Introduction

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While not quite as popular as Dubai, Abu Dhabi has grown rapidly in the past few years, and has become a rival tourist destination in the UAE. It can take as little as half a day to hit the highlights, or as many as four days, especially if you include tours of nearby places.

General Tips

Abu Dhabi has plenty of chain hotels in clusters. Corniche has clusters of hotels on either end.

I stayed at the Marriott Hotel Downtown. It’s was in the middle of downtown, not walkable to the sites, but it was central to going to the Emirates Palace hotel and Corniche. The other reason that the location suited me was because there were a lot of food options in walkable distance.

The most convenient hotel in terms of distance to the airport/Grand Mosque/Falcon hospital is the Hilton Capital Grand Abu Dhabi, followed by the Hyatt Capital Gate.

There are also other upscale hotels near the canal, such as the Ritz Carlton and Shangri-La, to name a few. However, these hotels are less ideal in terms of tourism locations.
You can fly into Abu Dhabi. Etihad is the airline of choice but other airlines also fly into Abu Dhabi. The other option is to fly to Dubai or Sharjah and take a taxi or bus. Dubai has lot more flights than either Abu Dhabi or Sharjah.

I mentioned in the trip summary that I took a cab from Abu Dhabi. It normally takes 90 minutes, but it took me about 2 hours because of traffic. It typically costs around 300 AED for a taxi ride between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I would recommend utilizing your hotel lobby or concierge staff for arranging a taxi to take you to Dubai if you’re coming from Abu Dhabi, or vice versa. Note that the outside taxis are cheaper but will take only cash.

Getting to Dubai directly from home is pretty easy by air. Many international and regional carriers have Dubai as a destination, and depending on where you’re coming from and which airline, there may be a direct flight (which I find better than having a stop, especially in Europe). From the east coast of the US, this is typically Emirates.
Abu Dhabi is not that walkable of a city, so you’ll either need to use the bus or a metered taxi. I recommend taxis, because they’re quite inexpensive.

The issue with taxis though is that they’re hard to flag down. This is because taxis can’t stop just anywhere on the street. They must not block traffic. It’s of course easiest to get a taxi from a taxi stand, but there aren’t that many. My suggestion is either to rent a taxi for the day with a pre-agreed price or rent a car. You can take city bus also.

If you can’t or don’t want to use an all-day taxi, you can use taxis with metered rides. The easiest way to find a taxi outside of a taxi stand is to walk to a hotel that calls taxis or have the taxi number ready to call-in a taxi. The exception to this is for getting a taxi at the Emirates Palace hotel. The taxis that go in there are typically booked in advance, and the valets there don’t call one. I waited for 30 minutes after asking a valet to call a taxi at the Emirates Palace hotel before I walked across the street, to the Rotana hotel (“Khalidiya Palace Rayhaan by Rotana”) where they have an active taxi stand and valet service.

The other thing that I would recommend is using Google Maps Navigation, or some other trustworthy GPS while going in taxis. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, occasionally taxi drivers don’t know how to get somewhere, and Google does. This happened on my way to the falcon hospital. Secondly, there are a handful of taxi drivers who cheat their customers by quite a bit (30 AED or more) by taking the long way around.

Lastly, always get a receipt. You’ll get an idea how much it costs to go to a location, and if you find that you have to file a complaint against a driver (for cheating you), you’ll have that information. Or, if you forget something in a cab, it’s easy to track the cabbie.

Here’s a list of sites that either have a taxi stand or will call a taxi for you:

  • The Grand Mosque (taxi stand)
  • Corniche, only in front of beach (taxi stand)
  • The Falcon Hospital (will call a taxi)
Transportation Tips Summarized:

Tip #1: If you can, book a taxi for the whole day. Work with your hotel for an agreed upon price.

Tip #2: If you don’t use an all-day reserved taxi, go to a hotel with a taxi stand and valet service so that they can call a taxi for you or have the telephone number for the taxi company handy to call-in.

Tip #3: Use Google Maps Navigation (or some other trusted GPS) while in the taxi.

Tip #4: Always get a receipt, and save the receipts! You can take a picture of the receipt with your phone if you think you will lose it
There’s a lot of food options in Abu Dhabi, though restaurants strictly adhere to meats being Halal (so meats won’t be pork based).

The trickier part is to find one that’s priced within your budget within walkable distance to your hotel. I recommend food places to be walkable because of the difficulty in finding cabs. Of course, if you’re going somewhere upscale, this shouldn’t be a problem because the restaurant can call you a cab.
The currency of the United Arab Emirates is the Dirham (AED).

Credit card acceptance isn’t that good in Abu Dhabi, so make sure to get cash out from the ATM. You can find ATMs at malls and shopping centers. A good rule of thumb for how much cash you need per day is approximately USD 50 per person.
If you read the UAE or Dubai Sightseeing Information page, you’ll see that I’ve been told by Dubai residents that there are three seasons in Dubai – hot, very hot, and very, very hot. The climate in Abu Dhabi is similar, is dry (though less dry than Dubai), even with the water around the city. Be sure to keep Chapstick with you and water.
Going in November, the weather was just hot (~85F or 29C). That means it’s still a good idea to use sunscreen and carry water with you.

