Warning: this itinerary does not include flashy malls or theme parks.
Abu Dhabi is a luxury destination for people who want to be pampered but if you look past the shiny façade you’ll see the grit of any big city, and experience an eclectic mix of cultures. You’ll notice immediately how there are no addresses in the country, people give directions almost exclusively by dropping pins and telling them what business is on the ground floor of the building; although there are many big towers that have specific names, like Gate Towers.
Me giving directions to my house:
When you come off the highway to Mussafah, turn left in front of Safeer Mall, turn right after the mall and then the first left at the pharmacy and then drive to the end. It’s the building with Blah Blah Blah business. No, I don’t know the name of the street…does my street have a name?
When you are taking taxis around the city, if it’s not a major landmark you have to know the landmark nearby or give up your phone for navigation. It’s a confusing, frustrating city and when its 45+ degrees with so much humidity you need a snorkel to breathe; like it is so hot some days you can actually hear the heat. That being said, generally, it’s not wise to visit the UAE between May and October. From October to May though, the weather is fantastic, that is, when they aren’t experimenting with the clouds. Lazy days spent at the beach and peaceful evenings walking along the path at The Eastern Mangroves are the norm for Abu Dhabiites. So if you find yourself in Abu Dhabi during these delightful months, I have put together a perfect tourist itinerary for 48 hours in the sandbox.
Day 1 Morning:
Any proper stay in the capital of the UAE should begin with a hearty Arabic breakfast at Café Arabia. The name is a bit on the nose but their food is awesome and the ambience is perfect for a sunny morning breakfast. The Café is on 15th Street in Villa 637 but many taxi drivers know where it is due to its popularity. They serve traditional Arabic breakfast but if you’re not in the mood for foul medames (fava beans cooked with spices and vegetables or labneh (cream cheese like yoghurt) then they have an excellent selection of western style breakfast, as well as veggie and vegan options. My personal favourite is their avocado toast with poached eggs.
After breakfast head over to Saadiyat Beach; there are 3 other beaches in Abu Dhabi, Corniche, Bateen and Yas. Corniche and Bateen Beach are free but if you’re a female alone or an all female group you probably won’t feel comfortable there unless you pay to go to the all female area at which point you might as well just go to Saadiyat because it is far superior in every way. Yas Beach is nice enough but you don’t get the big waves you would get at Saadiyat and sometimes jerk jet skiers think it’s funny to harass swimmers with waves, spray, and a ton of unpleasant noise. Last time I checked it was about 100 aed to get into Yas Beach, the only real benefit to going here is that you can order food and alcohol to your beach lounge chair.
Saadiyat though, is by far one of the nicest beaches I’ve ever been on (I’ve been to a lot of beaches-Zanzibar still wins though), it’s clean, the sand is luscious and soft, and you can usually find a quiet spot away from the crowds. 25 aed will get you admission to the beach, an extra 50 will get you a beach lounge chair and umbrella but then you are stuck next to the hordes. Be aware that there is no shade on the rest of the beach and you are not allowed to bring your own umbrella or chair….even when there is none left to rent…no, this policy does not make sense! There is food and beverages to be bought at the beach but bring your own if you want to save some money. Saadiyat Beach is truly a little paradise, I’ve found it is the perfect antidote to a stressful week of teaching.
If you’re a high brow traveller than you can always head over to Saadiyat Beach Club, this place will set you back a few hundred dirhams and your right arm, but having spent 2 glorious and glutinous days there I would recommend it if you can afford it. (FYI I won a free pass for kicking ass at a spelling bee-being an expat can occasionally be ridiculous). The Beach club has a large pool with cabanas set up on the pool’s edge, there are regular beach lounge chairs under umbrellas around the pool and on the beach. They have a gym and spa complete with sauna, steam room, hot and cold tubs. Obviously you can also order food and drinks; might I suggest the passion fruit margarita. It’s hard to leave this place, but leave you must because you HAVE so much more to do. The UAE has some of the best sunsets I have ever seen and as enticing as it is to watch the sun go down over the ocean, the most impressive and unique sunsets happen over the mosque and in the desert.
