A list of tourist attractions in Abu Dhabi, even if you only plan to stay for a day.
Abu Dhabi (أبو ظبي) is truly one of the wonders of the world. What has once been a simple fishing village and a couple of pearl divers, is now a sprawling megalopolis of 1.5 million inhabitants. The biggest emirate in the United Arabian Emirates (UAE) boasts plenty of tourist attractions and point of interest, and you certainly won’t regret planning a visit.
Despite the evident dominating size, the neighboring emirate of Dubai managed to outdo Abu Dhabi for many years. But that has changed in the light of the financial crisis as the emirate stepped into the limelight under the rule of the Sheikh Khalifa. Also, previously many tourists thought the UAE were unsafe, but that, thankyfully has changed (read my Abu Dhabi safety guide here)
The capital of the UAE might be a late bloomer but is now forcing a mind-boggling approach to satisfy every possible touristic need. Where once a day trip from Dubai would have been enough, at least four days will be needed to tour the arid emirate now. Here are all the best things to do in Abu Dhabi.
1. Sheikh Zayed Mosque
There is probably no more iconic building in Abu Dhabi than the white marble domes of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. It’s the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and certainly the most striking. It’s also one of the few things to do in Abu Dhabi for free, so you really got no excuse for not visiting.
Regular tourists buses or a taxi will get you there in a couple of minutes, even though the mosque built to house up to 50.000 prayers is located on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi city.
There are, however, a couple of things you should know before your visit:
- As in most Muslim countries, mosques will be closed to tourists on Fridays
- While Abayas and Thawbs can be rented for free at the entrance, bear in mind to dress respectfully nonetheless
- You are not allowed to bring cameras with big zoom lenses
- You will have to leave your shoes at the entrance
2. Louvre Abu Dhabi
On November 11th, 2017 the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its doors to the general public. Ever since the museum covering an area of 24,000 square meters has been attracting art lovers from around the world.
A gigantic dome has been built to protect the galleries below from the intense Arabian sun. Even if you don’t care about the impressive art within (they even got a Da Vinci!) you should go. The whole building is built to create “rays of sunlight passing through date palm fronds in an oasis” and the architect Jean Nouvel certainly succeeded. It feels like walking through a dream.
The best part: The Louvre Abu Dhabi is built on Saadiyat Island, so you could spend a day on the beach and then move on to the museum around 4 pm. That way you will have the unique chance to see it in bright daylight. After you have seen the collection spanning 6 millenniums and more, you will also be able to admire the grand dome illuminated at night. Do read my full guide to the Louvre Abu Dhabi for more details.
3. Ferrari World
Looking for fun things to do in Abu Dhabi instead of visiting an art museum?? Well, then the Ferrari World Abu Dhabi might be what you are looking for. Covered under a gigantic red shield (in fact, the largest space frame structure man has ever built) you will find a spectacular theme park.
But be prepared for some wild action. The Formula Rossa is the fastest roller coaster on this planet and will speed you up to over 260 kilometers per hour in a mere two seconds!
Sounds too fast? Worry not! There are plenty of family-friendly rides and simulators to be found as well. You can even rent a Ferrari and drive around the nearby Formula 1 course (or try to change the tires of a real racing car!). Here’s the link to the official website.
Note: Do come with closed shoes, as a couple of rides will require them. As the whole world is air-conditioned you might not want to dress too light anyway ;-)
4. Emirates Palace
You might wonder, why a hotel is on a list of things to see in Abu Dhabi, but bear with me. The Emirates Palace is the third most expensive hotel ever built and features 394 rooms, 92 suites, and 22 residential suites. It has a private beach of 1.3 kilometers, 2 helicopter pads and a ballroom for up to 2,500 people.
Above all, the hotel is built using marble, gold and little in between. It’s ostentatious, megalomaniac, even ugly in its stacking of super expensive materials, but will leave you gawking either way. They also have the biggest Rolex on this planet.
If you can’t afford a room, reserve a seat for the afternoon tea or a dinner at the fabulous beach restaurant. Without such a reservation, you will probably have a hard time entering, especially as heads of state are often staying here.
Note: The Emirates Palace has a strict dress code, so you won’t be able to wear shorts, vests, flip-flops or any other inappropriate attire.
