With only one day in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates capital, we recommend you soak up the history of Abu Dhabi and its traditional Emirati heritage and culture, as well as get a taste of its art, architecture and cuisine.
The United Arab Emirates’ capital of Abu Dhabi is having its moment, thanks to the opening of the Abu Dhabi Louvre late last year and the imminent launch of an exciting redevelopment at the heart of the city, including restoration of Abu Dhabi’s historic fort and Cultural Foundation with its beautiful theatre and library.
We moved to Abu Dhabi in 1998 and lived there for five years before shifting to Dubai so we have a soft spot for the city, especially its cultural traditions and heritage. Before we segued into careers as guidebook authors, writing some of the first guides to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the UAE, I taught film, writing and media production to young Emirati women and we held the country’s first film festival at the Cultural Foundation, so I’m eager to see what they do with it.
Before you make a beeline to the Abu Dhabi Louvre to absorb the jaw-dropping collection on display in the museum’s 55 distinct buildings – intended to resemble an ancient Arabian medina – we recommend that you get a taste of Abu Dhabi’s traditional culture and heritage.
Rich in oral storytelling, poetry, music, dance, and crafts, Emirati culture is rooted in its Bedouin heritage as much as Islam. Of course one day in Abu Dhabi is definitely not enough time – coming from someone who never got bored discovering its gritty backstreets and sleepy neighbourhoods – but it will give you an appreciation of how far this former pearling and fishing village has come.
With only one day in Abu Dhabi you need to be selective about what you do and see and when you do and see it. Schedule outdoor experiences for the cooler mornings or in the late afternoon – even in the winter months – and save indoor activities for the middle of the day when you’ll need to retreat into the air-conditioned cool.
Plan on doing a couple of the things in the morning and a couple after lunch, but build in some flexibility as the heat can get to people more than they think. That’s why I’ve diverged from my usually very prescriptive one day itinerary format for the Arabian Gulf city.
So here’s how we recommend you experience the UAE capital’s history, heritage and culture, along with its modern architecture and art over one day in Abu Dhabi. But first, let’s get you checked in…
One Day in Abu Dhabi – Where to Stay, Shop, Explore and Eat in the UAE Capital
Where to Stay in Abu Dhabi
With only one day in Abu Dhabi you’re going to want to stay somewhere special.
Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel and Residence
The Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel and Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Residence are part of a complex of five striking towers overlooking the aquamarine waters of the Arabian Sea and Abu Dhabi’s Corniche, the waterfront promenade that skirts the sea. The hotel’s 382 plush, carpeted rooms are decorated in desert-sand tones with plenty of camel, cream and beige, and boast floor to ceiling windows with gobsmacking views. The Residence’s apartments are more subdued in style with There’s a private beach, swimming pools, Talise Spa, and across the hotel and residence around twenty restaurants and bars, serving everything from Japanese to Lebanese cuisine.
Even if you’re not staying at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, don’t miss The Observation Deck at 300 on the hotel’s 74th floor, which offers a 360-degree view of Abu Dhabi’s spectacular skyline and a decadent afternoon tea. Buy your Observation Deck at 300 tickets here.
Monumental Emirates Palace Hotel is as gloriously gaudy as it is glamorous – many of its guests arrive by luxury cruisers and seaplane. It’s so palatial for a reason – it was originally intended to serve as the sumptuous lodgings for state guests, such as royals and presidents. The colossal hotel has 394 Coral, Pearl and Diamond rooms and suites with marble bathrooms, butlers and balconies overlooking the sprawling palm-shaded gardens. There are also a dozen restaurants, a sumptuous spa with Moroccan hammam, and an ATM that dispenses gold bullion.
Shangri La Qaryat Al Beri
The elegant style of the Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri speaks to the handsome medieval architecture of the Levant and Arabian Peninsula – particularly that of Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia – with graceful arches and mashrabiya oriel windows with carved latticework. Wooden abras (small boats) ferry guests along waterways to a shopping arcade modelled on a traditional souk (market) while everywhere there are views across the water to the bulbous domes and slender minarets of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
What to See and Do in Abu Dhabi
As tempting as it is to begin your day with a morning browsing the Louvre Abu Dhabi art museum – as breathtaking for its architecture as for its impressive art collection – we recommend taking a step back into the past and see Abu Dhabi’s historic sights first.
Book the 9am departure so you can board a wooden jalboot, a traditional pearling boat before it gets too hot for a 90-minute cruise through the eastern mangroves to learn about the emirate’s early pearling history on the Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey. You’ll hear about the harsh realities of pearl diving and how crews survived at sea for four months at a time. You’ll learn how to open an oyster shell and get to keep the pearl inside as a souvenir. After the lessons, the crew sings traditional Emirati seafaring songs while you recline on cushions on the deck to nibble on dates and sip heady Arabic coffee, called gahwa. If you’re looking for a more active experience of the lagoons, other options include kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.
