8 Fail-Proof Tips for Exploring Abu Dhabi

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Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates can feel a bit like a mystical kingdom some days. When most people think of the Middle East, they certainly don’t imagine lush Arab cities overflowing with wealthy skyscrapers and sophistication. Abu Dhabi is about as cosmopolitan as it gets, and without all the traffic congestion that you might find in other affluent UAE cities such as Dubai, where even the airport expresses a certain extravagance.

Abu Dhabi has grown dramatically in just 50 years, thanks to the country’s oil industry. Some people may feel like this somehow makes the travel experience less valuable, but guides worldwide will assure you that Abu Dhabi is anything but boring! This unique area is teeming with travel opportunities, so here are some fail-proof tips for exploring Abu Dhabi.

#1. Get to Know the City’s Architecture and Heritage

Abu Dhabi has some eye-popping buildings, including its massive and impressive skyscrapers. However, the city’s heritage makes it impossible to forget this Arab country’s humble beginnings as a fishing village, and you simply can’t pass up an opportunity to admire the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque. It was a masterpiece in its time, and it’s still the most expensive mosque in the world. The design was inspired by Mughal and Moorish cultures, and paved with marble from 28 different countries. When you see the gold adornments throughout, you’ll understand its significance.

When you’re tired of that, head to the Heritage Village where you’ll find a reconstruction of a traditional oasis village. You’ll find remnants of the old way of life, including a campfire with coffee pots, a goats’ hair tent, a falaj irrigation system, and more. You can also watch some workshops on metalwork and pottery, or weaving and spinning. If you want more history, the Al Bateen Shipyard spins a pretty tale of the city’s maritime heritage. You can even hire a boat to take you out and around the city.

#2. Hire a Local Guide

Hiring an Abu Dhabi guide is easy to do, and it’s a great way of ensuring that you’ll get the most out of your time in the city…and safely! If you’ve never been to a Middle Eastern country, the culture shock might be a little hard to take at first. A guide will help ease you into it.

Plus there is all that insider knowledge you’d be lacking otherwise. Desert safari guide Ajnaz Mailanchi says he gets all sorts of bizarre requests from travellers, including those asking for a vehicle they can drive in the desert. “They don’t realize that desert driving requires a special license!” he says. Hire an Abu Dhabi guide and you’ll be sure to do all the fun activities you want without the hassle of having to organize or deal with language barriers.

#3. Enjoy the Food

What would travel be without a little indulgence every now and then? Plus food is just one of those excellent ways of getting to know a culture, so those calories totally might sense…right?

Most locals start their day with a strong Arabic coffee, known as kahwa. If you want to continue getting to know the locals, a hookah bar is the way to go (preferably in the evening). You can smoke shisha (flavoured tobacco) while reclining on a couch and being served such Middle Eastern dishes as fatoush, hummus, moutabel, and various sweets. Cinnamon, saffron, turmeric, nuts, and dried fruit all help accentuate Emirati dishes, including Al Harees – meat and wheat slow-cooked and served with ghee. Fish is also a mainstay throughout the region. You should try Madrooba, a mixture of salted fish with spices and sauce.

Other than the fun traditional foods, however, there are a ton of upscale and fancy restaurants as well serving gourmet dishes from around the world.

#4. Know When to Go

Between the months of November to May is the best time to visit, where temperatures hover consistently around a pleasant 25° C. Throughout the rest of the year, the heat can be absolutely sweltering!

One peculiar thing to note about Abu Dhabi, however, is that most hotels and restaurants (and other public venues) like to crank on the air conditioning to an extraordinary level, and so you may way to carry around a pashmina or a light cardigan to keep warm once you’re inside.

#5. Appreciate the City’s Artistic Side 

Believe it or not, Abu Dhabi isn’t all industry – there’s a lot of art happening here as well, and the city has some big plans to bring the world’s greatest art to Saadiyat Island (near the city centre). The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry will be opening soon, and The Louvre Abu Dhabi will be showcasing loans from the Paris museum beginning in 2015.

Other than that, you’ll find tons of small independent galleries and museums around town, featuring local and international artists alike. One such artist is Matt McCobb, whose studio is on the outside of town but who caters to a flourishing art scene all the same. There are also regular Art Hub exhibitions inside the Dalma Mall, where you can pair your shopping with a little artistic appreciation.

#6. Be Respectful and Mindful of the Culture

Although the UAE is a very modern and liberal country, it is still predominantly a Muslim country, and therefore certain cultural sensitivities must be observed. For example, buying alcohol requires a license, and certain normal acts we take for granted are actually illegal (like living together without being married, as well as adultery and homosexuality.) Both women and men should dress modestly, with little skin exposed (especially shoulders for women).

Don’t take it personally, but a man may not sit next to a woman in a public area, out of respect. The same works the other way: a woman may not sit next to a man, especially in a theatre or on an airplane.

During Ramadan, there are even more rules! Most businesses will not allow eating or drinking at desks, and bars and restaurants will open but without music. Smoking and eat in public should be avoided. This may sound like a lot to take it, but it’s truly not – if you’re a observing a foreign culture, relish the difference, and appreciate the experience!

#7. Explore Abu Dhabi’s Quirky Side

Did you know that the Leaning Tower of Pisa isn’t actually the world’s most lopsided structure? In fact, the Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi leans at an incredible 18 degrees. Now that’s a photo opp that not too many people get to take!

For wildlife lovers, the Sir Bani Yas Island is just a quick trip away, and serves as a sort of resort for those who want to stay overnight. Wildlife like cheetahs, giraffes, and more all freely roam the island.

You can also dispense some GOLD at the ATM inside the Emirates Palace. Seriously! There are no bank notes, just gold!

Finally, did you know that Abu Dhabi is home to Formula Rossa, the fastest roller coaster on the planet? Considering the city’s love for pro racing, this makes a lot of sense. Thrill seekers will also love the Yas Island’s Ferrari World, where you’ll find Formula Rossa and a whole slew of other ridiculous rides.

#8. Get out of the City and Into Adventure!

When it’s time to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, head out to Liwa Desert where you’ll see firsthand the beauty of sand dunes and some of the best sunsets in the world. Enjoy some Arabic coffee and dates inside a decorated tent, and get to know the people who call this place “home.” If you hire a guide for the Liwa desert, you might even get some surprises along the way, like a visit to a camel farm or a car museum.

Another option is to head to Hatta Mountain, through the desert landscape. This area is home to many, and is full of historical places, ancient mosques, traditional souks, and friendly faces. The mountain range itself is stunning!

If you’re a water junkie, the islands around Abu Dhabi are hugely popular for sailing fans and avid water-skiers. Azure waters and turquoise skies are akin to something like those of the Caribbean, and who doesn’t love a little beach time? Yes, it’s true. The United Arab Emirates really DOES have everything: beaches, mountains, and deserts. And you’ll get to do it all from Abu Dhabi! Where do we sign up?

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