The Perfect 4 Day Itinerary for Abu Dhabi

a B&W photo of a girl balancing on the top of a sand dune

If you don’t know much about Abu Dhabi, the second-largest city and capital of the United Arab Emirates, I’m here to acquaint you and share the perfect 4 day itinerary for Abu Dhabi. With expansive deserts and modern high-rises, ancient history and impeccable hospitality, Abu Dhabi will leave you spell-bound and immediately plotting your return. Situated on the southern shore of the Persian gulf, this young nation shares the Arabian Sea with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran as its neighbors. Though it’s oft overshadowed by its bigger brother, Dubai, Abu Dhabi is not to be missed!

Abu Dhabi Basics

Here are some important things to know about visiting Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Official Language of the UAE

Arabic is the official language of the UAE although many different languages are spoken there. The most common foreign language spoken is English, in large part because The land that is the UAE today was part of the British colony until 1971 and there is a large population of English-speaking expats living there. To become a citizen of the UAE you must be fluent in standard Arabic, however.

Official Currency of the UAE

The official currency is the United Arab Emirates dirham, abbreviated AED (or sometimes Dh or Dhs). It’s divided into 100 fils.

You can get dirham from ATM’s at the airport or use your credit card in most commercial places around the city.

Do you need a visa to visit the UAE?

Some countries have a free 30-day visa upon arrival and no prior arrangements need to be made. Those countries include:

AndorraJapanSan Marino
MauritiusUnited Kingdom and Northern IrelandCanada
MonacoUnited States of AmericaNew Zealand
Vatican CityHong Kong, ChinaRepublic of Ireland

Citizens from most European countries, along with several others, are able to obtain visas on arrival for 90 days and if you have a Mexican passport, you can get a 180 day free visa on arrival.

ArgentinaHondurasSan Marino
Russian FederationSeychellesBulgaria
Bahamas IslandsLiechtensteinSlovakia
Saint Vincent and the GrenadinesSloveniaCosta Rica
BarbadosLuxembourgSolomon Islands
CroatiaMaldivesSouth Korea
Czech RepublicSwedenDenmark
NauruSwitzerlandEl Salvador

If you’re not from the above countries you can obtain a pre-arranged visa at the following rates:

Visa typeDurationApproximate rate inclusive of VATExtensions
48-hour48 hoursUS$10Non-extendable
96-hour4 days from arrival dateUS$30Non-extendable
Tourist – short term (single entry)30 days from arrival dateUS$90Extendable US$230
Tourist – short term (multiple entry)30 days from first entryUS$175Extendable US$230
Tourist – long term (single entry)90 days from arrival dateUS$190Extendable US$230
Tourist – long term (multiple entry)90 days from first entryUS$460Extendable US$230

Where is Abu Dhabi?

An ultra-brief history of the UAE and Abu Dhabi

The United Arab Emirates is a federation that’s comprised of seven different territories: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah (Al-Shāriqah), ʿAjmān, Umm al-Qaywayn, Raʾs al-Khaymah and Al-Fujayrah. For most of history, Arab clans and families occupied the UAE region. In the 18th century, with the boom of naval trade and exploration and UAE’s large sea borders, Netherlands and Portugal tried to claim some of the territory but they ultimately lost out to Britain.

In the early 19th century the emirates in the area were able to come together and form the Trucial States, eventually, cut a deal with Britain and ultimately gain autonomy after the WWII. At that time, Bahrain and Qatar, who’d been a part of the Trucial States decided they wanted to be independent states and went their own ways. The remaining emirates joined together in 1971 to form the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE is a “federation of monarchies” meaning that each of the 7 Emirates is its own monarchy, and each Emirate has its own ruling king. The person who rules in Abu Dhabi is also, by convention, the President and head of state of the UAE, while the person who rules in Dubai is the Prime Minister of the UAE.

Most of the UAE’s petroleum is produced in Abu Dhabi, which has some of the largest oil reserves in the world, hence all the wealth.

