Abu Dhabi isn’t just one of the most modern cities in the world – it’s also one of the most diverse and interesting places you’ll discover as well. It’s a place where tradition meets modern, where international flair is coupled with cosmopolitan attitudes. As a result, the largest of the seven Arab Emirates is a very special destination. If you’ve yet to experience what this city has to offer, or are just curious to see what the fuss is all about, then be sure to keep on reading…
Here’s a super handy quick introduction to the destination with all the essential info to do with getting there, visas, local customs and more.
Abu Dhabi is the name of both the Emirate and the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Due to the vast oil riches, Abu Dhabi is the richest emirate in the UAE, having experienced huge growth and expansion over the last 40 years.
Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is the current Emir of Abu Dhabi, and he’s also the President of the UAE.
Around 2.3 million people live in Abu Dhabi, with most of them living in the city of Abu Dhabi as well as Al Ain. A large proportion of inhabitants actually come from abroad, which helps instil that international atmosphere.
The currency used in Abu Dhabi is the UAE Dirham – £1 works out to about 5 dirham
Don’t think that Abu Dhabi is all just desert. There’s everything from vibrant cities, mangrove forests, coastlines and islands.
There is an airport in Abu Dhabi that provides easy access to the city, but if you’re planning on doing a bit of island hopping in the emirate or even want to explore beyond the reaches of the city, then there are loads of other airports such as Al Ain, Dalma and Sir Bani Yas.
If you want to explore the emirate by yourself, then you’ll be glad to know that the road system here is of a very good quality, so it’ll be dead easy to explore using a rental car. Or you could go for one of many bus services that will transport you around the region – and yes, they have air conditioning too!
Irish nationals travelling to the UAE don’t need to obtain a visa in advance – you’ll be given a 30-day tourist visa upon arrival, so all you need is a valid passport and a valid ticket for a return flight or onward journey. If you want to stay longer, you can apply for an extra 30 days.
The prices for taxis in Abu Dhabi are at a fixed price, meaning that you won’t be paying more than £0.40 per kilometre during the day!
Culture and customs in the UAE
Life in the UAE can be very different to ours in the UK, and there are definitely some customs and laws you should be aware of while you’re there. But it really essentially boils down to just showing respect and consideration for the different culture there! And remember that Emiratis are very tolerant people too. As long as you don’t cause them any trouble or cause offence, they’ll respect your private life and won’t interfere.
Dress modestly: Sure, you can wear swimsuits at the beach no problem as long as they’re not too revealing. But otherwise dress modestly, keeping yourself covered from your shoulders until at least your knees. Think knee-length shorts for guys, and slightly longer dresses for ladies (nothing too revealing!). When entering a mosque or a place or worship, ladies will be asked to cover their hair as well. Places like shopping centres will actually have dress codes explained in signs too.
Alcohol: Dubai and Abu Dhabi are definitely the two most liberal emirates in the union, though their laws and customs surrounding drinking are still very different to ours due to the use of sharia law. If you’re a non-Muslim, you can be served in bars and clubs as long as you’re over 21 (bring ID!), though remember that any offences such as drinking in public or drink-driving are strictly enforced. If you’re wanting to buy your own alcohol for consumption for personal uses you would need a liquor license from the Emirati authorities. No drunken escapades!
Relationships: Technically it is forbidden for unmarried couples to co-habit in the UAE. But from a practical standpoint this would be very hard to enforce on the huge expatriate population and foreign visitors that come to the UAE. Married women in the UAE don’t have to change their name when they marry anyway, so don’t worry that you and your partner have different surnames. Like everything else in the UAE, just keep it cool – try to avoid shows of affection in public and simply act modestly.
Drugs: There are very strict drugs laws in the UAE. This doesn’t just apply to the obviously illegal substances – even prescriptions and regular medications can fall into the category of narcotics in the eyes of Emirati law. If you have a long-term condition that requires regular medication, or if you need to bring a prescription with you, keep all copies of prescriptions from your pharmacist or doctor and get in touch with the UAE Embassy in London before bringing any medicine with you into the country. The UAE Government also has a list of unauthorised medicines on their website.
