17 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Abu Dhabi
Capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is a well-ordered, industrious city with a pretty waterside location.
First inhabited by the nomadic Bani Yas tribe in 1760, the settlement remained a small fishing village until oil was discovered. The revenues transformed Abu Dhabi into the modern city of today — a bustling center of government and business.
With a coastline rimmed by beaches, Abu Dhabi is one of the best places to visit in the UAE to combine sun and sand with a city break.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Louvre Abu Dhabi are the major tourist attractions, though, with kayaking trips amid the Eastern Mangroves and the desert dune landscapes of Liwa Oasis within day-tripping distance, there are plenty of adventures and things to do on the city's doorstep.
Plan your stay with our list of the top attractions and things to do in Abu Dhabi.
- 1. Visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
- 2. Admire the Global Culture & Art Collection at the Louvre Abu Dhabi
- 3. Kayak Abu Dhabi's Eastern Mangroves
- 4. Chill Out on Saadiyat Island's Sandy Shore
- 5. Tour Qasr Al Watan
- 6. Thrill Seek at Ferrari World
- 7. See the City from the Water on a Cruise
- 8. Soak Up the Sun on Yas Island
- 9. Take the Kids to Warner Bros World
- 10. Fuel Up on Formula One at the Yas Marina Circuit
- 11. Day Trip to the Desert Dunes
- 12. Discover the Nature Reserve on Sir Bani Yas Island
- 13. Meet Falcons Close Up at Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
- 14. Cool Off at Yas Waterworld
- 15. Head Up to Observation Deck at 300 for High Tea
- 16. Qasr Al-Hosn
- 17. Heritage Village
- Things for Shoppers to Do in Abu Dhabi
- Where to Stay in Abu Dhabi for Sightseeing
1. Visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Clad in white marble, the beautiful and absolutely mammoth Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is Abu Dhabi's landmark building and by far the most popular sightseeing attraction in the city.
The mosque fuses Mameluke, Ottoman, and Fatimid design elements to create a harmonious and thoroughly modern mosque that celebrates Islamic architecture.
Artisans used glasswork, mosaic tiling, and intricate carvings to spectacular effect on both the interior and exterior.
It was opened in 2007 after nearly 20 years of construction. Able to hold 40,000 worshippers, it is the biggest mosque in the United Arab Emirates, and like the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Fujairah (the UAE's second biggest mosque), it is dedicated to the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan.
Non-Muslims are allowed into all areas of the mosque (including the vast library), and the mosque runs regular free guided tours
The Abu Dhabi City Tour is a good way to get acquainted with the city. This five-hour tour visits the Sheikh Zayed Mosque and the Etihad Tower observation deck with a guide. Transport and hotel pickup and drop-off are included.
Address: Al Khaleej al Arabi Street, Abu Dhabi
Official site: https://www.szgmc.gov.ae/en/
2. Admire the Global Culture & Art Collection at the Louvre Abu Dhabi
The Middle East's most spectacular museum, Louvre Abu Dhabi traces the entire history of humanity's artistic achievements, from the Neolithic right up to the current day.
The wealth and diversity of art on display, from ancient Egyptian statuary to famous paintings by Picasso, is mind-boggling, while the museum's contemporary architecture, with its galleries gathered under a vast silver dome, is a reason to visit in itself.
As well as the permanent collection, which runs over 12 galleries, several major temporary exhibitions are staged each year.
The Louvre is the first of three planned major museums to open on Saadiyat Island, which is set to become the cultural heartbeat of Abu Dhabi in the coming years.
The other two - Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum - are still in the planning phases.
Official site: www.louvreabudhabi.ae
3. Kayak Abu Dhabi's Eastern Mangroves
To see a different side of Abu Dhabi's steel and glass exterior, head into the mangrove forests that still ring the islands along the shore surrounding the city.
There's a bundle of kayaking tours available for all levels of experience and age, ranging from 1.5 hours to three hours of paddling.
The Eco Tour allows you to understand the important ecology of mangroves, as well as explore these beautiful last remnants of the city's forests. Another interesting thing to do for a really special experience, is to sign up for night tours and discover the mangroves by gliding through the waters after dark.
Official site: www.noukhada.ae
4. Chill Out on Saadiyat Island's Sandy Shore
Saadiyat Island is one of Abu Dhabi's top sun-seeker destinations.
