Abu Dhabi Travel Guide
Compared to Dubai, Abu Dhabi may seem a bit, well, boring. The capital of the United Arab Emirates has a long way to go to compete with all the hype, glitz and glam of its northeast neighbor. But that doesn't seem to faze the folks in Abu Dhabi; the UAE's largest emirate is already sitting on piles of oil money, so there's no rush for it to compete in the tourism market ... continue»
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The best time to visit Abu Dhabi is between March and May or from September to November. The spring and fall shoulder seasons yield pleasant weather, manageable crowds and reasonable hotel rates. For the best weather — not too hot and not to humid — you'll want to visit in the wintertime (December through February). However, this is Abu Dhabi's peak season, with business travelers snagging all the city's cabs and tourists flocking to the beach. If you're looking for the best prices, summer is your season: The city is practically free of tourists, but triple-digit temperatures and smothering humidity will make any time spent outdoors feel gruesome.Best Times to Visit Abu Dhabi»
Abu Dhabi Neighborhoods
Abu Dhabi is the name of both the emirate and the emirate's primary city. Abu Dhabi emirate occupies more than 375 square miles of the country, claiming more than 80 percent of the UAE's entire area. Abu Dhabi city sits on a fairly small island along the northwest coast of the emirate, less than 100 miles southwest of Dubai. East of Abu Dhabi city is the more provincial city of Al Ain, which overlooks the UAE-Oman border. Meanwhile, the southern part of the state is dominated by the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) desert, which overflows into neighboring Oman to the east and Saudi Arabia to the south and west.
Abu Dhabi City
Abu Dhabi's primary city (also named Abu Dhabi) occupies a T-shaped island on the emirate's western coast. (The island is connected to the mainland by three separate bridges.) The city is relatively easy to navigate: The streets are laid out on a grid with the famous Corniche (officially First Street) forming the top of the T, and Airport Road (Second Street) running perpendicular through the city all the way to the mainland. Streets that run parallel to the Corniche are labeled with odd numbers, while streets running alongside Airport Road are identified with even numbers.
The Corniche is one of Abu Dhabi city's most popular areas for tourists. This major artery stretches roughly 5 miles along Dhow Harbour from Heritage Park in the northeast part of the city to Emirates Palace in the southwest. The seaside promenade — which runs alongside the road — offers excellent views of the harbor and easy access to the area's beaches. You'll also find several brand name hotels lining the Corniche, as well as a smattering of restaurants, bars and shops. Recent visitors to Abu Dhabi highly recommend spending time along the Corniche, but they warn against long midday walks and bike rides: The powerful sun combined with physical activity could lead to heat stroke. Instead, consider exploring the Corniche in the early morning or the evening, and always carry a bottle of water.
Extending from the southwest end of the Corniche and looping around to run parallel to the promenade (and form the boundaries of Dhow Harbour) is the Breakwater, a small strip of land separating the harbor from the Persian Gulf. A walk along this narrow strip of reclaimed land yields exceptional views of Abu Dhabi's city skyline. The Breakwater also features a few notable attractions, including the Marina Mall and Heritage Village, not to mention the world's tallest flagpole. But in terms of lodging and dining options, the Breakwater is fairly lacking.
To get a feel for what Abu Dhabi was like back when it was a simple fishing village, spend some time in Al Mina. Occupying the northeast corner of the city (beyond the reaches of the Corniche), this neighborhood is home to one of the emirate's primary ports and, as a result, several bustling souks (markets), including the city's Fish Market. Al Mina also boasts a handful of traditional Emirati restaurants, as well as a few hotels. You're more likely to find budget-friendly room rates here than you are along the Corniche.
Located south of Al Mina near the northeast end of Hamdan Street, this fairly small neighborhood was once home to a sizable expat club — thus the name, Tourist Club. Today, the area still caters to Abu Dhabi visitors, though the presence of the high-end Abu Dhabi Mall lures local shopaholics as well. In addition to the shopping center, the Tourist Club is home to several notable hotels, including the Le Meridien and the Beach Rotana, and it offers easy access to the emirate's Yas and Saadiyat islands.
Hamdan Street & Downtown Abu Dhabi
A few blocks southeast of the Corniche is Hamdan Street (Fifth Street), downtown Abu Dhabi's primary thoroughfare. The street is lined with numerous restaurants and shops — including the towering World Trade Center shopping complex — that create a more bustling atmosphere than what you can expect along the waterfront. Along the streets branching off of Hamdan, you'll find an eclectic mix of residential and commercial buildings, with apartment complexes rubbing elbows with bakeries and mosques.
