White sand beaches, futuristic building, a Louvre Museum and the splendid Sheikh Zayed Mosque are only a few of the attractions that make a visit to Abu Dhabi rewarding. But, there’s more to this city, as revealed in the following tips I accumulated during a recent trip to the Arab emirate.
Abu Dhabi is the largest Emirate and the capital of the seven United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Emirate is made up of over 200 natural islands and comes with a fantastic desert area in the back country at the Liwa oasis.
Here follow my tips on Abu Dahbi’s spectacular attractions:
- Sheikh Zayed Mosque
- Qasr Al Watan presidential palace
- Qasr Al Hosn Fortress
- Emirates Palace Hotel
- Louvre Art Museum
- Saadiyat Island
- Yas Island
- Golf courses in Abu Dhabi
- Excursion to the Liwa desert oasis
- Practical travel advice
Until the end of the 1960s, Abu Dhabi was a small sleepy fishing town. It had neither paved streets nor running water or electricity.
Starting in the 1970s, oil started to be extracted in a big way. Today, the town has grown into a modern metropolis with much ostentation and luxury.
Abu Dhabi, so to speak, is swimming in oil, or shall we say money. It is the richest of the UAE.
That said, Abu Dhabi compared with Dubai is known for its restraint. But the city is certainly spectacular nonetheless.
1. Sheikh Zayed Mosque
The splendid Sheikh Zayed Mosque is the symbol of Abu Dhabi.
It is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates, named after Emir Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a UAE co-founder and its first president.
The mosque as sacral architecture made such an impression on me that I had to devote a separate article with many photos to it.
You should visit the mosque in late afternoon, when you can see it in glowing white. But, it’s at dusk and during the blue hour when it will reward you with most beautiful views.
2. The Qasr Al Watan presidential palace
Everything in the UAE is a little more splendid. When it came to the presidential palace, the Emirate also did not skimp. The result: here shines one of the world’s most beautiful palaces.
Unfortunately, while we were there, the palace was closed to the public for an event :-(
But, based on pictures I’ve seen, I highly recommend a visit. As it happens, the palace has only recently been officially opened to sightseers.
Tickets are available here:
Here is just a little foretaste of how the presidential palace looks from the outside.
3. Qasr al Hosn Fortress
Qasr al Hosn is a decommissioned fortress. It ranks as one of the most famous historical symbols of Abu Dhabi.
Built in 1761, it was originally a watchtower that settlers uses as a place of refuge. Later, the ruling sheikh expanded it into a fort.
Over time, Qasr Al Hosn evolved into the government’s seat and presidential palace.
Nowadays, you will find a permanent exhibition in the fortress that is well worth seeing. It chronicles Abu Dhabi’s development from small fishing village to modern metropolis. Using fascinating, life-size exhibits, it brings the history to life.
You also gain insights in the exhibition into the former governmental seat and life of the presidential family in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Qasr Al Hosn is open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Even folks who don’t normally hang around museums will be well served here. The fort is a high quality restoration, and the exhibits just add to its impact on the visitor.
Check the information on other exhibitions in Qasr al Hosn along with ticket prices here on the Qasr al Hosn website.
4. Emirates Palace Hotel
The 5-star Emirates Palace Hotel ranks among the most luxurious hotels in the world. The hotel is magnificently appointed and assigns a butler to every guest.
The bill for one night in a suite can quickly add up to more than 10,000 Swiss francs. If you’ve got that kind of pocket change, stop on by ;-)
If not, then you can at least look over the lobby and “Le Café”. These are the only spaces in the Emirates Palace Hotel accessible without a room or restaurant reservation.
5. The Louvre
The Louvre Art Museum is located offshore from Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island.
Exhibited in the museum’s more than 64,000 square meters are original works by top-class artists. The museum cooperates closely with the Paris Louvre.
Designed by star architect Jean Nouvel, the building above all impressed us with its architecture: the roof formed like a woven basket covers the whole museum consisting of 55 white cubical elements.
The structure was designed to resemble a traditional Arab souk.
Opening hours: Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday: 10 a.m.– 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday 10 a.m.– 10 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Check out current exhibitions on the Louvre Abu Dhabi website.
