Exploring Abu Dhabi

Filed Under: Travel

I had an expansive list of things to do in Abu Dhabi, which is partly why we’d booked three nights there. There is no love lost between me and Dubai, but I do enjoy Abu Dhabi (for what it is). That being said, my favorite thing to do from Abu Dhabi is drive through the desert to Oman, but that’s probably not something most people are looking to do.

Given the lousy weather, we didn’t take any day trips, and limited our excursions to the Mosque, the nearby souk, and checking out the Emirates Palace hotel for dinner.

Visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

This is the best thing to do in Abu Dhabi, and possibly in the UAE, in my opinion. It doesn’t take that much time (but it can, if you’d like), and is beautiful at any time of day. There aren’t many mosques that non-Muslims can visit in the region to begin with, and the scale of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is impressive. The audio guide is also well done, and while it’s a little (okay, a lot) propaganda-laden, it’s still informative.

Also, it’s free, and I know y’all are big fans of free.

When to go to the Abu Dhabi mosque

In general, the mosque is open from Saturday to Thursday from 9AM to 10PM, and Friday from 4:30 PM to 10PM, and you can walk through at your own pace with the complimentary audio guide during those times. If you’d prefer a tour, those are offered several times a day as well.

I highly recommend visiting first thing in the morning, and/or late in the evening for a few of reasons:

  • All that marble gets hot during the middle of the day
  • The surrounding gardens look best early in the day
  • The mosque is illuminated beautifully at night

Regardless of what time you’re able to squeeze in a visit though, I really think it’s worth a stop. It’s a beautiful building.

What to wear to the Abu Dhabi mosque

This is actually pretty simple, and ironically is easier for women than for men.

Men: No shorts, tank tops, or overly tight clothes.

Women: Nothing tight, and need to be covered from neck to wrists and ankles. Headscarfs are mandatory. Or they’ll give you an abaya to borrow. So while the guys have to be prepared, the ladies can just show up and be given appropriate clothing.

At least it’s a practical response to a double standard 😉

Update: Reader Sean M, who is the best source of info on the MENA region notes that men can also borrow appropriate garb at the mosque. So you have no excuse not to visit on a layover 🙂


Everyone should wear socks. This isn’t in the rules, but you have to take your shoes off to go into the mosque, and ewwwwww!

The mosque actually has a nice infographic on what to wear and how to behave appropriately, which is helpful:


Other things to do in Abu Dhabi

The photos in this section are all from previous trips, given the aforementioned weather challenges, but I thought it might be helpful to outline some of the things to do Abu Dhabi other than go to the beach and the mosque. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments!


If you like archaeology and anthropology, don’t waste your time with the silly “Heritage Village” over on the corniche. Instead, plan a day trip to Al-Ain. You can even do this in a half-day if you’re an aggressive tourist, but I wouldn’t plan on spending the night regardless. You do want to check the timings, as many attractions in the UAE have opening hours that would be considered odd to Western tourists, but make sense once you’ve spend more time in the region.

The Al Ain National Museum isn’t going to impress anyone who has been to a museum…well, anywhere, but the fort it’s housed in is pretty cool.




The Al Ain Oasis is nearby, and while I can guarantee it’s not something Ben would enjoy, I liked seeing the ancient irrigation systems (still in use!), and learning more about the pre-oil economy of the Emirates.


If you really like old rocks (and my mom does, which is why we’d planned this as an outing), then the Al Hili Archaeological Park is worth a stop. It’s mainly a garden at this point, but there are some Bronze Age hill tombs, which are neat to see if that’s something you enjoy.

It’s also nice to see some context to the region in general. Many decry the UAE as not having had a “culture” before oil, but that really isn’t true. The Bedouin culture was thriving in the area, but the main settlements were in the mountains, with the coastal communities being more temporary. Even now, Al Ain has the highest per capita population of Emirati nationals, so just walking through the city is very different than being in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. It’s not glamorous or exotic by any means, but feels a bit more authentic in many ways, at least to me.


Ben has raved about dune-bashing near Dubai before, and it really is fun. I prefer the dunes out near Liwa, and if you’re staying in Abu Dhabi it’s easy to arrange a trip out to the dunes. If you don’t want to go dune-bashing, but just want to see the desert and maybe some camels, the road out to the Liwa Oasis is really easy, so you can certainly self-drive.