In 2015, the population breakdown was roughly 38% Indian, 12% Emirati, 10% Egyptian, 25% Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Philippine, and 15% other.

Where to Stay in Abu Dhabi

I stayed at the St. Regis Abu Dhabi hotel when I visited and it was one of my favorite hotel stays ever. There are two St. Regis properties in Abu Dhabi which I can’t recommend enough if you’re looking for a luxury experience, though I think the first might be more centrally located to all the main attractions.

Other popular hotels in Abu Dhabi include the W Abu Dhabi – Yas Island, which straddles an F1 racetrack built half on land and half on water, and the Emirates Palace.

Mural of four men racing camels behind the bar at the St. Regis Abu Dhabi, a recommendation on my 4 day itinerary for abu dhabi
Mural at the bar of the St. Regis Abu Dhabi.

Eco-friendly Abu Dhabi?

Abu Dhabi has been pretty reliant on natural gas energy given their oil reserves, but realizing that this is an unsustainable method, they’ve done a lot to start transitioning toward becoming an eco-friendly city. Some of this is easily visible for tourists – the public transportation, clean city streets and beaches.

Some of this is less noticeable at first glance though. Take, for example, the transition to “green concrete” that’s been made mandatory since 2015. In fact, in 2019 Dubai was ranked third in global cities with the highest number of green buildings.

In Abu Dhabi, you can find Madsar City, a sustainable urban community that’s trying to pave the way for how other cities can replicate their friendly ways. It’s open to the public and I highly regret not knowing about this place sooner so I could have gone myself, but all the more reason to return someday soon.

The public transportation in Abu Dhabi is also pretty accessible. For 2 dirham you can hop on any bus to travel through the city. You can take a water taxi between some of the waterfront attractions like the Mangroves and Yas Island, or grab a bike from the bike share.

There’es also Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week where global leaders, innovators, researchers, policy makers, and others come together to discuss and troubleshoot our climate crisis and the push toward sustainable cities. It’s annual and they’ve been hosting these weeks since 2008 growing to include 175 countries and 38,000 guests.

Day 1 in Abu Dhabi

Day one is about getting oriented with the city. Spend some time walking around or taking a scooter to explore the streets of Abu Dhabi and take in the many skyscrapers from below.

  • The Louvre Abu Dhabi

You’ve probably heard of the original Louvre museum in Paris, but did you know that Abu Dhabi now has their own? They bought the rights to the name and constructed a breathtaking museum on the water, which draws crowds for its exhibits and its architecture equally. Visit in the afternoon if you want to catch to do some sunset photography of the museum’s exterior.

  • Shopping at the Souks and mega-malls

If you want to shop till you drop, there are plenty of options throughout Abu Dhabi. Mega malls abound like the one on Yas Island which boasts 60+ restaurants/ and cafes alone. Luxury shopping is a credit card away fancy places like The Galleria Al Maryah Island or the Nation Galleria. For more traditional shopping markets, try the Fish Souk at Mina Zayed to glimpse the sea history of Abu Dhabi continued, the Al Mina Fruit & Vegetable Souk for colorful subjects to photograph, or hit the Carpet Souk or Souk Al Bawadi for souvenirs.

Day 2 in Abu Dhabi

Day two is for luxury and history! With visits to palaces, mega-mosques, and ancient forts on the itinerary, you’ll learn about the traditions and riches of the UAE and Abu Dhabi.

  • Royal Palace during day; have afternoon tea

The Royal Palace is not a residential palace, but a place to host meetings with foreign dignitaries and share part of the Abu Dhabi/UAE history with tourists. We spent several hours ogling at the enormous chandeliers, arching ceilings with ornately decorated domes, and fascinating exhibits displaying gifts received from diplomats on political visits throughout the years.

  • Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center at sunset

One of the biggest mosques in the world, this white architectural wonder will catch your eye as you drive to the city from the airport and likely many other times throughout your visit. It can hold up to 40,000 worshipers and visitors – and it’s easy to believe they might need that much space. When we went, it was packed and we more or less followed a long queue through the path laid out to tourists. It’s likely busier near prayer times and sunrise/sunset when photos can be truly astounding.