Make a beeline for the Breakwater (near Marina Mall) and the charming Emirates Heritage Village. This recreation of a traditional village is popular with locals and visitors alike, providing an opportunity to observe traditional weaving, pottery and metalwork, and buy handicrafts and spices from stalls in rustic barasti (palm frond) huts and goats hair tents. When you get too hot, pop into the small air-conditioned museum where you can browse a small collection of Bedouin costumes and jewellery, household objects, coins, and the like. There’s a pleasant stretch of soft sand and fantastic views of Abu Dhabi’s dazzling city skyline.
In the heart of Abu Dhabi, handsome Qasr al Hosn, a splendid fort dating to the 1760s, is currently being restored and the site, which includes the lovely Cultural Foundation, being extensively redeveloped. Abu Dhabi’s oldest building, the fort started life as a sea watchtower before becoming the home of the ruling Al Nahayan tribe. Work is due to finish in late 2018, but until then, you can see the permanent state-of-the-art exhibition at the Qasr al Hosn Centre (9am-8pm daily; free). Using digital technology, archival images, historic artefacts, and fascinating oral stories by Emiratis reflecting on Abu Dhabi’s history and development, the exhibition reveals the city’s extraordinary transformation from pearling and fishing village to the dynamic capital it is today. Note: visitors have difficulty to locating the exhibition as the area currently looks like a construction site. The redeveloped site is due to open in December.
A decade in the making, the long-awaited Louvre Abu Dhabi finally opened late last year. The jaw-dropping building, a work of art in itself, hosts a breathtaking exhibition of 150 masterpieces from the Louvre Paris and Château de Versailles. Paintings, sculpture, ceramics, and furniture tell the history of France’s – if not the world’s – greatest art museum, starting in its earliest days in the 17th and 18th centuries. This awe-inspiring inaugural show is the first of many to come that, combined with Jean Nouvel’s audacious architecture, should draw art and architecture lovers from around the world and keep local and expat art-lovers happy in between their European holidays. Buy Louvre Abu Dhabi skip-the-line tickets here.
One day in Abu Dhabi wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a monumental work of architecture able to hold a whopping 40,000 worshippers, which we watched being built for many years. One of the world’s largest mosques, the sublime building was designed according to the vision of the late President Sheikh Zayed, who dreamt of a mosque that could capture and celebrate the intersections between Islam and other world religions and cultures. The Emirati, British and Italian architects created a design that drew inspiration from mosque architecture from Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, and Pakistan, among other Muslim countries, and an open-door policy (unusual in itself) invites people from all religions and nations to visit the mosque. Do the 5pm sunset tour when you can gawk at the 82 gleaming domes, one thousand columns and 24-carat gold chandeliers in the gorgeous golden light.
Where to Shop in Abu Dhabi
What would one day in Abu Dhabi be without a spot of shopping? And while there’s no shortage of shopping malls in the UAE capital – although we do recall the days when there were none; we used to have to go to Dubai to do our shopping, when it only had three malls! – with only one day in Abu Dhabi, we recommend sticking to one mall. Sadly, located on the site of the ramshackle old central souk (market), which we adores, The World Trade Centre Souk is a splendid shopping mall, modelled on an old Arabian market, was designed by acclaimed architects, Foster and Partners. Fusing contemporary style with Islamic architecture – think: octagonal forms, zellij telework, wooden mashrabiya screens – it’s a beautiful place to shop for everything from designer fashion to quintessential souvenirs, such as bronze coffee pots, Persian carpets and Arabic perfumes.
Where to Eat in Abu Dhabi
A decade ago a private home provided the only opportunity to taste Emirati food, which is different to the ubiquitous food of the Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine – which is what is served at most Middle Eastern and Arabic restaurants in Abu Dhabi, the rest of the United Arab Emirates, and most of the Arabian Peninsula in fact.
Opulent Mezlai at Emirates Palace was Abu Dhabi’s first Emirati fine dining restaurant and if you only have one day in Abu Dhabi and you want to sample Emirati cuisine, then this is the place to try it. Here you can feast on refined dishes, fragrant with wild za’atar (a regional oregano-like herb) and tinted with saffron. Order the freshly baked rgag (traditional Emirati flat bread), the hummus made with chicken livers with pomegranate molasses, the camel tongue with garlic, coriander and lemon juice, and the grilled hammour with rosewater. Mezlai is expensive but if you’ve only got one day in Abu Dhabi, it’s worth it. Save it for dinner and if your one day in Abu Dhabi falls during winter, dine outside to savour the sea breezes.
For lunch, the best casual eatery for Emirati food in Abu Dhabi is Meylas, which began life as a food truck, but which now also has a retro 80s inspired bricks and mortar location out at Al Muneera. Started by local girl Shaikha Al Kaabi, who serves home-cooked favourites made to family recipes, this is a special little spot that’s worth the effort of getting there. Try the salatat maleh, salt cured fish with spiced onion; balaleet, traditional noodles infused with saffron and cardamom, topped with a thin omelette; and – what many would call the national dish – the harees, a savoury wheat pudding made with beef and local ghee. Save room for the chbaab, traditional pancakes served with date syrup, local honey and cheese.
Image courtesy of Luxury Escapes.
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Have you been to Abu Dhabi or do you live there? How do you recommend visitors spend just one day in Abu Dhabi? We’d love to get your suggestions in the comments below.