You probably already know this, but we lived in Abu Dhabi for 2.5 years. As you can read on our “About Us” page, that’s when we decided to quit our jobs, sell all our possessions and go travel the world full-time.
Moving to the Middle East was a big thing for us, as previously we had only been living within Europe. The culture was different and, as you can imagine, more religious than what we were used to. However, being able to go to the local beach club every day after work, sipping cocktails in the sun, initially made it feel like one big vacation.
As most expats will agree, everything that initially seems so exotic and adventurous eventually becomes routine. And so it did for us.
We got very comfortable there and objectively had a good life. There was lots of tax-free money for travelling, and when we were home, the sun was shining every day of the year. We were supposedly living the dream. However, as you can tell from this blog, we wanted something else.
That’s not to say you can’t have an excellent holiday there. We slowly got fed up with the place over several years, but, of course, you can spend a few great weeks in the sandbox! There are lots to see and experience, and with our background in mind, we thought we would share all of our favourite places. We’ll throw in some useful tips and tricks as well for good measure, which should help you have a jolly good time in Abu Dhabi.
We have gathered our 15 best tips, places or experiences below. If you need help or advice on anything that has not been mentioned, just throw us a comment here or on social media, and we will be happy to help you out!
1. The Entertainer App
First of all, we want to highlight an important tip that very few tourists seem to be aware of. All locals and expats know about this, but somehow word doesn’t spread. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are very expensive destinations, especially when going out for drinks or dinner. You can cut away a large part of that expense with a simple app for your phone. The Entertainer App is the greatest way to save money on food, drinks, hotels and much more when you are in Abu Dhabi – and the United Arab Emirates in general. The app costs 495 AED or approximately 135 USD. You might think this sounds expensive, and it sure can be, if you don’t use the app at all. However, it gives you massive discounts, primarily through buy-one-get-one offers, on most restaurants and bars in the country. It can also get you the same offer on hotel rooms. If you are staying in a hotel with the entertainer discount, you will most probably save the cost of the app on a single night. We have used that trick ourselves several times. If you are in the country for more than a few days, you simply have to get the app.
There is one notable exception to this though, and that is if you are a solo traveller. Since most offers are buy-one-get-one, and you probably won’t be eating two main courses, it may not be a slam dunk decision for you.
We used the app for hotels just a couple of times because you usually need to book these far in advance. But we did use the app weekly for going out for dinner and drinks. That meant we never had to pay for the cheapest drink or main course. We cannot stress enough how much you will save on this, as restaurant and bar prices are very high in the UAE. The discounts are very welcome!
You may need to buy separate packages in the app if you are staying in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Your timeframe will decide whether it’s worth getting both. If you buy access to the app later in the year, they always seem to lower the price though. That means you can get away with paying considerably less.
We are not affiliated with the creators in any way. We just wanted to give you guys the best tip we have, to save some of your hard-earned money in one of the world’s most expensive holiday destinations. If you are a woman, or in the company of one, another great money-saving tip is to look for the so-called Ladies Nights. There is always Ladies Night somewhere in the city, and this means FREE drinks for women. This usually results in a lively atmosphere and is, of course, quite economical. We can highly recommend Loca on Wednesdays, but you can also check out all the other possibilities via this link.
2. Saadiyat Beach
Saadiyat Beach is definitely the most beautiful and easily accessible beach in Abu Dhabi. There are other amazing beaches available to you if you have a boat, but we don’t expect that to be the case. Saadiyat is the name of the cultural area of Abu Dhabi, where the only Louvre museum outside of Paris is also located. It is quite close to the city centre and is easily reachable by taxi.
Saadiyat Beach is artificially made, but you won’t notice. All you see is the crystal clear water and the bright white sand. It is a beautiful place to go, both for a bit of nature and a relaxing day at the beach. It’s definitely our go-to spot for sunsets as well!
