Updated post: 18/11/18 | November 2018

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is fast emerging as an alternative to its glitzier neighbour, Dubai. With a firm focus on cultural activities and a more measured approach to tourism development, for my money, it is the more attractive of the two cities. From the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi and the superlative-busting Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, to coffee & cake sprinkled with gold, here’s my guide to the top 5 things to do during 3 days in Abu Dhabi.

1. Find out the story behind the world’s largest rug at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Commissioned by, and named after, the first president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque can hold up to 40,000 worshippers and cost in excess of $500 million to complete. Whilst referencing traditional Islamic architectural styles,  the interior has a contemporary feel. Think of traditional geometric ceramic details contrast with delicate floral designs inlaid with semi-precious stones.

With its domes and minarets rising from manicured gardens, and a 12-ton chandelier sparkling with Swarkowski crystals, your eye is inevitably drawn upwards. But look beneath your feet also. A triumph of design and craftsmanship, the Iranian handwoven carpet covers 60,546 square feet in the mosque’s main prayer room, incorporates 2.2 billion individual, hand-tied knots and weighs 12 tons. 1,200 craftsmen from Iran’s Khorasan Province took two years to weave it.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Abu Dhabi
Striding across the largest rug in the world

Top tips

  • Entrance toSheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is free
  • The free guided tour (in English) is highly recommended. Check the mosque’s website for times.
  • Observe mosque etiquette. All visitors must wear loose-fitting clothes and long trousers. Women also need to wear a headscarf. Although the mosque will loan women an abeyya with a hood at the entrance, I borrowed one from my hotel.

2.  Visit Louvre Abu Dhabi, the largest art museum on the Arabian Gulf

An essential inclusion to your 3-day Abu Dhabi itinerary is the Louvre Museum (LAD), opened in 2017. The largest art museum on the Arabian peninsula, Louvre Abu Dhabi (LAD) has a small but exquisite art collection from around the world, with particular focus placed upon bridging the gap between Eastern and Western art.

It is architecturally stunning. Its dome, an intricate tapestry of 7,850 stars, allows rays of sunlight to rain down in a play of light and shadow. Its reflective pools seemingly merge into the sea, and then across to the Abu Dhabi skyline. The building is as big a draw as the collection itself.

Louvre Abu Dhabi
Louvre, Abu Dhabi

Top tips

  • The Louvre Abu Dhabi is located in the Cultural Area of Saadiyat Island. Although a public bus (#94) stops there, going by taxi is easier. As a guide, a taxi from my hotel near Emirates Palace Hotel cost around AED 30 (£6; 8 USD)
  • The admission fee is AED 60 (£13; 16 USD). The museum is closed on Mondays
  • Download the LAD app for your very own guided tour. Free wifi is available at the museum.
  • Free lockers are available to store your stuff.

3. Receive a warm welcome at Abu Dhabi’s Heritage Village

Heritage Village Abu Dhabi

Or not, as the case may be.

This reconstructed village showcases Bedouin lifestyle and gives some insight into the pre-oil era in the United Arab Emirates. So what’s here to see? There are artisan workshops – there were few artisans in evidence on the day I visited – next to an enclosure with random animals. A faux desert camp comprising a patch of sand and a neglected tent. A peculiar museum exhibiting a splendid collection of guns, daggers and coins. And let’s not forget the inevitable shops selling tourist tat.

I’m probably not selling the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village well, but I have a strange weakness for slightly naff attractions like this, particularly when they are done with the best of intentions. Highly entertaining.

Top tips

  • Abu Dhabi Heritage Village is located near Marina Mall, Breakwater.
  • Admission is free

4. Have your gold-topped cake and eat it at The Emirates Palace Hotel

The Emirates Palace Hotel is the last word in opulence. Situated at the far western end of the corniche, think ornate domes – 114 of them but who’s counting? –  gold leaf and a lot of marble. Sadly, the ATM dispensing gold bars has gone but you can indulge in chocolate cake, sprinkled with gold … highly recommended by yours truly! Or swap a dusting of cinnamon on your cappuccino for 24 karat gold sprinkles? Doesn’t your weekend in Abu Dhabi deserve some sparkle?

Chocolate cake at Emirates Palace Hotel Abu Dhabi
Chocolate cake at Emirates Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi

Top tips

  • To be sure of admission, book a table in the lobby cafe or restaurant. Your hotel should be able to do this for you.

5. Get a birds’ eye view of Abu Dhabi

Finally,  your weekend in Abu Dhabi would not be complete until you ascend to the 74th floor of the Jumeirah At Etihad Towers Hotel for 360-degree view of its skyline. Have that cocktail; you deserve it!

Panoramic view of Emirates Palace Abu Dhabi
Panoramic view of Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi
  • Jumeirah At Etihad Towers Hotel is located at the far western end of the cornice, opposite Emirates Palace Hotel.
  • The entrance fee is AED 95 (£19; 26 USD). This is pricey but it includes a voucher for AED 55 which can be redeemed against food or drinks on the day of your visit.  Free entrance for hotel guests.

How to visit Abu Dhabi

  • Getting there – I splashed the cash and flew business class to Dubai with Emirates. As well as Emirates offering a great business class product, they provide a free chauffeur service to and from the hotel.
  • Staying there – I stayed at Jumeirah At Etihad Towers Hotel. Booked as part of a package with Emirates Holiday, this was good value. Look out for similar deals.
  • Getting around – The main sights are a considerable distance apart. Although Abu Dhabi has a bus network, I used taxis which were affordable and more convenient.
  • There is also a hop-on-hop-off bus service. Big Bus Tours offer a range of tickets from 67 USD over two different routes. However, when I did the maths, taking a taxi to and from the places on my itinerary worked out cheaper.
  • Visiting there – Abu Dhabi is not a cheap destination for eating and drinking. It is one place that I would consider half-board options.
  • It is warm all year round and, in the summer months, it can be brutally hot. Start your sightseeing early to take advantage of the cooler part of the day. Don’t forget sunscreen and a hat. 
  • As this is a Muslim country dress modestly

Have you visited any awesome mosques elsewhere? Or memorable heritage villages? I’d love it if you could share your experience by leaving a comment below.

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weekend in abu dhabi

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