Saadiyat Beach is a long strip of white sand on the island's western shore, with a small admission fee for beachgoers. It has excellent facilities, including on-duty lifeguards, a café for refreshments, and plenty of sun loungers and shades.
For active sun-seekers, you can rent kayaks and windsurfing equipment on the beach.
The beach is backed by a rim of protected dunes where hawksbill turtles nest. Access to the beach is on a raised wooden boardwalk so that this area is not disturbed.
If you want a more luxurious day on the sand, head farther north along Saadiyat Island's coast to the private Saadiyat Beach Club. A day pass grants you access to this exclusive beach strip with all its facilities, including a pool, restaurants, and various lounge areas.
5. Tour Qasr Al Watan
Recently opened to the public, Qasr Al Watan (the UAE's Presidential Palace) has quickly become a must-do on Abu Dhabi itineraries for anyone interested in digging deeper into the culture, history, and architecture of the UAE.
The grandiose interiors of the state rooms, including the Great Hall and Presidential Banqueting Hall, with their crystal chandeliers, domes, arches, vast amounts of marble, and intricate mosaic and muqarna (ornamental vaulting) detailing, is enough of a reason to visit.
For those with a historic bent, the House of Knowledge exhibit space offers a thorough and well-curated collection that covers the Arab world's prominent role in the history of modern science, literature, and art. A separate exhibit within Qasr Al Watan displays diplomatic gifts given by world leaders to the UAE.
Qasr Al Watan's library is a working public library with an impressive collection of books and periodicals, research articles, and rare manuscripts, all focused on the UAE's history, heritage, culture, social and political developments, and geography. Although most important as a research focus point for the local community and scholars, casual visitors touring the palace are welcome to visit.
Guided tours are available, as well as audio guides if you prefer to tour independently.
After dark, the palace exterior is lit up in a short sound and light show that whizzes through UAE history.
Address: Al Riyadh Street, Abu Dhabi
Official site: https://www.qasralwatan.ae/
6. Thrill Seek at Ferrari World
This branded theme park brings the thrill of Formula One racing to Abu Dhabi and is one of the city's top things to do for adrenaline seekers and families alike.
Small children can test out newly learned driving skills on the Junior GT track, while speed junkies can buckle up and ride the Flying Aces roller coaster, which clocks up speeds of 120 kilometers per hour on a 52-meter loop (the tallest in the world).
There's also a collection of Ferrari's cars, with models dating back to 1947, and a Ferrari factory tour and Ferrari knowledge game show for true car nerds.
Address: Yas Leisure Drive, Yas Island
Official site: www.ferrariworldabudhabi.com
7. See the City from the Water on a Cruise
For the best views of Abu Dhabi's glittering skyscrapers, you need to head out onto the water. The views of the high-rises are quite spectacular as you sail out from the marina.
Several different operators run tours for all types of budgets. During the day, island hopping tours are very popular and provide a relaxing sightseeing option. They include some beach and snorkeling time on various islands within the bay.
For city views, though, head out on a sunset or evening dinner tour so that you can see the city lights flicker into action as dusk sets over the city.
There are also pearl tours, where you head out into the mangroves area in a small dhow and learn about Abu Dhabi's pearl diving heritage.
8. Soak Up the Sun on Yas Island
Yas Beach on Yas Island is a popular choice for a full day at the beach. Day passes here grant beachgoers access to a wealth of facilities that will please both families looking for an easygoing beach day and groups of friends seeking a fun-filled beach experience.
There are cafés, restaurants, and food kiosks on-site offering a range of cuisines; a large swimming pool area with cabanas for rent; plenty of sun loungers and shades for lazing on the sand; and more lounging areas off the sand.
Yas Beach's water sports offices offer a range of rental equipment for active visitors, including kayaks, and lifeguards are on duty throughout the day.
Official site: www.yasbeach.ae
9. Take the Kids to Warner Bros World
Yas Island's latest theme park addition, Warner Bros World is dedicated to its cartoon, movie, and comic book heroes and villains, with all rides based around these characters.
With six "lands" all captured under one roof (the entire theme park is inside and air-conditioned) this is one of the best places to visit for families.
There are rides suitable for tots to teens. Bedrock and Cartoon Junction are specifically set up for little ones, while Gotham City and Metropolis are home to some of the big-hitter highlight rides, which combine 4D interactive content with roller coaster-style thrills and spills.
