What to do in Abu Dhabi
What to do in Dubai
What to do in Sharjah
What to do in Ajman
What to do in Umm al Qaiwain
What to do in Ra's al-Khaimah
What to do in Fujairah and on the East Coast
The Emirate of Abu Dhabi is the largest and most populous of the seven emirates in the UAE and its main city, Abu Dhabi, is the capital of the federation. Salt-laden sandflats and remote beaches line tropical seas to the west of the emirate, whilst rolling sand dunes contrast with date-palm oasis to the east and south. Abu Dhabi City was mostly situated on a single large sand-fringed island but it has now spilled over onto the mainland and a series of adjoining satellite islands that have been developed in recent years. This rapid pace of development has meant that high-end hotels, resorts and other amenities are opening in quick succession, both on and off the main island.
Saadiyat Island is spearheading the transformation of the city into a world-class tourism destination with a cultural emphasis. Here, along with five-star hotels lining the 8-kilometre beach, villas, and a golf course will be a series of museums designed by some of the world's most famous architects, including the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The Louvre is scheduled for completion in late 2015.
The new financial district, located on Al Maryah Island also features spectacular architecture and a sophisticated commercial area with up-market shopping and restaurants.
Yas Island, on the other hand, is dedicated to sports and entertainment, and is home to Abu Dhabi's Formula 1 track, Ferrari World theme park and a popular water park as well as hotels and restaurants. Many international stars feature on stage here throughout the year.
Despite all this, its national and regional importance, imposing architecture and meticulously planned urban redevelopment, Abu Dhabi still manages to retain an air of ease and tranquility.
1. Visit the Sheikh Zayed Mosque and take a guided tour around its many vaulted splendours. Although the scale is huge, there is a great sense of peace within the gilded walls. The tomb of the ‘father of the nation’ Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is in the the mosque’s extensive gardens.
2. Go kayaking in Abu Dhabi's mangroves and wonder at this delight of nature a stone’s throw from the city centre. No experience is required. Definitely one of our favourite trips.
3. Have a gold-leafed afternoon tea in luxurious surroundings at the seven-star Emirates Palace Hotel; marvel at its kilometre-long white sand beach and view one of the many fine exhibitions that are usually on show there.
4. Cycle, jog, walk, swim or simply watch the world go by along Abu Dhabi’s delightful Corniche where the aquamarine waters of the Gulf lap the shores of the well-maintained public beach, watched over by impressive skyscrapers. The undulating dunes and sandy beaches of Lulu Island lie enticingly across the straits.
6. Travel back in time at Abu Dhabi Heritage Village near the Breakwater and discover what life was like for the town’s early inhabitants: the Al Bu Falah branch of the Bani Yas tribal group from Liwa moved to Abu Dhabi in the 1790s and the town quickly evolved as an important pearling centre. Pearl divers and boatmen tended their date gardens and camels in the oasis and desert of the hinterland during the winter and trekked back to the coast in the summer to fish for pearls.
7. Scare yourself silly on the gigantic roller coaster rides at Ferrari World Theme Park and cool off at Yas Waterworld on Yas Island.
8. Visit one of the many interesting exhibitions at Manarat Al Saadiyat on Saadiyat Island; sample the delicious food in the restaurant there and view the spectacular UAE Pavilion in the shape of a sand dune.
9. Take a ride on that marvel of the desert, the camel and, if you must, enjoy the thrill of dune-bashing in a 4x4. Most tour operators organise desert safaris, as well as quad-biking, sand-skiing, paragliding etc. in the desert. You can also spend the evening in a bedouin encampment under the starlit skies, enjoying refreshments and entertainment.
10. Experience a sunset cruise on a traditional wooden dhow along Abu Dhabi’s extensive coastline. Dinner-cruises are also available.
12. Enjoy the spectacular dunes of the Empty Quarter in the Liwa, a two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi. Enjoy the remote tranquility of Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort, which has been artfully constructed to resemble a desert fort – definitely your own private mirage! . The resort organizes desert tours through the red-tinged sea of sand so beloved of the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger. The villages around Liwa are set amidst date-garden oasis that tap in to groundwater close to the surface under the desert. You will need a 4WD if you intend to explore the dunes without the assistance of a guide. Take the obvious precautions such as travelling in convoy, informing someone about your route, taking a mobile phone and a GPS, carrying adequate water and sun protection. You should also purchase one of the invaluable guides to off-road exploring in the Emirates.
13. Take a trip by boat or plane to one of Abu Dhabi’s offshore jewels, Sir Bani Yas Resort. Explore the rugged island, its spectacular beaches, salt dome and dense mangroves, and get close to abundant wildlife, both exotic and Arabian. Walking, cycling, snokelling, kayaking or sailing are available at the resort. Settlers have been coming to this island for millennia but the best and most accessible archaeological remains are of a recently excavated sixth to seventh century Nestorian church and monastery.
14. Back onshore journey to Al Ain, a low-lying green city nestling in an oasis of majestic date-palms. This was the birthplace of Sheikh Zayed and his home for a number of years. Take a tour of its many impressive old forts and archaeological sites, some of which have been reconstructed, and don’t forget to vist Al Ain National Museum for an insight into the history, both ancient and modern, of the UAE. See the artefacts that were found in the large tomb at Hili dating back to about 4,700 years ago (in Hili Archaeological Gardens), one of the most impressive monuments of its kind in the UAE.
Experience the calm of the nearby oasis with an operating falaj, (plural is aflaj) a carefully controlled ancient system for channeling water that leads the precious liquid from its source (usually an underground aquifer) to irrigate date palms and other crops.
15. Climb the emirate’s highest point at nearby Jebel Hafit – there is a very impressive road with stunning views all the way to the hotel at the top – catching a glimpse of the 5,000 year-old beehive-like Hafit tombs at the foot of the jebel.
16. And if you are exhausted from all of the above, laze on the beach, although you may be tempted to try your hand at waterskiing, windsurfing or sailing, all of which are available at beachfront hotels. Offshore sailing from Abu Dhabi, will introduce you to an entirely different world of blue seas, white-sand natural islets, some inhabited by gazelles, and playful dolphins, possibly even a whale. Tour companies can arrange for you to visit some of the islands. Boat charters for excursions to the islands or elsewhere are also possible from fishing charter companies – just explain that you would like to skip the fishing – or not as the case may be.
17. Alternatively, pamper yourself at one of the emirate’s many spas.
18. Or indeed, just sit back and enjoy the first-class fare on offer in Abu Dhabi’s wide range of restaurants.
19. When you have recuperated, take out a pair of binoculars and go bird watching. Armed with information from the birdlife section of this website or a good bird guide (Birds of the United Arab Emirates by Simon Aspinall, Salim Javed and Hanne & Jens Eriksen) you should be able to identify some of the more common bird species. Tour operators also organise bird-watching tours.
20. Dive the reefs and wrecks along the Abu Dhabi coasts where there is relatively little tidal movement and currents are few in the shallow Gulf waters. If your hotel does not have a diving centre, contact the Emirates Diving Association for more information.