Abu Dhabi, unlike its nearby brother Dubai, is a less hectic and more subdued destination. Its airline, Etihad Airways, is not as hip as Emirates. The Abu Dhabi skyline, albeit interesting, is not as Manhattan-like as Downtown Dubai or Dubai Marina. However, the charm of Abu Dhabi lies in its new cultural institutions and a more coordinated development strategy. I would not discard a full day around town if you are in Dubai or a layover if you are connecting with Etihad.
The best place to start would be the Corniche. There are plenty of great hotels to choose from in the area, from the very famous 7-star Emirates Palace Hotel to the incredibly beautiful Jumeirah Etihad Towers or the huge Sofitel Abu Dhabi Corniche. Two of the top-10 tourist attractions are already here. The first one being the Emirates Palace behemoth with its golden sumptuosity and 14 restaurants. Book lunch or dinner at Hakkasan for a sumptuous Asian meal or at Mezlai for authentic Emirate cuisine (book a table outside, in one of the tents for an unforgettable evening). With a restaurant reservation, there is a good reason to get into the hotel, take pictures in the lobby, walk around and have a fabulous meal.
At the Jumeirah Etihad Towers, you can go up to the Observation Deck at 300 for a 360-degrees view of the Emirate on the skyscraper’s 74th floor (they serve a sumptuous high tea). Try to figure out if the Presidential Palace is bigger than the Emirates Palace when seen from above. Needless to say, there are plenty of dining options in the towers with Li Beirut being my favorite for Lebanese food and Tori No Su for Japanese.
Not far from the Corniche is the 18th-century Qasr al Hosn, built years ago by the Bani Yas family to control the coastal navigation routes and protect the first settlement in the area. It is a cultural institution with rotating exhibitions. Still in this side of town is the one and only Sheik Zayed Mosque, in itself a reason to come all the way to Abu Dhabi.
The Sheik Zayed Mosque opened in 2007 and is considered the religious center of the United Arab Emirates. Its architecture reminds me of the Taj Mahal in India, but it dwarfs the Indian Mausoleum in size and scale. It is open every day, and there are very few restrictions to visit it, mainly wearing modest clothing (you can rent abayas and kanduras, the local attires, at the entrance) and no public displays of affection. At the end of the day, this is a religious site. I would recommend going towards the end of the day to have beautiful sunset light illuminating the domes and to hear the day’s last call to prayer. You will have goosebumps.
If, by the time you finish your visit to the mosque, you are hungry or feel like having a drink, head to The Souk at Qaryat Al Beri for a wide choice of bars and restaurants (and shops, of course). By the way, the jaw-dropping Shangri-La Abu Dhabi is in this area.
Separated from the continent by a series of bridges and connecting highways you will find Saadiyat and Yas Islands. The Abu Dhabi government is investing heavily in transforming the desert into a major tourist destination. Saadiyat Cultural District is the home of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim (opening perhaps in 2020, read here about the controversy surrounding its delayed construction), the Zayed National Museum and the Manarat Al Saadiyat. The NYU Abu Dhabi campus is also on the island. FYI, the Parisian Sorbonne University also has a campus in Abu Dhabi, but not on Saadiyat Island.
Further away and closer to the airport is Yas Island, where you can enjoy the thrilling rides at the Ferrari World, drive on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Formula 1 track called Yas Marina, shop and eat at the Yas Mall (my favorite restaurant in Abu Dhabi is Indian cuisine Asha’s). The alien-looking Yas Viceroy Hotel is an attractive place to visit or stay at, especially if you have a long connection between flights and do not want to stick around at the Abu Dhabi Airport (not until the new Etihad airport is finally ready).
OUT OF TOWN
While Dubai has the superb Al Maha Resort in the Al-Ain Desert, Abu Dhabi has the Anantara Qasr Al Sarab, near the southern Liwa Dunes, some of UAE’s highest and oldest sand dunes. A mere two-hour drive will whisk you into deep Arabia, with all the comforts of a luxury hotel chain, of course.
For something absolutely out of this world, have a look at the Anantara resorts on Sir Bani Yas Island. Amidst the Emirate’s mangroves, by the Persian Gulf, you will encounter blue waters and plentiful wildlife in a stunning setting. There are three resorts to choose from, each with a distinct style. You can’t get this in Dubai.