain
Also known as ‘The Garden City’, Al Ain is quite possibly one of the most underrated places in the UAE, it’s just beautiful and there is so much to see. But, if you’re limited for time and there’s only one cultural thing you do in Al Ain, then don’t miss Qasr Al Muwaiji, the birthplace of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The fort now houses an excellently designed exhibition charting the life of Sheikh Khalifa and his role as leader of the UAE. You can also visit the fully restored North-West Tower of the fort that served as the private quarters and home of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his family for many years. A fascinating insight into the humble beginnings of both the Royal family and the country itself. As well as being completely free to enter, the whole experience is also family friendly and offers a free kids activity book to accompany their journey through the exhibition.

Things to do in Al Ain Arabian Notes January 2016 15

If you’ve only got one day to spend in Al Ain, after a visit to Qasr Al Muwaiji then head on over for an afternoon at Al Ain Zoo – another shining local example of excellent facilities for both the animals and the public and a sheer joy to wander around. Don’t miss the bird show.

Is this the African Savanna or Al Ain Zoo?!
Is this the African Savanna or Al Ain Zoo?!

If time is on your side and you have longer than a day in the Garden City, then check out what else there is to see and do in Al Ain by reading 12 Things to Do in Al Ain.

10. Take a Trip to Liwa
Get out into the desert on the edge of the Empty Quarter to see the sheer expanse of rolling dunes in every direction. Organise an afternoon desert safari, an overnight desert experience, or at the other end of the scale, Qasr Al Sarab provides exceptional comfort and a most welcome retreat for a taste of decadence in the desert.

Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort
Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort

11. Take in the History

Qasr al Hosn fort
Qasr al Hosn fort

While the UAE may only be (almost!) 45 years old, don’t be fooled into thinking there’s no history here. The most familiar sights may be luxury hotels, modern architecture and world-class restaurants, but there’s plenty more to the country than that. Learn about the roots of the country at the Heritage Village along Marina Breakwater, and take in the little known permanent exhibition at the spiritual birthplace of the capital and original residence of the ruling Sheikh, Qasr Al Hosn. If you’re around during the month of February, don’t miss the annual Qasr Al Hosn Festival, an excellent event dedicated to celebrating Emirati Culture and history that is well worth a visit. 

 

Let me know your thoughts and comments here!