Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE and the emirate that spreads over the most area. Despite being a modern city with well-planned urban landscaping, Abu Dhabi holds on to its heritage. Some of the buildings here appear like those straight out of mythical Arabian legends.
Its skyline has lofty futuristic skyscrapers and traditional souks side by side. From fun and adventure to culture and heritage, there is everything a traveler would ever want to see. There is so much to explore in this city which is perched on a T-shaped island.
Here is a list of top places to visit in this oil-rich emirate of the UAE.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The biggest and the most beautiful mosque in the country is in its capital. The Sheikh Zayed mosque has become an icon of Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Zayed, the former ruler and founder of the UAE, himself conceived the idea of this grand mosque. The work began back in 1996. After 2 billion dollars and 11 years spent, the magnificent mosque was opened to the public in 2007.
Meticulous care has been taken to perfect every inch of this marvel. The walls made of white granite brought from the Republic of Macedonia are adorned with semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli, red agate, amethyst, abalone, jasper and mother-of-pearl, and gold.
The mosque is a mix of Ottoman, Fatimid, and Moorish architecture and incorporates contemporary and modern elements as well. Ornate carpets and massive bronze chandeliers with Swarovski crystals adorn the huge prayer halls. World’s largest hand-woven carpet also belongs to this mosque.
Anyone, including non-Muslims, can tour the mosque for free. Visitors have to follow the Islamic dress code inside the complex. Women can borrow loose hooded gowns with long sleeves at the entrance. The inside of the mosque is accessible to tourists except during the five prayer times. A visit to this mosque will help you understand the Islamic traditions and appreciate its architectural prowess.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Designed by the Pritzker prize-winning architect, Lovre Abu Dhabi is envisioned to be unique from all other museums out there in every regard. This phenomenal undertaking was a joint venture by the UAE and the French government.
The museum is on Saadiyat island and covered by water on all sides. It appears to be floating on top of the water from a distance. The gigantic dome covering the top of the museum is an architectural feat in and of itself. It comprises of eight layers and resembles roofs paved with palm leaves. The light seeping in through the dome emanates an unearthly glow inside the galleries below.
Louvre Abu Dhabi that dons the title of being the most comprehensive museum on the planet opened its gates in late 2017. Rather than categorizing the artifacts the usual way based on their period and civilization, Louvre Abu Dhabi curates the cross-cultural influence of art and history.
The items in the collection date back to thousands of years ago. The Ain Ghazal statue which was originally from Jordan belongs to 7th millennium BC. There is a permanent and temporary gallery in Louvre. The temporary one displays loaned items from several major museums in France, most notably the original Louvre (Musee du Louvre) itself.
There is a water pool that runs inside the museum inspired by Falaj duct system. Falaj systems were used to carry irrigation water in the Arab world before the inception of electricity.
It will take you at least 2 hours just to browse through the collection. If you are someone interested in art and history, you can spend the whole day here… and, maybe, come back again the next day.
Emirates Palace Hotel
There are only a handful of hotels in the world to compete with emirates palace in the realm of luxury. This sandstone colored beachfront hotel is majestic like a whimsical Arabian palace in your dreams. At present, the hotel is owned and operated by a german hotel chain called Kempinski.
What sets this hotel apart from all others is its sheer size and opulence. It spreads over thousands of hectares on Ras Al Akhdar overlooking the Arabian Gulf. The huge granite domes decorated with gold lights up every night, making it even more splendid.
With four exquisite restaurants, this place is culinary heaven. People visit here from faraway places just to experience the gastronomic delicacies. The interior, as well as the exterior design, follows immaculate Arabian style replete with enormous staircases and atriums. The hotel has a gallery which displays ancient artworks inside gold shelves. The hotel garners attention from almost everywhere in the main city, thanks to its prime location and scale.
They offer guided tours inside the hotel for the tourists. On days of special events, it has to be booked in advance and will cost you a fee. People with restaurant or hotel reservation can enter the hotel and the grounds for free.
But men who are too casually dressed in shorts, sleeveless or slippers are not welcomed inside its premises. So make sure to dress in formals when you go.