We recommend buying tickets ahead of time online to avoid the queue.
6. Saadiyat culture and resort island
Abu Dhabi spreads over several islands connected by bridges, Saadiyat Island among them. The island is known as the art and culture center of Abu Dhabi.
Among the cultural institutions are the already-mentioned Louvre Art Museum which is joined by the National Museum of the United Arab Emirates.
This year the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry, another star architect, will open its doors.
But there’s more: Saadiyat Island is also famous for its marvelous white sand beaches. If you have in mind a beach vacation in Abu Dhabi, I warmly recommend the island.
7. Yas Island
On Yas Island, it’s all about speed: it’s where you’ll discover the “Yas Marina Circuit” Formula 1 racetrack and “Ferrari World”, an amusement park in which everything revolves around Formula 1.
The main attraction of Ferrari World is Formula Rossa – the fastest roller coaster in the world. It accelerates to its top speed of 240 kmh (160 mph) in five seconds! Phew – definitely not something for weak nerves!
Since we’re comfortable traveling at a more sedate pace, Walter and I skipped these two attractions. What we did instead: we came to the island to play golf. The Yas Links Golf Course is an absolute winner!
8. Golf courses in Abu Dhabi
On the subject of golf courses: Abu Dhabi boasts some of the best golf courses in the Middle East: the city comes up aces with several super-beautiful 18-hole golf courses.
For one, we played the Yas Links Golf Course. It was the first links course (i.e., seaside golf course) in the Middle East and the only genuine links golf course in the Arab world.
But we were especially impressed by the Saadiyat Golf Club, the circular course laid out by Gary Player on Saadiyat Island.
You get spectacular ocean views from many of the fairways. I might add that several gazelles live on the course!
That said, the many bunkers are a challenge.
Good to know: The green fees in Abu Dhabi are relatively steep. We booked our golf round at reduced prices (ca. USD 170 per person) online, specifically on Golfsavers.com.
9. Excursion to the Liwa desert oasis
Just a few kilometers south of Abu Dhabi, the first outliers of the mystical Liwa desert appear. The farther south you drive, the higher the sand dunes tower along the road.
Located in the Liwa oasis area is the luxurious Qasr al Sarab by Anantara desert resort (click the link for Walter’s report).
Anyone interested in experiencing two days in a thousand-and-one nights setting should make a side trip to this dreamlike, beautiful resort.
10. Practical trip tips for Abu Dhabi
From Zurich, you can fly on Swiss or Etihad non-stop to Abu Dhabi. Since we visited Abu Dhabi during our trip to Dubai, we flew from Zurich to Dubai.
Dubai is just a 90 minutes drive from Abu Dhabi. So, combining the two cities is a cinch.
A side trip to Dubai – the city of superlatives – in any event is worth it. What you can experience there I describe in this Dubai article.
Abu Dhabi is packed with luxury hotels, some of which sit slightly outside the city.
We stayed at the Park Hyatt that fronts the white sand beach of Saadiyat Island and are happy to recommend the hotel highly. Especially if you’re into both culture and golf.
Hop On, Hop Off
The best way to get around Abu Dhabi is by rental car or taxi. Taxis are really cheap because of the rock bottom gas prices.
Take the Hop On/Hop Off Bus to get a good comprehensive view of the city and the surrounding islands. There are two lines that will take you to the various highlights in the city and to Yas Island.
Check here for details and prices:
Check out our country page on the United Arab Emirates for other valuable trip tips.
And, in closing a little word of warning: Abu Dhabi is not a cheap destination.
Aside from the taxi fares, prices are very high for meals, hotel rooms, and admission to attractions, comparable to Swiss prices.
Alcohol is even (more) expensive. For Muslims, drinking alcohol is against their religion. Consuming alcoholic beverages in public is even prohibited.
To even buy alcohol requires getting a license. Of course, it’s offered in all the hotels. But, again, not that cheap. In addition, keep in mind the blood alcohol limit when driving zero!
The first evening, we treated ourselves to a drink. Until we saw the bill. It caused us to go strictly detox and not touch any alcohol…