The capital of the United Arab Emirates—as well as the largest and richest—manages to hold on to its cultural heritage while modernizing at a dizzying rate. Known for its beaches, excellent museums, religious structures and over-the-top opulence, the emirate and the island city by the same name have plenty to keep you occupied.
Day 1: Culture and Religion
Where Dubai has rapidly Westernized as it grew, Abu Dhabi has remained distinctly “local,” and you’ll have a better appreciation for the desert city once you understand its history and culture. Start with a morning visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, where you’ll see white marble imported from around the globe, the world’s biggest marble mosaic and the world’s biggest carpet. Check out the model of old Abu Dhabi and the collection of cultural relics at the Cultural Foundation before heading off to learn about a popular local pastime, falconry. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital treats more than 6,000 birds each year, and visitors can tour the facilities and watch the animals up close in the free-flight aviary.
When the afternoon heat begins to pick up, join the locals at the Abu Dhabi Corniche. Cool off in the clean waters at Corniche Beach or rent bikes for a ride along the waterfront promenade. As the sun sets, watch the local boats return to dock at the Dhow Harbor.
Day 2: Past and Future
Abu Dhabi pre-oil boom would be almost unrecognizable, and to see what life was once like, spend the morning at the charming UAE Heritage Village. This open air museum includes reproductions of traditional desert-dwelling tents, an old mosque and workshops in local crafts like metalwork, weaving, spinning and pottery.
After lunch, experience modern Abu Dhabi with a visit to Ferrari World, the world’s largest indoor theme park where you can ride on the world’s fastest roller coaster. If amusement parks aren’t your thing, take the short trip out to Saadiyat Island, the in-progress development project set to define the future of Abu Dhabi tourism.
At very few places in the world is a hotel one of the must-see attractions, and Abu Dhabi is one of those places. The grand sand-colored Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi’s seven-star resort, looks particularly lovely at dusk, so plan your visit in the evening for dinner or a drink.
Day 3: Day Trip to Al Ain
Al Ain, another significant city in the emirate, is only a two-hour journey through the rolling red sand dunes from Abu Dhabi. This tree-lined, green city is known for its sprawling date palm park, the Al Ain Oasis. It’s also worth driving or biking to the top of nearby Jebel Hafeet for views of the city below and the desert stretching into the distance (all the way to Oman). If you’re traveling with kids, be sure to visit the Al Ain camel souk, one of the few remaining in the country.