When you think about travelling in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai springs to mind. Big brother and neighbouring emirate Abu Dhabi has realised the benefits of tourism, and has stepped things up a gear.
Abu Dhabi overview
Abu Dhabi is the capital city of the emirate with the same name, as well as the whole of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But it is not the largest in the UAE, that honour goes to Dubai.
Besides Abu Dhabi, the other emirates are Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain.
In 1900, only about 10,000 people lived in Abu Dhabi, and their main source of income was pearl fishing. When that market collapsed, people left the emirate. In 1958 oil was discovered, making the emirate one of the richest countries in the world overnight.
The Abu Dhabi emirate is the largest in size (67,000 km2) and they are proud of the fact that over 90% of the oil reserves are on their land. Dubai only has about 2%. This is why Dubai started investing in a second source of income, namely tourism, years ago. And although there is no end in sight for the oil supply, Abu Dhabi realised that oil will not be as important in the future. And thus they have stepped up a gear in the efforts of putting their emirate on the map for tourists. They aim to overtake Dubai within 10 years.
Abu Dhabi has about 2 million inhabitants, 80% of which are foreigners. The real Emirati lead a comfortable life. They receive free accommodation, free education and free medical care. The foreigners hail mainly from the USA, England, Australia, Pakistan and India.
Abu Dhabi is the richest emirate by far. During the crisis they significantly sponsored Dubai to avoid bankruptcy. As part of that, the name of the Burj Dubai was changed to the Burj Khalifa (the name of the president).
Good food and a nice drink are for many people an important part of a good holiday (at least for us). Good food is not a problem, but that nice glass of wine or cold beer is another story. Because of the strict Islamic laws, alcohol cannot be served on principle. However, most hotels and some restaurants do sell alcoholic drinks (drinking in public is forbidden). The prices are prohibitive. You can count on 10 euros for a pint, and 15 to 25 euros for a cocktail. The cheapest bottle of wine we found on the menu was 100 euros. And so, if you no longer want to be an alcoholic, Dubai is the place to go.
Tip: you can buy something tasty at the airport in Abu Dhabi, which you can consume in your hotel room. You can import a maximum of 4 litres of alcoholic beverages. Be sure to check the allowances before you leave.
Please note: During Ramadan, it will be very difficult to find anywhere that serves alcohol.
he UAE currency is the dirham. At the moment (November 2018), one euro is about 4 dirhams.
You can use a Visa or Mastercard in most places, and there are cash machines everywhere.
The temperatures are bearable from October to April. The temperatures will quickly rise to above 40 degrees in the other months, and it is nearly impossible to undertake anything outside during the day. It hardly ever rains. There is a little wind, and sand storms are a regular occurrence. We experienced a small sand storm during our stay in the desert.
Abu Dhabi consists of a great number of islands. A number of them are natural islands, but there are also man-made ones. Many islands are (currently) uninhabited and undeveloped, but that will change in the future.
The most famous islands are:
- Yas Island: Also called entertainment island. Here you will find Ferrari Worldamusement park, Yas Marina circuit where the Formula 1 is organised every year since 2009, and Yas Waterworld. Abu Dhabi’s largest shopping mall, Yas mall, is also on this island.
- Saadiyat Island: This is designated to become the cultural heart of Abu Dhabi. Here you will find the newly opened Louvre, and the Guggenheim will follow at a later stage. St. Regis and Park Hyatt already have built luxury resorts here, but the offering will expand massively over time. The island is surrounded by beautiful mangrove forests.
- Sir Bani Yas Island: The Arabian Wildlife Park makes this the ideal destination for nature lovers.
Abu Dhabi 1 week itinerary
How to spend a week in Abu Dhabi? Here is our 1 week itinerary.
Day 1 and 2: Desert
You will absolutely need to visit the desert. Desolate and beautiful landscapes are the keywords here. Book at least two nights in, for example, the Qasr al Sarab. World class luxury in a fairy-tale setting. The beautiful sand-coloured hotel, only two stories high, lies in a small valley surrounded by the orange-red, flowing dunes. We visited Dubai 20 years ago and I immediately remembered why I fell in love with the landscape. The vastness of the scenery is breath-taking.
There are many different activities that you can book from the hotel, like dune drives, camel rides, horse riding, hunting with falcons, sandboarding etc. And it is the perfect spot to relax by the pool.
Day 3: Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Date Market, Emirates Palace and cycling on the Corniche
Sheikh Zayed Moskee
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque is, after those of Medina and Mecca, the largest in the world. Like many other streets, squares and other buildings, it was named after the first president of the UAE. He died in 2007 and is buried in a mausoleum inside the mosque.