Just note that many of the gas stations in Abu Dhabi won’t take foreign credit cards (or maybe credit cards at all?), so you’ll want to grab cash. It’s also worth noting that when you get out of the cities the restroom facilities in Abu Dhabi generally get a B- on my already-generous foreign-bathroom scale. They’ll typically have running water, but that’s about it, so it’s definitely a BYO paper, hand-sanitizer, etc., situation. I’m sure you’re all dying to go now 😉


Abu Dhabi has a mangrove forest! This is the activity I was most excited about, so I was bummed when the weather didn’t cooperate. The Park Hyatt can actually arrange eco-tours of the mangroves, but you can also rent kayaks, or go out with various tour companies.

There are lots of birds and other wildlife, and most of us don’t see mangrove trees everyday, so I think it’s a fun outing. I always like being on the water though.

Don’t go “pearl diving” — that’s basically a tourist trap. I mean, I guess if you know what you’re getting into before you go it might still be fun. But it’s about as authentic as a Waikiki luau.


Given the option, I will almost always choose to spend time in Abu Dhabi over Dubai. I realize this is an unusual perspective, and I’m not necessarily recommending you do the same. The restaurants and shopping are certainly better in Dubai, but I appreciate the pace in Abu Dhabi, the relative lack of traffic, and the opportunity to do more “outdoorsy” stuff.

Even on a layover, you could easily visit the Mosque, and have a nice meal at the Souk Qaryat Al Beri across the river (it’s a small mall, not a traditional Souk). I like Ushna for Indian and The Meat Co. for everything else, but there are several great and easy options in the area.

Anyone else have advice for Abu Dhabi?

  1. Some comments :

    a) There are kanduras available for men to rent at SZGM, just like women can rent an abaya.
    b) All ADNOC petrol stations should accept Visa and Mastercard, including foreign issued cards. The staff are often confused about how to run a card without Chip/Pin, but if you tell them it is a “signature card” they will figure it out.
    c) Rather than Al Ain and Liwa, try a trip north to Ras Al Khaimah next time you are in the UAE. We have everything from sand dunes, mountains, beaches and luxury Waldorf Astoria properties up in RAK! 🙂

  2. @Tiffany did you take your mom to Ferrari World and Yas Water world also I recommend you go to Sir Bani Yas the next time you’re in Abu Dhabi.

  3. Totally agree with Sean M. Also it’s Muslims not moslems! And also how is pearl diving a tourist trap it’s not like you’ve gone for it yourself I see no reason as to why it’s a tourist trap it’s just like Scuba Diving. And also it isn’t necessary you have to wear socks the only place you need to remove your shoes is for the carpeted region where they pray and it is considered a sign of respect on the marble and other areas it’s perfectly fine to wear shoes.

  4. @ Sean M. — Thanks, that’s super helpful, and I’ve updated the post. LOVE RAK as well, didn’t realize that’s where you were based!

  5. I lived in Abu Dhabi for a year and in general, way prefer it to Dubai as well. Many friends visited me in Abu Dhabi and they all did day or overnight trips to Dubai. Without exception, they preferred Abu Dhabi as well. While Dubai certainly has the bells and whistles, at the end of the day it’s just malls and beaches. Frankly, the beaches in Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat are better than those in Dubai, and I agree with you – the pace is just nicer in Abu Dhabi.
    The ADNOC station on Yas Island does NOT accept credit cards – cash only – and they tell you that as you drive in.
    In general, I do recommend having cash for everything in abu Dhabi and Dubai – it’s much easier.
    Things to do in Abu Dhabi: Mosque is #1, of course. The beaches on Saadiyat Island and perhaps a day at the Saadiyat Island Beach Club (use to be the Monte Carlo Beach Club until earlier this year) are great ways to spend a day. Renting kayaks and going into the mangroves is high on my list as well. And if you’re there for Friday, Friday brunch is a MUST. All the hotels have brunches, but in my experience, the best ones are at the St Regis (on the Corniche, not on Saaidyat), the Ritz-Carlton, and the Fairmont. These are all day affairs – starting at noon and going until 4PM or so. They’re unlike any other brunch I’ve been to and are quite festive. After that, you go out. Would recommend Pearls & Caviar for a drink with a magnificent view over the Mosque (!!!) as the sun is setting, then moving on to Left Bank and the complex of clubs in the Shangri-La hotel complex. Other great ways to spend time include walking/ biking/ blading along the corniche when it’s not too hot. Dinner at Lebanese Flower sitting outside – at the Lebanese Flower near Al Wahda mall – is cheap and very fun, especially if you like smoking hookah. Having drinks and a night out at the complex of bars at the Le Meridien hotel is always fun as well. I loved living in Abu Dhabi and was very surprise at how much I loved living there.
    Oh and Tiffany – I remember that weekend in February. I had friends come from the US that weekend and we were disappointed by the never ending sandstorms 🙁

  6. Oh yes – people say Sir Bani Yas is great. I never made it.
    I did, however, go to the Qasr Al Sarab desert resort out near Liwa. I’d highly recommend that for a day or two if you can swing it. Truly an amazing experience!!!