  • Fancy Dinner @ Emirates Palace Hotel

The Emirates Palace Hotel is a iconic landmark in Abu Dhabi but it’s no longer open to the public – only guests of the hotel or restaurants. If this luxury hotel is not in your price range but you want to peak at the opulence, book a dinner at one of their many restaurants instead. We ate traditional Emirati food at Mezzlai which was a great chance to try a new cuisine. It was great for seafood lovers and we enjoyed everything we ordered, going away stuffed. You can also get Chinese, Indian, Italian, Thai, European, and BBQ at the Emirates restaurants.

Day 3 in Abu Dhabi

Day three is for adrenaline and getting out of the city. Spend the morning on a half-day desert adventure, and hit the racing tracks by night. After all the excitement, you’ll want to grab a drink at one of the great bars in Abu Dhabi (though be sure to read up on the drinking laws in the UAE).

  • Sandboarding/Desert experience

Head out to the Empty Quarter for a morning in the desert. Most tour companies offer sunrise, morning, or full-day packages. When we visited we got to go dune bashing (driving around on the dunes in a car which is way more fun than it might sound from that description) and sand boarding (riding a snowboard down the sand dunes). We also stopped by a camel farm where I gave a camel a hug, but we declined the riding experience as I’ve tried it before and really felt uncomfortable with it, not being able to assure the animals are treated well.

  • Adrenaline Adventure on Yas Island

If you have a need for speed, head to Yas Island where you can get behind the wheel of an Aston Martin or Mercedes and race around the track. Alternatively, visit water world for 43 rides including the worlds longest and fastest tornado water slide, among other record-breakers.

  • Drinks

After all the excitement of the day you might want to wind down with a drink. I recommend trying the Bloody Mary recipes at the two St. Regis properties in Abu Dhabi, both of which have gorgeous bars. If you want to see the city from the sky, head to the Observation Deck at 300 and enjoy being at the highest vantage point in the city.

Day 4 in Abu Dhabi

Day 4 is for enjoying the wildlife in Abu Dhabi that most sharply contrasts the desert – oceans and mangroves!

  • Jubail Mangrove Park

You’d be surprised how many parks there are in Abu Dhabi! Check out the popular Jubail Mangrove Park where you can explore this educational mangrove sanctuary from the boardwalks which wind through the park, or see it from the water via kayak.

Try the Jebel Hafit Desert Park instead if you’re looking for something a little drier. Located in the UNESCO site of Al Ain, you’ll be able to choose from hiking, camping, and even glamping!

  • Pearl Diving

There’s a long history of pearl diving in Abu Dhabi, which makes sense given their ocean-front property. You can go out with the experts and try your hand at finding a pearl on the ocean floors.

Other Top Activities in Abu Dhabi

There are so many other things to do in Abu Dhabi, including special events. In 2020 Abu Dhabi is even hosting the world fair! If any of the above suggested itinerary items isn’t quite for you, switch it out for these other options:

  • Cycle around the city
  • Spend an afternoon at the Zayed Sports City
  • Visit an indoor ice-skating rink to escape the heat in the summer months
  • Yas Island – the adventure island with theme parks, mega-malls, and the Yas Marina Circuit
  • Visit Al Ain – the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Center to see the Oasis

I recommend using the Visit Abu Dhabi site for planning your trip. There’s a wealth of information on all the activities there which is super helpful.

Thanks for reading my 4 day Abu Dhabi itinerary!

I hope you give you Abu Dhabi a chance and add it to your bucket list. As someone who grew up in America and has been bombarded with negative imagery about the Middle East or as long as I can remember, I was not sure what to expect. I was, however, suspicious that I’d love it as much as the other places I’ve been warned not to visit. After all, my experiences in the desert in Mongolia and Morocco have been some of my most memorable. I’m happy to report my suspicions were correct.

The Perfect 4 Day Itinerary for Abu Dhabi