Ferrari World is the most well-known place in Abu Dhabi. And the only Ferrari parked theme park on the planet. Unlike other amusement parks, Ferrari World offers so much more for car enthusiasts and Ferrari fanboys.
Because of the climate-controlled interiors, this sprawling indoor theme park is ideal for a visit throughout the year and even on summer days. The park is located on Yas Island and is the first thing that welcomes you on your way to Abu Dhabi if you are driving from Dubai side.
Ferrari World is home to Formula Rossa, the fastest roller coaster ride in the world. The gut-churning 2.2-kilometer ride accelerates from 0 to 240 km/h in under 5 seconds. You will need to strap on goggles to protect your eyes at these mind-blowing (pun intended) speeds.
Even young kids can get their hands on the wheel and the first driving lesson in their life at Junior GT. And if you want to experience extreme speeds without any risk, there is a racing simulator called Scuderia Challenge. Here you get expert suggestions on how to improve your driving skills. On top of everything, your dream of driving a real Ferrari will come true on your trip to Ferrari World.
Apart from all the rides, there are also 4 d shows and a factory tour of Ferrari. And not to mention all the cafes. The Ferrari world is an ideal destination for a family day out on weekends.
Qasr Al Watan
Most of us haven’t been inside a real working palace in our lives. Qasar Al Watan presents a unique opportunity to see and walk around the Presidential Palace of the UAE. In fact, Qasar Al Watan (means Palace of the Nation in Arabic) is a part of the Presidential Palace. The same place where the offices of the rulers of Abu Dhabi exist.
Much like Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the facade of the palace is of gleaming white granite stones. Even the architecture has a lot of resemblances. The palace stands adjacent to the famed Emirates palace hotel in Ras al Akhtar peninsula. Even though the five-star hotel is stunning to look at, it seems less significant in comparison to the palace.
Qasar al Watan is but more than just a palace. The numerous galleries provide an insight into the history and the future towards which the nation is heading. The legendary Birmingham Quran is housed here along with the first modern map drawn of Arabia and pre-Hispanic codices of the Aztecs.
The presidential banquet let you experience how the guests of the King are welcomed and treated. You will also get to know the etiquettes and protocols when the nation welcomes an eminent guest. The display of the presidential gifts exchanged between the rulers and ‘The Power of Words’ sculpture by the Emirati artist Mattar Bin Lahej is definitely worth seeing.
Qasar Al Watan is open to visitors every day from 10 AM to 8 PM. You can take pictures inside the hall except for the security systems and staff. In the evening, the Qasar Al Watan hosts a light and sound show explaining the vision that carries the nation forward. You have to undergo a security screening before entering. Check out the list of prohibited items which you cannot carry inside (like penknives, alcohol, etc.).
Qasr Al Hosn
The oldest surviving stone structure stands amidst the modern buildings at the center of busy downtown of Abu Dhabi. The Qasr al Hosn fort has a long history of struggle and the eventual prosperity to tell.
The fort started out as a watchtower. When the Bani Yas tribe moved to the resourceful Abu Dhabi Island in the 1700s, they had to protect the well that supplied fresh water to the settlement. Therefore they built a watchtower nearby. Over time, as the settlement expanded, the watchtower grew into a fort made of thick coral stone walls. The structure saw many restorations in its centuries-long history.
This was the seat of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi up until mid 19th century. There are two parts to Qasr Al Hosn. The ancient fort and the palace outside, which is a more recent construction. Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan completed the palace in 1945 after the oil discovery.
Recently, Qasr al Hosn underwent an extensive restoration and reopened in December of 2018. Now, this has become a center of culture and heritage exploration. Galleries and Museums were added to it post-opening. Bait Al Gahwa and House of Artisans galleries give us a picture of life in the old days. Qasr al Hosn is also featured on the back of 1000 AED banknote.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
The falcon hospital in Abu Dhabi proves the love that Emiratis have for the falcons. This unique kind of hospital in Abu Dhabi is exclusively for the flying friends of the Arabs. This is the only hospital in the world that specializes in the treatment of falcons. Expensive and state of the art facilities in the hospital offers the perfect care for falcons.
You might be thinking that why would they spend so much money on a bird. The fact is that falcons are so much more than just a bird to them. Moreover, these birds can cost quite a lot. Falcons used for falconry and racing are specially bred and can be priced at tens of thousands of Dirhams.
