For years now, Dubai has been a holiday destination for anyone looking for sun, beach, shopping, and anything glamourous and over the top. Dubai was always the key driver to the UAE tourism. Abu Dhabi was just considered a day trip destination, not a holiday in itself. Most people, myself included would only go for half a day, visit Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and come back to Dubai.
But things are changing and Abu Dhabi is becoming a holiday destination in itself, with the government vision to turn Abu Dhabi into a cultural tourism center. The opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2018 played a big part in putting the city onto the map in terms of world-class cultural destination, but there is a lot more to discover in Abu Dhabi.
From pristine beaches to world-class museums, and exceptional pieces of architecture, here are 10 things not to miss during your holidays in Abu Dhabi.
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SHEIKH ZAYED GRAND MOSQUE
Why not start your holidays in Abu Dhabi with the obvious! Opened in 2007, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the largest mosque in the UAE and can welcome up to 41,000 visitors. With its 44 domes, 100 m high minarets and impeccable white marble Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is really extraordinary. On the outside, admire the gorgeous inlay work on the columns, and inside take note of the Iranian carpet, the largest in the world.
Entrance to the mosque is free, and you should make sure to come wearing modest clothing: All body parts covered, preferably with loose-fitting clothes and a head covered for ladies. Alternatively, you can also borrow a full dress from the mosque itself.
The best time to visit Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is mid to late afternoon. The mosque is beautiful under full sunlight then becoming truly magical as the sun sets and the blue lighting turns on.
Insider Tip: A Great place to take a picture of the mosque is from across the road, at Wahat Al Karama, Abu Dhabi martyr monument.
QASR AL HOSN
My favorite place in Abu Dhabi is Qasr Al Hosn, the oldest stone building Abu Dhabi. This beautifully restored fort was built in the 18th century and for hundreds of years has been the residence of the ruling family and the seat of the government. It is now a very well designed museum, giving you a glimpse into the UAE history and the local cultures. I have been leaving in Dubai for 4 years, yet I learned so much during my visit to Qasr Al Hosn. I loved seeing old pictures of the fort close to the sea and surrounded by sand dunes. Today it sits in the heart of a modern metropole!
You can also pay a quick visit to the House of Artisan a small museum about the local crafts, such as palm leaves weaving. There are also lots of events, demonstrations, talks happening every day, so check out Qasr Al Hosn website before going.
Entrance Fees: 30 AED (8 USD)
Opening hours: Saturday to Thursday 9 am to 7 pm – Friday 12 pm to 10 pm
LOUVRE ABU DHABI
Inaugurated in November 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi immediately became a key attraction for locals and tourists (and the Instagrammer planet!). And it is all well deserved, as the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a masterpiece of architecture, and an amazing art and civilizations museum.
Contrarily to the Louvre in Paris, where art pieces and relics are organized by civilization, geography, etc, the Louvre Abu Dhabi focused on cultural connections: what unites us all. The display of pieces is done in chronological order and shows how across the globe, civilizations have always exchanged and influenced each other, from fashion to religion, art, and craft. Very impressive pieces are on loan from France, including a famous portrait of French emperor Napoleon.
Sadly, Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi painting, the most expensive painting in the world (acquired for 450 M USD back in 2017), that supposed to become the masterpiece of the museum is still not on display.
Once you reach the end of your visit, take some time to wander under the vast dome designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and admire the ‘rain of light’ coming through.
Entrance Fees: 63 AED (17 USD) for adults. Discounted tickets available.
Opening hours: Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday | 10 am – 8 pm
Thursday, Friday | 10 am – 10 pm. Closed on Monday. Last entrance 30 min before closing.
QASR AL WATAN
Be ready for your jaw to drop to the floor at the newly opened to the public Qasr Al Watan, Abu Dhabi presidential palace. Qasr al Watan (literally the Palace of the Nation) is a spectacular piece of architecture, inside and out. Its main hall measures 10,000 sqm and is overlooked by a 60 m high dome. Everywhere you look is meticulously crafted in a strong testament of traditional Arabian craftsmanship and artistry.
As spectacular as it was, I personally felt there was a lack of soul and history into these walls. But still, an impressive place to visit while in Abu Dhabi.
