From hidden restaurant gems to idyllic island escapes, the UAE capital has so much to offer visitors and residents alike.
A: Al Ain
Al Ain translates as ‘the spring’ and is also affectionately referred to as the Garden City due to its abundance of greenery. Situated close to the border with Oman, Al Ain is a leisurely 90-minute car journey from the capital and the perfect place for a weekend escape. Recognised for its culture, outdoor activities and mountainous topography, there are an abundance of options to fill a weekend or short break. Whether you plan to visit Hili Archaeological Park, the historic Jahili Fort, The Al Ain Palace Museum, Jebel Hafit or the verdant Al Ain Oasis. No trip to Abu Dhabi is complete without a visit to Al Ain.
B: Bani Yas Island
When you think of the United Arab Emirates, the image of idyllic desert islands and wildlife safaris are not ones that immediately come to mind. Yet 170km south-west of Abu Dhabi city lies the natural haven known as Sir Bani Yas Island. Originally used as a retreat for Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who established a wildlife reserve there in 1977. The island is now open to tourism and boasts three different accommodation options from Anantara. Escape to an iconic fortress-style hotel overlooking the Arabian Gulf, live out your dreams of wildlife adventure from rustic lodge luxury or admire flocks of flamingos and walk on the white-sand beach in front of your private villa. When visiting Bani Yas Island, the possibilities for adventure are endless and include family wildlife drives to see giraffe, zebras and cheetahs and the option to explore ancient ruins and rock formations by horseback.
C: Camel Racing
Abu Dhabi’s camel racing season runs throughout the cooler winter months and is best viewed between November and March. A trip to the races can result in one of the most memorable highlights of any visit to the UAE but be prepared for an early start as races generally tend to begin at around 7am. Watch as the camels are cheered on, steered by robots that are remotely controlled from SUVs circumnavigating the track. The best spot for camel racing is Al Wathba about 45 minutes from the city centre and set amidst a landscape of rolling desert dunes.
D: Desert Safari
Live out those 1001 Arabian nights fantasies and embark on a desert safari. Most excursions leave the city late in the afternoon. They will likely involve a visit to a camel farm and an hour of dune bashing, before arriving at a desert camp for a traditional dinner and light entertainment such as a falcon show or dancing. Though the experience is very touristy, the experience is a fun one, and the feeling of sitting out under the stars while enjoying a meal of flamed cooked chicken and lamb is certainly unique.
E: Empty Quarter
The Rub Al Khali Desert, also known as the Empty Quarter, is the second-largest desert in the world. Covering 650,000 square kilometres and approximately one- third of the Arabian Peninsula, this vast sea of sand stretches from the United Arab Emirates into Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The picturesque area is home to several oases, luxury desert resorts and small villages. Still, if you do find yourself visiting this lesser know part of Abu Dhabi, then a trip to Tal Moreeb is not to be missed! In Arabic the name Tal Moreeb translates as ‘hill of horror’ and it’s easy to see why. Reportedly the highest dune in the world, Tal Moreeb towers 300m with a steep incline of 50 degrees and then extends for 1.6km along a plane. Arrive for sunrise or sunset to make the most of the desert experience.
F: Ferrari WorldAbu Dhabi boasts the worlds first Ferrari branded theme park on Yas Island. The predominantly indoor destination is perfect for families as most of the rides are aimed at a younger demographic, but for thrillseekers, there is Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster (so fast you have to wear special goggles to ride it) reaching a speed of 240kmph in just five seconds! The park also features the Flying Aces attraction which holds the title as the world’s steepest steel roller coaster, featuring a starting incline of 51 degrees and the world’s tallest loop at 52m!
G: Grand Mosque
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the world’s iconic architectural wonders. It promotes the tolerant nature of Islamic culture and has become a leading attraction on the cultural and tourism map. The exemplary model of Islamic architecture was constructed between 1996 and 2007 and is the largest in the United Arab Emirates. Featuring a prayer hall that can accommodate over 7000 worshipers, the architecture, design and decor are awe-inspiring and include the world’s largest carpet and seven large chandeliers adorned with Swarovski crystals. The mosque is free to visit, and tourists are welcome to take photos, but please ensure you dress respectfully.
