If you think a futuristic city popping out of desert dunes, full of amusement parks and beaches, sounds too good to be true, catch the next Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi. Paradise is real, and it’s in the UAE. Here’s how to make the most of your trip to the Emirati capital.
1. Pre-board in style.
Traveling to Abu Dhabi used to mean a long, uncomfortable journey on multiple carriers, but when Etihad Airways hit the scene, travel to the UAE got really easy and really plush. Your luxe journey to the capital always commences in an Etihad Lounge, so whether you’re an A-lister flying in Etihad’s new residence class or strictly economy, you’ll receive VIP treatment. And Etihad’s new lounge at JFK International Airport is 7,000 square feet of pure bliss: comfortable leather seats, speedy WiFi, amazing local food to get you ready for your trip overseas. If you can start your trip from New York, you should.
2. Fly like royalty.
Flying Etihad Airways is like being ushered back into the golden days of flight, with Business Class going way beyond getting a free copy of The Financial Times and a little extra legroom; sliding privacy screens and six-foot beds come as standard, and there’s no awkwardly stuffing your laptop into the pocket in front of you while you dine either — you get separate tables for both. Etihad First Class even gets you your own ‘apartment’ with a full bed and leather armchair. Seven-course tasting menus are all part of the service, plus there’s an onboard shower (so now you know how celebrities look so fresh when they deplane). And if you choose the ultimate in luxury, The Residence, you’ll get the services of a Savoy-trained butler and your very own three-room suite.
3. Get snap happy at an iconic mosque.
Almost every city has that one iconic place you have to visit; in Abu Dhabi it’s the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Surrounded by manicured gardens, this gigantic mosque is truly awe inspiring. For the FAQ-friendly, the mosque is able to accommodate 40,000 visitors and boasts the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet, chandelier, and dome. Avail yourself of free tours and make your visit more than just an Instagram occasion.
4. See the city from great heights.
Dubai may have the Burj Khalifa — the tallest building in the world — but Abu Dhabi is not one be one-upped. The Observation Deck is Abu Dhabi’s answer to the UAE’s quest for soaring views from above the clouds; it offers skyline views from the top of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel, the highest point in the city. Having high tea in the sky, with the city far below you, is unforgettable.
5. Take a shop back in time.
Abu Dhabi’s Souq Al-Bawadi and Souq Al-Zafran, located in the nearby city of Al Ain, are authentic replicas of typical Bedouin souqs and give a fairly accurate idea of Emirati life before the oil boom. Whether you’re looking for traditional garments, incense, spices, henna, oud, or dallah (Arabian coffee pots), this is your one-stop shop for all things Emirati.
6. Ride a sandy wave.
A must for any visitor to Abu Dhabi is a desert safari. After all, this is the place where some of the tallest sand dunes in the world meet the bluest of skies. Many outlets offer an afternoon and evening in the desert; Hala Abu Dhabi Desert Safaris offers all the elements any good desert adventure needs. The accommodation and customs of local Bedouin communities are paired with an array of local foods and entertainment, and for sporty travelers Hala Abu Dhabi also offers sand boarding, dune bashing, and camel rides.
7. See the city from a different angle.
Abu Dhabi’s skyline is celebrated for its depth defying and jaw-dropping architecture. Just look at the Aldar Building, which locals fondly refer to as the “cookie” building. This circle-shaped construction serves as both a point of reference to those new to the city and a landmark. The Leaning Tower of Pisa has nothing on the Hyatt Capital Gate hotel, which topples sideways at an astounding 18 degrees, making it a both a visually stunning landmark and a perfect place to explore some fun perspective snaps. While there, visit 18 Degrees — the hotel’s excellent restaurant — for great views (and food!).
8. Cool off at Yas Marina.
After you’ve taken on all the rides and splashed down all the slides, Yas Marina is right near all the other Yas Island attractions, and it’s the perfect place to chill out. There are multiple dining options to suit all budgets, but you can also just take in the amazing views of the Yas Viceroy Hotel and learn how the one percent gets around as you watch mega yachts sail in and out of this marina to the uber rich.
9. Eat your way around the world in one hotel.
The five-star Yas Viceroy Hotel offers virtually every cuisine on the planet. Kazu is a Japanese restaurant that offers arguably the best omakase menu in town. Origins offers elegant all-day dining, suitable for young and old, but you can also sample local cuisine, Indian, Italian, and South East Asian at Atayeb, Angar, Amici, and the Noodle Box respectively; or dig into bar food at the Latitude and Longitude rooftop bar. Every other Saturday, you can also picnic on the hotel’s Palm Garden lawn.
10. Ride the world’s tallest and fastest coasters.
Move over Formula Rossa, world’s fastest roller coaster. Ferrari World has just raised the world’s adrenaline stakes with the Flying Aces—the world’s steepest steel roller coaster, featuring a starting hill inclined by 51 degrees and the world’s tallest loop at 170ft. The Formula Rossa is still nothing to sneeze at; travelling at 150mph is still pretty terror inducing. Whatever ride you choose, a visit to Ferrari World gets you ultimate bragging rights.
11. Charter a dhow.
In Abu Dhabi, there are a million and one ways to get on the water, but there’s only one way to dive back in time and history. Charter a dhow boat dinner cruise and learn about the heritage of the UAE onboard a boat traditionally used by ancient pearl traders. The outlet offers numerous excursions tailored to suit your needs, so there’s no excuse not to get out on the water.
12. Check out a palace.
Think palaces are places only for those whose pinkie fingers and noses are raised high in the air? Wrong. Palaces in Abu Dhabi are for the people. So what does one do in a palace? The answer is subjective and related to the number of zeroes at the end of your bank account, but even commoners can afford a peek into Emirates Palace. It’s free to visit and makes for a very fun tour. If you’re unsure about how many zeroes are in your bank account, don’t worry! There’s an ATM at Emirates Palace, but it doesn’t dole out bank notes. It dispenses only gold, and makes for very ostentatious souvenir of your visit. You can also sip a 24K gold cappuccino in Le Café. Where else can you experience a 24K mustache?
13. Saadiyat Beach.
Abu Dhabi’s bold plan to bring the world’s greatest art museums to the new cultural district on Saadiyat Island, which is only a ten-minute taxi ride from the city center.
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Louvre Abu Dhabi are due to open soon, joining the already existing Manarat Al Saadiyat Museum on the island, but in the meantime, there are a few luxurious hotels, restaurants, and gorgeous and stretches of white, sandy beaches to enjoy as we wait for all that crazy culture.
14. Take to the skies.
Have you been yearning to experience skydiving but are just a bit too sensible to actually jump out of a plane? The Spacewalk wind tunnel at Abu Dhabi Country Club blows air upwards at 875hp and gives you the sensation of plummeting towards Earth without actually having to jump.
15. Take to the tarmac like an F1 hero.
Just being at the Yas Marina Circuit is an experience in and of itself, but the very best way to acquaint yourself with this globally-renowned racing track is to get into a racecar, make like an F1 hero, and complete a few laps. Hire a supercar, such as a Aston Martin GT4, to get round as quickly as possibly. If speed isn’t your thing, on Tuesdays you can run or cycle the Formula 1 track for free.
16. Take a trip along the coast.
Running all the way from the Tourist Club Area to Emirates Palace, the Corniche is a long stretch of sandy beauty boasting awe-inspiring city skylines and sweeping dune views across the water of neighboring Lulu Island. Take a walk from one end to the other or rent a bike for around Dhs20, and exercise as you sightsee.
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