Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is fast emerging as an alternative to its glitzier neighbour, Dubai.
With a firm focus on cultural activities and a more measured approach to tourism development, for my money, it is the more attractive of the two states.
From the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the superlative-busting Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque to coffee & cake sprinkled with gold, here’s my guide to the best things to do during a weekend in Abu Dhabi.
At the end of the article, you’ll find some practical tips, including where to stay in Abu Dhabi, how to get there and how to get around.
Planning your Weekend in Abu Dhabi
Getting your hands on a good guidebook to help you to plan your long weekend in Abu Dhabi and to explore this Emirate whilst you are there, is a smart move. I recommend the Lonely Planet Pocket Abu Dhabi guide, which was my constant companion during my visit.
The Best Things to do in Abu Dhabi in 3 Days
Here’s my pick of the five best things to do during a long weekend in Abu Dhabi.
Discover the story behind the world’s largest rug at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Commissioned by, and named after, the first president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque can hold up to 40,000 worshippers and cost in excess of $500 million to complete.
Whilst referencing traditional Islamic architectural styles, the interior has a contemporary feel. Think of traditional geometric ceramic details contrasted with delicate floral designs inlaid with semi-precious stones.
With its domes and minarets rising from manicured gardens, and a 12-ton chandelier sparkling with Swarovski crystals, your eye is inevitably drawn upwards.
But look beneath your feet also.
A triumph of design and craftsmanship, the Iranian handwoven carpet covers 60,546 square feet in the mosque’s main prayer room, incorporates 2.2 billion individual, hand-tied knots and weighs 12 tons. 1,200 craftsmen from Iran’s Khorasan Province took two years to weave it.
Stroll along the Corniche
Stretching five 5 miles along Abu Dhabi’s beach front from the Heritage Park in the northeast to Emirates Palace in the southwest, and lined with restaurants and hotels, the Corniche is a popular place for an evening stroll. Take in views of the shimmering Persian Gulf and the city’s skyscrapers skyline, go for a swim or rent a bike.
Visit Louvre Abu Dhabi, the largest art museum on the Arabian Gulf
One of the best cultural things to do in Abu Dhabi is to visit the Louvre Museum (LAD), which opened in 2017.
The largest art museum on the Arabian peninsula, Louvre Abu Dhabi has a small but exquisite art collection from around the world, with particular focus placed upon bridging the gap between Eastern and Western art.
The buidling is architecturally stunning.
Its dome, an intricate tapestry of 7,850 stars, allows rays of sunlight to rain down in a play of light and shadow. Its reflective pools seemingly merge into the sea, and then across to the Abu Dhabi skyline.
Receive a warm welcome at Abu Dhabi’s Heritage Village
Or not, as the case may be.
This reconstructed village showcases Bedouin lifestyle and gives some insight into the pre-oil era in the United Arab Emirates.
So what’s here to see?
There are artisan workshops – although there were few artisans in evidence on the day I visited – next to an enclosure with random animals. A faux desert camp comprising a patch of sand and a neglected tent.
Add to these, a peculiar museum exhibiting a splendid collection of guns, daggers and coins. And let’s not forget the inevitable shops selling tourist tat.
I’m probably not selling the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village well, but I have a strange weakness for slightly naff attractions like this, particularly when they are done with the best of intentions.
Have your gold-topped cake and eat it at The Emirates Palace Hotel
The Emirates Palace Hotel is the last word in opulence.
Situated at the far western end of the corniche, it features ornate domes – 114 of them but who’s counting? – gold leaf and a lot of marble.
Sadly, the ATM dispensing gold bars has gone but you can indulge in chocolate cake, sprinkled with gold. Highly recommended by yours truly!
Or swap a dusting of cinnamon on your cappuccino for 24 karat gold sprinkles?
Doesn’t your weekend in Abu Dhabi deserve some sparkle?
To be sure of admission, book a table in the lobby cafe or restaurant. Your hotel should be able to do this for you.
Get a bird’s eye view of Abu Dhabi
Finally, your 3 days in Abu Dhabi will not be complete until you ascend to the Observation Deck on the 74th floor of the Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers Hotel for 360-degree view of its skyline.
Have that cocktail; you deserve it!
Other Things to do in Abu Dhabi
Three days is enough time to cover Abu Dhabi’s main attractions. But if you are spending a little longer there, here are my suggestions for other things to do in Abu Dhabi. Alternatively, you could just relax in the sun with a good book.
Channel your inner Lawrence of Arabia on a desert safari
My one regret is that I didn’t manage to squeeze in a desert safari when I spent the weekend in Abu Dhabi.
As the largest uninterrupted sand mass in the world, the Empty Quarter (Rub Al Khali) is the perfect setting for desert excursions. Multiple companies offer organised tours, picking you up from your hotel. These can include a ride in a 4×4 vehicle, camel rides, belly dancing shows, traditional nomadic cuisine and a pit-stop at the Liwa Oasis.