  7. @ Chandan Bhat/Reader 1999 — Hmmm, you must be speaking about pearl diving off of SBY, yes? That is indeed like scuba diving, and is probably the better option if people can get that far out of town. The operators leaving from the Eastern Mangroves offer a much more watered-down experience. With many of those, you don’t even get in the water, which seems a waste.

    And I’ve changed the spelling in case I caused inadvertent offense, but to my knowledge “Moslem” and “Muslim” are the same word, and it’s the former I’ve seen used more predominantly in the region.

  8. I lived in the UAE in the 1980s. It’s come a long way and amazing how it has turned into a tourist hotspot! We used to do all these outdoorsy things. The best beaches are neither in Abu Dhabi or Dubai but on the Gulf of Oman. Also the northern and eastern part of the emirates are very rugged and beautiful. And if you are really interested in the area, Oman is great country to travel in. It’s not as fancy as the UAE with its malls and hotels but is scenically far more beautiful and interesting.

  9. @ _ar — Oh wow! I first spent time in the area in 2010, and we used to drive to Oman with some frequency (and without GPS!). It’s amazing to see the difference in just five years, and can’t imagine how different it must seem to you!

  10. I am loving your trip reports! I enjoy seeing the things that you are doing in these countries. I have always been hesitant to visit this region before, but after reading this and seeing all the activities that can be done, I think I might have to re-assess some of my travel plans!

  11. One thing to note at the mosque that isn’t listed on the rules anywhere. You cannot have tattoos showing. We thought we were prepared following all the rules listed above by my friend has a half sleeve. He had to put on a full robe..provided…to cover his arm. Had we known he could have dressed differently

  12. @Tiffany – The last time I was in Dubai was in 1990. When I see pictures of all the high rise buildings it gives me vertigo lol! The tallest building then was the world trade center.. and both sides of shaikh zayed road were empty if you headed towards jumeirah. The heart of the city was between deira and bur dubai and along the creek.

  13. Nice write up Tiffany. I’m planning a trip to the Maldives next year (transiting through DXB), and was thinking of adding a stopover for a few days in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Can you add any insight regarding the visa requirements? I assume it’s as easy as getting a 30 day stamp at immigration upon arrival at DXB (for US passport holders), or did you need to arrange anything in advance of the trip?

  14. I’m always intrigued as I pass the signs for camel races off the highway, but have never been so interested as to actually go.

    Has anyone been?

  15. When you said you “wouldn’t plan on spending the night regardless” in Al-Ain, did you just mean there was not much to see there, or was there any other concerns such as safety?

  16. @ TIS — Oh, it’s perfectly safe, just not much nightlife, and the hotel market is pretty lousy.

  17. “the Arabic roots of the two words are very different. A Muslim in Arabic means”one who gives himself to God,” and is by definition, someone who adheres to Islam. By contrast, a Moslem in Arabic means”one who is evil and unjust” when the word is pronounced, as it is in English, Mozlem with a z.”

  18. Interesting write-up, thanks Tiff any – will make use of when on a layover there in the future.

    Just as a side note, I didn’t realise it’s a requirement for authors here to have such an aversion to bare feet! 😉 Don’t plan to visit Oz/NZ anytime soon if so!

  19. Just some clarification: Abu Dhabi and Dubai are both the names of the actual emirates and the actual cities themselves. Abu Dhabi is the largest emirate, so it has more attractions (like Al Ain) than Dubai does, although Dubai city is bigger than Abu Dhabi city.

  20. Anyways. It may look fun but for the human rights.

    This is what I am talking about: http:/www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IvPIWzQcUY

    This act of violence against the human rights must be stopped.

    Take a look what am I talking about in this link.

  21. Tiffany
    Any recommendations for tour guides? transport to and from the airport? Will be there for a couple days mid Oct.

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