Transport in Abu Dhabi
As you’d expect from a modern city, Abu Dhabi has a fantastic transport system in place that will get you around very easily. There’s a comprehensive system of buses, a metro rail system and ferries that will bring you to Delma Island. You’ll find the public transport is of good quality and of a reasonable price, so if you need to get around in a pinch or need to make longer distance journeys without using up too much of your budget, this is a great option to go for.
In terms of Abu Dhabi airport transfers, you have several possibilities. The A1 bus is perhaps the cheapest options with a single costing just AED 4 – the journey lasts around 45 minutes and the vehicles are all air conditioned too. Airport taxis in Abu Dhabi start from AED 25 as the base fare. Vehicles are very comfortable, and depending on traffic should take around 30 minutes to get to the city centre.
Abu Dhabi – a city of superlatives
To help you plan the perfect Abu Dhabi tour, I’ve gone ahead and listed the top sights in Abu Dhabi. From stunning mosques to glitzy high-rises, you’ll see there’s more to the city than meets the eye!
Sheikh Zayed Mosque
The icon of Abu Dhabi and known throughout the world for its famous arched walkways, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is truly a work of art. Its minarets reach up to 107 metres and is in fact one of the largest mosques in the world. The gold, marble, fine pairings, valuable gems and stained-glass windows will transport you to another world. Visits to the mosque are free, and you can join one of several free guided tours as well.
While we’re on the topic of landmarks – you just can’t miss the impressive Etihad Towers while you’re in Abu Dhabi! The complex, made up of 5 separate towers, absolutely dominates the city’s skyline, and their 74 floors are home to apartments, offices, 11 exclusive restaurants, a luxury shopping mall and the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers. One place you should definitely check out is the Observation Deck at 300, a viewing platform which gives you panoramic views of the city and islands all around. It costs roughly £20, but you’ll also get a free drink of your choice included. I definitely recommend coming here just before sunset as the views will be even better!
Emirates Palace Hotel
Have you ever wondered what one of the most expensive hotels in the world would look like? Well, look no further than the Emirates Palace, situated just a stone’s throw away from the Etihad Towers. This luxury hotel was originally planned as a residence for the sheikh, but has since gone on to be one of the most luxurious hotels in the world. It’s renowned for its luxury, pomp and first class service, pretty much leaving nothing to be desired. Even if you can’t afford a room here (i.e. almost everyone!), it’s still worth taking a little peek inside to see just how far luxury can go. It’s not every day you get to experience something like this!
The Presidential Palace
Since the emir of Abu Dhabi is also the president of the UAE, it makes sense that you’d find a stately palace here. Of course, the UAE just love to do things bigger and better than anyone else, so they’ve really gone to town on their presidential residence. It’s not open to the public unfortunately, but this building is hard to miss. It’s situated on the end of the Corniche beach promenade, and just by looking at it you can get a sense of the huge dimensions of this place! You can get a better vantage point of it from the Observation Deck at 300.
The Corniche Beach Promenade
The lovely promenade at Corniche Beach stretches on for eight kilometres and offers loads of shopping opportunities and cafés and restaurants with a view of the sea. You’ll even find spaces for kids to play around in as well. There’s something for everyone here really! For people looking to get away from the noise of the family areas, there are loads of areas where you can enjoy a bit more peace and quiet. The promenade is popular in the early mornings for a jog or a cycle, while the evenings offer plenty of opportunities for relaxing strolls admiring the larger-than-life skyline. The perfect end to any day of sightseeing!
Shopping in Abu Dhabi
If you think shopping in Abu Dhabi is only for the rich, then you’re so wrong! You’ll be glad to find fantastic bargains for budgets of all sizes.
Popular shopping centres in Abu Dhabi:
Abu Dhabi Mall
Al Wahda Mall
World Trade Centre Souk & Mall
Malls in Abu Dhabi aren’t just a place to go shopping. It’s a place where people meet with friends, go and grab something to eat or even just escape the hot climates outside. Since malls are such a popular meeting place for locals, expats and tourists, they all feature incredible designs which make them a lovely place to hang out at.