This enormous, enchanting mosque features 82 domes, over 1000 pillars and 4 minarets. Over 42,000 believers can pray together. There are a number of smaller prayer halls, but the main prayer hall is just spectacular. Here also lies the largest hand-knotted carpet in the world (5600 m2). And it features the largest chandelier in the world too – with a diameter of 10 meters.
The courtyard of the mosque is made with a special type of white marble. Everything is decorated with gold-leaf, precious stones and mother-of-pearl. Literally every square centimetre of thisamazing building is finished stunningly. It comes as no surprise that this is the most expensive mosque in the world.
Non-Muslims can visit the mosque daily between 9am and 10pm. The mosque is only closed on Friday morning. The entrance is free, but you have to abide by a number of rules. Women have to wear long trousers or a long skirt down to the ankles, and a head scarf. Men have to wear long trousers or a long white garment. You can borrow an abaya (long black dress with head scarf at the entrance to the mosque. But there are 50,000 daily visitors, and so if there are none left, and you are dressed inappropriately, you’re not allowed in. So take precautions. If you book a city tour with EmiratesTours for instance, they will provide clothing. You will also need to leave your shoes at the entrance to the mosque.
After that, you can enjoy all the splendour. The white mosque is on of the things that must be included in every Abu Dhabi itinerary.
The city of Abu Dhabi does not have any old, traditional souks anymore, as everything is new. A little outside of the city you can find a few places where a number of small, authentic shops can be found. Ask your guide to stop here, as the tastiest dates are sold here. Taste a few before making your final choice.
Emirates Palace is by far the classiest (and most expensive) hotel in Abu Dhabi. It lies in an enormous garden at the end of the Corniche. Royals and other esteemed figures stay in the main building, and mere mortals with lots of money can stay in the wings. The main entrance is only for use by people staying in the main building.
If you’re not staying here, be sure to visit it anyway. You can have a High Tea here, or a drink at the bar. Here, the Cappuccino and Cosmopolitan are finished with flakes of 24-carat gold. And a Camelccino is a cappuccino with camel’s milk. It doesn’t get more Arabian.
Inside it is all gold that glitters. Marble floors, enormous chandeliers, beautiful bars, it all looks fantastic.
The outside of the hotel is also worth it. In contrast with other hotels, Emirates Palace is only a few stories high. It was built in a traditional style and the dome on the main building is beautiful. Especially at night it is a real treat as the colour of the dome is changed every few minutes.
If you have a spare hour or so (or in the evening), you can rent a bike and cycle along the Corniche (about 20 AED a day). You will cycle past skyscrapers and public beaches.
Day 4 Louvre and a tour on a RIB
In the morning you visit Abu Dhabi’s brand-new showpiece, the Louvre.
The museum was built in a collaboration between Abu Dhabi and France. The Louvre Abu Dhabi exhibits art from the prehistory up until today. The works are by western and Arabic artists. Many pieces are on loan from world-famous French museums like the Louvre, Centre Pompidou, Château de Versailles and many others.
Our son was completely captivated by this painting of Napoleon on his favourite horse Marengo.
The painting was made in 1800 by the French painter David and refers to the crossing of the Great St. Bernard Pass. Small detail, however, was that Napoleon crossed this pass on the back of a donkey, and not on a horse. But that would have not been quite as impressive a painting, wouldn’t you agree?
Louvre Abu Dhabi is a perfect place to bring the kids. Even the smallest ones will be entertained here. There is a special children’s museum with activities to suit. In the Animal Kingdom (until July 2019), they will learn everything about the meaning of animals in eastern and western culture. There are a number of interactive exhibits, making them completely forget that they’re in a museum.
In relation to an exhibition about Japan, there is also a Manga Lab until 5 January 2019. This part of the museum is completely dedicated to Manga, the Japanese artform. Children (and parents) can colour in their own Manga drawings on the Expression Wall. Or try the virtual reality goggles and you are immersed in some cartoon.
If you’re not a big fan of museums, at least have a look at the outside. The building is a design by Jean Nouvel, one of today’s leading architects. The building is white, surrounded by water and topped by a silvery dome. It reminded me mostly of the shield of a turtle. The dome consists of eight layers with geometric openings in different shapes. The sun pierces through these openings and it is as though you are under a starry sky.
- The dome of the Louvre Abu Dhabi weighs 7.5 tonnes, the same weight as the Eiffel Tower.