The hospital offers visitors a guided tour of the facility. There is a museum inside the hospital that curates the falconry heritage in the UAE. Traditionally, falcons were used for hunting games. These intelligent birds adapt well to the desert terrains and follow the prey and hunt them down with swift movement. These birds were preferred over other animals for hunting as they did not eat any part of the prey.
You can see the various treatments the falcons undergo with the guided tour. Falcons get the royal treatment in this hospital. Apart from basic veterinary services, they get cosmetic procedures. They have their own version of pedicure called feather repair. When people want to register their falcons and get a falcon passport to carry them in airplanes, they come here. If you are brave enough, you can hold the falcons in your hand to take pictures with them.
Abu Dhabi Animal Shelter animal rescue center is run under the falcon hospital. The animal shelter follows internationally adopted practices to take care of canines and felines. They put these animals up for adoption through their website. Apart from these, they provide animal neutering services.
Yas Island is the entertainment capital in Abu Dhabi. Located on an Island 45 minutes away from Abu Dhabi City, this place has something for everyone to enjoy. In fact, the Abu Dhabi city itself is a larger island on the Arabian Gulf. So, Yas Island is just another island but a tiny one in comparison to the mainland.
Some of the world-renowned attractions in Abu Dhabi are here like the Ferrari World and the Yas Marina Circuit. There is also the Yas mall, Yas Links golf course, restaurants, luxury hotels, and apartments.
There are a few other amusement parks on the Yas Island apart from Ferrari World. The Warner Bros theme park by the famous Hollywood studio of the same name, and the water theme park called Yas Waterworld are among the many places where you can take your kids for a hangout.
The island has also become a yachting and water sports destination. Thousands of people come to the Yas island to watch the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Yas Marina circuit that is held every year in the months leading from November. The Yas Marina race track is loved by professional F1 drivers for its sharp curves. It has the longest straight on a race track in the world that is 1.2 kilometers long.
The Yas Viceroy hotel on the island is a remarkable thing. Because the hotel is built right next to the race track, the rooms here provide a direct view of the track. Yas Beach is an excellent spot to enjoy the beauty of the beach and to bask under the sun. Regular events happen in the performance arenas like the Du Forum and Du Arena.
Emirates Park Zoo and Resort
If you are searching for a place to take your kids to, the Emirates park zoo is for you. It is one of the best zoos in the Middle East and displays a long lineup of animals and offers activities that are perfect for kids. There is a petting zoo where you can feed giraffes, ducks, hippos, goats, and elephants.
Unlike many other attractions in the list, Emirates park zoo has been built over a decade ago, back in 2008. But the meticulous maintenance and continuous expansion have made it into a world-class zoo. More than 1700 animals from different parts of the world live here. Carefully crafted facilities offer comfortable habitats to the animals which live in a strikingly different climate from the desert. There are some rare animals in the zoo like the white tiger.
The eight sections of the zoo are:
- Bird park – Visit the exotic birds and enjoy the thirty minutes bird Show.
- Petting zoo – Feeding the animals one would not see otherwise is a fun experience.
- Giraffe Park – Visit and feed the long-necked giants.
- Snake Alley – Meet the crawling creatures. If you are lucky, you can see a boa constrictor swallowing its prey.
- Flamingo park – Who thought the world of flamingos are so diverse that they would need a dedicated section in the zoo.
- Wildlife walk – See the giants and hunters that rule the wilderness.
- Reptile house – Reptiles come in a wide range of sizes. But if you don’t look close, you won’t see the chameleon.
A variety of shows and presentations entertain and educate the children at the same time. For that reason, you can often see flocks of junior school students here.
The Emirates park resort is the one and only of its kind in the world. This vacation resort lets you live in the rooms overlooking the animal habitats and caves. And whom do you want to have breakfast with, the giraffes or the parrots? It is close to other major Abu Dhabi attractions like Yas Island as well, making it a convenient place to stay.
Another Island in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. But the Saadiyat Island, or ‘Jazirat Saadiyat’ in Arabic, is larger than Yas Island in the area and is closer to Abu Dhabi mainland. Just like Yas Island, this will also become an entertainment and cultural hub in Abu Dhabi. The majority of the development on this island is still underway, but a few of them are already open. The main attraction on Saadiyat island, which you can visit right now, is the Louvre Museum.