H: Heritage Village
Step back in time and experience the culture and heritage of the United Arab Emirates at the Heritage Village. Situated at the far end of Abu Dhabi’s picturesque corniche, this reconstruction of a traditional desert village features crafts workshops, educational exhibits and cultural festivals. Step inside a bedouin house, admire ancient pottery and artefacts or visit the resident camel for a taste of desert life in the heart of the city.
I: Indoor Skydiving
Yas Island has fast become the go-to destination for adventure in Abu Dhabi and the most recent attraction to open is CLYMB. Reach for new heights as you take off in the world’s tallest indoor skydiving flight chamber or brave exhilarating indoor climbing walls. The indoor skydiving flight chamber welcomes first-time flyers from as young as three years old and features an unmatched width of 32 feet and a record-breaking height of 104 feet!
J: Jubail Mangrove Park
Abu Dhabi is an archipelago made up of over 200 islands, some of which are surrounded by beautiful natural mangroves. Jubail Mangrove Park represents the first self- contained educational, nature and leisure destination in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and a place where visitors are invited to meander along boardwalks and discover avian and marine species. Aside from the phenomenal photo opportunities, Jubail Mangrove Park also works to enhance awareness and educate visitors on the important ecological function of the city’s mangrove habitats.
Admittedly we cheated a little with this one, but Kunafa has taken the UAE capital by storm! This traditional Middle Eastern dessert is made with shredded filo pastry, soaked in a sugar-based syrup, and typically layered with cheese. Depending upon who you ask, there are numerous spots to try “the best kunafa in town”, but we’d recommend Ibsais in Al Dhafrah or Al Aqssa Sweets in Tourist Club.
L: Louvre Abu Dhabi
Located in the new cultural district on Saadiyat Island, Louvre Abu Dhabi contains a multitude of artworks, all housed under domed architecture designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel. Taking a different museographic approach and a world’s first when compared to other collections worldwide, Louvre Abu Dhabi displays its pieces chronologically. More than just a museum, the building itself is an attraction with its latticed roof providing the striking ‘rain of light’ effect and the flooded sea walls adding to the ambience of this artistic marvel. One for the culture vultures.
M: Manarat Al Saadiyat
Sticking with the Saadiyat Island Cultural District, Manarat Al Saadiyat provides a gateway to the arts and a place to practice and appreciate art freely. Meaning ‘place of enlightenment’, Manarat Al Saadiyat opened in 2009 and today hosts an ongoing series of activities for the local community, including workshops for both children and adults. Manarat Al Saadiyat continues to contribute to Abu Dhabi’s thriving art scene through exhibitions, performances and drop-in art studio spaces and is the site for the annual Abu Dhabi Art show.
N: National Auto Museum
If you’re looking for a quirky place to take some impressive photographs, head to this hidden gem. The Emirates National Auto Museum is located in an obscure desert location but is a great place to stop on the way to the Empty Quarter. The pyramid-shaped structure is home to approximately 200 cars belonging to His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan. From off-road vehicles and classic American cars to the Sheikh’s Mercedes rainbow collection and the world’s largest truck. Not to be missed if you’re a motoring enthusiast.
O: Opulent Dining
In a city of varied dining destinations, nothing quite screams Abu Dhabi luxury as a trip to Emirates Palace. With its golden interiors and 1.2km stretch of private beach, Emirates Palace is one of the cities top tourist attractions. Head to Le Café, renowned for its signature 23K gold-flaked Palace Cappuccino and Camel Burger along with a one-of-a-kind Camelccino and classic afternoon tea.
P: Presidential Palace
Abu Dhabi’s Qasr Al Watan is both a working Presidential palace and a majestic cultural landmark that invites the world to discover the rich legacy of knowledge and tradition that has shaped the UAE’s journey. Qasr Al Watan is an exquisitely crafted tribute to Arabian heritage and artistry, with its architecture and design echoing the significance and function of the impressive exhibits and iconic rooms housed within its halls. If visiting at sunset, don’t miss the family-friendly Palace In Motion event, which is a spectacular sound and light show that celebrates the UAE’s journey in three breathtaking acts.
Q: Qasr Al Hosn
Qasr Al Hosn is the oldest and most significant building in Abu Dhabi, holding the city’s first permanent structure; the watchtower. Built around the 1790’s, the commanding structure overlooked the coastal trade routes and protected the growing settlement established on the island. Qasr Al Hosn comprises of two significant buildings: the Inner Fort and the Outer Palace. Over the centuries, it has been home to the ruling family, the seat of government, a consultative council and a national archive; it now stands as the nation’s living memorial and the narrator of Abu Dhabi’s history.