I’ve not been to Abu Dhabi in other seasons, namely around Ramadan, like I did Dubai. So, I don’t know how Abu Dhabi differs from Dubai with respect to their strictness, but I am sure that visitors and residents alike (no matter your religion) must respect rules of Ramadan, including the consuming of food and beverages. I wouldn’t try to test their limits because I have no idea whether they’ll warn you or not, so please be careful if you’re going around that time.
The UAE has restrictions on their internet, including on any voice and video conferencing applications. This means that Skype, Google Hangouts video conferencing, Vonage, Facetime, WhatsApp voice call, etc. don’t work regardless of whether you’re on cellular data service or WiFi because they’re blocked. Don’t try using a VPN to get around these restrictions – VPNs are prohibited as well. The penalties are steep if you get caught (to the tune of over US $500k).
Re-posted here, in case you didn't see the UAE page.

Local Laws and Customs

Though this country is one of the most progressive countries in the middle east, it’s still a traditional Islamic country and some laws must be followed strictly. This is most apparent during Ramadan, when everyone, including tourists, must abide by the “no food and no beverage” rules in public (they are lenient with people eating in the privacy of their own rooms, and perhaps in hotel lounges).

Other laws that should be observed in the UAE are dressing modestly in public, though some sites, especially religious sites, require more covering, and most importantly – not disparaging the royal family. The latter is severely punished, regardless of who you are or where you’re from.

Sites

Cost: Free.

Hours: Open 24 hours.

Time to spend: 1 – 2 hr.

Description:

This is the biggest mosque in the UAE. They call is grand, but that’s…an understatement.

It took over 10 years to build with materials from the UAE and also many countries outside of the UAE, like Germany, India, China. It’s in the list of top mosques, allowing for as many as 40,000 worshipers, but it’s still expanding to be able to accommodate 1.85 million worshipers. To put that in perspective, the world’s largest mosque in Mecca has the capacity for 4 million worshipers.

The Grand Mosque is open 24 hours, and is free to visit. There is a strict dress code for both male and female (though the male dress code is a bit laxer). Men are not allowed to wear shorts, and women are not allowed to show any hair and skin (other than the face). Men and women can rent abayas for free.

The dress code is taken rather seriously, so please respect the rules when visiting the site.

Verdict: Worth it.
Cost: Free.

Hours: Open 24 hours.

Time to spend: 1 hour.

Description:

This is a 7km promenade along a part of the Abu Dhabi coast and beach. It’s a nice walk and place to relax, and ends at the Emirates Palace Hotel. I wouldn’t recommend walking along Corniche from the beach to the Emirates Palace hotel, as it’s still 2 miles/3.2 km.

Verdict: Skippable.
Cost: Free.

Hours: Open weekdays, but closed on the weekends and when VIPs visit.

Time to spend: 30 min - 1 hr.

Description:

The Emirates Palace hotel is a luxury hotel that’s been touted as having palace luxury. It’s been used in movies and TV shows, like the Fast & Furious 7. Other than its appearances in entertainment, it’s known for having a gold ATM (which, unfortunately, was under maintenance when I was there). Non-guests are free to visit the hotel, except on weekends and when VIPs visit.

The best views of the Etihad Towers are from the grounds of the Emirates Palace Hotel.

Verdict: Worth it, but skippable if short on time.
Cost: 170 AED per person (60 AED, ages 5-9) for 2-hour tour. Credit cards are accepted.

Hours: All tours must be reserved in advance on the Falcon Hospital's website. Tours unavailable on Fridays and holidays. Saturday tours are only available Oct 1 - May 31.

Sunday-Thursday: 10AM and 2PM Saturday: 10AM

For up-to-date information on the tour times, check the site for open hours.

Time to spend: 2 hours just for tour, or 3 hours for tour and lunch.

Description:

Falcons are highly regarded in UAE, like many of the countries in the Middle East. They were traditionally kept as pets and used for hunting back in the day, but they’re now simply kept as pets. The Falcon Hospital of Abu Dhabi treats pet and wild falcons alike, though wild falcons are required by law to be released into the wild. The treatments that the hospital provides ranges from when the falcons are babies, collecting feathers that they’ve shed in the event of required feather transplants, pedicure, and also regular treatment of illnesses.

It’s quite informative and hands-on. On top of being educated on falcons, including the fact that falcons have passports, everyone who wanted to, got to hold a falcon on their arms (with gloves and proper supervision!). Falcon feeding was interesting and cool.

The Falcon Hospital is located near the airport and requires advanced bookings for either a 2- or 3-hour tour.

Verdict: Worth it to do 2-hour tour, if it’s in your budget.
Other Abu Dhabi sites (not visited):
  • Ferrari World – this is an amusement park by Ferrari. It’s on Yas Island.
  • Yas Island – A man-made island resort area. It features many restaurants, shops, beach, and the Yas Marina Circuit.
     Outside of Abu Dhabi
  • Al Ain Tour (link to Al Ain page)
  • Qasr Al Sarab: A picturesque hotel (resort) in the desert.

 

Gallery

 

(Trip made in November 2016)

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