Official site: www.wbworldabudhabi.com
10. Fuel Up on Formula One at the Yas Marina Circuit
Abu Dhabi's Formula One Grand Prix, which takes place in November, is the city's big annual event and is held at Yas Marina Circuit on Yas Island.
If you're not in town for the racing, you can still experience some of that Formula One glamor year-round. There are regular guided tours of the circuit, including visits to the pits, grandstand, and podium for Formula One fans who want to see the track and get a behind-the-scenes look at the circuit.
For speed fans, though, Yas Marina Circuit is where you can book a variety of drive experiences (as either the driver or passenger in various styles of racing car) on the Formula One track itself.
If you just want to walk (or run, or cycle) on the track, every Tuesday and Saturday night the circuit is opened up for anyone who wants to use the track for exercise, and entry is free.
Address: Yas Leisure Drive, Yas Island
Official site: www.yasmarinacircuit.ae
11. Day Trip to the Desert Dunes
The most popular day trip or overnight trip from Abu Dhabi city is a desert safari to the south of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, either to the beautiful Liwa Oasis, which lays right on the edge of the Empty Quarter, or to the Al Khatim Desert near Al Ain.
The Empty Quarter desert contains the largest sand dunes in the world, and the dunes of both areas are a fantastic playground for anyone who wants to ride dune buggies, try sandboarding, go camel trekking, or simply soak up the vast star-strewn desert sky after dark at a desert camp.
Most trips include stops to visit a camel farm and offer a taste of traditional desert life, as well as heading into the dunes themselves.
The Evening Desert Safari is a great option for visitors with only a short time to spare, offering a six-hour tour into the emirate's desert environs. Visitors are taken on a 4x4 tour of the dunescape before settling down for dinner at a desert camp, with traditional tannura and belly dancing entertainment provided. Once at camp, guests can choose from a host of complimentary activities, such as sand-boarding and camel rides. All transport, with pickup and drop-off from Abu Dhabi hotels, and food is included.
12. Discover the Nature Reserve on Sir Bani Yas Island
One of the best short breaks from Abu Dhabi city is to the wildlife reserve of Sir Bani Yas Island, first established by Sheikh Zayed.
Indigenous Arabian wildlife such as gazelles and the endangered Arabian Oryx plus introduced animals, including giraffes and leopards, free roam within the vast reserve, which covers the interior of Sir Bani Yas Island.
The luxury resort here offers guests a variety of activities, including 4x4 safaris, walking safaris, and horse-riding tours to view wildlife within the reserve, as well as other activities, including hiking, mountain biking, and kayaking.
The island is accessed by boat (booked through the resort) from Jebel Dhanna, 260 kilometers west of the city.
13. Meet Falcons Close Up at Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is a working veterinary hospital for ill and injured falcons, but it also provides guided tours of its facilities for interested visitors.
The tours allow you to get up close and personal with these birds of prey in the wards, while an on-site museum explains the history of falconry.
Guided tours of the hospital (which must be pre-booked) are held twice daily Monday to Thursday and once daily Friday and Sunday and are one of the few opportunities a visitor has in Abu Dhabi to connect with traditional Emirati heritage.
If you're up for the challenge, you may also have the chance to hold one of the birds, or even to feed one, depending on the activities the vets are performing at the time of your visit.
Address: Sweihan Road, Abu Dhabi
Official site: http://www.falconhospital.com/
14. Cool Off at Yas Waterworld
If the heat is grinding you down, head to Yas Island to cool off at the water park. Yas Waterworld is a mammoth theme park, spanning 37 acres with 40 rides, including multiple waterslides and an inner-tube river ride.
For serious adrenaline seekers, there's also the world's first hydromagnetic tornado water rafting ride; the world's largest surfable sheet wave; and the Jebel Drop, a free-fall speed waterslide.
For families with smaller children, there are also dedicated areas for gentler play.
Facilities are excellent, with plenty of restaurants, cafés, and shops to make it easy to spend a whole day of water park action here.
Address: Yas Leisure Drive, Yas Island
Official site: www.yaswaterworld.com
15. Head Up to Observation Deck at 300 for High Tea
Abu Dhabi's answer to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is this observation deck. It offers skyline views from the highest point in the city, on the 74th floor of the Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers hotel (at 300 meters above sea level).
There is an entry fee for non-guests of the hotel, but the ticket price can be redeemed for food and drink from the observation deck's restaurant which serves snacks and light bites; soft drinks; and a popular high-tea experience.
Having high tea up here is a leisurely way to take in the views, which swoop across the coast and the city with the arid desert plains beyond.
