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What To Do On A Long Weekend In Abu Dhabi?

There's loads to see and do in Abu Dhabi, but so many people are literally on flying visits as they transit through or just want an exotic winter escape that I wanted to suggest an intinerary of highlights.
Table of contents

Morning 1 - Qasr Al Watan

Abu Dhabi's Qasr Al Watan, the stunning Presidential Palace
Start your visit to Abu Dhabi gently with a visit to the spectacular Presidential Palace
Jump in a taxi, or if you prefer you can maybe buy a Big Red Bus ticket to get there, and head to the Presidential Palace. Unless you are staying in that area of Abu Dhabi the taxi ride will show you some of the sights whilst not costing too much. We were in the Ritz Carleton, by the Grand Mosque, and the taxi here cost 45 AED (about £10). As you get near you pass the spectacle of the Emirates Palace hotel on your right and opposite the Etihad Towers. Both of these are certainly worth booking into for a snack or meal on a longer trip, but on a flying visit there's just too much to see.

Your taxi, or bus, will drop you right by the ticket office / entrance to the palace. Ideally you can purchase your tickets online before arrival but if not they can be purchased very easily on site. Once you have your ticket it's through the security check and then you are hurried onto a bus. We found this a little confusing as no information was given and we were loaded along with a large group of people and thought we'd been put on their tour, especially as they all stared at us. But the mini bus simply wisks you through the palace grounds as it's quite a distance from the entrance to the actual palace, where you are dropped outside of the entrance.

Here the spectacle begins. Take a few photos of the front of the palace, where you can play with the leading lines of the tiling to create inviting photos. The frontage of the palace is really spectacular, with the white against the sky and lots of symetry and lines for photographers to experiment with.

Inside it gets even more impressive. A series of large halls, and smaller displays, fantatically decorated in gold to impress the visitor. You can marvel at the decor of the building plus various exhibits such as treasured gifts and the library for an hour, a lot more if you are really keen. Whether you just want to marvel at the sights or prefer to compose carefully crafted images, it's an experience.

Once you finish you can follow the exit route past the cafe, where a quick coffee and snack can be had. If you want a bite to eat here's a good oppoprtunity. Maybe not the fanciest of cafes, but not too expensive and easy to find.

Outside you have a view of the Abu Dhabi waterfront over the palace gardens, before returning to the front of the palace. Here you will find the nightly light show - 'Palace in Motion'. This in itself is worth seeing, but I'd say it's about 4th of my list of "what to do in the evenings" so only included in longer trips.

Qasr Al Hosn

the old fort of the Qasr Al Hosn
The Qasr Al Hosn can be a less visited tourist attraction, but that doesn't mean you should miss it.
Back on the Big Red Bus (hint, connections to the bus are easier if you have their app, which requires data - read about cheap data in Abu Dhabi) or a taxi from the entrance, wind your way through the back of Abu Dhabi to this historic fort. The traditional white walled fort set in what looks like an area of wasteland contrasts against the surrounding busy sky scrapers.

But once inside the fort you are treated to another photographer's paradise. Long corridors, archways overlooking the courtyard and staircases to pose on for the family album and Instagram.

Along with a few exhibits it's simply a very pleasant location to wander around and unlike Qasr Al Watan, nowhere near as busy. Our ticket also included entrance into the exhibition next door or a heritage type market including a traditional coffee demonstration, which was very interesting.

From here we completed our journey on the Big Red Bus to get back to our hotel, but near the bus stop there appeared to be a cafe and you could easily flag down a taxi to continue.

Day 1 - Evening (Sunset) Desert Safari

A jeep on a sand dune before sunset
The sunset desert trip is definitely a must-do on a trip to Abu Dhabi
This is a must and a pre-booking essential - book before you fly out.

You are picked up from your hotel in a 4X4, which seats up to 6 people and driven for about an hour before you turn into the desert, then there's a mixture of entertainment. There's a stop in the dunes to take photos whilst the convoy of vehicles gathers and a stop, to let the cars cool, at a camel farm. In between there's some quite thrilling, but very safe feeling, dune bashing as the drivers wind their way through the desert, sliding sideways at times down the dunes and peaking some quite angular dunes. All the while the drivers are making sure their passengers are enjoying the thrill.

After a while you arrive in an oasis - a small fort looking structure in the desert. Here you rest for a while and can sand board, ride a camel or drive a quad bike. When you've had enough of the thrills you are free to wander the dunes and get a few sunset shots, which can be amazing.

Once the sun is down the buffet opens. Help yourself to a variety of food, with drinks availble. After that the traiditional entertainment starts, with various dancers and fire acts before you are driven back to your hotel.

