This past Spring I was on my way back to Berlin from New Delhi, where I had traveled to photograph a wedding. I noticed that pretty much every flight home involved an inconveniently long layover in Abu Dhabi. So, I decided to make it a little side trip and stayed there for 2 nights. Since I only had about 1.5 days to sightsee, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own. I usually am not a fan of guided day tours, but if its either that or not being able to see something at all…it’s worth it! Here’s what I did during my days in the UAE:
I arrived in Abu Dhabi around noon and darted to my hotel in a cab to save some time. I knew I was visiting a Mosque and needed to dress appropriately (arms/legs covered, needed a scarf to cover my hair). There are also garments to rent at the mosque to cover up if you aren’t prepared. I visited in late February, so the weather was nice (but beware when visiting in the summer months, temperatures hover at 45 °C/113 °F!). As far as hotels in Abu Dhabi are concerned, I was very surprised at the number of really nice (but still affordable) options when I looked online. I stayed at the Southern Sun Abu Dhabi.
I set off in another cab (splurging for me, but I was on a major time crunch!) to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the most famous sights in the capitol city. It is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and is the primary place for worship in the country (on major holidays, over 41K people can be there at once!). This building was equally as impressive for me as the Taj Mahal. It’s size and detailed decor are overwhelming. The mosque is free to visit and also open at night (giving you a totally different visual experience). Make sure you allow enough time to walk around the entire structure (and also inside to see the world’s largest carpet and jaw-dropping chandeliers). I was literally running around the outside of the mosque because I unfortunately only had 30 minutes to visit. One regret I have is not having more time here.
I then hurried off to the closest hotel to the mosque, The Ritz Carlton, where I had scheduled to be picked up for my Sunset Desert Safari tour with Viator. My time in Abu Dhabi was very limited and I had to pick and choose what I wanted to see (for me, the mosque and a trip to the desert was more intriguing than visiting popular Ferrari World or Yas Island). The safari tour did not disappoint, we drove off in a comfortable 4×4 into the desert where we flew across the empty sand dunes at golden hour. The ride and guides were a lot of fun, we made our way to a little Bedouin camp in the middle of the desert with camel rides, henna tattoos, belly dancing and a traditional bbq dinner. I’ll admit, the camp activities were a little cheesy, but I went outside of it all and watched the giant sun sink below the horizon at the top of a sand dune…an experience I would have never been able to have without the convenience of the tour.
During my only full day in the UAE, I decided to book another day trip with Viator from Abu Dhabi to Dubai. Sadly, this tour was disappointing and I found myself having to improvise during several points as we were not seeing the city like I had wanted to. If you are able to get to Dubai via car or bus on your own (the drive is a little under 2 hours) and can see the sights on your own, I would recommend it. However, there were some highlights of the tour and things I would skip.
THINGS TO SEE
The Burj Khalifa The tallest building in the world is definitely worth a visit. The problem is, you must purchase tickets online in advance in order to get a time slot that works with your schedule. A visit to this building wasn’t on my tour, but I ended up buying a last minute VIP pass to the top during our insanely long lunch break at the mall (??). I think the building is most impressive from the outside looking up, however the view from At The Top (148th floor) was pretty incredible. There is a luxurious sky lounge with drinks and treats, and you aren’t surrounded by the swarms of crowds you encounter on the 124th floor (the standard observation deck). You are also able to cut all the lines and enjoy the elevator ride up (there’s amazing graphics surrounding you as the elevator rises up past The Eiffel Tower, The Empire State Building and other famous landmarks, showing how high the Burj Khalifa actually is).
Burj Al Arab Said to be the most luxurious hotel in the world, this sail-shaped oasis sits on its own island. People who are not guests can still visit the hotel by booking a spa appointment or making a reservation for tea or a meal at one of their fabulous restaurants. Without a reservation, unfortunately you cannot get close to the property.
Dubai Marina Beach Walk along sandy shores set against some of the most impressive skyscrapers you’ve ever seen. My advice would be to get to a high point as the sun is setting and watch the glittering buildings light up at night. This is something I didn’t get to do since my tour left at sunset. One place to catch the famous skyline at sunset and splurge on a cocktail would be the Mercury Lounge at the Four Seasons.
Palm Jumeirah This stunning artificial archipelago is said to be the largest man-made island in the world. The best way to see it would be from above (sky diving, anyone?), but driving along the coast would offer some great views as well.
Old Town Dubai This part of Duabi offers a crazy juxtaposition with its other famous, futuristic sights. Step back in time as you wander through the famous souks (I would recommend the Gold Souk and the Spice Souk) and take an Abra boat ride across Dubai Creek to get to this historic area.
THINGS TO SKIP
The Dubai Mall Sorry, girls. This may be the largest mall in the world…but it’s still just a mall. It’s full of the popular brands we all have access to and (in my opinion) a waste of your time when you’re in such a cool city (ahem, here’s looking at you Viator and the 2.5 hour “lunch” break we had here). Same goes for Mall of the Emirates.
The Dubai Museum I think your time can be better spent walking around the rest of the Old Town area, enjoying the souks and interacting with the locals. The museum was a little dull and felt unauthentic.
Wild Wadi Water Park & The Atlantis I mean…really? Still scratching my head why these were both stops on our tour. Unless you’ve got a group of hyper-active kids that need an outlet, don’t bother with these two spots.
*There are, of course, so many other sights to see in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I hope to return one day! These are just the spots that I experienced during my limited layover time. :)