There are two ways of entering the beach. You can visit the public beach which will cost you AED 50 (14 USD) on weekdays and AED 75 (20 USD) during the weekend. Included in the price is a sun-lounger, but if you want to rent towels etc. you have to pay extra. The prices are a little steep, but not compared to other activities in the country. The other way to enter the beach is even pricier, though. You can visit one of the beach clubs or hotels on the island, which will offer a more luxurious experience. There are several hotels, resorts and beach clubs located there and our favourite were the St Regis Saadiyat. There is also a famous establishment called Saadiyat Beach Club in the area, but we actually can’t recommend that. Our experience just wasn’t very good.
3. The Corniche
The Corniche is an 8 km stretch of beach, running in parallel to downtown Abu Dhabi. There are several public beaches, some beach clubs, sports facilities, as well as restaurants and cafes along the way.
We preferred the Al Bahar side of the Corniche. There are more and better facilities there, and it’s lively because there are more people around. The beach here is free to use, and they have a large parking spot just on the other side of the road. An excellent place for a day at the beach, which can be spiced up with some outdoor Basketball or CrossFit nearby if you prefer. There is also a floating obstacle course here, which looks excellent for kids.
The beaches are lovely and sandy in general, but they are a little close to one of the busiest roads in Abu Dhabi. You have to stay close to the water if you like it quiet. But if you are not there to bathe in the Arabian Gulf, we suggest you rent a bike and take it for a spin up and down the Corniche. It will give you a good feel of what is going on, and you will get some exercise on your holiday. The burned calories might come in handy if you decide to go for a Friday Brunch later in the day.
The Corniche also hosts the annual Red Bull Air Race in February as well as the most spectacular fireworks displays in Abu Dhabi. These would primarily be on New Year’s Eve and on the 2 December National Day.
4. Al Bateen Wharf
We lived in this particular area of Abu Dhabi for the last year of our stay there, and it’s, without doubt, our favourite area for evening walks. Make no mistake, those can be a challenge anywhere else in Abu Dhabi. You’ll find that the country, in general, is not really designed with pedestrians in mind.
It is a newly established area, with a great walkway along the water, plenty of cafes and restaurants, as well as a hotel where you can get a (real) drink if you feel so inclined.
We would recommend Tashas for breakfast, lunch or coffee, as the food here is excellent! But besides this, you should enjoy the views, the marina and, as you can tell from the picture, the beautiful sunset.
5. Yas Marina Circuit
Besides the legendary Formula 1 season finale, which is held on this circuit in November every year, there are plenty of other things you can do here.
The best, and cheapest, thing is to either walk or ride a bike around the circuit. You can actually borrow a modern bicycle for free. It can be an advantage to sign up online beforehand and arrive early. Otherwise, you might run into a bit of a queue (there will never be a queue for walking though). You should also check out the schedule before going, as they can cancel the free track time with short notice. There might be an actual race on or something, but you can check all the details here. You will also find the specific opening days, which is usually Sunday and Tuesday only. In addition, they have an extra day a week, where only females are allowed. This used to be each Wednesday.
There are also plenty of other activities on or near the circuit. You can drive around in a Formula 3000 race car, or a different kind of supercar if you prefer. For those less inclined to speed, there is also regular go-karting as well as the possibility of watching whatever race they happen to have on when you are visiting. These activities will vary in price depending on the season, but you can check some of them out here.
6. Fossil Dunes and the Desert
Our favourite weekend activity while living in Abu Dhabi was, without a doubt, going to the desert. If you stay in Abu Dhabi, you only have to take a short 40-45 min drive out of the city before you can plant your feet in the soft desert sand! We don’t recommend going on a so-called Desert Safari, as they are sadly not very considerate of the delicate desert environment. Or tend to treat their animals particularly nicely for that matter.
However, if you rent a car, you can quickly go to the desert yourself. Just please remember to use the roads and try not to drive too much on the sand. This is not only for your safety, but also to protect the ecosystem of the desert.
If you google “fossil dunes” and ask your phone for directions, the navigation will take you directly to some cool old fossil dune formations – as illustrated in the picture above. These sand structures seem quite otherworldly and are particularly beautiful at sunset. You don’t need a 4×4 to get out there, and if you help the driver with navigation, you can even take a taxi!
