The United Arab Emirates is a great place to travel in the Middle East, with luxurious amenities and safe surroundings. It also offers a great currency exchange rate for Americans – about $1 to 3.67 dirhams. The city of Abu Dhabi – a 250-square-mile shock of seaside skyscrapers perched on the edge of a vast desert – in particular has these things and more: a booming hotel industry, unique experiences (like camel auctions), vacation options for a variety of travelers (beaches, desert treks, high-end restaurants). So it's no surprise that the emirate is shaping up to be one of this year's hottest – no pun intended – destinations. The country recently reported record tourism numbers for 2013. Here are a few other reasons to consider Abu Dhabi...
1. The Main Attraction
Go beyond the city’s cluster of high-rises and visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Featuring Mamluk, Ottoman, and Fatimid design styles (multi-colored marble, intricate mosaics), the mosque is a must-see. While it doesn't offer centuries of history (construction began in the 90s and it opened in 2007), it is one of the most recognizable structures in the city and sits along the two main roads that lead into downtown. Modest dress is required for women, and the mosque provides abaya (a dark smock and head-covering worn over clothing) for travelers who need them. Free walking tours are offered daily. Open Saturday–Thursday 9am–10pm; Friday from 4:30–10pm.
2. The Weather
With sunshine nearly year-round, Abu Dhabi definitely appeals to travelers in search of a warm-weather destination. Visit from November to April, when winter temperatures generally don't drop below 50, with the thermometer hovering around 70 during the day. (Summer, by contrast, often sees temperatures in the 100s.) Something to consider, when dressing for the weather: While the city (and the UAE) considers itself progressive, loose-fitting, modest clothing is suggested, especially for women walking around town. You can let loose at your hotel, but in the city, and especially as you venture outside of it, showing skin will be frowned upon.
3. The Incredible (and Affordable) Hotels
Because new hotels have been popping up all over Abu Dhabi, the rates at four- and five-star properties have remained steady – and are far less expensive than what you’d pay for similar quality in Europe or Asia. The five-star Eastern Mangroves Hotel and Spa by Anantara overlooks a nature preserve and features Arabian flourishes (arches and mosaics) and offers rates from $142. The opulent Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas (rates from $231), which is on Saadiyat Island, has a beautiful beach, a championship golf course, and a spa specializing in holistic treatments. If you'd prefer to avoid the big resorts in favor of more intimate lodgings (say, in an Arabian-inspired village ), the big hotels are still worth a visit for their beautiful, expansive architecture. The seven-star Kempinski hotel features over 100 domes and sits on more than 240 acres of land, including 210 acres of landscaped gardens. And don't pass up the opportunity to have tea at the Emirates Palace Abu Dhabi 's Le Café. Something to consider as you explore: You technically have to have a license to drink alcohol in the UAE, but it’s usually an acceptable practice for tourists at a hotel.
4. The Happenings
From the well-known Formula One Grand Prix, to a film festival, golf championship, and more, Abu Dhabi teems with high-profile events throughout the year. At the end of November, Abu Dhabi Art has exhibits, talks, and more. Countless galleries convene at the UAE Pavilion and Manarat Al Saadiyat to showcase their collections of contemporary art. For two weeks in February, Gourmet Abu Dhabi brings world renowned chefs to the city for master cooking classes, demonstrations, and of course, dinners. If you're looking for something with bit more octane, the Al Ain Aerobatic Show (the end of November into December) includes multiple air shows.
5. The Islands
You might think of Abu Dhabi as a metropolitan city (which it is), but this emirate also has white-sand beaches and picturesque islands (many of which are man-made) just minutes from downtown. On Saadiyat Island, you'll find five-star luxury hotels, an expansive public beach ($7 entry fee), and endangered Hawksbill sea turtles. With multiple construction projects in the works – the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Zayed National Museum, and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi – Saadiyat is readying itself to be one of the Middle East's cultural hubs. Yas Island is Abu Dhabi's entertainment location with Yas Marina Circuit, Yas Waterworld, and Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. Siri Bani Yas Island, which is about 150 miles west of Abu Dhabi city, is home to the Arabian Wildlife Park. Over 10,000 animals – from gazelles to giraffes and hyenas – roam free in the wildlife reserve.
6. The Transit Options
Flights to Abu Dhabi are on-par with prices to other cities in Asia. Expect to pay from about $900 and up for a round-trip fare from New York. The bonus is that many great carries (Turkish Air, Qatar, Etihad) fly in to the city, so you’ll start your trip on a comfortable note, even in coach.
Once you arrive, Abu Dhabi has modern, easily navigable roads, so renting a car isn’t out of the question for ambitious travelers. But its public transportation system is also easy to use, and affordable. Taxis are well-priced and can be caught anywhere in the city. There are also inner-city buses as well as regional buses. City buses cost two dirhams per ride (about 50 cents); other bus fares vary. And, if you're going to be using the bus frequently, consider getting an Ojra weekly bus pass which offers a week of unlimited rides for about $8.15.
7. The 'Desert Oasis' Experiences
Leave Abu Dhabi’s downtown for a sense of what life was like 100 years ago . Go on a desert safari where you'll ride a camel, visit a goat ranch, among other activities (from $68). You can also learn about the pearl diving industry in the Persian Gulf aboard a traditional dhow boat (from $122). Bonus: if you find a pearl you can keep it! Or, maybe you'd rather spend a day at a camel racetrack. Al Wathba and Al Maqam tracks race the seemingly slow and awkward creatures (surprisingly, they can run up to 40mph!). The best part? The camel races are free to attend.