You can see the UAE pavilion from the Shanghai Expo 2020 on the island. This pavilion was moved from Shanghai to here in many pieces over the course of many months. The design of the pavilion resembles the red sand dunes of Arabian deserts. Saadiyat public beach is a beautiful white sand beach with clear aquamarine water and great facilities.
Zayed Gandhi Digital museum is one of a kind museum in the world. The museum, which is divided into six sections, compiles the greatness of the founding fathers of two different countries — Sheikh Zayed of UAE and Mahatma Gandhi of India — under one roof. The museum offers documentaries and digitized books about that talks about the leaders.
Another major project that is yet to complete is the Zayed National Museum. This museum, which will also be an architectural milestone, is dedicated to the life and achievements of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan.
Guggenheim Museum is set to open in 2022. It will curate the Islamic traditions and Middle Eastern culture. The design and scale of this museum will surpass any other museum in existence today in the world.
As of now, there are three operating museums on Saadiyat Island. By 2022, there will be four more of them. Most important among all of them will be the Guggenheim Museum and Zayed National Museum.
Liwa Oasis (Bateen Liwa)
One of the greenest places to visit in Abu Dhabi. Liwa oasis is a part of the empty quarter — the most arid part of the desert where there is nothing but sand dunes, except for Bateen Liwa. The empty Quarter (Rub Al Khali in Arabic) has the largest stretch of dunes in the world.
What made Liwa into an oasis is the abundance of underground freshwater. After the Bedouin tribes found water in Liwa in the 15th century, the settlements in the area started growing. Liwa was also the birthplace of the Nahyan family in the late 17th century or early 18th century before they moved to the present city of Abu Dhabi. Nahyan Family was a part of the Bani Yas tribe.
Today, Liwa is the center for farming and cultivation in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Though Abu Dhabi city transformed into a modern metropolis, the Liwa oasis hasn’t seen many changes. Here you can still see the original Bedouins who live off of their camels and live in their shacks made of palm leaves. Despite the government efforts to provide modern amenities, they chose to live the old way.
Thanks to the long history of Liwa oasis, there are medieval buildings and a few fortresses here. The Liwa Oasis is amazing with its greenery in the middle of the massive desert. But there are other attractions in Liwa. You can visit the bedouins. They will be happy to see you and would love to offer you milk and food. Arabs are well known for their generosity and hospitality
There is a single tall dune in the Liwa oasis called Moreeb Dune. Climbing this dune, which sores 300 meters into the sky, is a sport in and of itself. This dune is also 1.6 kilometers long. There is a road which will take you to here. At the bottom of Moreeb Dune, there are camel racing tracks.
Located on the outskirts of Al Ain district in Abu Dhabi, Jebel Hafeet is a rocky mountain. The cliff is divided equally between Oman and Abu Dhabi. It is home to some of the most stunning roads in the UAE. If you look down from the top of Jebel Hafeet, you can see the 12 kilometers of road winding up the mountain. The top of the mountain is 4000 feet above the sea level, making it the second-highest peak in the UAE (the highest is the Jebel Jais in Ras Al Khaimah). Driving on this road is something worth experiencing.
In 1986 Abu Dhabi government built a two-lane highway in Jebel Hafeet. There is a viewing platform at the top of the mountain, apart from the many viewpoints along the highway to the top. There is also a 5-star hotel on the peak where you can stay enjoying the view of the vast Al Ain valley. You can see the lush vegetation in Al Ain Oasis and the earthly colors of the desert sand. If it’s winter, you can see tourists cycling up the mountain.
Ancient tombs of Jebel Hafeet
On the eastern side of Jebel Hafeet, there are ancient tombs that date back to 5000 years ago. A necropolis built at the beginning of the bronze age. Discovered in 1959, these tombs hint to a thriving human settlement in the middle of the desert during the prehistoric times. Artifacts unearthed from this site show the trade links these people had with Iraq, Iran, and India.
