All things grand and impressive on first impression, Abu Dhabi deserves more than just your typical airplane layover quick-stop. Behind the imposing buildings of the city center, the diverse capital city of the United Arab Emirates has much to offer.
Over time, I’ve discovered on my visits the deep history and culture that balances out the world-class shopping and dining experiences. With a few days, you can go from lounging on the beach to walking among mangroves to admiring the extraordinary Grand Mosque. If you want to experience the full diversity of Abu Dhabi, here’s my recommended itinerary for a first-time trip.
A hat and SPF are essential to stay protected in the desert heat.
If you only have time for one thing, make it the Emirates Palace.
First-timers can get their bearings on a half-day tour of the main sights, like the Grand Mosque, Emirates Palace Hotel, Etihad Tower, Qasr Al Watan, and Royal Palace Area—all with air conditioned transportation.
For coffee lovers, indulge in an afternoon brew at the Emirates Palace hotel's Le Café. The signature Golden Cappuccino is sprinkled with real 24-carat gold leaf.
Hit the desert sands in the evening with a 6-hour adventure on an evening dinner safari. Ride in a 4WD, then enjoy a traditional meal with teas. Henna painting, sheesha smoking, and a belly-dancing show also are included.
Rise before the sun and see the desert from a new perspective—a hot air balloon. Some tours include a falcon show, gourmet breakfast, and live music upon landing.
In the city, take a closer look at the main sights with a full day tour. Dedicate time for the Grand Mosque—said to be the world’s most beautiful—where you can admire intricate art and carvings, as well as the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s more than 99,000 square feet (9,200 square meters) of galleries.
In the evening, watch the sunset over the Persian Gulf on a cruise of the Abu Dhabi waterfront.
Venture to the Garden City, the picturesque oasis town of Al Ain set in the heart of the rocky Hajar Mountains. See the region’s unique topography, uncover its Bedouin heritage, experience Arab culture with a trip to the local camel market, and refresh yourself by dipping your toes in the hot springs.