Free Things To Do in Abu Dhabi
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Constructed between 1996 and 2007 at the request of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder and first president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is by far the most popular of Abu Dhabi's sights, and it's easy to see why. One of the largest mosques in the world, this house of worship features 82 domes, more than 1,000 columns and a white and gold facade. What's more, this is one of only two mosques in the UAE open to non-Muslim tourists. That means that visitors from all around the globe can walk across the world's largest hand-woven rug, gaze up at one of the world's largest chandeliers and admire the fusion of Fatimid, Mamluk and Ottoman architectural styles, representing three different Islamic dynasties.
Although it's not Abu Dhabi's oldest attraction, those who have visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque say that a stop here is a must for those who want a better understanding of the city's religious identity. The site is one of the world's most significant examples of contemporary Islamic architecture. You are welcome to explore the mosque on your own, but many travelers recommend tagging along on one of the free guided tours; tours take between 45 minutes and an hour and can be reserved in advance, or you can simply show up and wait for the next scheduled English tour. "Our guide was outstanding; no religion, just amazing facts and with his commentary we understood the incredible engineering, art [and] workmanship that make this so very special," according to one TripAdvisor user. Previous visitors highly recommend touring the mosque in the evening when the sunset reflects off the marble courtyard.
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Stretching nearly 5 miles along the coast of Dhow Harbour — from the Heritage Park to the northeast to Emirates Palace in the southwest — the Corniche makes up the horizontal part of Abu Dhabi city's "T" shape. This seaside promenade is lined with some of the city's most popular hotels, not to mention a variety of restaurants and shops. According to recent visitors, The Corniche offers extensive views of the Persian Gulf and the city skyline. "If you can, rent a bicycle," one TripAdvisor user advised. "It's […] a bit too long for a walk, but just right for a bicycle ride." You'll find several rental shops where you can pick up a set of wheels: FunRideSports has five stations along the Corniche where you can pick up a bike starting at 30 AED (around $8 USD) per hour.
But for most travelers, the main reason to visit the Corniche is to take advantage of its access to the city's beaches. Boasting volleyball nets, free concerts, ice cream shops and calm waters, Corniche Beach (located on the southwestern section of the promenade with the main entrance near the Hilton hotel) offers a family-friendly atmosphere, though you'll need to pay 10 AED (about $3 USD) to access the sands. Meanwhile, the city recently opened a public beach closer to the northern end of the Corniche: Known as the Western Extension, this mile of shoreline is free to access and features both swimming and water sports areas.
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Like the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, Emirates Palace sets the standard for luxury lodging in Abu Dhabi. This sprawling resort says its goes "beyond 5-star luxury" for its clientele — who are oftentimes visiting royals and dignitaries. But you don't have to be a guest to experience what all the fuss is about. This resort — which occupies nearly 250 acres of coastline along the Corniche and stretches more than half a mile from wing to wing — has become one of Abu Dhabi city's most recognizable landmarks. Emirates Palace looks almost like a cross between the Taj Mahal and a fairy tale castle: The structure features more than 100 domes, the insides of which are decorated with gold, crystals and mother of pearl. More than 1,000 chandeliers and rich handmade carpets add to the interior's opulence, while outside the hotel, palm trees, lush gardens and bubbling fountains create an oasis effect.
Non-guests are welcome to enjoy a traditional hammam (Turkish bath) experience or a skin treatment at the Anantara Spa or grab a bite to eat at one of the hotel's nine restaurants. But most visitors were content simply wandering the grounds. One TripAdvisor user described Emirates Palace as "beautiful inside and out," adding, "I would recommend dressing nicely, to not feel out of place. It gives you a view of how 'the other half' lives." Some recent visitors recommend stopping in for afternoon tea, while others say that an evening visit is the way to go so that you can see the hotel all lit up.
- #5View all Photos#5 in Abu Dhabi92.5 miles to city centerFree, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND92.5 miles to city centerFree, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Rising more than 4,000 feet out of the desert and straddling the UAE-Oman border about 15 miles south of Al Ain, Jebel Hafeet stands as the tallest mountain in the emirate and the second-tallest mountain in the country. This mountain has played a significant role in Emirati history: Not only have several notable fossil discoveries been made here, but archaeologists have also unearthed more than 500 ancient burial sites in the Jebel Hafeet foothills. Yet most travelers don't plan a trip to this mountain because they're interested in history; rather, Jebel Hafeet offers what many road trip enthusiasts (including Edmunds.com and The Weather Channel) have deemed one of the best driving roads in the world. The road weaves its way through the mountain's limestone up to the summit, where you'll find the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet hotel, as well as beautiful views of Al Ain and neighboring Oman. Many recent travelers recommend making the drive late in the afternoon to enjoy the sunset from the mountaintop.
If you have some extra time after your drive, consider making a stop at the Al Ain Camel Souk, located southeast of Jebel Hafeet (less than a 20 mile drive from the summit) near the Oman border in Meyzad. The last traditional camel market in the UAE, this lively market will allow you to get up close and personal with the iconic "ships of the desert" and experience the camel trade as it has operated for centuries. Those who have visited say that they enjoyed their visit, though a few travelers note that the locals have been known to ask for money in return for photos of the camels. Also, be mindful of how you dress for your visit. "The camel souq is an all male and quite conservative place. Modest clothing for both men and women is a must," one TripAdvisor user advised, adding "I would also recommend easy-to-clean footwear."