The tombs of Jebel Hafeet is the most ancient archeological site in the UAE. The peculiar shape of these tombs has given them the name ‘Beehive Tombs’. Also, the period of UAE history during the bronze age is now named ‘Hafeet Period’.
The heritage village near the breakwaters of Abu Dhabi corniche is a modern reconstruction of a pre-oil traditional village. A place you should visit if you want to understand the Arab lifestyle of the early 19th century. Traditional souks, Barasti houses, gardens, and a traditional mosque are all recreated to showcase the elegant past. The open museum in the heritage village has old pottery, weapons, and pictures that curates the lifestyle of those people. There is even a working model of the Falaj irrigation system, which used to carry water from wells to farmlands.
A visit to the heritage village will be both educational and fun at the same time. Apart from learning about the heritage and traditions of Abu Dhabi, you can shop for handicrafts and Arabic clothes at the mock souks. There is a reason to choose the location of the heritage village in the marina breakwaters. The trades of the old Arabs were fishing and pearling. Therefore, those people settled near the sea. Moreover, the prime location near Marina Mall and the corniche provides a scenic backdrop for the whole thing.
There are even things that the kids can enjoy the heritage village. They can watch the craftsmen demonstrating their work, see the mills weaving clothes, and ride on top of camels. The entree to the heritage village is free.
Sir Bani Yas Island
Sir Bani Yas Island is an ecotourism destination in Abu Dhabi. It was also awarded the title of the world’s leading sustainable tourism destination. There are several beaches and luxury resorts for tourists who are looking for overnight stay. But the island also offers daytime safari, falconry shows. You can go on a road trip covering this 87 square kilometer island through the single lane road connecting everything on the island. Unlike safaris on large forestlands, here you will see the animals up close.
Although this island has a similar name to Yas Island, they are entirely different from each other in every other aspect. Bani Yas tribe is which the ruling family of Abu Dhabi belongs to. Even the ruling family of Dubai, the Maktoum family, is of the Bani Yas tribe. And that tribe is what this island is named after. Sir Bani Yas Island is located 250 kilometers west of Abu Dhabi city. Furthermore, there is no road access to the island. Travelers have to take a boat from Jebel Danna port. Or by simply taking a plane directly to the island.
Before the former ruler of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Zayed passed away, he used this island as his private island. It was him who began turning the island into a wildlife reserve starting in 1977.
People were living on the island even before 1940. They mined salt and hunted pearls before they left as the water sources dried up. There are the remains of a 6th-century BCE monastery right in the center of the island.
Animals on Sir Bani Yas Island
- Herbivores like Gazelles and goats herd open on the island while wild animals cheetahs are confined in vast pens.
- Other animals here are giraffes, hedgehogs, Jerboas,
- Sir Bani Yas Island is a haven for the endangered species of Arabian oryxes and mountain sheep
- There are also hundreds of species of insects, reptiles, birds, and bats.
- Fish, including sharks, dugongs, and dolphins.
Mangrove National Park
Just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, there is a mangrove forest covering 19 square kilometers of area. Mangroves in Abu Dhabi is a large green patch of land. But unlike oases, they are not filled with tall date palms. This is the largest mangrove in the country and accounts for 75 percent of the total mangroves. They are altogether a different kind of ecosystem from any other in the desert.
Mangroves are shrubs and short trees that grow in muddy marshlands. They play a vital role in the stability of the environment. A reason why mangroves are the lungs of the planet. Birds, marine animals, and insects thrive here.
People flock to the mangrove national park to kayak and paddleboard in the waterway that cuts across the vegetation. Or you can take a boat ride that will take you around the mangrove and let you explore various plants and animals. Other than educational trips, mangrove national park is also a destination for fun. Companies choose this place for team building activities and adventures. The park also offers ladies only days.
Mangroves are plastic-free zones. Littering can cause extensive damage to the ecosystem and is, therefore, heavily fined. If you are coming for kayaking, it is highly probable that you get wet. So take a change of clothing. If you come during low tides, you can see crabs and birds that frequent here. Paddling, instead of taking a boat ride around the area will let you explore each and every part of the mangrove completely at your own convenient pace
A memorial to immortalize the legacy of Sheikh Zayed, who founded the United Arab Emirates. The founder’s memorial was opened recently in 2018. It curates the work and life of the late leader and king of Abu Dhabi in an aesthetically beautiful way. The memorial adorns the central area of the Abu Dhabi Corniche near the famous Emirates Palace hotel. In the backdrop, you can see the Etihad towers soaring into the sky. Founders memorial is among the places you can visit for free in Abu Dhabi.
