A major hub for flights, Abu Dhabi is a buzzing transit point, and if you have a long layover here, it’s worth taking a 30-minute cab ride into the United Arab Emirates’ compact capital to enjoy sandy beaches and skyscrapers towering over historic sights. Even with less than a day, you can get a feel for this place that seamlessly blends traditional Arabian culture and modernity.
For a slice of traditional life, make an early morning round of Abu Dhabi's Fish Market and Dhow Harbour at Al Mina Port, where you’ll find traditional wooden boats docked after a night at sea. Local fishermen mend their nets and tend to giant lobster pots, or fill their free time with card games and laughter. Inside the market, with the catch fresh off the boat, locals browse for the pungent catch of the day.
From the Mina Port, take a short taxi ride to Corniche Beach and take a dip in the turquoise Gulf. Entry costs just Dhs10, less than the price of a coffee. If your bathing suit is still checked in your luggage, stroll along the Corniche on the water's edge, which stretches along the coastline for 8km.
Continue along the Corniche path and along the Marina Breakwater for a saunter around the blossoming, waterfall-studded gardens of the Heritage Village, where you’ll find evidence of an older era of Abu Dhabi, complete with Bedouin encampment, mosque and a recreation of a traditional souq.
It’s almost time for lunch, so grab a Lebanese mezze lunch outdoors on the Corniche at Cafe Layali Zaman (look for the ‘Baguette’ sign), where the hummus is perfectly garlicky and the moutabel a smoky, aubergine dream.
If budget isn’t a concern, pop into the nearby Emirates Palace Hotel for a peek at the more glamorous and gold-encrusted side of UAE life. Try the award-winning seafood at Sayad or go local at the UAE’s first self-proclaimed Emirati restaurant, Mezlai. Before moving on, and for another excuse to explore the elaborate marble-floored and brightly patterned domed areas of the Emirates Palace, check out the exhibition-of-the-moment at the hotel – there’s almost always something worth seeing.
When you’ve had your fill, take a short taxi ride to Qasr Al Hosn, the oldest structure and spiritual birthplace of the city. Having started out as a defensive watchtower back in 1760, across the years Qasr Al Hosn expanded into a fort and was the home of the ruling Al Nahyan royal family. Spend an hour or so learning about Abu Dhabi’s humble roots and what life was like in the desert before the oil boom.
For a spot of souvenir shopping, head to the World Trade Center Souk. The original market was sadly destroyed by fire in 2003, but a modern interpretation exists on the same site, where you can browse in air-conditioned comfort and bargain for spices, Persian carpets, Arabian lamps, pashminas and a veritable caravan of plush toy camels. For more unusual unbranded souvenirs, visit the Women’s Handicraft Centre, where local artisans produce weaving and threadwork.
Once you’ve shopped within a whisker of your luggage allowance, grab taxi to Saadiyat Island – where the Guggenheim and Louvre Abu Dhabi are currently under construction – to visit the Manarat Al Saadiyat visitors centre, with an interactive exhibition detailing the future of the island, and the Arts Abu Dhabi Gallery.
Watch the sun’s last rays catch the imposing Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi’s most important and impressive landmark. The mosque’s lavish building materials hark from as far afield as Greece, Italy, Morocco and Germany. Spend some time wandering around and taking in the scope of this magnificent structure just before dusk at golden hour, one of its most colourful times of day. Around sunset, the mosque begins to gently light up, its marble pillars and arches reflecting onto surrounding glass-like pools with a magical, ethereal beauty.
If you don’t need to be back at the airport yet, head over to the nearby Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal, where you’ll find the waterside Venetian Village. Make your way along the water's edge to the stylish and intimate Barfly by Buddha Bar for dinner and drinks with a beautiful view across Khor Al Maqta. A DJ plays upbeat yet chilled-out tunes that sit somewhere perfectly between that melt-into-your-seat and get-up-and-dance holiday vibe.
Taxis are plentiful and relatively cheap in Abu Dhabi, offering an easy option to get around the main sights of the city. They are easy to flag down – look for silver vehicles with a yellow roof light. Note that taxis coming from the airport have an obligatory flagfall of Dhs25, while normal flagfall around the rest of the city is Dhs5.
The local bus network is cheap, regular and far reaching. Fares all over the city start from just Dhs2. You cannot use cash on the bus, so pick up a Hafilat card first from the airport ticket vending machine for Dhs5 and charge it up to start travelling. Taxis are slightly more expensive but will get you from A to B more quickly than the bus.
Last updated September 2017