However, just so you are aware, there are quite a lot of trash and some gnarly camel bones lying around the area. Please have this in mind, especially if you bring children. We got quite surprised the first time we visited when we were suddenly standing on top of a camel graveyard. As for the trash, we could sadly only bring a tiny part of it with us. Unfortunately, it seems the locals sometimes use the desert as a huge garbage bin. We actually saw a big 4×4 unload 15-20 old, used, tires directly into the desert.
When you have seen the dunes, you can continue along the main road that lead you there. After about 5 minutes, you will see big dunes on the left side, opposite some light construction. You can drive for a bit on the hardpacked sand next to the road, before climbing one of the dunes to enjoy a packed lunch, or maybe even the sunset.
We used to bring some firewood, and have a proper bonfire, so we could stay long into the night. In that case, remember marshmallows! A night like this will, for us, always be the perfect way to experience the desert. It truly is the most beautiful piece of nature that the UAE has to offer.
7. Ferrari World
You have probably heard about Ferrari World, home of the world’s fastest rollercoaster. And believe us, it really is fast. You have to try it! They have two other rollercoasters that fall in the same category, and then a few calmer ones. That’s the main drawback of Ferrari World – they actually don’t have that many different attractions. We would still argue it’s worth a visit, though, and they are constantly expanding their offering.
It’s also interesting to see their collection of Ferrari road cars as well as their exhibition showing how the iconic car is made back at the factory in Italy. If you are the slightest bit interested in cars, this part is quite impressive.
It is also quite expensive, though. The Entertainer App we mentioned in point 1 could possibly help you with that, or you might be lucky to find a deal on Groupon. They sometimes have offers allowing you to enter both Ferrari World and the nearby Yas Waterpark with a single ticket. What we are trying to say is that you can probably find a discount somehow.
8. Breakwater Views
The best views of the Abu Dhabi skyline is found at the breakwater. It’s easy to find, just go for the colossal flagpole which also happens to be one of the tallest in the world. It is right next to Marina Mall by the end of the Corniche Beach.
If it is not too foggy or humid, you will find some fantastic views of the Abu Dhabi skyline. Bring a packed lunch or something and enjoy the view. They also have plenty of drink and snack machines out there, but no proper café.
9. Friday Brunch
The Friday Brunches of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are in a league of their own. The concept is simple – eat and drink as much as you want for 3-4 hours. The quality of the drinks will depend on the package you pick, but the food is almost always buffet style.
We know that buffets are not exactly environmentally friendly, and are the cause of a lot of food waste. You can check our thoughts about that on our Carbon Footprint page. However, we would be hypocrites if we didn’t mention them here, as they are THE thing that you do on a Friday afternoon in the country. We have participated in lots and lots ourselves, so we can’t really point too many fingers here. Back then, we had no idea just how big of a food waste buffets are, which of course we now know. But still, we feel obliged to highlight them – they are definitely an (expensive) experience that is very typical of the UAE.
We suggest you find one with table-service if you can though. Just ask around. We heard of a few back when we lived there, so it is definitely possible. The food might be better too.
10. Sport around the city
In Abu Dhabi, you can find a few so-called “sports cities” as well as several golf courses and other sporting opportunities. The most popular ones are Zayed Sports City and Al Fursan Sports City, both offering a broad range of activities.
Personally, we have mostly used the Al Fursan Sports City for Go-Karting. There is almost always a Groupon voucher available, which means half price, and the circuit is quite good. We have also visited the shooting lane, however that one is quite expensive. In Zayed Sports City we have been skating on the large parking lot outside, as well as played on the tennis courts. Right around the corner, there is a pub which serves acceptable food and alcoholic beverages. That’s good to know, right?
If you are into tennis, however, a better bet might be to go for the free courts at Yas Island. You will see them right next to the highway when going from Abu Dhabi towards Dubai. Take the exit right after Yas Mall and keep right. Note that they can get extremely hot during the day, especially in summer.