There are three sections to the memorial — the welcome center, the constellation, and the garden.
The Welcome Center
When you enter the grounds, the first thing that you will see is the modern-looking Founder’s Memorial Welcome Center. It has a gallery that showcases the old footage of interviews and life events of Sheikh Zayed. Every fifteen minutes, there will be a screening of this six minutes documentary. If you want, you can come at 9 AM and go for the 30 minutes guided tour around the premise. The wall of the welcome center displays historical pictures among what looks like shifting sand dunes.
The most striking part of the memorial is ‘The Constellation’, designed by the renowned artit Ralph Helmick. The triangular-shaped constellation structure is 30 meters tall, making it the largest single art installation in the world. The constellation shines like stars in the sky when the lights on the roof and floor of the structure are lit after nightfall.
The garden surrounding the constellation is called ‘The Space’, and it’s vast. It portrays the love Sheikh Zayed had for conserving nature. There are so many different types of trees that are indigenous as well as foreign to Abu Dhabi. The irrigation system used in the garden is reminiscent of the Falaj ducts that were used by the farmers in the olden days.
In 2003, Abu Dhabi’s first-ever souk was burned down in a fire. In the same spot, now exist the Central Market, which is a modern take on the traditional souks. Like most of the old buildings in Abu Dhabi, this too is located near the sea.
The main complaint about malls is that they all look and feel the same. And if you have gone to one of them, it’s like you have visited them all. Central Market is the antithesis of that. It gives the shoppers high-end shopping experience along with an insight into the traditional ways. The architecture and the design of the place are fascinating. Even the brand logos and interiors of the shops exude a traditional atmosphere. You can see the signs of modernity like stained glass windows in some shops, though.
The mall has some amazing architectural features as well. The roof panels of the large atrium can be opened and closed with a switch. During the winter months, the roof is kept open. This saves a lot of electricity.
Visit the largest water park in the UAE. Yas Waterworld gained the number one title among the waterparks in the Middle East as soon as it was opened in 2013. Conveniently, the park is located on Yas Island, which is not too far away from Dubai. This giant water park covers an area of 37 acres on the Island. All these factors together make it a must-visit place in Abu Dhabi.
There are some amazing rides in the park you must not miss. The world’s largest surfable sheet wave is here. The six-person water slide is also unique. It has impossible twists and turns, which promise an adrenaline-pumping wild ride. Other notable rides are Dawwama, Liwa loop, and Yadi Yas. There is some cute play areas for the really small kids who are aged six months and above.
Yas water world is themed around Emirati culture. You will see inspiration from traditional architecture and date palms all over the park. The names of the rides also reflect this.
One downside of the park is that it gets too crowded during the weekends. You will end up waiting for 15-20 minutes, even if you pay for a fast track pass. Therefore it is best to visit here on weekdays.
There is no doubt that Yas Waterworld is one of the best places to visit with family. Yas Waterworld is a part of the entertainment district of Yas Island. There are a lot of other attractions around it. But you won’t be able to cover all of them in one day. So my advice is to spend one full day to enjoy Yas Waterworld.
A city in Abu Dhabi planned and built from scratch. Masdar has the potential to be the very first futuristic city by all means. The focus has been given on making the city sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible. The government planned Masdar to be a zero-carbon, zero-waste city.
The location of Masdar city is near Abu Dhabi International airport. Although the construction is still underway, it is open to public visits. There is no ticket or entry fee. You can drive your car there. Park your car and get inside the unmanned pods to see the sci-fi inspired architecture. Cars are not allowed inside the city. A network of PRTs (Personal rapid transport) will carry out all the internal mobility.
Old technologies have found a rebirth in Masdar. There is a Teflon coated wind tower in the middle of the city, near Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. MIST, which symbolizes the importance given to the future, is the centerpiece of the city. Masdar expects completion by 2030 to become the world’s first green city.