Capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is a well-ordered, industrious city with a pretty waterside location. First inhabited by the nomadic Bani Yas tribe in 1760, the settlement remained a small fishing village until oil was discovered. The revenues transformed Abu Dhabi into the modern city of today – a bustling centre of government and business.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the major sightseeing attraction and wows all who visit. But the city also makes a good base for excursions to the desert landscapes of Liwa Oasis and the oasis city of Al Ain.
1 Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Clad in Macedonian marble, the beautiful and absolutely mammoth Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is Abu Dhabi’s landmark building. The mosque fuses Mameluke, Ottoman and Fatamid design elements to create a harmonious and thoroughly modern mosque that celebrates Islamic architecture. Artisans utilised glass-work, mosaic tiling and intricate carvings to spectacular effect on both the interior and exterior. It was opened in 2007 after nearly 20 years of construction.
Able to hold 40,000 worshippers, it is the biggest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and, like the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Fujairah, is dedicated to the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. Non-Muslims are allowed into all areas of the mosque (including the vast library), and there are also guided tours available.
Hours: Open Sat-Thu 9am-10pm; Fri 4.30pm-10pm
Admission: Entry Free
2 Heritage Village
Abu Dhabi’s Heritage Village is an authentic replica of a typical Bedouin encampment that gives an idea of typical Emirati life before the oil boom. It’s located in a prettybeach area of the city, which is a pleasant place to wander after a visit. There are exhibits featuring traditional day-to-day objects, as well as introducing local agriculture and the pearl diving trade – the main economies here. Unfortunately though, information throughout the museum is rather sparse.
Al-Hosn Palace, also known as the Old Fort or the White Fort, is the oldest building in Abu Dhabi. The palace was built in 1793 as the residence of the ruling family and the seat of government. The interior of the Al Hosn Palace has been renovated and modernized, and is now used by the Cultural Foundation to house the Centre for Documentation and Research, which holds a collection of documents on the heritage and history of the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf region. The courtyard and the magnificent tile work over the main northern gate are notable features. Within the palace is a museum of traditional artifacts and historical photographs. Displays include a natural history section featuring animal life from the desert, and a historical section with displays of the history of Abu Dhabi.
4 Women’s Craft Centre
The Women’s Craft Centre is a good place for visitors to see local women demonstrating traditional skills such as weaving, embroidery and basketry. It’s an excellent place to pick up unusual and authentic souvenirs that support the work of the centre. Shawls, slippers, bags, carpets and textiles, trays and baskets are all on display.
5 Observation Deck
Abu Dhabi’s answer to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is this observation deck, offering skyline views from the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel, the highest point in the city. There is an entry fee for non-guests of the hotel, but the ticket price can be redeemed for food and drink from the observation deck’s restaurant. Having high-tea up here, with the city spread below you, is definitely an experience for your Abu Dhabi itinerary.
Hours: Open daily 10am-6pm
Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel
6 Emirates Park Zoo
This excellent zoo makes for a fun day out, only a short drive from Abu Dhabi. There is a host of animals at the wildlife park, including rare white tigers, giraffes, and elephants. There is also a primate section with many different types of monkeys, and a flamingo park with a sea lion enclosure. At the petting zoo, children can touch and feed domestic breeds of animals.
Hours: Sun-Wed 9:30am-8pm; Thu-Sat 9:30am-9pm
Admission: Adults 25AED; children 6 years and older 25AED; children 3-5 years 10AED; children under 3 years free
Location: 30 minutes from Abu Dhabi
7 Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is a working veterinary hospital for ill and injured falcons, but it also provides guided tours for interested visitors. The tours allow you to get up close and personal with these birds of prey and if you’re up for the challenge, you may also have the chance to hold one of the birds.
8 Yas Island
Yas Island is one of Abu Dhabi’s top luxury hotel destinations, with stretches of sandybeach that are perfect for spending the day sunbathing on. This area is also home to the Yas Marina Circuit, which is where Abu Dhabi’s Formula One racing takes place every year.
9 Boat Tours
For the best views of Abu Dhabi you need to head out onto the water. The views of the high rises are quite spectacular as you drift out from the marina. Quite a few different operators run tours for all types of budgets, but one of the more popular trips with tourists are the sunset cruises that let you see dusk set over the city.
10 Liwa Oasis
In the south of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, beautiful Liwa Oasis is a great escape from the city. The oasis settlement is noted for its date farming and one of the largest sand dunes in the world is just on the outskirts. This makes it a must-visit attraction for anyone wanting to ride dune buggies, try sand surfing or go camel trekking. The other top city escape is the oasis city of Al Ain, which has the mighty peak of Jebel Hafeet as its backdrop.
Where to Stay in Abu Dhabi for Sightseeing
If you’re visiting Abu Dhabi for the first time and plan to see the city’s top tourist attractions, the best place to stay is near the Corniche, the city’s eight-kilometer seafront promenade, with its bike paths, beaches, parks, playgrounds, and fountains. From here, it’s easy to take a taxi to other top attractions such as Heritage Village, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and the theme parks of family-friendly Yas Island. Below are some highly-rated hotels in convenient locations for sightseeing:
- Luxury Hotels: Near the Corniche, the opulent Emirates Palace is one of Abu Dhabi’s top hotels, pampering its guests with plush suites and personal butlers. Nearby, the modern Jumeirah at Etihad Towers offers spectacular views of the Arabian Gulf from its famous Observation Deck, as well as apartment-style accommodation for families. The Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, connected to a souk, is also a top choice, and if you want to stay close to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the Ritz-Carlton Grand Canal is a five-minute drive away.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Popular mid-range options along the Corniche are the Hilton Abu Dhabi, with its own private beach club, about a 15-minute walk from Marina Mall and Heritage Village, and the Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel & Resort, with large sparkling pools and a sandy lagoon. The Holiday Inn is another highly-rated mid-range option a short drive from the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
- Budget Hotels: Budget accommodation is difficult to find in Abu Dhabi, but many mid-range hotels offer steep discounts – especially during low season. If you’re watching your wallet, the Mercure Abu Dhabi Centre Hotel offers excellent value in the heart of the city, just a few minutes’ stroll from the Corniche. Also in the city center, the Al Diar Dana is a popular budget option. On Yas Island, the Centro Yas Island Abu Dhabi by Rotana is reasonably-priced and lies within easy access of Ferrari World and Waterworld, the island’s famous theme parks.