Day 2 - Mangroves

the canoes during the beach rest break
Canoeing in the mangroves might sound energetic, but it is actually very relaxing.
Another totally different experience is to head over to the Eastern Mangrove swamps and go canoeing. It's not necessarily as energetic as it sounds - you can budy up in two seaters if you prefer and the guides set a very easy pace.

The mangroves are an interesting area of nature just 10km from the hustle and bustle of the city. You should see various wildlife depending on the tide state - herons, flamingoes and various other animals if you are lucky. A gentle paddling around the mangroves and a relax on a beach. What better way to spend a lazy morning?

Louvre Abu Dhabi

Inside the galleries of the Louvre Abu Dhabi
Escape the heat of the mid day on the galleries of the Louvre Abu Dhabi
Once dried off and changed get a taxi to the Louvre Abu Dhabi for a couple of hours of culture. Arrive art the gallery via the bus or taxi and wander over to the entrance. Near here you will see payment machines which accept cards, or just around the corner you can pay cash (or cards) at the booths (more about cash vs cards in Abu Dhabi).

Once paid there's a bagh search and due to the nature of the exhibits there's a lot forbidden. Not even a small bag (my camera bag was too big) and definitely not a bottle of water. If you have any of these there's a convenient and very friendly (and free) bag drop, just remember to collect before you exit.

Inside the museum there's plenty to see under the unique roof, which lets in the rays of the sun. The exhibits are arranged in a chronological order for you to enjoy at leisure. They are roomy and airy and quite varied. Art on the walls, statues and the light drifting through. There is, of course, a good cafe to grab lunch between galleries and a turtle rescue centre.

Heritage Village

entrance to teh Herritage Village
The herritage villiage is a gentle, free exihibit with fantastic views of the city
After the Louvre, take either half an hour on the Red Bus or a taxi ride along the corniche. If you are feeling energetic hop off at one of the beaches and follow the path to admire the beaches, but either way make your way to the Heritage Village. This free to enter museum shows how people lived in the UAE before it came the thriving place it is now. And if you wander along to the beach in the village you get a stunning view across the water back to Abu Dhabi's skyline.

Evening - Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

the grand mosque at twighlight from the memorial
The Grand Mosque is picturesque 24 hours per day and don't miss this view from across the road in the memorial.
Saving the highlight for the end, this is one of the biggest memories of a trip to Abu Dhabi. And heading there in the evening has many advantages. First, it's cooler for exploring the site, it's also much quieter as the coach trips visit in the daytime but best of all the lighting is amazing. On a longer trip it's worth visiting in the daylight and twilight, on a shorter trip that's maybe not possible. But a trip to this free to enter mosque is a must.

You enter the mosque by the souk, where there's both a chance to grab a traditional meal if you are hungry, or some traditional clothing if you are not suitable covered up. Through security, an underground path and then into the mosque's grounds. You are free to take photos, but if you are posing in them the security guards ensure the poses show respect (no V signs etc).

You get limited access inside of the mosque - enough to see and enjoy it, but if you want to see more it's well worth joining a free guided tour. Just turn up at the start point of the tour at the appointed time and follow the guide in the less seen by tourists side of the mosque. You get to enter the mosque's halls properly in the tour as you are a small enough group and learn a lot about the mosque.

Aftwards, walk out of the mosque towards the road, turn left onto the blue running track and walk a few hundred yards until you reach a white footbridge. Use this bridge to cross the mainroad and then walk with the main road to your left for a few minutes. You'll then arrive at the memorial. There's a temptation here to walk up to what appears to be the viewing point, but keep walking, following a small water gulley if you spot it, into the auditorium. Here you'll find a small pool, positioned exactly opposite the centre of the Grand Mosque where photographers gather at all times of the day to take photos of the mosque reflecting in the pool. We were lucky and stayed within easy walking distance of this feature so I was able to visit at dawn, daytime, sunset and twilight. As long as you get to visit at least once you'll be delighted.


I've mentioned a few times the taxis and red tourist bus. Both are easy to use and the taxis are actually incredibly cheap. The bus is good for a leisurely overview of the sights, but the taxis are the efficient mode of transport.

You can flag down passing taxis or simply go to the nearest hotel, souk or tourist spot and almost certainly find cheap taxis waiting for pickups. From our hotel we never paid more than AED 50 (around £11) whether we were going to Yas Island, Sadiyat Island (for the Louvre) or the Presidential Palace area.

All of the taxis offered to take payment via contactless and I found we didn't need cash in Abu Dhabi at all. The bus was a bit more expensive, especially with a larger group, and you have to wait for it.

Lastly, when in the UAE you are unlikely to get free data if you are not on a local sim card. In fact data on most UK contracts was extremely expensive, but after a little bit of work I was able to get cheap mobile data in Abu Dhabi with next to no effort.