Abu Dhabi City Guide for First Timers

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This ultra oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates is located 87 miles south of Dubai, and is almost as much of a modern marvel of a city as Dubai is. Modern, luxury buildings have sprung up all over the city, adding to its already cosmopolitan vibe.

If you’re eager to explore this exciting city, we’ve got all the information you need in this Abu Dhabi city guide. Expats make up about 80% of Abu Dhabi’s population. It’s a welcoming place and very clean and modern.

Abu Dhabi city guide

In the area for longer? Also see our essential travel guide to Dubai.

Abu Dhabi City Guide

Visitors should also take note that this is a strict Muslim country with customs and laws that should be closely adhered to. Dress and behavior should be modest, and buying and consuming alcohol requires a licence (except when purchasing drinks at a hotel, restaurant or bar.

If you’ve been to a Middle Eastern country before, you’re probably already aware of the daily call to prayer that will likely startle you out of a deep sleep in the morning. It’s also quite crowded at popular attractions, and throughout the city there are regular traffic jams, long queues and always lots of people.

What to Do in Abu Dhabi

The city’s two main attractions are the almost unbelievable Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is one of the world’s largest and most extravagant places of Islamic worship, and the extremely opulent Emirates Palace Hotel.

While visiting, most people choose to take part in a desert safari as well. This overnight experience takes you on a ride through the sand dunes in a 4×4 to a traditional Bedouin style campsite in the middle of the desert, where you can enjoy activities like riding a camel, sand boarding and enjoying a desert BBQ. It’s incredibly unique and fun. 

Other top things to see are:

  • Abu Dhabi Corniche – a 4-mile-long promenade
  • Yas Hotel on Yas island – one of the area’s most opulent hotels
  • Abu Dhabi’s Louvre museum
  • Sir Bani Yas Island – the Arabian Wildlife Park, with roaming giraffes, cheetahs and gazelles

Other activities you can participate in are:

A lot of visitors don’t just spend their time in Abu Dhabi, UAE. While they’re in the area, you can also visit Dubai, which is just a 1.5 hour drive from Abu Dhabi (give or take for traffic). You can go on a guided excursion to Dubai, which includes transportation.

Where and What to Eat in Abu Dhabi

hummus and pita

If you thought beauty in Abu Dhabi stopped at the architecture, you were wrong. The city is full of opulent, extravagant restaurants to fit the lifestyle. You can expect to find all manner of international cuisine, plus a good number of Michelin-star restaurants to suit your rich palette.

Be sure to try these:

  • Li Beirut: For Lebanese food – considered one of the top restaurants of Abu Dhabi
  • Al Maqam: For something different, try this romantic Arabian experience in the Arabian Nights Village. They also have cooking classes!
  • Ray’s Grill: For an incredible view, try this steak house, located on the 63rd floor of the Etihad Towers

There are 5 traditional foods you must try while in Abu Dhabi. They are stuffed camel, al harees, shawarma, al machboos and hummus. Keep your eye out for these specialties on restaurant menus.

One of my favorite things to do in a new city (or any city for that matter!), is check out the street food. There are many street food trucks in Abu Dhabi. You might find a few of them on the corniche (promenade).

Of course, you can eat in Abu Dhabi without breaking the bank. If you’re not really into the high-end restaurants, try these budget options instead:

Nightlife in Abu Dhabi

The Emirate Palace, Abu Dhabi
The Emirate Palace, Abu Dhabi (CC 2.0 Photo by Meng Zheng0

The consumption of alcohol is ONLY legal for non-Muslims in Abu Dhabi within licensed restaurants, pubs, clubs, or private venues. That means if you want to have a drink or participate in the nightlife in Abu Dhabi, you need to know where to go. Here is an up-to-date list of places to check out.

While some hotels are dry and don’t offer alcohol in their restaurants and bars, most do, so you won’t have a difficult time finding a place to hang out for a beer or a drink and to check out the vibrant nightlife around the city.

Of course, nightlife doesn’t have to just refer to partying and drinking a club all night. There are other things to do in Abu Dhabi at night. At the top of my list is walking around the city to see the lights and how the buildings are lit up in the darkness. That’s when you’ll see amazing light shows, like the one featured above.

Tours To Book:


With so many great things to do in Abu Dhabi, you can easily spend 3-4 days enjoying it.  Have you been to Abu Dhabi? I’d love to hear about your experience in Abu Dhabi. Tell us about it in the comments.

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The Best of Abu Dhabi, UAE, City Discovery Series
Abu Dhabi City Guide for First Timers

25 thoughts on “Abu Dhabi City Guide for First Timers

  1. megsy says:

    Thanks for the great tips! I’ll bookmark this is case we ever find ourselves in Abu Dhabi on a stop over

  2. dannielle says:

    It’s not somewhere that’s ever been high on my list but I do think the architecture looks interesting. Beautiful pictures.

    • Laura Lynch says:

      Dannielle, I’ve heard that Abu Dhabi and Dubai especially are love it or hate it kind of places. I’m curious to see it in person.

  3. Carolann & Macrae - One Modern Couple says:

    Love this! Great tour through the city even though we haven’t been there either! Also, some amazing tips for when we do go – you’ve done all the research for us! 🙂 Thanks for this!

    • Laura Lynch says:

      Glad to help! We’re going there next year so it’s nice to get an early start on the research.

  4. Natasha Amar says:

    This is a great post! It’s true that the taxi to human ratio is way better in Abu Dhabi than Dubai where I’m based. It’s got many interesting sights to visit, especially if you like culture. I have a bunch of Abu Dhabi posts on my blog, and more content to come, feel free to check it out here http://thebohochica.com/category/abu-dhabi/

  5. Travelwith2ofus says:

    The UAE, including the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are on my list. This would be so different from what I am accustomed to. Thank you for the great tips.

    • Laura Lynch says:

      I think that’s why it’s so intriguing to me right now – it’s completely different than what we usually do. I’m excited to see both Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

  6. Veronika says:

    HI! Thanks for your post, I think it’s really useful post on Abu Dhabi and more updated than guidebook. I will use it next time!

  7. Tatiana / The Happy Jetlagger says:

    Bookmarking this post 🙂 I’m planning to fly with Etihad in October, maybe with a longer stop in Abu Dhabi 🙂

  8. Jen Seligmann says:

    Hey Laura,

    This is such a an informative post and a great idea putting together posts like this to share the things you have found around the web.

    I’m really keen to visit the UAE, both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I think Abu Dhabi doesn’t get enough publicity as Dubai so it is great to read about it here and learn a bit more. I think most of all I want to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It would be an awesome place to photograph.

    • Laura Lynch says:

      I think so too, that Abu Dhabi gets lost in Dubai’s shadow a lot. I think I would like it more, but never know til I get there! The mosque is top on the list of things to see, for sure.

  9. Natalie Deduck says:

    Sheikh Zayed Mosque is on my list for a long time! Tks for putting together those great tips!
    Heard from friends that lived there that the best parties are with the crowd from the Embassies 😉

    • Laura Lynch says:

      Ah, that’s good to know, and not surprising. I’ve worked with those guys for many years now (putting together Embassy websites) and they’re a great bunch of people.

  10. Abu Dhabi Tour says:

    Love this! Great tour through the city even though we haven’t been there either! Also, some amazing tips for when we do go – you’ve done all the research for us! 🙂 Thanks for this!

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  13. Captain Dunes says:

    Exploring Abu Dhabi City sounds amazing! 😍 Have you been there? Share your Abu Dhabi adventures with us! 🌆🌴

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