From the serenity of the mangroves to the bustling city center, from the waterfront to the glittering skyscrapers, Abu Dhabi offers visitors an experience like no other.
The capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Abu Dhabi lies on an island that extends into the west coast of the Persian Gulf. What was once a pearling village has evolved into a political and financial center. Abu Dhabi is home to a multicultural society with a welcoming spirit, and a dining scene that will thrill foodies with its diversity.
Abu Dhabi is multifaceted: stroll through one of more than 2,000 parks and green spaces, enjoy the beach life, take a drive on a Formula One track, and haggle for bargains at a souk. There's so much to do that you'll find yourself planning your next trip just to catch up on all that you couldn't fit into one visit.
Abu Dhabi is a place of spectacular buildings, from the sleek geometry of Etihad Towers, the Baynunah Tower, and other gleaming skyscrapers to the graceful beauty of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center. Capital Gate, an astonishing skyscraper next to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, is the world's tallest leaning building, designed with an 18-degree incline.
There are many ways to experience the waterfront in Abu Dhabi, from a leisurely ferry ride to Zaya Nurai Island or one of the other islands to trying out some of the many watersports on offer. You can lounge on Corniche Beach, cheer on a camel race, go dune bashing on an ATV, and more.
There are museums and exhibitions to visit, and tours you can take, but perhaps the best way to experience traditional Arabian culture is in the sheesha (hookah) cafes or haggling for bargains in a souk or open air market. In nearby Al Ain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home of the world's oldest permanent settlement, you can stay in traditional Emirati style at the Arabian Nights Village.
Arabic food is found everywhere, naturally, from casual to fine dining, along with many South Asian and European restaurants. If you love pork, bear in mind that it is sold only to non-Muslims in specified places, and you can expect the same type of regulation with alcohol.
You could call shopping a national sport in Abu Dhabi, with virtually everything on offer from the latest international designers in ultra-modern shopping malls to traditionally hand-loomed carpets in the Carpet Souk, as well as jewelry, antiques and more. Note that during certain Muslim holidays, notably Ramadan, shop hours may be different than at other times of the year.
The largest in the country, this dazzling mosque sits in pristine Islamic gardens. Covered in the purest white marble and boasting the tallest dome for a mosque in the world, the interior is both dwarfing and extravagantly detailed, inlaid with floral design. Other statistics are equally stunning, with a courtyard surrounded by 80 marble domes upheld by over a hundred columns, and a capacity of 41,000 worshippers.
Before the Emirati people came upon valuable stores of oil beneath the desert, they lived a nomadic life on those lands. Visit the Heritage Village for a glimpse of their traditional lifestyle. Learn about how the oasis would provide perfect living conditions for constructing homes, providing water to communities and camels, and developing irrigation lines, among other things. From the spice shops to the craftsmen's workshops, this is quite an immersive experience.
The greatest place to let off steam in this sunny climate is along the fun-filled Corniche by the gulf. Walk or bike along the promenade, and soak up the rays between stops at gorgeous gardens or tasty cafés. At the western end of the Corniche, tourists will find the enormous Marina Mall shopping complex and the extravagant, five-star Emirates Palace Hotel -- originally built for the Sheikh. Don't miss the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, with unforgettable views from the observation deck.
Take a break from the skycraper metropolis of downtown Abu Dhabi on Yas Island, a breezy recreation zone full of entertainment. Yas Mall houses endless shopping opportunities, while Yas Waterworld offers refreshing fun for the whole family. Formula One races also play out on this island at the Marina Circuit. Nearby, the Ferrari World amusement park is a wild ride, and surely one of the most unique theme parks in the world.
Abu Dhabi rises suddenly out of the Arabian Desert in an incredible display of contemporary development, but it is still just a short drive from the serenity of the sand dunes. Those surrounding the Liwa Oasis, the long-time birthplace of the Royal Family, are the largest dunes in the world. Tourists can get their hearts pumping with drag races on this otherworldly terrain, or visit the refuge of the oasis to understand the reality of life in the desert.
