Abu Dhabi is fast becoming an attractive place to have a holiday break, do business, or consider as a new home. But in order to really know what Abu Dhabi is all about, what are the things to do, to give you a feel of the place? Our top ten list of things to do is ever changing for Abu Dhabi quite simply because the rate at which Abu Dhabi is growing is extreme. It is so impressive that even true fans of the Abu Dhabi expansion plans sometimes find it hard to keep up! To think that Abu Dhabi was a small fishing and pearl village not so long ago when even rich families lived in mud huts seems crazy. With the discovery of oil in the 1950s, plans for a new UAE began - and plans for a new Abu Dhabi came to the foray. And now with the tourist ambitions all primed, Abu Dhabi will surely become a top tourist destination, for the region and for the world. Abu Dhabi tourist sites are becoming world beating - and not without effort.
Things to do in Abu Dhabi
It has been a slow and careful journey with Dubai heading most of the expansion up until now, however, Abu Dhabi has big plans for its Emirate and what you see today is a fraction what is to come. We have a list of top things to do in Abu Dhabi, and they are unique things to do in their own right, but that list of things to do is fast growing - and deciding what to do on a one week trip is fast becoming a tricky decision to make! Whilst deciding what to do, you can simply enjoy the beautiful hotels and take relaxing walks along the Abu Dhabi corniche. Below is a selection of what we think should be in your must see list of Abu Dhabi sites.
Sheikh Zayed Mosque Abu Dhabi
Quite simply, the best thing to do in Abu Dhabi is to take the opportunity to vist the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, also known as the Grand Mosque Abu Dhabi or just the Grand Mosque. It's an opportunity not to be missed, as not many mosques in the world allow you to view inside, if you are not Muslim. And many may argue that this trip is the the only thing that is a must do in the whole of the UAE. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque is located about 10km away from Abu Dhabi city centre is one of the world’s largest mosques. You'll probably see it on landing at Abu Dhabi Airport and driving to Abu Dhabi City Centre. It was built in 2007 under the vision and design of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the UAE, who passed away in 2004, is also buried there. Every small detail of the mosque has been beautifully designed using only the finest quality materials and inspired from a mix of Islamic art and design from around the world. At a vast distance the Sheikh Zayed Mosque’s elegant domes and minarets can be seen glistening in the sun and on approaching the vicinity of the Grand Mosque, you are shocked and amazed by its sheer scale and beautiful features. People say that it is more amazing than visiting the Taj Mahal. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque Abu Dhabi can accommodate up to 40,000 worshippers collectively in the outdoor courtyard area and inside the main prayer hall. It may not be the largest mosque in the world, but it holds the title of the largest carpet in the world made in Iran and the largest chandelier in the world made in Germany from 1 million Swarovski crystals. This iconic landmark is a definite visit and must be in your list of things to do in Abu Dhabi. Don't doubt it! But be early and plan in advance. It is open Sat – Thurs 9am - noon with guided tours at 10am lasting an hour. Please make sure you dress conservatively - loose clothing with long sleeves is best and avoid short skirts. No shorts for men. Women must also cover their heads with a scarf, which the mosque can heklp with. Admission is free - you can't beat that.
UAE Heritage Village, Abu Dhabi
To experience what life was like for Emiratis in Abu Dhabi before the oil boom visit the UAE Heritage Village. Step back in time and see how the locals used to live in bedouin camps, barastis and mud huts all in a miniature village type setting. Take a look at the small museum which houses local exhibits and artefacts and partake in craft and pottery workshops. This is especially a must do if visiting the neighbouring Marina Mall. It is open Sat – Thurs from 9am-1pm and then at 5pm- 9pm and Fri from 4pm-9pm. The village tends to be livelier during the evening time. Admission is free and is definately worth your time.
Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage centre (Cultural Foundation)
Formerly known as the Cultural Foundation, the Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage centre is responsible for creating awareness of the Emirati culture as well as staging and delivering interesting performances and shows relating to Islamic art, opera and theatre. Learn about the progress of Abu Dhabi from what it was 30 years ago and its plans for the future. View artefacts and get involved with henna tattooing and watch emirati ladies weave fabrics. Books and handicrafts are on sale and all proceeds are invested back into the Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage centre. Art classes are also offered at the Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage centre such as painting, calligraphy and jewellery making. An extensive library with over 400,000 titles in Arabic and foreign languages are available to the public. Throughout the year events and performances take place at the Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage centre such as operas, theatre and cinema productions. This place is a must do especially if you are visiting Abu Dhabi for a long time or are in expat, as the classes offered are fun and performances are regularly updated. This wouldn't normally feature on a top ten list, except for the effort that the Abu Dhabi cultural foundation are making to give a glimpse of the culture of Abu Dhabi.
The Abu Dhabi Souks
Picking up a bargain at the souk is a must do when in Abu Dhabi. Bargaining is so addictive and the satisfaction so great! A souk is an open air market where a collection of stalls sell a variety of nik naks. Newer souks now specialise in different products such as fruit and vegetable souk, spice souk, Afghan souk, gold souk. The popular main souk – Central Souk, Abu Dhabi which was a local favourite for 40 years has been demolished and in its place a new Central Souk has being built which is anticipated to complete sometime in 2010 along with new hotels, apartments and nightlife. The Mina souk, which is an old and traditional type souk houses the Iranian souk which has imported goods from Iran such as rugs, bedding and crockery, the Afghan souk has great oriental carpets and the food souk selling dates galore. Madinat Zayed Shopping centre, Abu Dhabi is a covered shopping area with many small shops ranging from, fabric, perfumery, shoes and electronics. In the adjacent building area large number of gold shops selling beautiful pieces with diamonds. Sometimes the prices can be slightly cheaper then of the popular gold souk in Dubai. Madinat Zayed actually feels like what you might perceive the Middle East shopping experience might be like. Some western influence, but very local in feel. It's worth getting a flavour that you might experience without the glam that you may experience in certain malls nearyby. For a modernised souk experience head to Qaryat al Beri at the Mussafah and Maqtaa bridges (near the Shangri La hotel). This souk offers fine shopping and dining. Shopping is generally one of the UAE’s favourite pastimes, so make it a must on your things to do in Abu Dhabi list. Here at grapeshisha, we like shopping - and recommend you buy some dates or oud / incense to get a real feel for the Middle East. Please note most souks and some malls will operate split opening hours therefore, open from 10am-10pm but close between 1-4pm.
Tea at the Emirates Palace
Abu Dhabi’s glorious landmark - that which is the Emirates Palace - is truly something. The seven star hotel in Abu Dhabi is open to non staying guests, however only some areas are accessible unlike the the 7 star Burj al Arab in Dubai, where you must pay to enter either way. To experience true opulence, book afternoon tea at Al Majlis coffee lounge or the Viennese style café. Once you’ve indulged in tea and cakes and the occasional star spotting, glide through the halls and admire the gold platted lobby, the mosaic tiled domes, the extensive swarovski crystal chandeliers and petrified palm trees preserved for their natural appearance. It’s excess with a capital ‘E’ and one of the best experiences whilst visiting Abu Dhabi.
A stroll on the Corniche
One of the most relaxing ways to enjoy Abu Dhabi and perhaps burn off some of that shwarama is to take a stroll, jog or skate down the beautiful Abu Dhabi corniche. It’s a good 6.4km from one end – Emirates Palace to the other end – Sheraton Abu Dhabi Resort. If you fancy, bikes are available to hire opposite the huge picture of Sheikh Zayed (near Emirates Palace) or you could take one of the EZ taxis which are electric cars that drive people up and down the Corniche for about Dhs15. The corniche has been widened to make way for more open space and the Abu Dhabi beach. Soak up the glorious skyline of high rise buildings on one side and the soothing waters of the Gulf on the other. The waters are always calm due to the manmade Lulu Island sheltering a large part of the corniche and come alive in the late afternoon with jet skiers showing off in the waters – good entertainment. You can find many lovely cafes and shisha hangouts to rest your feet. A definite must thing to do is to try the freshly squeezed juices to accompany you at sunset. At grapeshisha, we like the pomegranate from the Special Cafe. The Abu Dhabi corniche is one of the best things to do in Abu Dhabi. It's under rated - and people question why it features as something to do, but it is envigorating and revitalising, before you get back to you life or holiday in Abu Dhabi.
