Whether you're new in the UAE, or a long-term resident looking for things to do, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about exploring Abu Dhabi.
The UAE capital has something for everyone, from indulging in culture via world-class art or exploring nature in the emirate’s mangroves, to spending the night at one of the city’s luxury hotels or taking the children for a day out at the theme parks on Yas Island.
Here are our top 15 places to visit in Abu Dhabi.
1. Dine and enjoy sunset views at Yas Bay
Whether you're looking for a place to go out with friends, somewhere to eat with family or just want a romantic dinner for two, there's plenty of choice at Yas Bay. The leisure and entertainment hub on Yas Island has a three-kilometre-long boardwalk with restaurants and sparkling views of the Arabian Gulf and Al Raha Beach skyline.
There's also Pier71, which features a number of restaurants such as Asia Asia, Daikan Izakaya and Paradiso, and sits opposite the five-star Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island. Meanwhile, for those who want to do more than eat, Cafe del Mare is an Ibiza-style beach club and Central has a bowling alley and arcade inside.
In addition to dining, there's also Etihad Arena, which hosts events such as concerts, stand-up gigs and UFC fight nights. During cooler months, it's also worth taking advantage of the public art installations which include new works by Kaws and Takashi, as well as oldies by Murakami Beastman, Fatspatrol, MonkeyBird, SupaKitch and four works of Astrocats by CoolrainLabo.
2. Explore Al Qana
The 2.4km-long waterfront destination houses a number of exciting restaurants and cafes. Whether you’re looking for a bite to eat or a place to go for a leisurely stroll, there’s plenty to do. It’s home to The National Aquarium, the biggest of its kind in the Middle East, and The Bridge Lifestyle Hub, an 8,000 square metre wellness space.
Opening soon is CinemaCity, which will house a 26-metre-wide screen and be one of the biggest in the city, and Pixoul Gaming, a massive eSports and virtual reality complex.
3. Enjoy the opulence of Emirates Palace
The five-star luxury hotel Emirates Palace still continues to be a draw ever since it opened in 2005. Now it is under new ownership, having transferred from Kempinski to Mandarin Oriental in 2020. The hotel is known for its opulence with a majority of its suites furnished in gold and marble.
Head to the hotel's cafe to enjoy a 23-karat gold-flaked cappuccino, a camel burger or afternoon tea. For those who aren't staying overnight, there are also a number of fine-dining spots such as Hakkasan, Talea by Antonio Guida, Martabaan by Hemant Oberoi, Las Brisas and Mezlai.
4. Learn more about the history of Abu Dhabi at Qasr Al Hosn
Discover the extraordinary history of Abu Dhabi by taking a visit to its oldest heritage site, Al Hosn, which has sections dating back to the 1760s. It also has Qasr Al Hosn, the oldest and most significant historic building in the capital, which housed the ruling family for centuries and was the emirate’s original seat of government.
The complex’s other major components include the Cultural Foundation, established in 1981 as the first multipurpose cultural centre in the UAE, and the House of Artisans, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting traditional Emirati crafts and practices.
5. Have an adventure at West Bay Abu Dhabi
West Bay Abu Dhabi is a beach club and popular sundowner spot near the Corniche. For those wanting to dine, find venues such as West Bay Lounge, Blu Ocean Cafe and Escape Beach Bar.
Meanwhile, the space is also home to water sports activities, a beach restaurant, fitness centre and spa. There is an Adventure Park, too, which offers a zip line, rope course, wave pool and outdoor climbing park.
6. Visit Louvre Abu Dhabi
If it's culture you seek, then Louvre Abu Dhabi should be your first port of call on any visit to the emirate. Surrounded by the Arabian Gulf, the gleaming silver dome of the Arab world’s first global museum is almost otherworldly and effortlessly sets the scene for an afternoon admiring some of the world’s finest art. Inside, exhibitions change regularly with pieces often on loan from the world's most-visited museum, the Louvre in France.
