The UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, strung along the edge of the Persian Gulf, is made up of a series of islands and surrounded by marshy mangroves. Massive amounts of development and investment in the last decade has seen it flourish, with impressive museums including the Louvre and the Guggenheim arriving and a diverse and exciting dining scene opening up across the city.
Though a playground for the rich and famous and with its fair share of striking gleaming multi-storey malls, Abu Dhabi retains a more traditional connection to its desert heritage than the global metropolis of Dubai and boasts falcon hospitals, camel race tracks, desert safaris and kayaking all within easy reach of city-centre hotels.
What to do
Explore the islands of the capital. Head to Saadiyat Island for the best beach in the city, complete with a Monte Carlo-inspired beach club and for a fantastic golf course that hugs the shoreline.
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Yas Island is all about fun, with the Ferrari World theme park for adrenaline junkies, the Yas Arena for huge concerts and of course it’s home to the world-famous Formula 1 racing track.
Where to stay
The world’s only hotel to be stretched over a Formula 1 race track is the futuristic looking Viceroy Yas Island hotel. For Arabic grandeur book into Emirates Palace, a fantastically over-the-top palace at the end of the Corniche. Jumeirah’s Etihad Towers is a traditional city centre skyscraper hotel and the Rosewood Abu Dhabi offers boutique luxury.
Where to eat
Abu Dhabi has no shortage of amazing restaurants. For buttery soft sushi try Tori No Su at Jumeirah Etihad Towers, which also offers a sky-high view of the city. Uber-modern Fairmont Bab Al Bahr is home to a superb but unfussy steakhouse by Marco Pierre White. St Regis Abu Dhabi has a Gary Rhodes Mediterranean outpost, or book into long-standing favourite Flooka for seafood with a local twist.
There are endless, low-priced Lebanese restaurants in the city or The Captain’s Arms at Le Meridien is a much-loved expat hangout for British pub grub. More and more healthy cafés are opening up such as the Art House Café in Al Bateen.
Unfortunately public transport is limited to a bus network that isn’t easily used by tourists. Stick to local, white-coloured metered taxis, which generally aren’t very expensive.
When to go
Avoid the UAE’s summers. From June to September the heat and rampant humidity makes anything other than staying indoors impossible. The best months to visit are October, November, February, March and April.
Three things we like
- The central part of the city has a clear grid structure, meaning it’s easy to navigate and there’s no huge highway through the middle of it like there is in Dubai. Its seaside area of Corniche is perfect for a gentle evening stroll.
- The Sheikh Zayed mosque, one of the largest in the world, is a perfect vision of cool white marble and offers a great insight into the local culture. Visitor tours run most days.
- Book a stay at St Regis Saadiyat Island and enjoy their adults-only pool bar and area. Cosy up in a beachside cabana and enjoy the sunshine.
Something we don’t like
Abu Dhabi is a more conservative city than its glittering neighbour Dubai. Women will find it more comfortable to be covered from the shoulders, except for on the beach or around the pool. Even when covered up, women often get stared at on the street.
Book a stay on Bani Yas island, a conservation island set up to reintroduce local species like the oryx to the Arabian peninsula. It’s a fascinating experience.
Pop into Ghaf Gallery and Salwa Zeldan Gallery for an insight into the UAE’s emerging art scene.
Take in the stunning boats on show at Dubai Marina. The newly developed area has blossomed with plenty of bars and restaurants.
High50 insider tips
- If you want to enjoy November’s Formula 1 extravaganza, then you’ll need to book your hotel early. Yas Island has some mid-range options as well as the super-lux offerings.
- Charter a yacht and set sail on the glittering Persian Gulf around Lulu Island and spot the royal palaces on the banks of Abu Dhabi’s island network.
- Head into the desert on a 4×4 tour or go sand boarding. Don’t miss the Al Ain or Garden City.
Travelling with family
Abu Dhabi prides itself on being very open to families, with plenty of activities for children.Yas Island’s Yas Waterworld, a big complex of water slides and rides suitable for all ages, is hugely popular.
Need to know
- Flight time from London to Abu Dhabi is around seven hours.
- Timezone UTC/GMT +3 (or +4 in winter – the UAE doesn’t change its clocks).
- The UAE is home to the Dirham – sometimes written as Dhs or AED.
- British visitors can get a 30-day visitors’ visa on arrival.
- Tipping is expected as standard, of between ten and 15 per cent in cafés and restaurants and generally around Dhs5 for a good taxi ride.
- The weekend in Abu Dhabi is Friday and Saturday.
- Plugs could be either European or British. It’s best to pack an adapter, though most five-star hotels have adapters you can borrow if you forget.