Khalidiya & Al Bateen
Abu Dhabi's southwest section is dominated by two prominent areas. Head away from the harbor at the southwest end of the Corniche and you'll find yourself in Khalidiya, an area anchored by Sheikh Zayed the First Street and dominated by expats. Khalidiya boasts some of the hippest hangouts in the city with locals and visitors mingling in cafes, bars and hookah lounges. You'll also find a number of art galleries along these streets, not to mention a smattering of small parks and gardens. In terms of lodging, Khalidiya hotels will place you within easy reach of some of the city's most popular sights such as Emirates Palace and the Marina Mall.
Further south of Khalidiya along the island's southwest coast is Al Bateen. Currently, the main reason to visit this section of the city is to admire the foreign embassies and palaces. But continue a few miles down the coast and you'll come across a couple beach areas and resorts.
Between the Bridges
At the very bottom of the T are three bridges connecting the island of Abu Dhabi to Abu Dhabi International Airport and the suburbs on the mainland. The bridges themselves aren't that interesting, but the area surrounding them houses numerous gardens and the city's most famous landmark, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Travelers who choose to stay in this part of the city will have easy access to the mosque, Abu Dhabi International Airport and the highways leading to other parts of the emirate. Meanwhile, on the mainland, the area between the bridges has become a tourist hub thanks to the arrival of several noteworthy hotels, including the Shangri-La.
Surrounding Abu Dhabi city along the emirate's coastline are several islands, each with its own distinct personality. These islands are accessible by highway (and in some cases, by public bus) from Abu Dhabi city and the mainland suburbs.
Al Maryah Island
Sitting opposite the 10th Street and the Al Falah Street bridges from the Tourist Club district, Al Maryah acts as both a business hub and a tourist haven. The heart of the island is Sowwah Square, which features a large amount of office space, as well as the Rosewood Abu Dhabi hotel (a Four Seasons hotel is expected to open here in 2015). Meanwhile, the island is outlined by a waterfront promenade measuring more than 3 miles in length, offering desirable views of the city.
Just east of Al Maryah Island is Reem Island (accessible via 10th, Al Falah and Hazza bin Zayed streets). Though much larger than Al Maryah, Reem Island doesn't offer much in the way of tourism. Instead, the island is home to the Abu Dhabi outpost of Paris' Sorbonne University — the university's first international branch.
In the next few years, Saadiyat Island will be Abu Dhabi's main attraction. Located north of Al Maryah Island and Reem Island and connected to Al Mina via the Sheikh Khalifa Highway, Saadiyat is currently in the process of welcoming major museums, including the Zayed National Museum (set to open in 2016) and branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim (scheduled to open in 2015 and 2017, respectively). In the meantime, visitors to Saadiyat Island will find the popular Monte Carlo Beach Club, not to mention the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club and several high-end hotels, including the St. Regis and the Park Hyatt. The island also boasts a 5½-mile-long public beach where Hawksbill sea turtles can often be spotted; the public beach is open every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and entry costs 25 AED (about $7 USD) for adults and 15 AED (about $4 USD) for children ages 6 and older; kids younger than 6 can enter for free.
Barely separated from the mainland, and just a few miles northeast of Abu Dhabi International Airport, Yas Island attracts plenty of visitors with its family-friendly attractions. The main reason why travelers visit this island is the Yas Marina Circuit and the Ferrari World amusement park. The Yas Marina Circuit racetrack hosts major auto competitions, including the annual Formula 1 Grand Prix; meanwhile, car aficionados can fuel their need for speed on Ferrari World's rollercoaster — the fastest in the world. Practically a vacation destination unto itself, Yas Island features the upscale Yas Viceroy Hotel, the Yas Waterworld splash park, a championship golf course and a public beach.
Sir Bani Yas Island
Sitting further west along the Abu Dhabi coast off the shores of the emirate's Al Gharbia region, Sir Bani Yas Island is nothing like the islands closer to Abu Dhabi city. More than half the island is occupied by the Arabian Wildlife Park, which is home to more than 10,000 animals — including Anabian Oryx, cheetahs and giraffes. Visitors can tour the wildlife park on a guided safari before exploring the ruins of the UAE's only known Christian monastery (believed to date back to 600 A.D.). Tours are offered by independent companies and through the three Anantara resorts located on the island. In order to reach Sir Bani Yas Island, you'll have to hop a 30-minute flight out of Al Bateen Executive Airport, located near the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi city. Roundtrip flights are offered by Rotana Jet for around 400 AED (roughly $109 USD).