The museum grounds are also a beautiful place for a stroll, with lots of al fresco exhibits to see and, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can sign up to kayak around the museum — tours leave nightly at sunset and require pre-booking. If you’re visiting with family, don’t miss the Children’s Museum, where you'll find hands-on, interactive exhibits. Children also enter free of charge, meaning it's not an expensive day out.
7. Wander Qasr Al Watan
One of the newer additions to the capital's cultural line-up is the breathtaking Qasr Al Watan, or the People’s Palace. Located on the seafront near Emirates Palace, the landmark is inside the presidential palace compound. Visitors can find out more about the UAE’s traditions and values by exploring this beautiful structure.
Wander the ornate hallways of the national palace, where there’s a host of exhibitions, artefacts and architecture on display. For something special, visit on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening to see the impressive Palace in Motion light and sound show.
If you’re visiting with little ones, be sure to get them set up with the children’s multimedia guide. This audio tour includes simplified explanations of the palace's treasures, interactive games and virtual badges to collect as they tour Qasr Al Watan, keeping them easily engaged.
8. Soak in nature at Jubail Mangrove Park
When the weather cools, one of the most serene places to do explore nature in the capital is on Jubail Island.
Start at the Jubail Mangrove Park, where you can wander over the waterways via a winding boardwalk, with various trails to choose from depending on how long you want your walk to be. Keep an eye out for local birds, fish and animals as you wander, stopping at the park’s floating platform for a better view of life under the water.
There are specially trained rangers on hand to answer any questions you may have about this sprawling mangroves habitat and you can also hop on a kayak to see some of the more hidden sections of this million-square-metre area.
If all that fresh air whets your appetite for a nature-inspired sleepover, book a room at Pura Eco Retreat, Abu Dhabi's first eco-resort. Here you can spend the night in a nature-surrounded dome with unrestricted access to Abu Dhabi’s mangroves or if you're not looking for a staycation, book a table to enjoy dinner by the waterside.
9. Marvel at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque needs to be on every Abu Dhabi itinerary. Dominating the skyline as you approach the capital, it’s one of the world’s largest mosques and has an open-door policy encouraging visitors of all faiths to come and see inside, and gain a deeper understanding of the emirate’s cultural and religious beliefs.
The sprawling landmark can hold up to 55,000 people at a time, and hourly tours are free of charge. The mosque took 10 years to build and has 82 white marble domes, 1,096 amethyst-and-jasper-embedded columns, gold-plated Swarovski chandeliers and a courtyard featuring one of the largest marble mosaic artworks in the world.
It’s also the Guinness World Record holder for the largest hand-woven carpet. The reflective pools around the outside of the mosque are a great place to take perfect shots.
10. Turn up the tempo on Yas Island
Crank up the action with a visit to Yas Island. Less than an hour from Dubai, this is the place to go for theme-park action in Abu Dhabi. If you’re coming for the weekend, the Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island is a great place to stay as guests get free theme-park tickets included with each booking.
Take your pick from world-class theme parks including Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, which is home to the world's fastest roller coaster, and Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi which is made up of five lands – Metropolis; Gotham City; Cartoon Junction; Dynamite Gulch and Bedrock, all packed with rides, experiences, attractions and interactive games.
SeaWorld Abu Dhabi opened this year and features eight marine environments across a five-floor indoor venue, with more than 35 interactive experiences and rides, plus 17 dining options and 13 retail outlets.
Yas Waterworld offers family-friendly fun via rides such as Al Raha River or the Amwaj wave pool, and even pearl diving.
Also on the island is Yas Mall, where you'll find some great shopping and dining options as well as Clymb Abu Dhabi, home to the world's tallest indoor climbing wall. And if you're visiting next month, you could be among the first guests to stay at the world's first Warner Bros hotel. The WB Abu Dhabi opened to guests last year.
11. Enjoy pristine shorelines on Saadiyat Island
If it’s pristine shorelines and endless blue water that you crave, then Saadiyat Island should be on your to-do list. Spend a few nights on the island to really unwind; you'll have your choice of several five-star hotels including Rixos Premium Saadiyat Island, The St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Saadiyat Rotana Resort & Villas, Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi and Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort. All of the hotels have gorgeous swimming pools, private stretches of beach and some top-notch places to dine.