Some of the malls, such as the Marina Mall, National Galleria and the WTC Souks, are just a short walk away from the Corniche, meaning you can incorporate them into a chilled-out afternoon. However an absolute must is the Abu Dhabi Mall, situated on 10th Street close to the German Embassy. You’ll find over 200 shops, international restaurants, a cinemas and even a swimming pool!
One more thing: If you’re looking for a comfy way of exploring Abu Dhabi, then I definitely recommend going on one of the sightseeing tours Big Bus Tours. You’ll be driving through the city in stylish, open-top double-deckers and it’s a great way to see all the sights in a short space of time. You’re best buying tickets online in advance as you’ll be able to make some great savings. If you enter the code BIGBUSTOURS12 you’ll even get 12% off!
Dining in Abu Dhabi – local cuisine and worldwide dishes
Since Abu Dhabi has such a huge expatriate population, you can be sure to find dishes from all over the world in the city. But if you are going to come to the UAE, you just have to try some of the local dishes too. Sure, hummus and falafel are big on the menu here, but we’re pretty familiar with those already. I recommend trying taboulé, a bulgur salad made with onions, tomatoes, parsley, oil and peppermint, which gives it a lovely aromatic touch. Lamb and chicken are also quite common too. I absolutely love al majboos, which sees chicken seasoned with ginger, garlic, cinnamon, coriander and lime juice. And of course you’ve gotta give the typical schawarma kebabs a try too! As a typical desert, you just can’t miss baklava, layers of wafer-thin pastry layered with nuts and honey. And you’ll find loads of dates, nuts honey used in other desserts as well – and let’s not forget the herbal teas to go with it!
I can recommend the following restaurants in Abu Dhabi as good choices:
Li Beirut: This award-winning establishment specialises in Lebanese food. It’s in a prime location at the Etihad Towers and boasts incredible dishes such as yellow-fin tuna with baba ganoush or the zaatar-crusted rack of lamb served with black truffles.
Punjab Grill: If you want awesome curries paired with impeccable service, then you can’t go wrong with the Punjab Grill. Situated in the Ritz Cartlon food village, the menu ranges from the creamiest of butter chicken to their signature chaamp taajdar lamb chops. Plus the idyllic location by the creek is a big plus.
Cho Gao Marina Walk: It’s consistently strong reviews puts it as one of the top restaurants in Abu Dhabi. The menu ranges from sushi selections to curries, stir fries and teriyaki steaks – you name it, they’ve got it!
Hakasan: Pricey, but it’s one of Abu Dhabi’s ‘old greats’. This top-end Asian restaurant just oozes with style, and it’s situated in none other than the renowned Emirates Palace Hotel. The night-time views and seriously cool bar will make you feel like a true VIP.
Mangroves, deserts and ocean – the other side to Abu Dhabi
It’s not just about the big city life in Abu Dhabi. The emirate has plenty of other fantastic experiences up its sleeve that aren’t to be missed!
Mangroves in the desert
Just a short distance from the city are huge tracts of mangrove trees that sustain a rich ecosystem filled with flora and fauna. The Mangrove National Park was established in 2014, following on from the efforts of the UAE to protect and encourage Abu Dhabi’s biodiversity. It’s a popular day trip destination where you can go on guided kayak tours. With a bit of luck, you might spot a few flamingos along the way!
Al Ain – the oasis city
If you love all things green, then you’re going to love this next recommendation I’ve got in store for you. The city of Al Ain is situated in the east of the emirate close to the border with Oman. It’s not just the second largest city in the emirate, but also an absolute joy to explore! The fertile lands allow huge forests of palms and fruit trees to grow in abundance, and the drier climates mean that the heat is just that bit more bearable. Al Ain also serves as the cultural capital of Abu Dhabi too, with its many museums, a university, and old ruins and structures documenting the region’s history. To round the whole experience off you’ve got a zoo, a theme park and a football stadium, making Al Ain a fantastic destination for families in particular. My verdict – don’t miss out!
