Abu Dhabi skyline

While it’s easy to be dazzled by Abu Dhabi’s designer malls and sky-high architecture, it’s the capital’s more refined charms that make it so special: the priceless art in its Louvre museum; the pearl-white minarets of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque; the constellation of five-star restaurants and hotels. Its beaches are breathtaking too, with soft white sands and crystal-clear shallows, while the desert reveals the emirate’s wilder side. October–February is always glorious, with temperatures of 25–35°C.

The best neighbourhoods to visit in Abu Dhabi

The Corniche and Downtown

The Corniche
The famous Abu Dhabi skyline

With soaring skyscrapers on one side, and the glittering Arabian Gulf on the other, the Corniche walkway showcases both the UAE’s natural beauty and its fierce ambition – the ideal introduction to the city. The St. Regis Abu Dhabi sits on the western end of the Corniche, right next to the high-end boutiques of Nation Galleria Mall, with views across the city and beach. As well as being one of the best places to stay, it’s also home to Azura Panoramic Lounge, whose sunset views and cocktails are legendary.

A few blocks inland from the Corniche lies Downtown Abu Dhabi, which offers yet more unique things to do and great places to eat – such as Qasr Al Hosn (an 18th-century fortress and museum), the souk-style shops of Central Market and the botanical gardens of Umm Al Emarat Park. Book a stay at Marriott Hotel Downtown, Abu Dhabi, and you’ll have it all on your doorstep – plus excellent restaurants and a rooftop pool to relax in.

Yas Island

Sports car
Yas Marina Circuit hosts the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

The city incorporates a cluster of small islands – many of which have their own theme, reflected in the attractions and activities that they offer. Yas (the easternmost isle) is all about thrills and spills, with three fantastic theme parks and Yas Marina Circuit, which hosts the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Even when Formula 1 isn’t in town, this is a lively neighbourhood, with concerts and events at Etihad Park, indoor skydiving and climbing at CLYMB Abu Dhabi, plus shopping, dining and entertainment at Yas Mall.

Looking for fun things to do with the kids? Enjoy the roller coasters and rides of Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi and Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. For easy access to all of the must-sees, W Abu Dhabi – Yas Island is the best place to stay – with six great restaurants and bars, plus a glamorous rooftop pool.

Saadiyat Island

Saadiyat Island
Saadiyat Island

While Yas brings the adrenaline, Saadiyat is Abu Dhabi’s cultural and artistic hub. It also boasts one of its most heavenly beaches. The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi sits right on the sugary sands, with uninterrupted sea views that are best enjoyed over cocktails and seafood in Buddha-Bar (it’s right on the beach), or from a plush poolside cabana.

But Saadiyat isn’t simply a fly-and-flop destination. Less than ten minutes’ drive away from the hotel, you’ll find priceless artworks and artefacts at Louvre Abu Dhabi, the first international outpost of Paris’s famous museum. From ancient Egyptian mummy wrappings to early Venetian Renaissance oil paintings, its collection is truly world-class. For contemporary Middle Eastern art, head to Manarat al Saadiyat (a five minute drive away). One of the country’s leading galleries, it also offers hands-on workshops and an arthouse cinema.

Al Maqta

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The magnificent architecture of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

No trip to Abu Dhabi is complete without a visit to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, near Al Maqta. It’s one of the best things to do in the city – and indeed the UAE – thanks to its magnificent architecture.

Topped with 82 minarets (domes) and surrounded by lush tropical gardens, the mosque is almost hypnotic in its symmetry, with hundreds of ornate archways revealing a glimpse of its inner sanctums. It’s possible to explore independently, but do consider taking one of the free cultural tours.

As well as explaining the mosque’s significance and history, the guides will answer all of your questions about Islam, the UAE and life in Abu Dhabi. For another unique perspective, stay at The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal: it overlooks the mosque and has a huge swimming pool and private beach.

Al Bateen

One of the city’s more laid-back places to visit, Al Bateen features trendy cafés, an upmarket marina and a long sandy beach, with kayaks and paddleboards available to hire from the watersports centre. Overlooking the marina’s million-dollar superyachts, The Abu Dhabi EDITION offers superior rooms and residences, with some seriously lavish pampering in its spa and hammam.

Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens has designed the hotel’s three signature restaurants – including Oak Room, whose ‘beef tasting menu’ features several incredible dishes to try, not least the Black Onyx tenderloin and 18-hour braised ribs. While you’re here, don’t miss the Zayed Heritage Center: it celebrates the UAE’s fascinating history, with artefacts and photographs exhibited in a charming, traditional-style Emirati village.

Al Wathba and the desert

Tree in the desert in Al Wathba
Al Wathba is where the city meets the desert

Up for a wilder adventure? On the edge of Abu Dhabi, where the city meets the desert, you’ll find lots of alternative things to do – from camel safaris and horse trekking to falconry and storytelling with Emirati guides.

A haven of infinity swimming pools, palm-shaded sun loungers, and sumptuous rooms, suites and villas, Al Wathba, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa, Abu Dhabi is just an hour’s drive from the Corniche (or thirty minutes from the airport), yet feels thrillingly far-flung. Here you can discover the dunes on nature walks, learn all about Bedouin life, and explore the night sky at the Al Sadeem Observatory.

Go deeper

If you plan to visit Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, book your ticket for the end of your holiday, so you can save up any cultural questions you’d like to ask your guide. Chances are, you’ll have lots! The tours are free and last around an hour.

Published: July 26, 2022

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