5. Yas Waterworld
Abu Dhabi can be incredibly hot, even in winter. What better place to escape the blistering heat than Yas Waterworld. The water theme park on Yas Island is one of the top things to do in Abu Dhabi with kids, but still, more than worth a visit if you are all grown up and love water.
They have plenty of slides and even a water roller coaster. Yas Waterworld is located right next to the Ferrari World and there are two-day tickets available to see them both (in case you were wondering). Here is the link to the official website
Note: The Yas Mal (biggest mal in Abu Dhabi) is right next door, so you might want to drop by after or before your visit.
6. Saadiyat Island & Beach
The best beach in Abu Dhabi can be found on Saadiyat Island. Artifical it may be, the resulting beach of more than 6 kilometers will take your breath away. I actually recommend you to book a hotel here, as there is no better place to relax, get a tan and celebrate ennui.
Be aware, though, that the summer sun in Abu Dhabi is quite intense. So, going to the beach without some shade might not be a smart idea, and best done offseason (meaning not in July & August) – unless you want to be grilled alive! ;-)
7. Visit the Gold Souq
Ever been to a western jeweler? Well, then forget everything you know and hit the gold souq in downtown Abu Dhabi. At a traditional Arabian gold market, you will find gold bracelet, necklaces, and earrings sold in amounts previously unheard of. Whole window fronts are stuffed so thickly with them, there is little else to see.
If you got the time, you might consider visiting the way bigger Gold Souq in Dubai, which is only 1 hours drive away.
Note: The Gold Souq in Abu Dhabi is located in the Madinat Zayed Shopping Center.
8. Yas Marina Circuit
Fast cars are popular in the United Arabian Emirates, despite a strict speed limit of 120 kilometers per hour on freeways. You will see quite a lot of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and other such racing cars during your stay. It might hence come as little surprise that a Formula 1 racing track has been opened in 2009: The Yas Marina Circuit, home to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
While it would be a good idea to visit during one of the rare races, you could also opt to book a drive in a professional racing car and drive the track yourself! Do expect priced around 500 to 1000 US-Dollar for the latter, though.
9. Explore Abu Dhabi City at night
The United Arabian Emirates might not be popular for its nightclubs and excessive parties, but there are still many things to do in Abu Dhabi at night. One of my favorite places to hang out is the beach bar at the Emirates Palace. If that’s a bit too posh for you, walking around the Corniche beach is also quite lovely, as is driving around the freeway.
Either way, the impressive skyline will take your breath away, as will a walk through downtown Abu Dhabi. Also note, that many museums and theme parks will be open up until 10 pm on certain days.
10. Qasr al-Hosn
Abu Dhabi’s past has been as quite simple. Before the discovery of oil not even the emir lived in a sprawling place. Qasr al-Hosn is the oldest stone building in Abu Dhabi and one of the very rare places where you can catch a tiny glimpse into the past of the emirate.
The stone fort was once built to defend the only freshwater well in Abu Dhabi and now houses the Cultural Foundation and a museum. Oh, and don’t miss the anual Qasr al-Hosn festival.
Other things to do in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi is constantly changing. To give you a good impression: They are currently building a Warner Brothers Movie World, a Guggenheim museum and a new national museum of history. Even existing attractions, like the Ferrari World, are constantly expanding. Where 5 years ago they did not have a single roller coaster, they now have 5. They are also currently building a new airport which looks nothing short of utterly spectacular.
That being said, when it comes to Abu Dhabi sightseeing, there is not too much to add to the above list. In winter, the emirate is a great spot for kite surfing. You might also want to tour the extensive Mangroves or go on a safari, and shouldn’t forget to smoke at least one hookah in the evening.
Abu Dhabi tour from Dubai
Also, remember that Dubai is not very far away – only about an hour’s drive. As there are many other things to do in the UAE as a whole, you could perfectly work on a little day trip to Dubai or some other Emirate into your itinerary. If you are still looking for things to do in the neighboring Emirates, do check out this fantastic Dubai guide.
I found the Yas Mal in Abu Dhabi to be only mildly interesting, so if you want to do some shopping, I actually recommend you take a short trip to Dubai (by taxi) and see the Burj Khalifa, the highest building in the world as well.