If you want to cool down, there is a large ice rink in Zayed Sports City together with bowling lanes, football pitches, basketball and all that stuff. Abu Dhabi also boasts several golf courses, most of which are quite high-end. Closest to downtown you’ll find the no frills Abu Dhabi City Golf Club. It is only a 9-hole course, but the facilities are excellent. It is by far the cheapest golf course in Abu Dhabi, and their restaurant is good value too. They serve alcohol, and we can highly recommend the Pad Thai.
11. Al Ain day trip
If you have an extra day in Abu Dhabi, and you have already seen Dubai, then you may consider a trip to Al Ain. It’s located right on the border to Oman but is only 1.5 hours away. It’s super easy to find, and you won’t be sharing it with hordes of other tourists.
Al Ain is a city within the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which was probably established due to the desert oasis found there. The oasis has now been turned into a green park, which is perfect for a stroll if the temperatures allow.
Al Ain has the largest and busiest camel market in all of the United Arab Emirates. Strangely enough, it is located right behind a large IKEA warehouse. It is definitely an experience to visit, but at the same time, seeing how the animals are crammed tightly together, and loaded onto tiny trucks, may be unpleasant for some. It does show the authentic culture and heritage of the UAE, though. Not sure how much we recommend the experience, but we will leave it up to you to decide. It’s not a tourist destination, but a working market, so if you visit you don’t need to worry about being an enabler of animal cruelty or the like.
Al Ain also boasts the only real mountain within the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, called Jebel Hafeet. You can easily drive to the top, using a winding 4-lane road. The fences at the top are quite high, which does obstruct the views somewhat. However, the mountain also serves as the border to Oman, so it makes sense that they don’t want you to jump it.
Al Ain also houses a mall, a zoo and a water park of considerable size. We haven’t tried any of those, but other expats have highly recommended them, especially for travellers with children.
Personally, the best thing we did in Al Ain was to spend a night at a hotel in the desert.
We stayed at Telal Resort, which is based right amongst the red dunes. The hotel itself wasn’t perfect, but it was priced competitively, and the setting was great. We particularly enjoyed the beautiful desert sunset and sunrise, as well as a large herd of Arabian Oryx that were running around in the desert right next to our terrace. How cool is that?
Note that this is a “dry” hotel though, but you are allowed to bring your own wine. By the way, this is something we suggest you bring from your home country or buy in the airport. You are allowed to import 5 bottles of wine, or 4 litres of strong alcohol, per person. You should take advantage of that if you plan to indulge outside of bars or restaurants.
12. Liwa Oasis day trip
Although we enjoyed our trip to Al Ain, there is a different day trip destination which beats it to the crown. Our trip to the Liwa Desert was, by far, the best get-away we went on while living in Abu Dhabi. We wish we had done it sooner so that we could have gone again!
The red dunes in Liwa are breathtaking, and the desert views can almost match those of the ancient Namib desert. We had to drive for about 2.5 hours before arriving at the Abu Dhabi part of the so-called Empty Quarter. The red dunes towering up on each side of the car were incredible! The Empty Quarter is the largest contiguous sand desert in the world and stretches 1,000 kilometres from the UAE deep into Saudi Arabia. It even covers parts of Yemen and Oman too. It is a proper desert, is what we are trying to say.
It is straightforward to find. You just plot in “Moreeb Dune” on your GPS, and you will promptly be taken to the biggest dune of them all. That particular one is not the prettiest, because it is used exclusively for dune buggy and 4×4 competitions, where cars race up the steep sand slope. Quite impressive to watch actually.
The only roads that lead through the Liwa Desert end at Moreeb Dune. Go there first, and then turn around. Going back the same way, you will see some salt flats between the tall dunes. Here you can find camel farms, but they also serve as an excellent entry-way to the desert. This way, you can get close to the dunes without driving on the sand, thereby avoiding getting stuck and harming the desert at the same time.
