Abu Dhabi guide: where to sightsee, stay and eat in the UAE capital

There’s plenty to discover in the modern city of Abu Dhabi  (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
There’s plenty to discover in the modern city of Abu Dhabi (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Once synonymous with little more than luxury-to-the-max hotels and vending machines spitting out gold bars, the capital of the United Arab Emirates is increasingly cultivating reasons to visit that are the envy of the Gulf.

This shaping of recent history derives from the city having been operating in the shadow of perennial rival Dubai since tourism took off in the Emirates in the early 2000s. But now the flag’s been planted, Abu Dhabi is putting itself on the travel radar with colour that lights it up like a firework.

Unlike the mad eclecticism of Dubai, Abu Dhabi works hard to make you feel like you’re in a place that’s naturally evolved, rather than been dreamt up – so there’s a more authentic sense of place at its historic landmarks, crenellated forts and superlative mosque. Then, out in the startling blue-green mangroves there’s the air of freedom – an experience many don’t make time for.

Maybe it’s because the Gulf’s intense heat often forces everyone inside. So, it stands to reason Abu Dhabi has spent big on grandstanding museums and indoor theme parks. Cue a run of attractions that can pack out any itinerary, regardless of whether you’re travelling solo, as a couple, or a harder-to-please family.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in Abu Dhabi, is an architecural icon (Getty Images)
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in Abu Dhabi, is an architecural icon (Getty Images)

What to do

See Islamic architecture with attitude

The marble-domed Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the ultimate expression of the Muslim faith: reverent, dignified and enlightening. Free, walk-in 45-minute tours run several times daily and are a terrific way to learn about the world’s third-largest mosque and its record-breaking hand-woven carpet and crystal chandelier, sublime cupolas, minarets, pulpits and reflective pools. If a faintly temporal aspect lingers, then know its design is a mish-mash of Ottoman, Mamluk and Fatimid styles.

Step into age-old Abu Dhabi

Northeast of the city’s palm-lined Corniche is the Mina Zayed dhow harbour, where traditional sailing vessels loaded with goods still push out across the Persian Gulf. The Al Mina Fish Market is the most obvious place to go; here there are restaurants and more than 100 fresh stalls, with fishmongers who’ll weigh, fillet and, in places, cook a catch for you.

Then it’s onto the part of the city that might’ve been imagined by a fanciful child. The pre-oil boom Qasr Al-Hosn, is a chess-piece fort built in 1761 and the oldest stone building in the UAE. Poke about its watchtower and courtyard, then step back into the fabric of 21st-century Abu Dhabi beneath gleaming tower blocks.

The Qasr Al-Hosn is the oldest stone building in the UAE (Getty Images)
The Qasr Al-Hosn is the oldest stone building in the UAE (Getty Images)

Tour the ‘other’ Louvre

Opened with plenty of fanfare in 2017, Louvre Abu Dhabi is the centrepiece of Saadiyat Island’s work-in-progress Cultural District. Soon to open beside it are the Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, but for now this pantheon of Van Goghs, Da Vincis and Picassos is the greatest art trove in the Middle East. The souk-type architecture and geodesic star-spangled dome, which casts haloes of light onto the public spaces, are as much of a draw as the cherry-picked masterpieces from its parent museum in Paris.

Paddle the mangroves

With some 200-odd islands, it would take years to see all of Abu Dhabi. Focus instead on the most accessible bits, including the Eastern Mangroves, a 5,000-acre wetland where you can spot myriad bird species, including kingfishers and lip gloss-pink flamingoes.

Things happen slowly out in this mazy sea forest. Swimmer crabs tootle, herons dip for fish, dolphins appear in deeper waters. And there’s a lovely simplicity to sifting your paddle through the blue, especially when the rest of your time in the city will be spent doing something entirely different. Go at sunrise for the most wildlife activity (and pack a strong SPF).

The mangroves offer another side of Abu Dhabi (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The mangroves offer another side of Abu Dhabi (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Meet Abu Dhabi’s most famous pets

A heartening by-product of UAE tourism is perhaps the most peculiar attraction in the Gulf: the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. The birds of prey are a national obsession and status symbol, costing as much as £225,000 and commanding the sort of VIP treatment normally reserved for A-list movie stars.

On a two-hour tour, guides give a behind-the-scenes glimpse of A&E, the rehabilitation ward and departments where some 5,000 falcons are treated annually. Often broken wings are repaired using screws and bamboo sticks. It’s just as surreal as it sounds.

Where to stay

If any country is guilty of mythologising hotels, it’s the UAE. The Emirates is home to a procession of five-star hotels, each as glitzy as the last, and Abu Dhabi brims with brassy resorts and skyscraper-perched icons.

Most guidebooks will lead you to the zeitgeist-capturing Emirates Palace, now managed by Mandarin Oriental, but few can afford its six-star prices. More upbeat energy is on offer at W Abu Dhabi Yas Island, which straddles both the city’s Yas Marina Circuit and a yacht-studded marina. The annual Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix turns it into an almighty circus.

For romance, Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri, Abu Dhabi, overlooking the Khor Al Maqta canal, is known for its dazzling Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque views, villas and restaurants, while Anantara Eastern Mangroves, with its spa, infinity pool and sea kayaking, is almost Maldivian-lite.

The Emirates is less a budget destination and more a collection of hotel wonders, but there are a handful of cheapies. Millennium Downtown Abu Dhabi has jewel-bright skyline views from its rooftop pool and Centro Yas Island is for guilt-free family trips with theme parks on tap. Close by is a trio of big-hitters: Ferrari World Yas Island, Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi and Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi.

Where to eat

There’s nothing for it in Abu Dhabi but to eat sublimely well. The city was once known for its Bedouin tent camp cookouts, but now it’s the turn of Michelin chefs. You can marvel at the city’s one-star offerings – Hakkasan (Chinese), Talea by Antonio Guida (Italian), and 99 Sushi Bar (Japanese) – but more atmospheric is a meal that puts local cuisine front and centre.

Once a food truck but now a fab foodie find on Al Muneera, Meylas is an all-day hangout from two local sisters who are championing their native cuisine. Skip breakfast or lunch for a gut-punching lamb or chicken tharid, a slow-cooked stew heaped on leavened bread.

In the UAE, Lebanese is the proxy national cuisine due to the vast number of expats and go-to mezze options. Two to savour in Abu Dhabi are Beirut Sur Mer and Byblos Sur Mer. Despite the names, they’re not siblings, but both propose a litany of Eastern Mediterranean crowd-pullers topped off by two spectacular locations. Consider an al fresco table overlooking Soul Beach on Saadiyat Island or sitting perched above the InterContinental Abu Dhabi’s turquoise marina.


What currency do I need?

UAE dirham (AED).

What language do they speak?


Should I tip?

10-15 per cent.

What’s the time difference?


How should I get around?

Hop on and off the air-conditioned public buses or grab a taxi – this is a city on a New York-size scale and walking isn’t an option anywhere but downtown. If travelling on a budget, use the free Experience Abu Dhabi Shuttle Bus, which operates on several routes connecting the major tourist sites.

What’s the best view?

The Etihad Towers is a mini forest of skyscrapers, with the Observation Deck at 300 the highest vantage point in the city. You’ll find it on the 74th storey of the Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers. Maybe it’s the desert light, but from 300m up, everything feels weirdly intimate.

Insider tip?

Even if you can’t afford to stay, drink, or dine in the ritzy Emirates Palace, it’s worth a snoop around. It costs nothing to wander its marbled corridors and bright-blinding public spaces.

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