What to do in Abu Dhabi for a day
If you only got one day in Abu Dhabi then its certainly not possible to see it all. Top tourist attractions like the Ferrari world take a whole day itself. That being said, I’d start with the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, as it’s closest to the airport and then move onwards. Here would be my list of what to do in Abu Dhabi for a day:
- Start with Sheik Zayed Mosque
- Move onwards to Abu Dhabi City, walk along the Corniche
- Have lunch at the Emirates Palace
- End your day at the Louvre Abu Dhabi
What to wear in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi is a Muslim country and many travelers are unsure what to wear. The short answer is: Around the hotel, most tourist attractions and on the beach, you can wear whatever you want to (within the normal western limits). In mosques or other overly public places, women are required to be modestly covered, while shorts and sleeveless t-shirts are frowned upon.
That being said, you should be aware of two important facts: Abu Dhabi is an incredibly hot country AND every building is heavily air-conditioned. As a result, you should always bring very light clothes for when you are outside, but you will also need long trousers, a shirt or two and some closed shoes.
Many restaurants and some hotels do have a dress code, and even some rides in the Ferrari world require you to have closed shoes. Also, remember, that it is not a smart idea to expose to much skin to the intensive sun (especially in the water).
Where to stay in Abu Dhabi
Note: I earn a small commission if you book through links in this article. All recommendations are based on my personal, unsponsored opinion.
Abu Dhabi is not exactly a large country and most hotels stick to either Abu Dhabi city or Saadiyat Island and this is where you want to stay. You will have to take the taxi (or tourist bus) to reach most tourist attractions no matter where you stay, as they are not concentrated in one area.
To me, every country has its own essence. For Abu Dhabi, this really means opulence and so you should ideally stay at a luxury hotel if you really want to get intimate with the country (if you stay at a hostel, chances are high you will never ever see a local).
To me, the best hotel in Abu Dhabi is the St. Regis Saadiyat Island. The private beach is beyond spectacular and so is the extensive pool area (they have their own pool area for kids). I loved the breakfast and if you are into golf, you will love the adjacent course.
The St. Regis Saadiyat (there is another one in downtown) also has a very good location. It’s right in the middle of Yas Island (Ferrari World, Waterworld, etc), the Louvre is next door and Abu Dhabi city is also just a short drive away. Naturally, you could also choose one of the many other beach resorts in Abu Dhabi, but none of them will have access to such an impressive stretch of blonde beach.
The St. Regis is ill-suited, if you want to hit Abu Dhabi city each night, though. Then, I really do recommend to stay at the Emirates Palace. Despite what you might think, prices for the standard rooms aren’t that expensive. Including breakfast, you can expect daily room rates around 500 US-Dollar, if you are smart about your booking.
If that is above your budget, the Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi Grand Canal will be a good choice for you, combining a great location with a very fair price. I personally found it’s best to be looking out for budgets deals – especially offseason. It’s not rare to see standard rooms marked down by 50 percent and more.
Best time to visit Abu Dhabi
The temperature in Abu Dhabi can rise up way above 40 degrees Celsius in summer. In fact, most locals leave the country during that time (I live in Munich and it feels like the whole Arabian peninsula is moving to my hometown during July and August).
Personally speaking, I think winter is the best time to visit Abu Dhabi, especially November. The temperatures in Europe and the United States is usually dropping close to the freezing point, while in Abu Dhabi it’s not rare to have 30 Degrees Celsius and a water temperature of around 25 to 29 degrees Celsius – so just perfect.
The best part, it’s also the least popular season in Abu Dhabi (November just isn’t a favorite travel month for western tourists, probably has to do with school holidays and such). This means in November most hotels will be dead cheap.
March is also a very good traveling month for Abu Dhabi with similar temperatures. If you just want to go sight-seeing then December and February are also worth looking at. January is usually quite “cold” and also has a chance to see some rain and usually clouded skies.
From June to September are the worst months to visit Abu Dhabi. The whole emirate will feel like a furnace. As the humidity is quite low (around 45 percent) it’s bearable, but I’m not entirely sure you would want to spend the whole day at the beach.
So, that was it. This was my list of the top things to do in Abu Dhabi. Got any questions? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment. And don’t forget to pins this to your Pinterest board!