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Abu Dhabi: Insider’s Guide

by Justin Parkinson | October 28, 2014

Abu Dhabi is open.
For the latest on safe travel there during Covid, click here.

Trusted Travel Expert
Justin Parkinson

Justin’s frequent trips to the Indian Ocean over the past 14 years make him uniquely qualified to match you with the specific island, resort, and overwater bungalow—even with the specific dive instructor or massage therapist—that best suit your needs. This is especially crucial in the Maldives, where you’re likely to spend all of your time at a single, private-island resort, and there are new properties opening every few months. In the Seychelles, Justin can help you rent a car to go exploring and point you to the best beaches and hiking trails. Given how many people fly to the Indian Ocean via Dubai, he has become an expert on the United Arab Emirates too (see Dubai and Abu Dhabi) and can help you save money there so that you can splurge in the islands. When he’s not exploring these exotic locales, you’ll find Justin at home in either Australia or L.A.

Trips have a three-night minimum and start at $700 per day for two travelers.
Liwi desert, dunes, abu Dhabi

Liwi desert dunes, Abu Dhabi. Photo courtesy Linara Travel.

Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Live like royalty at Emirates Palace, one of the most expensive hotels ever built. Set on 250 acres with a mile-long beach, this hotel dazzles with acres of gold leaf and more than a thousand Swarovski-crystal chandeliers. The Diamond Rooms have lovely views out to the Arabian Gulf. Linara Travel clients receive room upgrades, a $100 hotel credit, and other extra benefits.

Restaurant the locals love
Café Arabia is a good local café for breakfast and lunch, with a mixture of Middle Eastern and Western-influenced dishes; try the date rolls and the grilled kofta. It’s a casual place that locals and expats frequent.

Must-have dish
Lamb shoulder medfoun at Mezlai Restaurant. Medfoun is a traditional UAE way of slow-cooking meat in banana leaves in an earthen hole, and Mezlai has a special oven that helps replicate this technique.

Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi

Emirates Palace Abu Dhabi. Photography by Emirates Palace

What to See and Do

Don’t miss
The Falcon Hospital. Learn about falconry, historically a form of hunting in the region and today a sporting pastime for wealthy Emirati. This facility—the world’s largest—treats more than 7,000 birds every year, and the exhibits in its museum provide a window into one aspect of contemporary Emirati life; you can also get up close to the birds currently being cared for.

Don’t bother
Yas Waterworld is a very nice water park—but why fly all this way just to take your kids to an amusement park? Perhaps the Falcon Hospital (see above) might be more culturally relevant and just as interesting for children.

Hidden gem
Sir Bani Yas Island. Two new lodges, Al Sahel and Al Yamm, allow travelers a luxury experience on this island, which was previously a nature reserve owned by the late founder of the UAE. Located two and a half hours outside the city of Abu Dhabi, the 11-mile-long island has thousands of free-roaming animals—including gazelles, peacocks, Arabian oryx, and cheetahs—and sea turtles frequent the beaches. Al Sahel, located within the wildlife park, offers a safari experience, while Al Yamm is on the beach.

Cheap thrill
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the most impressive and important mosque in the UAE. Completed in 2007, the structure’s 82 white domes, four 350-foot-high minarets, and 183,000-square-foot marble courtyard symbolize the grandeur of Abu Dhabi. Free tours are given by the mosque (except Friday morning, when it’s closed for worship), and the guides are quite good.

Bragging rights
Take a private hard-hat tour of the museums being constructed on Saadiyat Island. With boldfaced names like the Louvre and the Guggenheim involved, this is sure to be the most amazing cultural district ever built entirely from scratch. (Slated for completion in 2020, Saadiyat will also be home to hotels by St. Regis, Park Hyatt, and Shangri-La.) Seeing the progress of this hugely ambitious project is a glimpse into Abu Dhabi’s concerted effort to transform itself into a great city of the future. For added flair, we can fly you in on one of the Sheikh’s private helicopters.

Downtime
Take a relaxing walk along the Corniche, a four-mile stretch of beachfront paths and parks. The water is clean and refreshing, with plenty of lifeguards. Rent a bicycle from Funridesports, then stop for lunch at the Cabana Bar and Grill in the new St. Regis.

Perfect souvenirs
Traditional Arabic coffee pots (called dallahs) make for nice gifts, as these metal pots with long spouts are a symbol of local hospitality. Emiratis take their coffee seriously—there’s even a dallah monument in Abu Dhabi! Souk Al Zafarana is the best place for these and other traditional souvenirs; don’t forget to bargain.

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Best Times to Go

December through February is the cooler time of year for Abu Dhabi, with highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s.

Worst Times to Go

June to September: It is very hot. The average high temperature is above 100 degrees.

You’ll find a much quieter, more conservative atmosphere during Ramadan; the dates vary with the Islamic calendar, but it will fall during the late spring and early summer for the next several years.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Not getting outside the city to explore the rest of the emirate of Abu Dhabi. The deserts of Abu Dhabi are the prettiest in the region—think Lawrence of Arabia. You can do a day-trip, or better yet stay at one of the resorts in the desert; Qasr Al Sarab is located among beautiful red-tinged dunes where you can go camel trekking, hiking, and mountain biking and try your hand at falconry.

Tipping Tip

Some restaurants charge an extra 10 percent for service; the charge is stated on the bill in English. If your bill doesn’t include a service charge, then tip 10 percent.

Airport Intel

The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has a facility at the Abu Dhabi Airport, which means U.S.-bound travelers clear U.S. customs in Abu Dhabi and can check baggage through to their final destination when flying on Etihad Airways’ daytime-departing nonstops to the States. Passengers must arrive at the pre-clearance check-in at least two hours before departure.

Don’t Forget to Pack

Clothing to cover shoulders and knees when entering public areas, such as malls. Not doing so elicits unfriendly looks—especially for women—and requests to cover up. Bathing suits are fine at the beach, and Western attire is acceptable in restaurants.

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