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 cities.
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 3 days 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.
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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 this Lonely Planet Pocket Abu Dhabi guide, which was my constant companion during my visit.
What is it like to be a solo female traveller in Abu Dhabi?
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.
When is the best time to visit Abu Dhabi?
Abu Dhabi has a very hot and dry climate with only the remote possibility of rain.
As UV rays are very high, pack enough sun cream and a hat, and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Start your sightseeing early to take advantage of the cooler part of the day.
Unless you relish scorching heat, try to visit Abu Dhabi between late October and late April, when you will be able to enjoy comfortably warm temperatures. The downside is that this is peak season and accommodation and airfares will be more expensive.
The best things to do in 3 days in Abu Dhabi
Here’s my pick of the five best things to do during a long weekend in Abu Dhabi.
Find out 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.
Tips for visiting Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
- Entrance to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is free
- The free guided tour (in English) is highly recommended. Check the mosque’s website for times.
- Observe mosque etiquette. All visitors must wear loose-fitting clothes and long trousers. Women also need to wear a headscarf.
- Although the mosque will loan women an abeyya with a hood at the entrance, I borrowed one from my hotel.
Visit Louvre Abu Dhabi, the largest art museum on the Arabian Gulf
An essential inclusion to your itinerary for your 3 days in Abu Dhabi is 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.
Tips for visiting Louvre Abu Dhabi
- The Louvre Abu Dhabi is located in the Cultural Area of Saadiyat Island. Although a public bus (#94) stops there, going by taxi is easier. As a guide, a taxi from my hotel near Emirates Palace Hotel in 2018 cost around AED 30
- The admission fee is AED 60 (2021 price). It is closed on Mondays
- Download the LAD app to create your very own guided tour. Free wifi is available at the museum.
- Free lockers are available to store your stuff.
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.
Tips for visiting Abu Dhabi Heritage Village
- Abu Dhabi Heritage Village is located near Marina Mall, Breakwater.
- Admission is free
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?
Tips for visiting the Emirates Palace Hotel
- 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!
- Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers (formerly the Jumeirah At Etihad Towers Hotel) is located at the far western end of the cornice, opposite Emirates Palace Hotel.
- The entrance fee is AED 95. This is pricey but it includes a voucher for AED 55 which can be redeemed against food or drinks on the day of your visit. Free entrance for hotel guests.
Three days in Abu Dhabi: Practical tips
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 journey.
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.
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 a range of tickets from 66 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.
And if you have more than 3 days in Abu Dhabi?
Three days is enough time to cover Abu Dhabi’s main attractions. But if you are spending a little longer there, why not go on a desert safari?
Alternatively, just relax in the sun with a good book.