Entrance Fee: 60 AED (16 USD) for adults, 30 AED (8 USD) for children
Opening Hours: 10 am to 8 pm daily
Saadiyat Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in the UAE. Expect pristine white sand, turquoise water, and the occasional turtles who are still laying their eggs here. Although “public”, the beach is only open from 8 am till sunset, and has a 25 AED (7 USD) access fee for adults. In return there are loungers, changing rooms, showers, and lockers. You can also practice eco-friendly water sports such as windsurfing and sailing.
Entrance Fee: 25 AED (7 USD) for adults / 15 AED for children
Opening hours: Daily from 8 am till sunset
If you prefer a private beach, head to one of the many hotels along the beach, such as the Park Hyatt or the Saadiyat Beach Club. We had lunch at Mare Mare (Jumeirah hotel) and although the service was a little patchy, the Italian food and the view made up for it.
ABU DHABI CORNICHE
Abu Dhabi Corniche is a lovely 8 km stretch of pedestrian & biking pathways along the beach with children playgrounds, restaurants, and beach access. It is great for a walk, a jog or even better to get down the corniche on a rented electrical scooter! It was the first time I tried those (I know, kinda let to the party !) and absolutely loved it!
EMIRATES PALACE AND THE ETIHAD TOWERS
The Emirates Palace is a well know 5-stars Arabian style hotel with a pristine private beach. You can visit the lobby of the hotel to admire the over the top / gold everywhere interior decoration or seat in one of the many cafes of the lobby to have high tea.
While you are there you might as well try their signature cappuccino, half-covered in 24k gold flakes. That will cost you an obscene 75 AED (20 USD) for a very average coffee but Hey! it is a once in a lifetime I guess. If you are more pragmatic, I suggest you try the much nicer Camelccino, a camel milk cappuccino topped with date syrup (still 60 AED – 16 USD, but at least it is good).
Right across are the Etihad Towers, made somewhat famous by the movie Fast and Furious 7 (Vin Diesel drives his car out of one tower and into the adjacent one, from the 50th floor or something …. right …!! Full scene here).
There is an observation deck on the 75th floor of Tower 2, with apparently a great sunset view.
Entrance Fee: 95 AED (26 USD), with 50 AED redeemable
Opening hours: Daily from 10 am to 7 pm.
JUBAIL MANGROVE PARK
Newly opened, the Jubail Mangrove park is a great option is you need to take a quick break from the city. Just outside of Abu Dhabi are huge mangroves, one of the Emirate’s most important ecological assets. Great for nature lovers, the mangroves are home to many different species, such as crabs, herons, flamingos, and various fishes. The Al Jubail mangrove walk is a 2km long boardwalk zigzagging through the mangrove with several observation decks along the way. It is both a leisure activity and an educational one, thanks to the regular boards providing information on everything from the salt level of the mangrove sea to the birds, fish, and other fauna & flora living in Abu Dhabi’s mangrove.
Entrance Fee: free
Opening hours: 8 am to 6.30 pm
ZAYA NURAI ISLAND
One of my favorite gateway from Dubai, Zaya Nurai Island is a resort island just off the coast of Abu Dhabi! The sea is turquoise, the restaurants on site are delicious, and the entrance fee can be fully redeemed towards food and drinks! This is a great day trip from Abu Dhabi, that will make you feel like a mini-holiday in itself. More details about Zaya Nurai island in this blog post.
Day Pass fee: 480 AED (130 USD) – Redeemable against F&B
LIWA DESERT TOUR
While in the UAE, going to the desert is, of course, a must. One of the most beautiful areas of the desert is located 250 km south of Abu Dhabi city center. Rub Al Khali (translating into Empty Quarter) is the world’s largest sand desert, covering parts of Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and all the way to Yemen. You can easily arrange a tour from Abu Dhabi and that usually includes dune bashing, camel riding, falconry, BBQ, etc.
If you have more time, consider spending a night in the spectacular Qasr Al Sarab … I haven’t been yet, but this hotel looks like a true fairytale from ‘1001 Nights’.
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Here you go! I hope this article will help you plan your holidays in Abu Dhabi. If you have any doubt about when to go, check out my guide on the best time to visit Dubai, that is just as relevant for Abu Dhabi. But if you have any other questions, please feel free to reach out by email, or in the comment box below!