R: Restaurant Gems
The UAE is a melting pot of cultures and the result in an abundance of global cuisines freely available on every street in the city. From the upmarket fine dining establishments to the family-friendly mall options, there is something for everyone in Abu Dhabi. We’d much prefer to take to the streets on foot in the densely populated Khalidiya and Tourist Club neighbourhoods and discover hidden gems such as shawarma and karak tea for just a few dirhams. Head to Bonna Annee Restaurant for Ethiopian coffee, injera bread and lamb stew or perhaps Zahrat Lebnan, a culinary landmark on the Abu Dhabi food scene.
S: Saadiyat Island
Saadiyat Island has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years. It is now home to not only Louvre Abu Dhabi but several five-star resorts and Saadiyat Beach Club. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Saadiyat, then you will already know that its palm flanked beaches characterise the area. From long strolls on the powder white sands to calming swims amidst turquoise waters, both the Saadiyat Public Beach and newly opened Soul Beach are ideal for those looking to spend a day topping up the tan.
The nine-kilometre Saadiyat Beach is home to several hawksbill turtle nests. Ensuring the turtles and their eggs are safe is vital and conservation efforts have been put in place with the creation of the Hawksbill Turtle Conservation Programme. Pedestrian access is provided to the beach via elevated boardwalks, preventing people from walking through the delicate dune system and potentially disturbing turtles’ nests. Some of the Saadiyat hotels even have in-house marine biologists who can assist with early morning turtle viewings.
U: Umm Al Emarat Park
Abu Dhabi is a city of numerous parks and the pristine outdoor spaces are an absolute blessing in the colder months, especially for those with young children. Umm Al Emarat Park is a park that has been designed for the people of Abu Dhabi to connect communities in a safe and secure environment. With plenty of areas to explore, the park features an elevated shade house, the tranquil Wisdom Garden, an amphitheatre and an animal barn which is home to camels, goats and tortoises.
V: Venetian Village
Experience a sense of Italy in Abu Dhabi. The Venetian Village is located within the grounds of The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal and overlooks the waters of Khor Al Maqta, bringing together a collection of internationally acclaimed artisan restaurants that offer exquisite cuisines from around the world. Experience French fancy at La Brasserie, Indian fine-dining at Punjab Grill or sundowners and sushi at Barfly by Buddha-Bar.
W: Warehouse 421
Hidden in Mina Port is Warehouse 421, a cultural destination which has transformed a collection of warehouses into a platform for artistic expression, understanding, and the development of the UAE’s creative community. Several tutorials, short causes and exhibits are offered at this creative hub with the current program featuring The Stonebreakers. An exhibition that runs until December 31 and brings together three recent projects by Shumon Ahmed, Ranjit Kandalgaonkar and Hira Nabi that focus on a specific node within the modern shipping infrastructural network: the ship-breaking yard.
X: Xtreme Sports
Abu Dhabi is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and boasts a range of exciting sports upon both that water and the land. Rent a jet ski or flyboard at one of the numerous beach clubs around town, or slow down the pace with sea kayaking at both Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Eastern Mangroves. For those looking to get the heart rate going, track days can be arranged at Yas Marina Circuit, with the option to drive the Formula Yas 3000. The closest thing to an F1 car that most people will ever get to drive.
Y: Yas Island
Theme parks, a golf course, a Formula 1 circuit and Abu Dhabi’s largest shopping mall all await visitors to Yas Island. As the cities premier leisure destination, Yas seemingly has it all! Splash your way through a morning at Yas Waterworld, shop until your drop at Yas Mall, ride the world’s fastest rollercoaster at Ferrari World and dine at some of the capitals best restaurants at Yas Marina.
Z: Zaya Nurai
Zaya Nurai Island is one of Abu Dhabi’s most significant hidden gems. A paradisal island that feels like the Maldives but is just a few minutes boat right from the capital. The boutique private island resort features a world-class oceanside spa, five food and beverage outlets, a beach club and exciting activities on land and sea. Splurge on a stay in one of the one-bedroom beach villas complete with private pool, or book a day pass and relax on the stunning beaches while enjoying the peace and tranquillity of island life.