To set your heart racing, take wild dune buggy ride, also known as dune-bashing.
These are popular excursions; book in advance.
Increase your heart rate at Ferrari World
Ferrari World Abu Dhabi is not only the biggest indoor theme park in the world but is also home to Formula Rossa, is the world’s fastest rollercoaster. If this isn’t your cup to tea, more sedate rides will take you on imaginary tours of the Ferrari factory and through the narrow streets of Italy.
To quicken the pulse further, take the Scuderia Challenge, become a racing driver for the day in a state-of-the-art simulator. One of the best things to do in Abu Dhabi for adrenaline junkies! (Alternatively, take a tour of Yas Marina Circuit).
Cool off at Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi
Escape the blistering summer heat in Abu Dhabi by spending the day at Yas Waterworld. Located on Yas Island, Yas Waterworld offers more than 40 rip-roaring rides over four thrill levels.
Plan Your Weekend in Abu Dhabi
How to get to Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi Airport is 38km south-east of the city centre. Although there is a bus service running between the airport and the city centre, your best bet is to take a metered taxi van to your hotel.
For more choice, fly into Dubai Airport. Reckon on paying around 80 USD for the 90-minute taxi journey to Abu Dhabi.
Where to stay in Abu Dhabi
Much like its glitzier neighbour, luxury hotels dominate Abu Dhabi’s accommodation scene.
There is a wide variety of 5-star hotels near the eight-kilometre-long waterfront Corniche, including the Emirates Palace.
If you want to be close to Abu Dhabi’s more cultural attractions, stay in the arts district of Saadiyat Island.
Cheaper options are clustered in the downtown area.
Is shopping more of your thing? If so, pick a hotel on Al Maryah Island, home of the luxury mall, The Galleria.
Luxury hotels in Abu Dhabi
I stayed at this luxurious 5-star hotel, home to the Observation Deck, which is in the Corniche area. Booked as part of a package with Emirates Holidays, it was good value. Look out for similar deals.
The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi – If you really want to splurge, take a look at this beachfront property close to LAD.
Budget hotels in Abu Dhabi
Budget is a relative term when it comes to Abu Dhabi accommodation, but there are cheaper options in the downtown area. here are few that I have found that may suit those travelling on a tighter budget:
Premier Inn Abu Dhabi Capital Centre – I love a good Premier Inn and was delighted to discover that Abu Dhabi is home to a few of their hotels. This Premier Inn which is opposite the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre is an absolute steal and has good reviews.
Southern Sun Abu Dhabi – This 4-star property in the business district, close to the Corniche is another excellent option for a relatively low price.
How to get around Abu Dhabi
The main sights are a considerable distance apart. Although Abu Dhabi has a bus network, I used taxis which were affordable and more convenient.
There is also a hop-on-hop-off bus service. Big Bus Tours offer three tickets from 76 USD over two different routes. However, when I did the maths, taking a taxi to and from the places on my itinerary worked out cheaper.
If you prefer to take a guided tour, take a look at those on offer from GetYourGuide. I have used this online platform to book day tours on other trips and have found that it offers a good selection of tours that you can cancel up to 24 hours before your excursion for a full refund.
Many of their tours depart from Dubai giving you the opportunity to have a taster of Abu Dhabi in one day.
Is Abu Dhabi Safe for a Woman Travelling Alone?
Abu Dhabi ticks many of the boxes for a good destination for a female solo traveller, even if you are travelling alone for the first time.
Safety is an important consideration for solo travellers, especially for women on their own. Strict laws have led to a largely crime-free environment, making Abu Dhabi a safe Arabian metropolis.
That said, use your common sense. As with your home city, be wary of strangers who try to befriend you Politely decline drinks or food from strangers if offered.
Dress modestly. Comfortable loose clothing, which covers your shoulders, arms and knees, is the order of the day for your weekend in Abu Dhabi. Restrict beachwear to lounging around your hotel pool or lying on its private beaches.
People are generally welcoming and there’s a spectrum of activities to occupy even the most restless solo traveller.
However, Abu Dhabi falls down a notch as a solo travel destination when it comes to transport infrastructure and cost. As city transport is limited, you are reliant on taxis to get around.
Abu Dhabi is not a cheap destination for eating and drinking. It is one place that I would consider half-board options.
Is Abu Dhabi Worth Visiting?
Abu Dhabi has something for everyone.
With its balmy climate and beautiful beaches, it’s a sun-seeker’s paradise. It has a rich cultural heritage, and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and LAD are reasons enough to visit Abu Dhabi (its cultural crown will be further embellished by the opening of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum). For the thrill-seeker, there’s dune bashing in the desert or the Ferrari driving experiences.
Throw into the mix some of the world’s finest hotels and you have the recipe for the perfect weekend city break.