Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is an ideal middle eastern city to spend exploring on a long layover. From culture and religion to shopping and relaxing, Abu Dhabi has a little something for everyone. Use this flexible guide as way to plan your day. If you want to see all the sights listed from start to finish, you’ll need a minimum of four hours, and remember that you’ll need at least two additional hours to check in before an international flight (a minimum of 6 hours total for the day).
Ready? Let’s explore Abu Dhabi!
Arriving at the Airport
Free on arrival visas are available at the airport to citizens from a number of countries including the United States, Australia, the UK, and numerous European countries. All you need is your passport with six months validity. For a full list of countries eligible for Visas on Arrival click here. If your country isn’t eligible, you’ll just need to apply for a Tourist, Transit, or Visit Visa prior to your trip.
You’ll need cash for taxis and shopping in local markets. Exchange money before leaving the airport (usually, this isn’t a good idea due to high rates and commission fees in airports, but to save time, go ahead and change money to UAE dirhams)
Not planning on staying overnight but have luggage you don’t want to carry? You can store your luggage in the airport while you explore the city. You can find a detailed price list here.
Don’t forget to take out your adapter for electronic devices. The power sockets in Abu Dhabi are type C, D, and G. The standard voltage is 220 V and the standard frequency is 50 Hz. iPhone/apple devices can be used without an adapter.
Where to stay
For convenience, a good place to stay is the Premier Inn Abu Dhabi International Airport . The rates are reasonable, and it’s just a short walk from baggage claim through the skywalk terminal to the hotel. They also serve breakfast starting at 6am for early travelers. Hotels around the airport range from $30 to $100 USD per night.
If your layover is longer than 8 hours, airlines like Etihad Airways or Emirates Airlines will provide you with a complimentary hotel room. A free shuttle will even take you from the airport to your hotel. Check with your air carrier before arrival.
Almost everyone in Abu Dhabi speaks English. If you’re a fluent English speaker, you’ll have no problem with communication. Taxis are easy to find throughout the city, and Uber is also an option!
What to wear
Abu Dhabi is a modern middle-eastern city. All styles of clothing are permitted. Comfortable clothing is suggested. Temperatures can be pretty warm all year round, ranging from 18C (64F) to 36C (96F). Shorts and flips flops are not permitted in some places like the Emirates Palace. Religious sites are the only place where women must cover their heads and wear long pants/skirts to cover their ankles.
Sightseeing Loop – Starting and ending at the airport
1) Al Mina Port District – Fish Market, Vegetable Market, Carpet Market
Distance from the airport – 38 km; Time from the airport – 30 minutes; Taxi Cost from the airport – 60 AED
The fish market, vegetable market, and carpet market are all within a 5 minute taxi drive from each other.
Fish Market – open 8am – 11pm – Lively, bustling market with an array of blue shell crabs, prawns, red snapper, and pink Sultan Ibrahims. In the morning, watch vendors unload fish of all different varieties. Pick out your favorite then have it cleaned and cooked on sight. Talk about fresh!
Vegetable Market – open 7am – midnight – This wholesale, colorful market carries fruits and vegetables from around the world. Be sure to take a walk down “date alley,” and taste some of the 45 different types of dates from the middle east. The vendors are friendly, but be ready to haggle on prices. Tourists are typically charged higher.
Carpet Market – open 8:30am – 6:00pm – Here you can find specialty stores offering beautiful machine made and traditional hand-made carpets, rugs, kilims (tapestries), and cushions. Most carpets in Abu Dhabi come from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan,Turkey, China, and Central Asia.
2) Emirates Palace & Etihad Towers
Distance from Al Mina Souq – 9 km; Time from Al Mina Souq – 15 minutes; Taxi Cost from Al Mina Souq – 30 AED
The Emirates Palace, created to showcase Arabian culture, is a luxury five-star hotel fit for a king and a sight to see while in Abu Dhabi. Rooms can be as much as $800/night, but if your pockets aren’t that deep, you can simply relax here and enjoy a cup of coffee for 60 AED ($16 USD). Located on 1.3 km of private beach, it’s a perfect get away from the hustle and bustle of the airport. From the beach, you can also see the Presidential Palace, residence of the current president of the UAE, Sheik Khalifa, which cost $490 million to construct.
Across the street from the Emirates Palace are the Etihad Towers, a five-tower complex that includes residential apartments, a five-star hotel, and luxury shopping. On the 74th floor of Tower 2, the Observation Deck at 300 (open 10am-6pm) offers panoramic views of the Arabian Gulf. Entrance is 75 AED ($20.50 USD).
3) Walk the Corniche
Distance from Emirates Palace – 3 km; Time from Emirates Palace – 5 min; Taxi Cost – 5 AED
The Corniche is an 8km waterfront walkway along Corniche Road that includes manicured gardens, beaches, bike paths, and children’s play areas. You can rent bikes at four different rental stations, starting at 30 AED ($8 USD) per hour for adults and 20 AED ($5 USD) per hour for children.
4) Tour the Sheikh Zayed Mosque
Distance from the Corniche – 19.5 km; Time from the Corniche – 15 min; Taxi Cost – 35 AED
If you have time to do only one thing in Abu Dhabi, you must see the opulent Sheikh Zayed Mosque. It’s truly breathtaking. Constructed from 1996 to 2007 and built by the first president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, it’s the largest mosque in the country, covering more than 30 acres. Made by 1200-1300 carpet knotters, the carpet in the main prayer hall is considered to be the world’s largest prayer carpet, measuring at 60,570 sq ft. The mosque also contains seven imported chandeliers, one of which is the second largest known chandelier to be inside a mosque.
Appropriate clothing is required to visit. Women must cover their hair and ankles. Abayas are provided free of charge to cover-up. The mosque opens 9am-10pm Saturday-Thursday and 4:30pm-10pm on Fridays. It is free to visit the mosque, and complimentary “walk-in” tours are given daily. Tours times are Sunday-Thursday at 10am, 11am, and 5pm, Fridays 5:00pm-7:00pm, and Saturdays 10am, 11am, 2pm, 5pm, and 7pm. Visiting hours and tour times change during the holy month of Ramadan, so be sure to check before visiting.
5) Abu Dhabi International Airport
Distance from the Mosque – 25.5 km; Time from the Mosque – 25 min; Taxi Cost – 40 AED
Many airports are cold, unwelcoming, and boring, but at the Abu Dhabi International airport, you can find many things to do while you wait for your flight. You can finish your shopping, eat a traditional middle eastern meal, relax at a spa, or even get some shut-eye in a sleeping lounge. Before passport control in the Skypark Plaza, there is a great food area with five or six different types of restaurants. The Tossa Spa also has a location in the Skypark Plaza as well as in Terminal 1. Here you can get a massage or a manicure/pedicure before starting the next leg of your journey!
Do you have more time to spend in Abu Dhabi? Visit the Presidential Palace, Ferrari World, Yas Water World, or the Marina Mall!
This is a guest post by Lauren Stewart.
Lauren Stewart is a travel journalist from Columbia, South Carolina who loves learning about new cultures, places, and people. When it comes to travel, she often thinks no plans are the best plans. Some of her most memorable travel experiences include delivering a cockatiel to Kathmandu, Nepal, volcano boarding in Leon, Nicaragua, and following a nomadic group of Jain worshipers throughout India. In addition to being a travel journalist, she is also an avid photographer. You can find her on Instagram @laurenalliestewart or check out her work on her website www.laurenalliestewart.com.