Day 1: Afternoon
Around 1 pm as the sun is high in the sky, burning your retinas off, head over to Emirates Palace for lunch. I cannot personally recommend the Camel Burger but apparently it’s a must eat here. I can personally recommend the Gold Cappuccino-not because it is particularly tasty, it’s pretty standard; but for the novelty of drinking gold in one of the richest countries in the world. After lunch, walk it off in the gardens of Emirates Palace. Just to clarify- it’s a hotel not a palace and unlikely that you’ll meet royalty here.
After walking off your camel burgers you’ll need to hop in a cab to get to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, really if you go to Abu Dhabi and don’t visit the mosque then why did you even come here? I’ve been about 4 times over the last 3 years and I would go again if asked. The mosque stands white and glimmering in the sun as you enter the city from the airport. Every one tries to catch pictures of it from the car window but you’re better off waiting until you actually go. The mosque at this time of the day will probably be set against a background of brilliantly saturated blue sky, perfect for your instagrammable moments. The harrowing taxi ride or drive down Sheikh Zayed Road will have you anxious and wondering how people survive their daily commute to work without being reduced to a puddle of panic induced tears; but once you step inside the grounds of The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the chaos and the stress melts away. An oasis of calm and cleanliness in the middle of a bustling, sweltering, and dusty city. This Mosque is the 2nd largest in the world, purposely built to be the 2nd largest so as not to overshadow Mecca… because Haram! The mosque features the largest hand knotted carpet in the world inside as well as claiming some of the largest chandeliers. In addition to the large scale of everything, the columns are designed with a whimsical stone floral inlay motif. I find the contrast between a cathedral and a mosque interesting; where a cathedral is so heavy, austere and oppressive; Mosques tend to be bright, light and feel as though you are walking through a fairy-tale.
Some practical tips for the mosque: you can wear your own clothes but your shirt should be long sleeved and not at all revealing, you cannot wear shorts (man or woman) or for women you can wear a long skirt/dress and obviously cover your hair. You can borrow an abaya and shayla and for men a kindora (traditional clothes) at the mosque if you want. It is free to enter and at 5pm there are guided tours but you can also guide yourself.
Day 1 Evening:
It’s obviously been a long day and you probably want to have a seat and maybe some kind of beverage but you may also want to do a little souvenir shopping, so taxi over to the Shangri-La Hotel and Souq Al Qaryat Al Beri. The Souq is a traditional style market selling traditional items. I would say that if you want to do a lot of shopping you’re better off waiting till the next day when you have time to go to Madinat Zayed Mall. But since you’re already in this end of town (Al Maqta) your best bet is to shop a little and then walk down the beach to Pearls and Caviar for a drink overlooking the Grand Mosque. This spot is where you can truly appreciate the sun setting over the mosque and watch it light up with various colours once the sun goes down.
Day 1 Night:
Afterwards it will be time to eat and figure out where you want to spend your night. I suggest you go to Caramel at The Saadiyat St. Regis Resort for an all inclusive night brunch. The UAE has some of the most spectacular, decadent, glutinous brunches I have ever seen; don’t be fooled though, this is not your average midday meal and mimosa, they usually run from 12:30 to 4:30 ish with rooms full of food and unlimited cocktails for anywhere between 300-500 dirhams. A night brunch is basically the same thing but you can start getting trashed after dark, like civilized people. Caramel’s brunch is not buffet style as most places are, for 199 dirhams you get table service for a set menu and drinks. They had a few different salads that were super flavourful, truffle mac and cheese bites, sliders, and tiny tacos; the menu appears to have changed since I went but it’s probably just as delectable. The brunch ends at 10pm so if you’re still up for more fun then there are numerous options around the capital. *Thursday night is the best time to head over to Stills at The Crowne Plaza on Yas Island during the cooler months, as they have a huge open space outside (*great for non-smokers), with various table options and ladies get 5 free drinks. Long live ladies night in the Emirates, so no matter what night(s) you are in town there is sure to be a place to drink for free that suits your style of nightlife, just look on the capitallist for up to date information. McGettigans on the weekend will provide you with more than enough debauchery. For a more chilled out, upscale vibe then Barfly at the Ritz will be your best bet or the rooftop of the Aloft is super relaxed. Asia de Cuba on the weekend is another great outdoor bar and Ray’s Bar on the top of Etihad Towers has stellar views of downtown Abu Dhabi.
