I recently took a trip with my mom and sister to Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi, you may wonder? Where in the world…Well, let us begin. This charming seaside city-Abu Dhabi- is the capital located in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and it is also the largest emirate of the seven, one being the internationally popular sister city and emirate of Dubai. After a 12 hour flight from my home in New York City, I could finally say I arrived! I bet you can imagine just how excited we were when we landed.
The moment our feet hit the ground we didn’t waste any time and we started exploring this intriguing faraway land. To start our pursuit of an authentic Arabic experience, we had important decisions to make. First, we had to decide on transportation. How the heck were we going to get around the city? Well, we had three options: one was to rent a car, the second was to take a bus tour and the third and final was to “taxi-it” around town. This is where deductive thinking and strategic planning merged together to formulate our master plan. Wait for it…
To begin, we opted out of renting a car because it would be pricey, we’d have to worry about parking and quiet frankly we were also a bit intimidated by the speedy local drivers. We also opted out of the bus tour. The mental image of being crammed on a bus and rushed to see everything within minutes sent chills down our spines. This left us with one final, but actually very practical option – taking a taxi. The taxi’s were very cheap ( much cheaper than anywhere in the states) and we were able to travel on our time.
I came proudly equipped with a copy of DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Dubai & Abu Dhabi, though we followed this pretty well, we also stumbled upon some unmentioned gems. After all that we saw and did, I have officially come up with my own tried and true list of the 10 “must sees”. And, so I’ll take this time to share with you. Please Note: This list is in no particular order, but each item guarantees a great time!
10 Ways to Spend Your Time in Abu Dhabi:
1. Take a free tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The largest mosque in the UAE and eighth largest in the world, this is one site you cannot miss! During the one-hour free tour, we gained a new perspective about the Islamic religion and we also experienced an eclectic collage of art, architecture and ambiance. Truly amazing!
2. Explore the Fish Souke. Located on the Northeast side of the Corniche, the Fish Market is loaded with daily “fresh catches”. Inside we were visually arrested by rows upon rows of vendors selling an array of crustaceans and fish ( some of which I have never even seen) and some more popular ones like Hammour, swordfish, crabs and even baby shark! And the cool part is, if you purchased a fish you could have it cleaned and cooked (fried or grilled) on site!
3. Walk the Corchine. After exploring the Fish Market, make your way across the street and dedicate about two hours to walking the Corniche. This main pedestrian walkway way along the water and the city is 8 km long with great views of the bright blue water. There’s also plenty of shaded seating along the way so you can sit and rest while you take in a comfortable breeze and warm Arabian waters. We actually packed a lunch that day and enjoyed it on a bench overlooking the gulf.
4. Visit Al Ain. It is the second largest city in Abu Dhabi and is full of culture and heritage. Start off at the Al Ain Palace Musuem. This is the former palace of the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan (very cool). Then just around the corner trek through the Al Ain Oasis. Here you’ll walk through a road-guided lush palm and date tree forest, and if you are lucky, you’ll peek a few orange and banana trees too. Also, take notice of the irrigation system which has been used for years to keep this Oasis well watered and growing. In the Oasis signs will guide you to the Al Ain National Musuem. The museum offers a quick, yet in depth recap of local history and heritage of Al Ain. Finally, your last stop in Al Ain must include an adventurous ride up Jabel Hafeet (car required), a 1,249 m tall mountain that borders Oman. The views at the top are magnificent ( just imagine a sudden, steep and high mountain in the middle of the desert). At the bottom of Jabel Hafeet you’ll be greeted by yet another interesting sight – Green Mubazarrah, peppered with hot water springs and lush grass growing from the dunes!
5. Enjoy a delicious dinner at Al Mayass Abu Dhabi at the Sheraton Hotel and Resort. An Armenian and Lebanese treat, Al Mayass has a great variety of hot and cold mezza’s meant for sharing with your entire table. But be warned: if you order too many mezza’s, you may not have room for the delicious entrees – true story!
6. Visit a carpet shop. Even if you’re not looking to buy an authentic carpet, it’s worth the visit to learn about them. There is a lot of work that goes into these pieces of art and each one is made by hand, either out of wool or silk (or both). Some take months to a year to complete! Either way rugs and carpets are native to the Arabic culture and each piece of art tells a different story through a perplex web of woven silks and wool. Make sure to ask about a few this like: “knots per square inch”, the difference between silk and wool carpets, and their various names meant to celebrate each carpets designs, one being Tree of Life or the very popular hunting theme.
7. Visit The Souk Central Market to do a little (or a lot) of shopping. The Souk is indoors and full of stores selling silk scarves, beaded slippers, genie lamps, carpets, spices, lamps and all sorts of Arabian treasures. We purchased a few souvenirs for our family and friends and a few treasure for ourselves, of course. The best part is you can bargain down the prices!
8. Explore Yas Island. Spend a few hours at Ferrari World, which is the world’s largest indoor theme park and is home to the world’s fastest roller coaster. Afterwards, have a drink at the ViceRoy which is located next to the Yas Marina Circuit Formula 1 Motorsports track. While we were there, we got to see some hot wheels race around the track at speeds which shook the ground I stood on.
9. Visit the Manarat Al Saaddiyat on Saadiyat Island. Saadiyat Island is still in the process of being developed as a major cultural and residential zone, so The Saadiyat Story is a great exhibition to visit if you want to get a better idea of Abu Dhabi’s growth trajectory in the next few years. Some exciting projects include the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and New York University. Next, enjoy a delicious lunch at Fanr. Here, we indulged in a nice glass of wine and sunk our teeth into an exotic variation of an American classic- the Camel burger. Yes, that’s right, a hamburger made with camel meat. Sounds a little wrong, but its quite delicious! Another gem worth trying is the popular and super refreshing watermelon and feta cheese salad.
10. Last, but not least – Reserve a full-day desert tour. There are so many companies that offer day and evening safari’s that last for a few hours. However, we were more interested in doing a full day desert tour during which we could explore the desert more thoroughly and have a more local and cultural experience. So we stumbled upon Liwa Desert Safari (thank you Google!) which offers a full day desert tour with a personal driver who drives you into the desert and to Liwa, so we booked it! Our driver picked us up at 8:30 in the morning and brought us back to the apartment at 8:30 in the evening. During the day we drove to the desert and did about 2 hours of dune bashing. We also visited a camel farm where we drank fresh camel milk and saw a 3 week old baby camel. At lunch time we pit stopped at a local eat-in in the oasis of Liwa. Here we enjoyed a very authentic Arabic lunch. Our taste buds drowned in savory flavors of delicious chicken biryani, breaded and fried Hammour (fish), lamb stew, soup and fresh vegetables. After lunch, we drove along a road in the desert to the Moreeb dune, which is the tallest dune in the UAE at 120 meters tall! (we did not and could not dune bash here for safety reasons.) We ended the tour at Qsar al Sarab resort and spa, where we witnessed a beautiful desert sunset. Our driver was amazing and super knowledgeable and the experience was certainly one-of-a-kind!