Abu Dhabi might not be the first place that comes to mind for island-hopping, but the cosmopolitan capital of the United Arab Emirates is an archipelago of more than 200 islands, many of which are accessible to visitors.
You’ll find a bevy of experiences for every taste on the islands close to downtown Abu Dhabi. Whether you’re looking for glitz and glamor, or all things family-friendly, local lifestyle influencer Tania AbuZeid Dahbour is an expert on where to live your best (night)life and keep the kids happy across the capital’s islands.
From the best bites and beats, to sunsets with a view, Tania AbuZeid shares her secrets, plus sets the record straight on nightlife and modern culture in Abu Dhabi. Here’s why she says her hometown is the perfect place to cut loose, go on dates, and raise a thriving family.
What’s the vibe like in Abu Dhabi?
Abu Dhabi is made up of many islands, including downtown, which is where most companies have their offices, in the high-rise buildings and along the expanse of the Corniche with its magnificent view. Surrounding that are several other islands like Yas Island, Al Reem Island, Saadiyat Island – and all of these have different vibes of their own. The beauty of Abu Dhabi is you can pick and choose, and it’s easy to get around from island to island by taxi, ride-share or public transportation.
You’ve traveled all over the world – what makes Abu Dhabi different?
From my perspective, it’s the fact that it’s got a bit of everything for everyone. It still has little touches of the old Abu Dhabi, especially in the historical areas, but it has amazing nightlife and it’s come so far over the past 50 years. There’s a lot for all kinds of travelers to do.
Does it remind you of other parts of the world?
Abu Dhabi has become so international because it’s got such a huge population of expats, so there are influences from all over. On Al Maryah Island, you can enjoy fine dining at places like Zuma for Japanese, or Coya for Peruvian, or something more relaxed and chilled like Mexican at Loca.
You spent some time living in Canada. How does it compare?
I moved to Canada to get my bachelor’s degree, but I was born and raised in Abu Dhabi. Even though I love Canada, on another level, I always felt like there was something pulling me back here. Maybe it was the weather! I was in Ottawa, and the nightlife doesn’t really compare to how things are in Abu Dhabi right now.
Describe the nightlife in Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi has really upped its game when it comes to nightlife. If you want a night out to party, go to Yas Island – it’s got so many different bars, clubs and lounges. I love going to Yas Bay, where you can start off with dinner before bar hopping.
Many restaurants even have DJs – people may just suddenly stand up and start dancing while you’re having dinner. It’s so much fun. There are go-go dancers and fire shows at places like The Trilogy by Buddha-Bar. It's actually one of my favorite places in Abu Dhabi, for a few bites, sunset drinks, and great views, plus really nice shows on weekends.
Any misconceptions you’d like to clear up?
Abu Dhabi is very much like elsewhere in the world – you can wear a dress and heels when you go to a club, or a bikini on the beach. The only exception is at traditional places like mosques, where the custom is to dress conservatively.
Although the Middle East is conservative, drinking alcohol is accepted, as long as you're not consuming it in the streets or in public areas. Abu Dhabi is the only emirate in the UAE where you can buy alcohol from the liquor store without a liquor license.
What local delicacies must visitors definitely try?
There’s a hot drink called karak tea that’s very popular among the locals. It’s a sweet milk tea made with saffron, which gives it a unique golden color and distinct, delicious flavor. Emiratis use saffron in a variety of different dishes.
Abu Dhabi is known for its fish. In Al Mina, the oldest area, is the harbor where they do all the fishing. It’s really well preserved and still has that old look and feel. You can go to the market there and buy fresh fish, like sea bream and hamour, for amazing prices. There are also lots of restaurants where you can have great fish, lobster, shrimp, calamari, squid – you name it. It’s something that’s very special about Abu Dhabi because of the fishing history here.
You’re a mom – is Abu Dhabi family-friendly?
It’s a great place to raise children, especially because it’s one of the safest cities in the world. You can literally stop your car in the middle of the street, leave the keys and the doors unlocked for hours and nobody will touch it. You can walk any time of the day in Abu Dhabi, even as a kid, and you know that you’re safe.
As far as things to do, the beaches are great and we’ve got amazing weather year-round. All the restaurants are family friendly and there’s a waterpark and several activities like skating, arcade games or bowling. Kids are welcome in most spaces here.
Where’s a good place to go on a date?
It’s so easy to fall in love here – Abu Dhabi is actually pretty romantic! Hakkasan at Emirates Palace is one of my favorite places for date nights. It’s got great Asian food and you can sit on the patio during wintertime when it’s cooler. Overlooking the Abu Dhabi skyline with a DJ playing chilled, loungey music creates a charming vibe.
Where else can you get a great view in Abu Dhabi?
Tell us about your most epic experience in Abu Dhabi.
This one is so hard! I love Abu Dhabi in November, when the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix race takes place at Yas Marina Circuit. People come from all over and it’s one of the biggest events of the year, with concerts and parties from day to night in the surrounding area.
Last year’s event was one of my most memorable experiences. We started the day with brunch at a lounge on Yas Island called Iris, where the races were being broadcast. We spent the whole day partying there – they had a DJ and it was packed – before moving on to concerts in the evening. Abu Dhabi during Formula One is my absolute favorite time of year.
This article has been edited for length and clarity