Right about now, you’re probably ready to collapse so head back to your hotel and make sure you sleep in the next morning. If your hotel has a pool then do take advantage this morning, you paid a lot for it after all, and if you’re feeling the previous night’s beverages rattling around in your skull, cooled water will take the pain away.
Day 2 Morning:
Breakfast time, head to Jones the Grocer, there are a few locations around the city. They serve all around great coffee and food, my favourite is their peanut butter and banana acai bowl. NoLu’s is another tasty option and they have 1 location at Galleria Mall, that I know of. They have an extensive and expensive menu, I love their Huevos Rancheros and Cinnamon Cappuccino.
Time to do some serious shopping, get in a cab and go to Madinat Zayed Mall. Normally I would never send someone to a mall but this is not your average shopping center. It’s basically a huge indoor souq where you can find endless spools of silk, cotton, linen and more, in every pattern and colour known to humankind. There is a gold souk where you can find beautiful original gold jewelry as well as pearls and silver. This is the place to haggle for the best deals and it’s also where I get all my jewelry made, so if you’re in town for a week, take your loose stones, broken jewelry, or even costume jewelry you’d like to have copied in real metal, and haggle for some truly original and stunning pieces. There is a marvellously overcrowded shop that sells really awesome, old nautical instruments, single tiles, doorknobs, and a whole assortment of random items; I bought my Dad an old Boy Scouts Compass from this shop. You’ll have to go on a hunt for this place because I literally never remember where it is, don’t recall if it has a name, but am always so pleased when I alight upon it. Other awesome things to buy are Jelabiyas (traditional women’s dress-very colourful and comfortable), carpets, dallahs (traditional coffee/tea/pot), and spices. If you’re in town for a week or so, you can buy some fabric here and take it to one of the many tailors in this city for a custom made garment. My personal favourites are Joury Tailors, Orchid Tailors, and Ramzan Tailors. Time constraints will dictate that you go to Ramzan Tailors, because they are way faster than Joury and Orchid and actually a bit cheaper but still produce well made and perfectly fitted clothing. Ask for Asad at Ramzan Tailors as he is the only guy who speaks English. You can take your favourite dress and have them copy it in a different fabric, you can take a sketch of an original design or a picture of an item and they can make it as well! Once all of your shopping is done take a drive out to Mussafah.
One of the best things about living in Abu Dhabi is that the large population of people from India, means a large and quite impressive selection of Indian food from various regions. I haven’t been to India but I’ve been told that the UAE has the best Indian food outside of India…so I’ll take their word for it. The most authentic experience you will have is in Mussafah, most people will tell you it’s a crap area and not to bother but living and working there has made me see it in a whole new light. I used to live on Reem Island which is a really nice place but there’s nothing there; now I walk outside my apartment and find a dosa place, Korean restaurant and Korean market, little fruits and vegetable shops, and countless other little shops that are way cheaper than anything you’ll find on Reem or other expat hubs. So go to Mussafah for Indian. For southern indian food, which I find to be more fragrant, try Banana Leaf Restaurant. Prawns in curry leaves…yes please!
The last stop on this whirlwind trip is a shisha bar…because why did you come to the Middle East if not to smoke some bomb ass shisha. For a high end option that serves adult beverages, the Rosewood Hotel has a lovely terrasse and some very high quality tobacco. For a mid range selection, bean bag chairs, and chilled out vibe; The Hiltonia Beach Club gives you that summer lovin’ energy where you can bliss out on your last night in Abu Dhabi.
There are of course numerous other wonderful places to spend your time and as of November 7th, 2017, you may want to add a trip to The Louvre Abu Dhabi, you can read my review here. Whatever you choose to do, don’t forget to catch the sunset.
*Weekends in the UAE are Friday and Saturday so Thursday night is like Friday night in the non-Muslim world. We work from Sunday to Thursday in AD.
*As of August 2018 (when I left UAE) you could still smoke in every bar except The Sportsman’s Arms at Zayed Sports City. It’s gross, you will stink like an ashtray after a night out so if that bothers you than I recommend you stay outside (during the cooler months).