With a hot desert climate, you can expect sunny skies and warm weather 12 months of the year in Abu Dhabi. The summer, from June to September, is very hot, with temperatures rising to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more during the day. It is also the time of year when you may experience sandstorms, making the cooler months of November to March the most popular with tourists.
International flights land and connect at Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) which lies about 20 miles from the city center. There are a variety of ways to get to the city, the most convenient and inexpensive being air-conditioned bus service. With stops at all three terminals, the buses run about every 40 minutes and the fare is a mere AED4. You can also take an upscale air-conditioned taxi to the city for about AED125.
Etihad Rail is the national rail service. The network is currently under construction, with plans to connect Abu Dhabi to most locations in the UAE. There are also plans for a 500mph supersonic train that will make the trip between Abu Dhabi and Dubai in about 12 minutes.
The E11 highway connects Abu Dhabi to Dubai along the coast, with the trip taking about 90 minutes. The region's highways are in good condition, although many visitors find driving in the UAE very fast. Note that any tickets or traffic fines must be paid before you leave the country.
Intercity bus travel is available through Intercity Bus Services, Al Gharbia Bus Services, and Eastern Region Bus Services. Connections are available from the Abu Dhabi Bus Station to Dubai and many other locations in the UAE.
The Emirates Palace Hotel offers sumptuous furnishings and accommodation, with 24-hour butler service, your choice of several restaurants and entertainment options, and a private beach. The Grand Millennium Al Wahda offers chic modern rooms and furnishings in a gleaming skyscraper, while the Beach Rotana Hotel puts you right at the waterfront.
Downtown Abu Dhabi - this area is busy and bustling, a center for tourists and locals alike. You'll find a wealth of dining and shopping options, along with many of the city's 5-star hotels, and you can shop for jewelry bargains at the Madinat Zayed Gold Centre.
Al Zahiyah (also called the Tourist Club Area) and Al Markaziyah - these areas are where you will find the Corniche, Abu Dhabi's pristine waterfront, and the Abu Dhabi Mall, one of the city's biggest shopping centers. There are also many options for nightlife in the area's hotels.
Al Khalidiya - this upscale area in the city's west end is home to many Western ex-pats and has a youthful street scene of cafes and restaurants. It is within walking distance of the Corniche Beach area, and the Al Khalidiya Park is a popular spot for families.
There is an extensive network of bus routes through Abu Dhabi, along with a metro commuter train network. Buses use a smart card system, with a temporary card fare set at AED5. A 7-day travel pass is available for AED150. Ferry service is available to the other islands starting at AED20 for an adult, and AED100 with a vehicle.
Taxis are relatively cheap and easy to find in Abu Dhabi, and can be hailed from the street. The starting rate is AED3.50, with an additional AED1.60 billed for every 0.62 miles.
Abu Dhabi's streets were designed for a population of about 40,000. At about 1.5 million currently, streets are overcrowded and traffic is often a nightmare. There is a shortage of parking spaces too, and with many other options, a car rental is an option you can probably do without. If you do decide to rent a car, you'll find compact rentals from Sixt, Thrifty, and more starting at less than AED55 per day.
There are many places to indulge in shopping in Abu Dhabi. The Galleria on Al Maryah Island is a new shopping center that includes 130 international brand name stores and outlets. For upscale options, you can try the Avenue at Etihad Towers where you'll find luxury brands like Givenchy and Versace. For bargain hunters, there is the Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre with over 400 stores, including some traditional souk traders. For an outdoor market, try Souk Al Bawadi or Souk Al Qaws, joined to the Bawaki Mall in Al Ain.
There are several options for groceries and other necessities in Abu Dhabi, including the Co-Op in Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre, along with several locations of Spinney's and Lulu Supermarkets. A quart of milk costs about AED6, and a dozen eggs about AED9.
Mediterranean cuisine is popular in Abu Dhabi, and you can enjoy it with a view at the Beach House on Saadiyat Island. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, mains start at AED60. Vasco's in Al Khalidiya has a popular patio and a menu focusing on fresh seafood, with main dishes starting at about AED120. For upscale local cuisine, look to Mezlai in the Emirates Palace Hotel, where main dishes start at about AED110.