In a country of extreme temperatures, it's hardly surprising that the pace of life by day is slow. City dwellers make up for it at night, however, pouring onto the Corniche for a constitutional at dusk and sitting out until late sipping coffee and smoking shisha. Visitors are welcome to join this regime or gravitate towards Western bars popular with expats.
If you think of the picnic as an essentially daytime activity, then think again. The Emiratis, in common with people of the Gulf in general, love big parties. These generally involve going out en mass with the extended family, finding a comfortable perch, preferably outdoors, and chatting until the small hours. These ad hoc nighttime picnics in Abu Dhabi's parks form the focus of city nightlife for many locals.
The Expat Way
Abu Dhabi abounds with favourite expat watering holes and most midrange and top end restaurants and hotels have bars serving alcohol. Nightlife for Western expats tends to revolve around these haunts, many of which offer promotions, sports on TV, ladies' nights, cocktail menus and rooftop lounges. Resident DJs put in an appearance later at night and bands, generally from the Philippines, add a bit of boogie to the beat.
Doing Your Own Thing
To enjoy the best of both worlds, follow local custom and pitch up at the park with a barbecue supper. Chase it down with coffee and a shisha at a local Corniche cafe and then call into a bar for a nightcap.
Local Knowledge: Shisha Cafes
The scent of apple and vanilla commonly fills the midnight air, accompanied by the low rumbling and mumbled conversations of assembled puffers and gurglers, dragging on velvet hoses. This is not a psychedelic dream, it's a shisha cafe.
In Abu Dhabi, two sensations mark the hot and humid air of an Arabian evening: the wreaths of peach-scented smoke that spiral above the corner coffee houses and the low gurgle of water, like a grumbling camel, in the base of a water pipe. Shisha cafes are spread across the sea rim from the inland parks of the Corniche to the terraces of Breakwater and offer a wonderful, nonalcoholic opportunity to engage with local people.
The habit of shisha smoking, also known as hookah or hubble-bubble, originated hundreds of years ago in Persia and India.
Across the region, shisha cafes are often a male affair: men lounge in ubiquitous white plastic chairs, indolently watching football on the TV, and occasionally breaking off from sucking and puffing to pass a word of lazy complaint to their neighbour or hail the waiter for hot coals.
In Abu Dhabi, however, these cafes attract mixed company. Here, women in black abayas (full-length robes) with sparkling diamante cuffs drag demurely on velvet-clad mouthpieces, their smoking punctuating animated dialogue.
There is a popular misconception that because the smoke passes through water it is somehow filtered of toxins, but this is not the case. In fact, doctors argue that shisha is worse for your health than cigarettes, not least because a typical shisha session lasts for an hour and involves 200 puffs of nicotine, compared with only 20 for a regular cigarette.
If you're tempted to sniff out this redolent activity, here are our top five venues in the middle of the city.