If you’re not staying overnight, you can still enjoy the Saadiyat shoreline. Spend the day at Saadiayat Beach Club or head to Soul Beach, part of the Mamsha Al Saadiyat Community. Visits to this beach cost from Dh50 and include access to a kilometre of pristine shoreline, sun loungers with parasols and friendly staff ready to serve you ice-cold beverages and snacks.
While you're there, keep your eyes peeled for hawksbill turtles that nest on the beaches at certain times of the year, and there have also been dolphins spotted off the coast.
12. Make a night of it at Coya Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi often gets a reputation for being quiet and more family-oriented. And while it certainly does tick both those boxes if that's what you're looking for, there's also plenty of upscale restaurants and decent nightspots if you're seeking a more grown-up affair.
For fine dining and a fun night out in the heart of the city, complete with waterfront views and live entertainment, dinner at Coya Abu Dhabi is well worth considering.
Located in Four Seasons Hotel Abu Dhabi at The Galleria Al Maryah Island, the split-level restaurant offers a huge terrace overlooking the water that’s the perfect place to dine in the cooler months. Feast on delicious Latin American dishes paired with creative drinks that use herbs grown in the restaurant's on-site plant nursery.
If you want to get more hands-on, try the interactive masterclass where expert chefs will guide you through everything you need to know to be able to whip up several ceviches, Peru’s most famous dish. After dark, enjoy live entertainment and DJs in the brightly decorated bar.
13. Go-karting, boarding or shooting at Al Forsan
For a spot of adventure, include a stop at Al Forsan International Sports Resort on your itinerary. This sprawling activity centre offers wakeboarding, go-karting, shooting, horse-riding and more, with plenty on offer for the whole family. Karting fans will love the floodlit track which is packed full of hills, ramps and hairpin bends to keep races exciting.
Next door, the wakeboarding park offers some of the region's first cable ski lakes where beginners and advanced boarders can hone their skills in a purpose-built lake with artificial waves. You could also get some target practice under your belt or blow off steam with a shooting session. Inside the air-conditioned building, there is a 25-metre and a 50-metre indoor range, each with 10 lanes and a wide choice of guns.
14. Take a stroll along the Corniche
Stretching across eight kilometres in the heart of the capital, Abu Dhabi’s picturesque Corniche is a great place to enjoy the winter sunshine, talk a sunset stroll or have a family picnic by the ocean.
Sunseekers can enjoy the two-kilometre beach on the Corniche which is divided into three sections with areas for families, singles and larger groups. There are showers, changing rooms and cabanas available, and sun loungers and umbrellas can be hired for a fee. Sunbathers can enjoy views of the Arabian Gulf and Lulu Island, backed by towering palm trees.
If you're looking for something more active, there's several children’s play areas, cycle lanes and pedestrian pathways and free sports facilities, including five volleyball courts, two football pitches and three playing fields.
Rent a speedboat to see the Abu Dhabi skyline from the water or enjoy a bite to eat al fresco at the several cafes and restaurants dotted along the walkway. And if you walk to the very top of the Corniche you'll be at Emirates Palace, which is the place to go if you want to tick off sampling a gold-dusted cappuccino from your bucket list.
15. Savour the views from the Observation Deck At 300
While Dubai might be home to the world's tallest building, Abu Dhabi isn't afraid of heights, either. Observation Deck at 300, Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers, is the city's highest building. Perched 282 metres above the city, the glass-fronted restaurant is on the 74th floor of the hotel and offers amazing views of the capital with vistas over the Arabian Gulf, the Corniche and Emirates Palace.
Telescopes are available for zeroing in on any specific parts of the view you want to see in more detail, and if you time your visit for sunset, you're in for a treat. If tiny sandwiches, delicate cakes and hot-toasted scones are something you enjoy, the afternoon tea allows visitors to drink in the city views alongside a freshly brewed cuppa and a tiered platter of treats.
A version of this article was first published in October 2021