Abu Dhabi is a clean, safe, friendly and surprisingly familiar version of the Middle East. Despite the five-star hotels, fine dining restaurants and elegant high-rise architecture, the city wears its oil wealth without too much ostentation. Compared with its neighbour Dubai, 150 kilometres away and three times the size, Abu Dhabi is less glitzy and less touristy, with a calmer pace of life.
Abu Dhabi city is centred on the sizeable Abu Dhabi island. The Corniche is a long waterfront strip of parks, cycle paths and walkways; Downtown is a couple of blocks inland from this. The channel that divides the island from the mainland is lined with hotels and restaurants. Most of the rest of the island is residential, with parks, villas and low-rise apartment blocks.
Abu Dhabi has expanded on to the mainland and neighbouring islands. These newer developments include the cultural district on Saadiyat Island – due to feature local versions of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums – and the entertainment hub, Grand Prix circuit and hotels of Yas Island.
The Corniche is where Abu Dhabi’s multicultural population comes for an evening stroll. It runs between an opulent hotel at one end and the dhow-filled harbour at the other – both great photo opportunities.
The city’s modern development began in Downtown in the 1970s. Now home to specialist stores and local restaurants, it also has the stylish World Trade Center with its distinctive slim towers above a Western-style shopping mall and a contemporary version of a traditional Arabic souk.
Abu Dhabi has many parks and open spaces, notably the Mother of the Nation Park with its petting zoo, botanic garden and weekend street market.
● Abu Dhabi’s public beaches are safe and well maintained, thanks to a small entrance charge. The best are Saadiyat, with an open horizon, lovely white sand and restaurants, and Yas, with sunloungers, calm shallow water and a café.
● Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: The one must-visit sight is a visually stunning and poetic celebration of both Islam and the founder of the United Arab Emirates. Guided tours – not Fridays – are free.
● Boat trips: Explore local waterways and islands with a specialist organiser, or take the round-island hop-on hop-off ferry run by Jalboot.
If you want a romantic break, a relaxing getaway or a holiday with something for all the family, Abu Dhabi has a hotel for you, with over 20,000 rooms in around 130 properties.
Downtown hotels in the older part of town are convenient for visiting business people, but they also provide a great base for exploring the city. This is the best area for local shopping too.
Yas Island is ideal for family holidays and short stays for the island’s busy events programme. Several hotels are located around the same plaza, which makes it easy to try different lounges and restaurants.
The upmarket beachside hotels on Saadiyat Island provide full resort amenities and are geared for romance. The Marina end of the Corniche also has smart hotels with beach access, while restaurants and nearby malls make for a livelier urban atmosphere.
Most of the people in Abu Dhabi were born elsewhere, and they’ve brought with them the foods and the cooking styles they like. Add in the fact that the hotels can attract top chefs, and you have a huge range of cuisines available – including Emirati, of course.
There’s a strong influence from Lebanon and the Mediterranean, with many restaurants serving barbecued meats, hummus, tabbouleh and the fast-food classic shawarma.
Most of the upmarket dining options are in hotels, which all have signature restaurants. One exception is the Eastern Mangroves Marina, where you’ll find several eateries including top steakhouse Boa and Flooka for Lebanese-style seafood.
● Emirati specialities: Look out for dishes such as harees – meat and wheat slow-cooked in a clay oven or pot – and makboos – braised meat in a distinctive blend of spices and dried limes.
● Brunch: This is an institution in Abu Dhabi, an extended Friday afternoon session of one-price unlimited eating (and drinking) often involving buffets and multiple cooking stations.
● Fish: The most popular local fish is hamour, a cod-like grouper that figures in everything from fish and chips to nasi goreng. Also try grilled red snapper, and Omani lobsters shipped in from across the peninsula.
Abu Dhabi’s shopping scene is vibrant and extensive, with high-street and designer brands you will recognise as well as traditional handicrafts. The price quoted is usually the price you pay, though at craft and souvenir stores it is worth trying for a discount – ask for the “best price”.
The older, smaller shopping centres tend to have owner-run shops and are located in the older parts of town. These are good for handicrafts, such as ornate jewellery, ceramics and glass perfume bottles. Iran and Pakistan provide much of the stock, however.
The Downtown strip along Zayed the First and Hamdan Streets is buzzing with small shops. Hamdan Centre has a reputation for selling reasonable copies of handbags and sunglasses.
The newer shopping malls – smart, air conditioned and open late – are full of international brands and also restaurants, cinemas and other entertainment. Al Wahda, Marina and Abu Dhabi malls are in town. For a really substantial shopping day out, visit the huge Yas Mall, on Yas Island.
● Arabic crafts, perfumes and incense are sold at the World Trade Center souk and in the older malls.
● You’ll get the best prices on traditional carpets, rugs and prayer mats from Iran and Pakistan at the carpet souk, a collection of small stores near the port.
● Local foodstuffs are available in customs-friendly pre-packed form. Look out for dried dates – there are many varieties, often with fancy stuffings – and delicious camel’s milk chocolate.
Abu Dhabi doesn’t have the range of clubs and nightspots that you’ll find in Dubai, and late-night entertainment – apart from promenading  – usually centres on the hotels. For a variety of after-hours options, including lively hotel bars, lounges and music spots, head to the World Trade Center area.
Abu Dhabi’s cultural scene is just getting started. There are a couple of well-established events, including the Abu Dhabi Festival of classical music and dance, and Abu Dhabi Art, a major regional art fair. Spaces for performance and exhibitions are beginning to appear, which in turn is fostering the development of local artistic talent.
Saadiyat Island is developing as a key cultural hub. NYUAD Arts Center has regular performances featuring top contemporary dance groups and musicians, while the Manarat al Saadiyat is a free public art gallery.
● Most hotel bars have house bands that typically play covers – try Heroes at the Crowne Plaza . Many also have DJs, and some offer stand-up comedy.
● You’ll find two major entertainment venues on Yas Island, the open-air stadium du Arena and the indoor du Forum. Both have busy schedules for visiting acts, and Abu Dhabi draws some of the biggest rock names on the planet.
● You can hear top jazz seven nights a week at Jazz@PizzaExpress – and get a good pizza too.
Given that it’s blessed with sunshine most of the year, surrounded by the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, and family-oriented rather than party central, Abu Dhabi is the ideal place for taking it easy. Popular outdoor activities include watersports, diving, golf, horse-riding and just enjoying the lovely, white-sand beaches.
Yas Island has something for everyone: Abu Dhabi’s biggest shopping mall, the F1 motor circuit with tours and driving experience, go-karting, a good links golf course and the lounges and restaurants of half a dozen hotels. Yas Waterworld is probably the best water park in the UAE, with fun-filled activities for children and adults. Next door, the Ferrari World amusement park has numerous motor racing-themed attractions including the world’s fastest rollercoaster.
And don’t miss out on the hinterland: the Abu Dhabi region is dotted with islands, and it’s on the edge of some of the most dramatic desert in the world.
● Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital: This very specialised veterinary hospital offers guided tours and hands-on presentations on the bird that is so close to Emirati hearts.
● Exploring the mangroves by kayak is informative, interesting and not particularly energetic. Noukhada offers a variety of guided trips.
● Several tour operators provide desert excursions. These usually involve dune bashing, sandboarding, traditional entertainment over dinner, an obligatory camel ride and perhaps a night under the stars.