- #6View all PhotosfreeAl Jahili Fort#6 in Abu Dhabi89.2 miles to city centerFree, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND89.2 miles to city centerFree, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Sitting about a block west of the Palace Museum is the striking Al Jahili Fort. Built in the late 1800s, Al Jahili is the largest edifice in Al Ain made from mud bricks (a traditional form of Arabian architecture), and it has recently been refurbished for public visitation. The structure was erected as the headquarters of the Oman Trucial Scouts, a group tasked with the protection of the region's palm groves and the preservation of peace between the different tribes that once occupied the area. Today, visitors are welcome to explore the fort's battlements and watchtowers, which surround an expansive courtyard that often acts as a backdrop for outdoor concerts. Al Jahili also houses a small exhibit dedicated to British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger (fondly known in the UAE as "Mubarak Bin London), who is known for his journeys across the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) desert.
Travelers who have spent time at Al Jahili say that the fort provides an interesting peek at the area's history while offering plenty of photo opportunities. Recent visitors are especially impressed with the Thesiger exhibit. According to one TripAdvisor user, "The exhibition of Wilfred Thesiger's photos as he lived amongst the Bedouin prior to oil discovery show a great insight into the history of this country."
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The United Arab Emirates are a shopper's paradise: This wealthy country has no shortage of traditional souks (marketplaces) and high-end megamalls, with the Marina Mall being one of Abu Dhabi's most popular shopping venues. Located near Heritage Village on the Breakwater in the southwest corner of Abu Dhabi city, this immense shopping complex houses more than 400 stores, as well as a bowling alley, a movie theater, an ice rink and an amusement center complete with arcade games and rides. You'll also find a variety of restaurants and cafes in addition to a sprawling food court.
Recent travelers love the variety of shops and eateries found here, but several visitors say that the Marina Mall's observation deck was the highlight of their visit. Because of its location, the mall offers panoramas of the Persian Gulf, the Corniche and Emirates Palace. "I would recommend going around sunset to see a pretty spectacular view," one TripAdvisor user advised.
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When the blazing Arabian heat starts to take its toll, you can find respite at the Al Ain Oasis. Occupying nearly 3,000 acres of central Al Ain, this quiet park is best known for its date palms — nearly 150,000 of them. These towering trees are part of plantations (some of them privately owned) that still help supply Abu Dhabi with the popular regional snack. Meanwhile, you'll have a chance to witness the ancient irrigation tactic known as "falaj," which is still used to water the mango, orange, banana and fig trees. While you walk around, keep your eyes open for the remains of an old mosque and fortification, and keep your camera primed to capture the stark contrast between the verdant oasis and the dry desert.
Recent visitors describe the oasis as a nice place to explore, though some travelers note that finding your way around can be a challenge. "The guard said there is a spring worth seeing but [I] almost got lost inside and could not find anyone to ask for directions," one TripAdvisor user recalled.
- #9View all Photos#9 in Abu Dhabi89.7 miles to city centerMuseums, Free, Castles/Palaces, Historic Homes/MansionsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND89.7 miles to city centerMuseums, Free, Castles/Palaces, Historic Homes/MansionsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Sitting on the western edge of the Al Ain Oasis, the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum (also known as the Al Ain Palace Museum) offers visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the UAE's founder and first president. Built in 1910, this large complex housed Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his family while he was in power. Visitors to the museum can learn more about the "Father of the Nation" as they wander through the palace's courtyards, gardens and sleeping quarters. You'll also have to opportunity to peek into the meeting rooms where Sheikh Zayed met with visiting dignitaries and other guests.
Those who have visited the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum say that a self-guided tour takes roughly an hour and that it's worth seeing if you make it to Al Ain. Travelers describe the palace as a beautiful, but one TripAdvisor user felt that the museum was lacking when it came to information: "There is a map, but no booklets for foreign visitors, which I think would be of benefit."
- #10View all PhotosfreeHeritage Village#10 in Abu Dhabi2.3 miles to city centerMuseums, Free, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND2.3 miles to city centerMuseums, Free, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Although Abu Dhabi is constantly evolving, remnants of the UAE's heritage are easy to find. If you're interested in learning more about Abu Dhabi's roots, consider a visit to Heritage Village. Set across the Dhow Harbour from the Corniche, Heritage Village is a representation of the original fishing village that once stood here. While touring this living museum, you'll stroll past Bedouin tents and wooden huts housing workshops where you can watch weaving and metal-working demonstrations. The facility also features a restaurant and several shops where you can pick up local crafts and spices.
Travelers agree that Heritage Village offers an interesting peek at Abu Dhabi's history and appreciate that the attraction doesn't charge admission. "You can […] get an idea of how life used to be in the Emirates," one TripAdvisor user said, adding that the visit offered "interesting insight to what life used to be like before the skyscrapers and Bentleys." However, many recent visitors lament the site's small size, noting that a visit won't require more than an hour or two.
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