After leaving the main road, we drove for just 10 minutes before setting up camp, in what seemed like no man’s land.
Cooking food at the bonfire, sleeping under the stars, and getting woken up at 1 am by a revving sand buggy made this “sleepover” an incredible adventure. We cannot recommend it enough. You just have to go there, but remember to bring plenty of water!
13. Malls, Malls, Malls
Like in Dubai, and the rest of the Middle East for that matter, malls are a big thing in Abu Dhabi. For the locals, and the expats who have been too long in the country, it is THE place to be in the evening. Don’t be surprised to see more and more people showing up in the mall throughout the evening, until it reaches its peak between 11 pm and midnight. On weekdays. And there are LOTS of kids. If you go to the malls in the morning, they will be much, much quieter. Of course, that also means you will miss out on the authentic local experience.
Abu Dhabi has plenty of malls. Yas Mall is definitely the largest one, complete with any and all stores that you could possibly be looking for. It is located right next to IKEA and Ferrari World, so it’s easy to spend a day in the area. It is also the most modern of all the malls and our personal favourite. Use this as your big one-stop mall, which is also the one with the best lunch and coffee break possibilities. It is, however, located a bit outside of the city – expect a 25-minute drive towards Dubai.
Marina Mall is a bit different, in that it is a massive tent-like structure. It is located at the end of the Corniche, close to downtown Abu Dhabi. It is also quite large and features the biggest supermarket in the city. Notably, it has Bounce, a sort of trampoline wonder-land, which seems very popular with the kids. Then you have the World Trade Center Mall, which is the place you go for souvenirs and more “local” products. That’s because they have a dedicated Souq-like part of the mall. The other part is very similar to regular malls, in terms of outlets. However, the World Trade Center Mall is also excellent for an evening trip as they have “The Hub”. Here you have a selection of great food outlets, that are actually allowed to serve alcoholic drinks. That’s pretty rare outside of hotels.
There are many smaller malls, so you can always check out the nearest ones. However, the abovementioned malls are the most Western and expat-friendly of the bunch. We would recommend sticking to those. It is perfectly fine to visit the other ones as well, but you are likely to be disappointed with the selection.
14. Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque
This is the top tourist destination in Abu Dhabi. Of course, our list wouldn’t be complete without it. The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque is truly an incredible building. The structure itself, and the beautiful lights are really impressive. It is a must-see in Abu Dhabi, so make sure not to miss it. We suggest getting there in the late afternoon. Then you will be able to experience the structure in full daylight, during sunset, and after dark. Don’t expect to spend more than an hour or two though, so you should time it well. The best thing? Entry is free of charge.
15. Kayaking in the Mangroves
There isn’t a whole lot of nature in the UAE. However, there is one noteworthy thing besides the desert, which is not man-made. The Mangroves.
You can experience them from the marina area located nearby, where there are also plenty of restaurants and cafes. However, we highly recommend you rent a kayak and sail through the mangroves. This is a much better way of experiencing them. As a nice touch, all motorized boats are banned from entering the mangroves area so you will have a quiet and serene experience. You also happen to get a bit of exercise – there’s a win-win situation if we ever saw one.
Besides these points, there are, of course, plenty of other activities in Abu Dhabi. You can easily spend a week there because you need time to lounge by the pool as well. The biggest draw to the country is definitely that the sun ALWAYS shines. You will pretty much have sun guarantee if you visit. During our 2.5 years there, we can count on one hand how many times we experienced rain. That must be quite unique, worldwide.
We have also created a similar list of things to see and do if you are visiting Dubai. You can find that right here. In general, Dubai is a little more fast-paced, and there will be more tourists. What you prefer is up to you. You can easily visit both though, as they are only 1.5 hours apart.
If you are looking for any other tips, or want our advice on any specific activities, restaurants, bars or other things to do, then please leave a comment. We would be more than happy to help you plan an awesome trip.
You might also be interested in our little travel inspiration video for the UAE? After all this text you’ve been reading, it’s okay to go on Youtube!