Shisha and Shawarma
If you are visiting Abu Dhabi for a short while you must sample some great ‘street’ Lebanese food. By ‘street’ we mean budget/good value meal at a café style restaurant rather then a plush hotel. You will certainly fill your bellies and have more then enough for a doggy bag and get to see locals and Arabs all having a relaxing evening with their families. The following are our two long standing Lebanese favourites: Lebanese Flower (Al Khalidiya nr Choithram supermarket) - although there are others - has the most amazing grills and generous portions. It’s all about the food here so take a blind eye to the dated décor and focus on the fresh bread and humous that’s delivered to your table as soon as you’ve parked your handbag. From here on, service is efficient however we wish we could say the same about the parking – which is non existent due to the high demand of takeaway customers outside. It's best to hop in a taxi. Layali Zaman (Al Markaziyah) is our other favourite and located on the corniche, perfect for when its not overly hot and sticky. This place is frequented mostly by the locals and Arabs so you know the food is great. Get a table on the balcony overlooking the corniche and order one of their freshly squeezed juices such as pomegranate or guava. Layali Zaman is a secret to those who know about it, but at grapeshisha we tell you the truth - get there for dinner, to experience real Lebanese food. After your sumptuous meal, go for sweet if you have space or skip to shisha (grape, yes grapeshisha!) and smoke off a relaxing (stuffed) evening. If you are confused about what to order our best food tips are: shawarma (chicken or lamb), baba ganoush (charcoal aubergines), shish tawook, mixed grills, vine leaves and of course a bowl of humous and olives.
Emirates National Auto Museum
For car lovers, the Emirates National Auto Museum is a must, and not your obvious trip in Abu Dhabi. An extreme and rare collection of vehicles owned by ‘Rainbow’ Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan Al Nahyan, yes - The Rainbow Sheikh. (oh, aside and, by the way, this is the same Sheikh who has his name etched in the sand on an island called Futaisi Island - and it is viewable from space) Located about 40km south of Abu Dhabi city centre is the unofficial museum, housed in a giant purpose built pyramid. The collection of vehicles have either been bought as collectibles by the Sheikh, given as presents or original versions that have been modified according to the Sheikh’s wishes. All are of differing sizes and the wackiest is the dominating Dodge pick up truck which is eight times the original size accessed via a staircase on the ground and has 5 bedrooms inside! We wont give much away - you will just have to visit! It really is hard to describe. This place is definitely worth putting on your to do list in Abu Dhabi if you are visiting for a while. Opening hours are 8am-5pm Sat - Thurs and closed Friday during noon prayers. Free admission - and one to really talk about once you return from Abu Dhabi.
Al Ain and its National Museum
A visit to Al Ain, Abu Dhabi’s capital city will keep you busy for the day. Known as the ‘Garden city’ or ‘Oasis city’ it is abundant with lush green land. Al Ain is the untouched city and has an extensive array of UAE history . A must do stop is the Al Ain National Museum which houses artefacts such as dagger blades, flints and pottery from as far back as 2000- 1250BC – the Wadi Suq period. Archaeological sites and exhibits from ancient tombs from Al Ain are also on display. After your educational visit take a peaceful walk through the Al Ain Oasis. If you are not fed up of more history, visit the Al Ain Palace Museum which was home for a period of time for the former ruler and founding father of UAE Sheikh Zayed. Al Ain is 149km from Abu Dhabi.
Desert Safari in Abu Dhabi
This thrilling experience must be on your top 10 things to do in Abu Dhabi. Rather then take your own 4x4 which is not really recommended, contact one of the many tour operators who can offer you various evening, day and weekend packages to do a desert safari in Abu Dhabi. You will be whisked far into the heart of the desert for a tummy turning and jerky ride through the deep Abu Dhabi desert. Its advisable not to eat beforehand and this ride is not ideal for children under 4 or women who are expecting. After the twists and turns, an Arabian feast and party awaits. Dine in authentic Arabian tents, sip Arabic coffee, get henna tattoos, ride the camels, sand surf and enjoy the belly dancers under the beautiful night sky. Options for overnight stays are available too. Details of various tour operators are available at all hotels.