Address: Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, Corniche Road, Abu Dhabi
16. Qasr Al-Hosn
The recently restored Al-Hosn Fort, also known as the Old Fort or the White Fort, is the oldest building in Abu Dhabi and one of its major historical points of interest.
The palace was built in 1793 as the residence of the ruling family and the seat of government.
The interior of the Al Hosn Fort has been modernized and is now used as a museum that traces the history and culture of Abu Dhabi, with oral histories and plenty of historical photographs on show.
The courtyard and the magnificent tile work over the main northern gate are notable features.
Address: Hamdan bin Mohammed Street, Abu Dhabi
17. Heritage Village
Abu Dhabi's Heritage Village is an authentic replica of a typical Bedouin village that gives visitors an idea of Emirati life before the oil boom.
It's located in a pretty beach area of the city, which is a pleasant place to wander after a visit.
There are exhibits featuring traditional day-to-day objects, workshops where you can watch craftspeople demonstrate Emirati metalwork and weaving skills, and displays introducing visitors to local agriculture and the pearl diving trade-the main economies here before oil was discovered.
The heritage village is a bit rundown these days, but it remains one of the few places in the city where traditional Emirati life can be explored.
Address: Breakwater Road, Abu Dhabi
Things for Shoppers to Do in Abu Dhabi
For mall shopping, Yas Mall on Yas Island is the major destination, with 370 shops.
For crafts, the World Trade Center Souk in downtown Abu Dhabi is a contemporary interpretation of a traditional bazaar, designed by architect Norman Foster. The shops here sell good gift items, ranging from incense and spices to inlaid woodwork and textiles.
To pick up a piece of classic Arab-style gold jewelry, head to the Gold Souq inside Madinat Zayed Shopping Center, where you'll find dozens of gold vendors.
Where to Stay in Abu Dhabi for Sightseeing
Abu Dhabi city is vast, and hotels are spread out across the area. For first time visitors, the Downtown area, near the Corniche, is a good base and has a wide variety of hotels. If you're after a resort-style stay, check out Saadiyat Island and the area near the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, along the shores that separate Abu Dhabi Island from the mainland.
- Near the Corniche, the opulent Emirates Palace is one of Abu Dhabi's top hotels, pampering its guests with plush suites and personal butlers.
- Nearby, the modern Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers offers spectacular views of the Arabian Gulf from its famous Observation Deck, as well as apartment-style accommodation for families.
- For resort living, Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri has a private beach with views of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque just across the water, a high-end souk connected to the hotel, and a pool within lush gardens.
- Also in this area is The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal, known for its family-friendly features, including a kids' club, play areas, and multiple pools, as well as its excellent restaurants.
- The Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel & Resort is popular for its private lagoon with a beach and swimming pools in the Downtown area, allowing a resort feel right in the heart of the city.
- Southern Sun Abu Dhabi is a modern high-rise in Downtown, known for its superior service, lovely roof pool area, and ample rooms.
- The Holiday Inn is another highly rated mid-range option outside of the Downtown area and a short drive from the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It has a gym, spa, pool, and large rooms set up for both business and leisure travelers.
- Budget accommodation is difficult to find in Abu Dhabi, but many mid-range hotels offer steep discounts - especially during low season. If you're watching your wallet, the Novel Hotel City Center offers excellent value in the heart of the city, just a few minutes' stroll from the Corniche. There's a pool and gym and neutral-toned rooms.
- Also in the city center, the Al Diar Dana is a popular budget option with rooms that come with kitchenettes.
- On Yas Island, the Centro Yas Island Abu Dhabi by Rotana is reasonably priced, with a pool and restaurant. It lies within easy access of Ferrari World, the island's famous theme park.
More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com
More Middle Eastern Cities: For another thoroughly modern city known for its contemporary skyline, check out Dubai also in the UAE. If you're looking for historic cities, head to North Africa where Cairo (in Egypt), Tunis (in Tunisia), and Marrakesh and Fes (Morocco) offer grand architecture of past centuries, and traditional souqs.
Exploring the UAE: Al Ain is the UAE's most laid-back city and a great place to head after the buzz of Abu Dhabi. Don't miss Sharjah if you're interested in history or art, as this city packs in a bundle of museums and galleries. If you want both the beach and mountains in easy reach, head to Ras Al Khaimah, where it's as much about adventure activities on Jebel Jais as it is about sunbathing on the sand.