Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is a vibrant, culture-rich city boasting copious amounts of natural beauty. Spread across dozens of islands and the desert, the emirate is the largest in the UAE and home to the Qasr Al Watan presidential palace, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and other important sites. While neighbouring emirate Dubai’s beaches are largely manmade, Abu Dhabi’s are natural and have soft white sand. Its islands are home to mangrove forests – which you can kayak through and spend the night – and cultural, entertainment and retail hubs like Saadiyat and Yas. There’s also the city centre – the corniche and the Al Bateen marina, home to the trendy EDITION hotel, elegant cafes like Tashas, brunch spots and luxury shopping opportunities. From visiting the Louvre to venturing out into the ethereal Empty Quarter, here are the best things to do in Abu Dhabi.
Embrace culture on Saadiyat Island
Saadiyat Island is one of Abu Dhabi’s most beautiful natural islands, with soft, white sands (home to Hawksbill turtles) and views over the Arabian Gulf. While the island is home to a golf course and some beautiful five-star resorts – like Rixos and St Regis – it’s also one of Abu Dhabi’s cultural hubs. On the island, travellers will find The Louvre Abu Dhabi, described by the Louvre as “France’s largest cultural project abroad.” The museum runs in partnership with the iconic Parisian museum and includes 120 masterpieces, taking guests on a journey into thousands of years of human creativity across cultures and continents, and pieces by Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci are on display. While the artwork takes centre stage, the building is a work of art in itself, set on the water with a detailed domed ceiling and striking white walls. Kayaking is also available from the museum in the surrounding waters to truly appreciate the structure.
Also on Saadiyat Island is Manarat Al Saadiyat, an art, cultural activity and community events centre where visitors are encouraged to come together and share and experiment, create their own art, discover exhibitions, enjoy great food and listen to talks, and the upcoming Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum, designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winners.
… but also enjoy the island’s beaches and leisure
Saadiyat is as much a leisure destination as it is a cultural hub, and visitors will find beautiful white-sand beaches home to Hawksbill turtles, resorts, fantastic eateries like boho Alkalime, authentic Italian Antonia, French fine dining Fouquets and beachy Lebanese Beirut Sur Mer, along with lots of excellent artisan coffee shops. There’s also a great bar and nightlife scene, and the island is home to an 18-hole golf course – channelling a laid-back Floridian vibe.
Marvel at the beauty of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Abu Dhabi‘s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is an emblem of the UAE: alabaster, gleaming and with soaring minarets and 82 domes, its akin to a palace. The jaw-dropping creation was the vision of Sheikh Zayed himself, completed in 2007 and taking 13 years to construct. Today, both Muslims and non-Muslims can visit this architectural marvel, one of the largest in the world, with ease. Women need to be covered, a long-sleeved shirt, long loose trousers or a long skirt is recommended, with a headscarf and abaya (both are on sale and available for hire at the mosque), and men are not permitted to wear shorts. Visitors can wander the exterior and even enter the main structure to see the world’s largest prayer hall carper – handmade by 1,300 Iranian artisans – and gold-plated Swarovski chandeliers, the courtyard’s vast marble mosaic artwork and reflective pools that mirror some of the many amethyst-and-jasper-embedded columns. The building is an active mosque and welcomes 50,000 worshippers daily – the main prayer hall is closed to visitors on Fridays between 12 and 3 pm. Today it’s the most famous mosque in the UAE non-Muslims can visit.
Be entertainment on Yas Island
While Saadiyat calls for culture and relaxation, Yas Island is a hub for entertainment, dining and retail. At the heart is the famous Yas Marina circuit – home of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – which sees the island and city come alive with tens of thousands of revellers when it takes place in November or December. Families will love Yas Island thanks to attractions like Ferrari World, a largely indoor theme part with the world’s fasts rollercoaster (Formula Rosso) and Warner Bros. World, the world’s largest indoor theme park themed on the iconic production company and its most famous characters and franchises. Also on Yas is Yas Marina – packed with restaurants and bars offering everything from pizza to Mexican with favourites like Cipriani and Iris, The WB Abu Dhabi, Curio Collection by Hilton, Hilton Yas Island resort and the famous W Abu Dhabi – Yas Island, designed half on land and half on water and focused around the F1 track.
Experience the city’s wide array of luxury retail
Abu Dhabi has plenty of fantastic retail spots, and enjoying a shopping trip is one of the best things to do in Abu Dhabi. The largest shopping mall is Yas Mall, located on Yas Island and an elegant space with 370 shops and services and more than 60 dining venues. In true UAE mega-mall style, there’s an ice rink, bowling alley, multiplex cinema, roller coaster rides and musical fountains – and beautiful sea and skyline views from its make-upmarket restaurants and their outdoor terraces. For boutique, luxury shopping, head to Avenue at Etihad, located in Etihad Towers and spread across two floors with personalised shopping services and bespoke tailoring. For watches, jewellery and accessories in a modern, sophisticated setting, there’s Galleria Mall on Al Marayah island or the Souk Central market for a traditional Middle Eastern affair with charming antique shops and outlets selling perfumes and handicrafts.
Enjoy a leisurely day out at Al Bateen Marina
Al Bateen Marina is one of the most stylish and sophisticated places to visit in the UAE capital, sitting on the city’s west side and is one of the oldest inhabited areas in the emirate. Today it’s home to the chic Abu Dhabi Edition hotel – Ian Schrager (of Studio 54 fame collaboration with Marriott), and elevated cafes and coffee shops like Tashas and Brunch and Cake. The 324-berth marina can accommodate boats and yachts from 10 to 18 metres, so there’s plenty to look at, and the promenade is wide and landscaped – a glorious waterside stroll for when the sun is shining.
Relax at one of its beautiful beach clubs
Neighbouring emirate Dubai might get all the publicity when it comes to its beach clubs, but the capital is also home to some fantastic seaside hangouts, thanks to its myriad white-sand beaches and natural islands. Enjoying one of these beach clubs is one of the more relaxing and enjoyable things to do in Abu Dhabi; the best ones are scattered across the city. Nurai Island is perhaps the most exclusive – a short speed boat ride away from the capital and the ultra-exclusive resort. On Saadiyat, there’s the super popular Saadiyat Beach Club, where pool and beach days are legendary, while Yas has the vibrant Yas Beach.
Go kayaking or try out watersports
Abu Dhabi is blessed with a diverse topography, including serene mangroves; the best place to see them is the Mangrove National Park. A place of beauty and biodiversity, the part makes up 75 per cent of the total mangrove forest area in the UAE and includes salt marshes, mudflats, and algal communities. Guests can kayak through the mangroves or even stay amongst them in the beautiful Anantara Eastern Mangroves Hotel. In eh city, its many beaches and resorts offer all the usual watersports favourites like jet skiing, kite surfing and paddleboarding.
Venture out into the magical desert and Empty Quarter
The Empty Quarter is one of the most peaceful and enigmatic places on earth, described as the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass and described by explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger as “very still, with the silence which we have driven from our world”. This seemingly endless desert is a drive away from Abu Dhabi, and visiting its whirling golden and red sands is one of the most exciting things to do in Abu Dhabi. Stretching all the way to Saudi Arabia and beyond, the area comprises beautiful and largely unexplored spots like Rub’ al-Khali and Liwa Desert and is home to a handful of hotels that make stays in this unpolluted and undisturbed landscape possible. For the most magical stay, head to Qasr Al Sarab by Anantara – an Arabian palace surrounded by desert sands – and the chic Liwa Nights Bedouin Glamping Retreat.