The cultural capital of the United Arab Emirates will engage the most restless minds with its iconic galleries and museums, including the Louvre and, from 2025, the Guggenheim. Architecture fans can wander streets of opulent, statement-making Islamic structures, including the country’s largest mosque, while those looking for adventure will find thrills in abundance at the world’s biggest man-made surfing wave, plus an entire theme park built for speed junkies.

When it’s time to take the pace of city life down a notch or two, a day trip from Abu Dhabi offers respite from development and fast pace. Beyond the city limits lie endless empty desert dunes and unlikely discoveries, from exotic wildlife to soaring cliffs of sand. 

Read on for five of the best day trips from Abu Dhabi within a few hours of the city limits.

In the dunes of the Empty Quarter Desert, on the border between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia
Experienced drivers can explore the dunes of the Empty Quarter – or go on a tour © Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

1. Explore the vast empty desert of Rub Al Khali

Travel time: 2 hours 40 minutes by car

The world’s largest sand desert, at 1000km (620 miles) long and 500km (310 miles) wide, crosses into four Arabian countries – Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Known as the Empty Quarter by locals, the vast and mesmerizing space sits an easy drive southeast of Abu Dhabi. Here, visitors will find silence and the wide open beauty of miles upon miles of harsh terrain, where only the hardiest of animals survive. Keep eyes open for free-roaming camels wandering the waves of sand and spot 4WD enthusiasts getting their kicks by bunny-hopping golden mounds. Tours lead groups to Tel Moreeb, a soaring sand wall that rises 300m (984ft) high, with a 50-degree incline.

How to get to Rub Al Khali from Abu Dhabi:

Take the E11 road out of Abu Dhabi, and enter the Liwa Desert on the E45. Many prefer to book an organized tour (try Arabian Tours) for entertainment, a touristy dinner in a big camp and a visit to Tel Moreeb. Experienced four-wheel drivers can also rent a vehicle, let some air out of their tires and zoom off-road.

Camel rider with a flock of camels after a camel race in Al Wathba near Abu Dhabi.
Spend a day at the camel races at Al Wathba just outside Abu Dhabi © niranana / Shutterstock

2. Watch a camel race in Al Wathba

Travel time: 30 minutes by car

Home to the Al Wathba Camel Race Track, this Abu Dhabi suburb is one of the most esteemed places to see the Gulf’s prized animals galloping at speeds of up to 65km/h (40mph). Race season runs between October and April. Typically around 100 camels race per day, charging 6.5–9.6km (4–6 miles) with electric robot jockeys. The atmosphere is also electric with prize purses totaling millions of dirham. Nearby, the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is a haven of biodiversity – some 4000 flamingos feed in its natural and artificial lakes during autumn and spring. Two walking trails (1.5km/0.9 miles and 3km/4.8 miles long) allow visitors to search for up to 250 species of birds.

How to get to Al Wathba from Abu Dhabi:

Take the E22 Abu Dhabi–Al Ain road to Al Wathba Camel Race Track, and connect with the E30 Abu Dhabi–Al Ain Truck Road, then follow signs for the reserve.

3. Go on a wildlife safari at Sir Bani Yas Island

Travel time: 3 hours by car and ferry

One of the eight Al Dhafra desert islands is home to empty beaches and the Arabian Wildlife Park, covering more than half the island. Home to 11,000 free-roaming animals, including endangered species, the conservation site allows guests staying in the luxury accommodations on the island to search for Arabian oryx and gazelles, plus species not so familiar to this part of the world – giraffes, hyenas and cheetahs – on a sandy 4WD safari.

How to get to Sir Bani Yas Island from Abu Dhabi:

Take the E11 highway to Jebel Dhana Jetty via Exit 113 for Sir Bani Yas Island. The Anantara resort provides complimentary 20-minute water taxis, or arrive at the island via a chartered boat or plane.

The Jabal Hafeet Mountain Road with epic views
Drive to the top of Jabal Hafee on a scenic mountain road for epic city views © Michael Gerard Ceralde / 500px

4. Climb the UAE’s second-highest mountain in Al Ain

Travel time: 2 hours by car

Stretching to the border of Oman, the 1240m (4068ft) limestone slopes of Jebel Hafeet loom over the border city of Al Ain next to Oman on the eastern side of the Tawam oasis. Hairpin turns lead up a thrilling 12km (7.5-mile) road to the summit, with staggering city views. Don’t leave without visiting the “garden city” of Al Ain, which got its nickname thanks to the flora, palm groves and natural springs in the area. Wander the lush, sprawling Green Mubazzarah park below the mountain or visit the Al Ain Oasis – with 150,000 date palms and fruit trees, plus babbling springs. Need to cool down? Al Ain Adventure, around 160km (100 miles) from the ocean, offers the chance to ride waves in the UAE’s first artificial surf park, and there's kayaking, swimming and rafting facilities too.

How to get to Al Ain from Abu Dhabi:

Follow the E22 for 175km (109 miles) east of the capital to Al Ain, before briefly joining the E40 and climbing scenic and winding Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road to the top of the peak.

5. Turn up the tempo in hedonistic Dubai

Travel time: 1 hour 20 minutes

Land of the world’s most sizable things – the tallest building, the biggest mall, the largest man-made islands and so on – Dubai is the place to take the city experience to the extreme. Known as a playground for the nouveau super-rich, here you can shop for every designer under the sun, buy gold and diamonds as big as fruit in the souqs, and party all day with beautiful people at the countless beach bars and clubs. 

How to get to Dubai from Abu Dhabi:

Follow the E10 and E11 138km (86 miles) all the way to Dubai by car, taxi or bus (only Dhs25/US$6.50 running from Abu Dhabi airport to central Dubai). If taking a personal car and clubbing – driver service Safe Driver UAE or Zofeur will deliver you and your car back to Abu Dhabi.

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