I could have spend weeks in Abu Dhabi (and I hopefully I will in the future), but if you fly Etihad (which you should because they are AMAZING!) you may find yourself with a day or two in Abu Dhabi on the way to your destination. Etihad offers a few different stopover programs to allow you to explore Abu Dhabi en route to somewhere else. A little known fact is that Etihad is one of a few airlines that will provide a hotel free of charge if you have a layover of 8 hours or more. The only catch is that you have to request it from them and there can’t be a shorter layover available. Etihad is also offering a 2-day stop over where the second night’s hotel is free! Both of these are great deals and worth checking out, but I had booked a very bizarre itinerary from Chicago-Abu Dhabi-Mahe,Seychelles-Johannesburg-Abu Dhabi-Paris on Secret Flying and was not eligible. I did have about 19 hours to explore Abu Dhabi and was able to do so quite easily on my own.
*Tip* Don’t book a cab from any of the kiosks in the airport! The prices are about 3x as much as the cabs outside, which are very reasonable.
If you only have a day to discover Abu Dhabi, there are a few highlights you must hit!
No trip to Abu Dhabi would be complete without a visit to the largest mosque in the UAE, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.
This iconic mosque has become a symbol of Abu Dhabi and best of all, it FREE! The detailed chandeliers, marble work, and architecture are absolutely jaw dropping! Women are required to dress modestly. This means long sleeves, ankle length pants or skirts, and hair covered. As a western traveler, we often don’t travel with such a modest wardrobe, especially to someplace as hot as Abu Dhabi, but they do offer the traditional abaya for a deposit that’s returned upon exiting. This is a great option because it’s kind of fun to try out the traditional dress as well.
Eat Something Gold!
There’s not shortage of options in Abu Dhabi, the whole city is gilded and they are great at desserts! I opted for this opulent cake which was actually served at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque (2 birds with one stone!).
Go On A Desert Safari
I’m not usually one for package tours, but when time is tight it’s a great way to experience a maximum number activities in the minimum amount of time. There are several companies that offer similar desert safari, however I used Emirates Adventures Tours and Safari, and they were great. One of the ways I save money when traveling is by signing up for the local Groupon (or equivalent). UAE has Groupon and I found a great deal on a Desert Safari that included a round trip transfer from town, Dune Bashing (not for the faint of heart or stomach), Camel Rides, Dune Surfing, a BBQ dinner, henna artist (bring money for tips), and belly dancing show. The price with the Groupon was only AED299 or about $80 for two people… not too bad! This was a great way to get out of town and see the desert, but also get a quick dose of UAE culture in just a few hours.
Enjoy a night cap or try some camel milk at the luxurious Emirates Palace
The Emirates Palace is the ultimate showplace of Arabian luxury, and while the prices were a bit out of my budget to stay there, I had to stop by and check it out. They offer local flavor like camel burgers and gold covered fries, but having just enjoyed a delicious BBQ on my desert safari, I just had an adorable camelccino (that’s a cappuccino made with camel milk). This is one of the more expensive coffees I have ever had at around $10, but it was worth it for the ambiance and to say I tried camel milk. I thought it might taste a bit different, but I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t regular milk if I didn’t know. It also came with a camel chocolate, a yummy date, and a super cute camel on top!
Of course I hardly scratched the surface of all that Abu Dhabi has to offer, but I think I did pretty okay for 19 hours!