While Dubai often gets a lot of buzz for its continuous growth, Abu Dhabi, its fellow member of the United Arab Emirates, stands tall in its own right. If you’re thinking about a one-of-a-kind trip to the Arabian peninsula with some of the world’s most beautiful architecture and sweeping deserts, look no further than this first timer’s Abu Dhabi travel guide.

Abu Dhabi is also the UAE’s capital city, and the name refers to an area including a cluster of islands, too, offering different attractions and being accessible by car or boat. Overall, Abu Dhabi still reflects Arabic traditions and culture while also embracing international influences and economic development.

Discover more about Abu Dhabi at these locations.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque 

The largest mosque in the UAE honors Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s ruler from 1966 until his death in 2004 and the country’s founding father. It is both his final resting place and a place of worship. Its main prayer hall has 99 names for Allah on a Qibla wall and the world’s largest carpet. Guided tours are offered, with photography permitted except within the vicinity of Sheikh Zayed’s tomb. The dress code involves modest, long-sleeved and long-length clothing. Ladies will need to cover their heads; bring along a scarf or pashmina.

exterior of huge white mosque

Qasr Al Watan

With its name translating as “Palace of the Nation,” this working palace hosts official state visits and summits. After taking in the Central Dome inside the majestic Grand Hall, spend time taking in other distinct sections. They include the Presidential Gifts, with presents from foreign dignitaries; the Qasr Al Watan Library, with a collection of books and other literary resources about the UAE; and the Spirit of Collaboration, designed to host meetings of the Federal Supreme Council and summits for the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Corniche Road

This eight kilometer-long road curves along the Arab Gulf waterfront and is aligned with pedestrian and cycle walkways, restaurants and hotels. Corniche Beach is divided into family areas in its Gate 2 and Gate 3 while Al Sahil caters more to singles and groups. Hotels extend to Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, with its Observation Deck at 300 offering afternoon tea and light bites; the St. Regis Abu Dhabi and Emirates Palace. The Marina Mall has five floors full of retail and service outlets, a multiplex cinema and well-known restaurants and global eateries. The Heritage Village is a reconstructed desert community with a souk, mosque and an encampment.

desert town with trees

Emirates Palace

This bayside luxury five-star hotel is quite bedazzling with its golden lobby and over 10 dining offerings such as its Emirati restaurant, Mezlai; it’s best to make reservations in advance. The second floor Le Café not only serves coffee, decadent pastries and afternoon tea but also an Instagram friendly favorite – the 23K gold-flaked Palace Cappuccino. 

Louvre Abu Dhabi

On the cultural Saadiyat Island, this museum collaboration with the famous Paris art institution has a collection spanning over cultures and civilizations within its galleries, plus a café, restaurant, gift shop and children’s museum. A large silver dome hovers above them, containing 7,850 stars in a geometric pattern that projects a “rain of light” when the sun passes over. 

art gallery interior with water pools

Yas Island

This entertainment island holds thrill parks and revved up attractions. At Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, the Formula Rossa roller coaster can go from zero to 240 kilometers an hour in just under five seconds. At the Yas Marina Circuit, the location for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, race an Ashton Martin GT4 and other fast cars or go on a behind-the-scenes facility tour. Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi holds 40 plus rides going up, down and all around. Yas Mall holds more than 370 shops and services, children’s entertainment centers and over 60 dining venues. 

Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital

This animal hospital provides medical care for the national bird of the UAE, along with other bird species from other Gulf countries. More than 11,500 falcons are treated here annually. Visitors can learn more about falcons and their relation to Emirati culture through facility tours. Tours must be booked in advance and are mainly conducted in English; other languages are available upon request. 

Dates Market

Visitors can be greeted with dates that are paired with Arabic coffee flavored with cardamom and saffron and poured into small, handle-less cups. This fruit can be purchased from hotels and malls, but also head to the Dates Market near Zayed Port (also known as Mina Zayed). This market area has many shops selling dates that can be fresh, dried, covered in chocolate and/or topped with nuts; it’s also near a vegetable and fruit market.

assortment of candies in cabinetThe Rub’ Al Khali

Meaning the “Empty Quarter,” the Rub’ Al Khali is the world’s largest uninterrupted desert with its reddish-orange sand spreading over Abu Dhabi, Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara, which neighbors the Rub’ Al Khali, not only enables guests to stay near the desert but also see it firsthand. The lux property schedules camel rides and demonstrations involving falconry and Saluki dogs (the latter are known for their hunting abilities).

Have you ever been to Abu Dhabi? Let us know about your experience in the comments or on Twitter

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Michele Herrmann
Michele Herrmann writes about travel, arts and entertainment, culture, history, food and drink, and other fun stuff for various publications and companies. Her adventures have taken her as far as Fiji, to date.