Fun and relaxation on Abu Dhabi’s islands
The city of Abu Dhabi is situated on an island as you already know, but it’s far from the only one in the emirate. It’s a piece of cake to explore them when coming from the mainland, as there’s tons of road connections to help you get around just fine. But of course there’s also plenty of ferries and even domestic flights that you could take as well. But of course, deciding which island to go for really comes down to personal taste and what you fancy doing there. Take the island of Yas, for example. If you’re a self-confessed petrol head you’ll love it here – from F1® races to Ferrari World, there’s loads to keep you occupied here. Meanwhile the islands of Saadiyat and Sir Bani Yas are havens of relaxation. You have everything from nature reserves and national parks where you can forget about the bustling cities and get back in touch with nature.
Exploring Abu Dhabi’s deserts
It doesn’t matter if you’ve come to Abu Dhabi to relax, explore or shop – a trip to the desert is simply a must! The Rub al’Khali desert, also known as the Empty Quarter, is the largest continuous sand desert in the world, and you’ll find a seemingly endless world of dunes. And let’s face it – there’s nothing more iconic then heading out into the deserts on the back of a camel!
The romantically-minded amongst you can spend the night beneath the stars in a desert camp such as the one at the Heritage Village. You’ll spend the night in an authentic Bedouin tent or traditionally decorated cabins where you can experience the tradition and history of the emirate and even sample some of the local cuisine. And of course, the legendary Arab hospitality is all part of the deal! Of course there’s no internet or TV out in the desert, so if you’re looking to really switch off from the outside world, this is a good way to do it. While you’re at it, see if you can give sandboarding a go too!
Active holidays in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi isn’t just the perfect destination for exploring and sunshine. In fact if you’re the kind of person who loves staying active, then it’s well worth coming here too. You’ll find plenty of new activities that guarantee that adrenaline rush! I’ve listed below a few sports in particular that Abu Dhabi is fantastic for.
Water sports: Whether it’s swimming, kayaking, snorkelling, diving, stand-up paddleboarding, wake boarding, water skiing or fly boarding, the warm waters of the Persian Gulf are just made for water sports! There are hotels and events that cater to this market specifically and they’ll help you arrange several activities. The Wadi Adventure Waterpark also offers plenty of opportunities to try out new activities. There’s even a wave pool and a rafting parkour course!
Motorsports: As well as watching races, you can even take part in them too. A the Yas Marina Circuit you can have a go at racing or go-karting, or buckle up in the passenger’s seat!
Golf: The emirate goes the whole hog when it comes to golf, with several high-end courses. Take the Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort & Spa for example – it features a championship golf course with a whopping 27 holes, plus outdoor pools, fancy restaurants… you name it!
Horse riding: Arabian horses are famed throughout the world as being one of the fastest racing breeds available. Lovers of all things equestrian will have ample opportunities to saddle up and head out on fantastic tours on horseback, ride along the beaches or even take up a few lessons.
Abu Dhabi with children and families
If you’re wondering whether or not to bring your family to Abu Dhabi for a family holiday, then rest assured the emirate really is a fantastic choice. You’ve got everything you could possibly need to keep the kids busy and leave them wide-eyed with excitement! Loads of theme parks such as the Yas Waterworld and the Arabian Wildlife Park are fantastic choices for a day out, while the clean and chilled-out family beaches by the Persian Gulf are suitable for all ages – there are plenty of lifeguards to keep an eye out for little ones.
And of course, that famed Arab hospitality extends to little guests too! They’ll be delighted to see kids stay at their hotels or sit down for a meal at a restaurant. Definitely see with your hotel of choice if there are any specific offers aimed towards families to help you get even more out your stay.
Abu Dhabi – an unforgettable adventure!
As you can see, Abu Dhabi is a lot more diverse than you might have thought! Not only will you be experiencing new cultures, you’ll also be enjoying everything from ultra-modern city life to otherworldly desert adventures and lush oases! The UAE is so much more than just Dubai. But if you can combine a trip to both city, you’re doing it right!