- The openings are formed by 7850 stars
- The largest star has a diameter of 13 meters and weighs 1,3 tonnes
- Four pillars bear the whole of the dome. The pillars are hidden in the building, and it looks as though the dome is floating.
You can buy your tickets online at https://www.louvreabudhabi.ae We bought them for the same price at the museum, and there was no queue. Children up to 12 years have free entry. From 13 to 22 it is 30 AED, and adults pay 60 AED.
The museum is closed on Mondays. The other days it is opened between 10am and 8pm. Thursday and Friday they are open until 10pm.
And after an early afternoon full of culture, it was time to get some air. A tour with The Yellow Boats was just the thing.
The Yellow Boat is a RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat), a very sturdy rubber boat, used for sightseeing tours. The boat leaves from a pier at the Emirates Palace hotel, and does two different tours. The 60-minute tour brings you along the Corniche. We chose the 90-minute tour that brings you to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. This way you get to see Abu Dhabi from a different perspective. There are regular stops to enjoy the view and take the necessary photographs.
And the captain is sure to put the pedal to the metal in-between stops, making the boat tear over the water at high speed. The kids (and parents) will love it. Our tour with skipper Daniel was one of the highlights of our trip. TIP: Book at the end of the day so you can enjoy the sunset from the water.
Day 5 Yas Island
An outing to Yas Island is certainly worth it. Especially if you have kids it's a must during your Abu Dhabi 1 week itinerary. Visit the Formula 1 circuit, go crazy in the Ferrari World amusement park or find some refreshment in Yas Waterworld.
Enjoy your evening meal during a cruise on an authentic dhow. You board an old, wooden dhow, and while you’re enjoying dinner, your ship will sail past the Corniche and you can enjoy the atmospheric views.
Day 6 daytrip to Al Ain
Al Ain lies close to the border with Oman, and is an authentic desert town. Here you can see how people lived in Abu Dhabi before oil was found.
You will find a few century-old forts here (like Al Jahili), some archaeological sites and an oasis. A number of parts of the town are registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Just outside the town you will find the Camel Souk. This is one of the few remaining authentic camel markets of the UAE. The market is open every day from 6am to 7pm.
We missed that particular sight, so we will certainly have to return to Abu Dhabi.
If you’re looking for a luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi, be sure to read this blog post about the luxury hotels in Abu Dhabi.
Alternative: daytrip to Dubai
If you have an extra day or perhaps you’re not interested in some of the above activities, you can consider a day trip to Dubai. Part of our company had never been to Dubai, so we organised a small bus with driver, and visited Dubai’s highlights in one day.
After a 1.5-hour drive you’re in Dubai. The tour brings you across the palm-islands and stops at the marina near the Atlantis Hotel.
Here's all you need to know about traveling from Dubai to Abu Dhabi.
It then passes by the Jumeirah beach where, among others, the Burj al Arab is located.
Find the differences (left 2018 - rights 2009)!
And, of course, you visit the Burj Khalifa and its Mall. Try to be there for 1pm or 1.30pm to witness the dancing fountains. Between 6pm and 11pm, there is a show every half hour. There is an extra show on at 2pm on Fridays. The fountain show in combination with the wonderful music is truly breath-taking. Have some food at one of the terraces surrounding the fountain so you can enjoy it all in peace. We enjoyed a wonderful burger at Günaydin.
The Dubai Mall features an enormous aquarium (that you can swim in), a large dinosaur skeleton, an indoor skating arena and an A380 flight simulator. You’d nearly forget to go shopping there.
As well as that, you can also take the lift from the Mall to the top of the Burj Khalifa. You can get off at the 124th, 125th or 148th floor. Prices increase likewise. And if you want to go to the top, book your tickets in advance https://tickets.atthetop.ae/atthetop/en-us A ticket will set you back about 370 AED (for a stop on 3 floors). We did not book in advance, so had to pay about 600 AED per person. There were 9 of us, so that would have been about 1350 euro. You can imagine we declined that particular privilege.
After all the bustle, we took a boat to cross the Creek. You get a completely different view of Dubai. A visit to the Gold Souk and the Spice Souk are definitely worth it. One of the windows in the Gold Souk has the heaviest golden ring in the world on display. 58 kilograms of gold, set with over 6 kilograms of precious stones. Good for a total of 63.856 kg. The Guinness World Records certificate hangs in the window too, so you can’t miss it.
After a wander through the souks and the old part of the town, the bus will bring you back to Abu Dhabi.
And if you want to stay one or more nights in Dubai, have a look at my blog about 1 week in Dubai.
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