A few miles northwest of Sir Bani Yas is Dalma Island. This tiny landmass is one of the oldest known permanent settlements in the country, with a history of inhabitance dating back more than 7,000 years. A day spent here will introduce you to the emirate's maritime history: Spend an hour or two exploring the tiny Pearl Museum and the waterfront area. To get to Dalma Island, you can either fly into the tiny Delma Island Airport from Abu Dhabi International Airport or you can take the ferry from Jebel al Dhanna, located just south of Sir Bani Yas Island on the mainland. One-way ferry trips cost 20 AED (around $5 USD) for adults; children younger than 12 years old can travel for free.
Abu Dhabi emirate comprises more than 80 percent of the United Arab Emirates. Though many visitors choose to limit themselves to Abu Dhabi city and the nearby islands, those who choose to explore the rest of the emirate will find a variety of historic attractions and natural landmarks — many of which can be found in the emirate's other major city, Al Ain. What's more, Abu Dhabi's public bus system makes getting out of the city fairly easy (though you'll probably want your own set of wheels if you plan on straying from either city).
Located about 100 miles east of Abu Dhabi city along the UAE-Oman border is Al Ain, the emirate's second major settlement. This historic town — one of the world's oldest and longest permanently occupied settlements — was once a primary point along the trade route between the two countries. Because of its location, Al Ain acted as peacekeeper with forts such as Al Jahili built to protect the region's trade and maintain concord between the many Bedouin tribes that lived in the area.
Today, Al Ain feature's some of the emirate's most notable attractions, including the Palace Museum (where visitors can learn how the sheikhs live) and Al Ain Oasis, which continues to supply the country with one of its favorite fruits: dates. Meanwhile, families will appreciate the town's kid-friendly things to do, such as the Wadi Adventure and Hili Fun-City theme parks and the Al Ain Zoo. The "Oasis City" also offers easy access to Jebel Hafeet, the second tallest mountain in the United Arab Emirates. And travelers who prefer the quieter atmosphere in Al Ain to busy Abu Dhabi city will find a number of lodging options and restaurants to choose from.
Abu Dhabi may encompass around three quarters of the entire UAE, but only around 30 percent of Abu Dhabi is inhabitable. The rest of the area belongs to Rub Al Khali — the Empty Quarter. Claiming most of the emirate's southern and western territory is Al Gharbia. A region referred to as "where the desert meets the sea," Al Gharbia is bordered by the Persian Gulf to the north, Oman to the east and Saudi Arabia to the south and west. Along the northern coast of Al Gharbia, you'll find a handful of small port towns and miles of beaches. But head inland and you'll find yourself surrounded by the largest sand desert on earth. The Empty Quarter draws adventurous travelers looking to do a camel trek or a 4x4 excursion around its rolling dunes, and there are plenty of tour options available.
If you'd like to experience a night in the desert, you'll find several lodging options in Liwa, a town located about 140 miles southwest of Abu Dhabi city. Another option is the famous Qasr al Sarab resort — set in the heart of the Empty Quarter, this luxury property looks like a historic fort from the outside, but the inside features swimming pools, restaurants and a spa. Qasr al Sarab also offers a variety of guided desert tours.
Despite its location, Abu Dhabi is a very safe place to visit; the UAE does not get involved with conflicts taking place in other parts of the Middle East. But that doesn't mean you should completely let your guard down — make sure to keep a close eye on your valuables, especially in crowded areas. Meanwhile, women traveling to Abu Dhabi should feel safe exploring on their own, but note that Emirati men have been known to stare (most likely out of curiosity than disrespect).
Like in any big city, you should keep an eye on your valuables when exploring Abu Dhabi. This is also true for the souks, as heavy crowds offer a convenient veil for petty crime.
Also, make sure that you're drinking plenty of water and applying sunscreen regularly. Even if you don't plan on staying outside for long, the sun's rays are powerful here; failing to hydrate and take care of your skin can lead to a nasty case of heat stroke or sunburn.
The best way to get around Abu Dhabi is by car, especially if you plan on spending a lot of time outside of Abu Dhabi city. The emirate's major highways are easy to navigate, although maintenance efforts can cause construction-related traffic. However, if you intend to spend the majority of your vacation in and around Abu Dhabi city, you'll fare just fine with taxis and the public bus system. Cabs are a relatively affordable means of transit, and you can easily flag them from the street. Meanwhile, the Abu Dhabi Department of Transport operates a fairly extensive bus network within Abu Dhabi city and to and around other parts of the emirate, including Al Ain and parts of Al Gharbia. To help you find your way around, you can rely on interactive map services provided by DARB.ae, which can help you plot your car and bus routes. Walking is also an option, but you'll need to take precautions to ward off heat stroke (especially during the summer months).Getting Around Abu Dhabi»