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25 things you need on your Abu Dhabi bucket list

How many have you ticked..?

Free from restrictions and following a spirited construction spree, it really feels like Abu Dhabi is entering another golden age right now. That means there is no better time to get the band back together and explore the emirate’s Greatest Hits. But what adventures await? Our playlist goes a little something like this…

Living your best life

This section is for those ultra-luxe, only in Abu Dhabi experiences.

Dining on The St. Regis helipad

It’s not a weekly occurrence, which is part of what makes this experience SO special, but periodically The St. Regis Abu Dhabi — opens up its 225 metre high helipad for the unofficial dictionary definition of elevated dining. Overlooking the dreamy blues of the Corniche’s waterways on one side, and the capital’s twinkling cityscape on the other — on these rare fated-days you can make a sophisticated cloud-bothering date for some (really) high tea, a champagne toast, or even a spin session (with MOTION).

Nation Tower, Abu Dhabi Corniche, priced from around Dhs550. @stregisabudhabi

Going on a real (free-range) safari

Sir Bani Yas is Abu Dhabi’s very own Jurassic Park, if you exchange murderous giant dinosaurs with an exotic collection of African mammals. Accessed via a 25-minute boat ride from Jebel Dhanna (itself a two-hour drive from downtown Abu Dhabi), the island wilderness is home to a collection of exciting wildlife, architectural wonder, romantic vistas and three luxury Anantara resorts. This castaway paradise is a protected Royal Nature Reserve, flourishing with over 11,000 animals, including 30 different endangered species such as blackbuck antelope and Arabian oryx as well as giraffe, ostrich and cheetah. Guests on the island have the opportunity to go on-safari and snatch memorable opportunities to glimpse these rare creatures, without a single cage or handler in sight.

Sir Bani Yas is located 8 km off the coast of Jebel Dhanna (two hours’ drive from downtown Abu Dhabi), accessible by complimentary water taxi or private seaplane. You can book stays on the anantara.com website, starting at Dhs1,999 with full board and all inclusive options. 

Day tripping to Nurai

This James Bond-style island is the seat of one the most luxurious resorts in Abu Dhabi, but you can score a license to chill there (a day pass) for Dhs750. This includes pool and beach access, your return ferry crossing, and Dhs550 back to spend on dining, drink, watersports and spa activities. There are some great restaurant options available too — there’s the seafood restaurant Hooked, Smokin’ Pineapple (which has its own surf pool) and Frangipani — the home of the hotel’s Saturday brunch. Nurai’s spa offers premium pamper opportunities, the latest trending treatments and relaxation as standard. Need to occupy the little ones too? There’s a nautical tonne of activities for kids including waterpark and flume adventures, shell painting and a packed fun-tineray at the dedicated Petit Z club.

Nurai Island, is a 15 minute boat ride from the Welcome Centre on the east side of Saadiyat Island, near exit 14 of Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Highway, guests should arrive at least one hour before session start time. Book your space now, by calling (02) 506 6229, nuraiisland.com

Racing around the F1 circuit

Judging by the way some of you treat the expressways here, it’s very unlikely you’ll get a shock call up to next year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. But there is still a way you could find yourself doing laps of Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit. They have a stacked grid of car experiences, but the best for thrill seekers has to be Formula Yas 3000 (Dhs1,840). Described as, “the closest thing to an F1 car most people will ever drive,” you’ll get to zoom around in a race car armed with a 3.0 litre V6 Jaguar Cosworth engine, plus Formula One-style paddle shift flappy paddle gear sticks. Looking for something a little less fast pace? Yas Marina also offers karting sessions too (from Dhs120). yasmarinacircuit.com

The great indoors

This section is for those AC-chilled, roof-over-your-head, only in Abu Dhabi experiences.

Declare war on gravity

things to do in abu dhabi - clymb

Inside Yas-based adventuredrome, Clymb — you can skydive and scale up an artificial Everest beneath the snug-comfort of a steel sky. The venue is home to a truly epic wind tunnel that lets you live out all the thrills of hurling yourself out of a plane, except at a few metres above sea-level and without having to put faith in square metres of voluminous nylon. Prefer your ascents a bit more hands-on? There is a huge collection of climbing walls, and boulder-edging to pit your finger strength against. It’s our nation’s spiritual home of the war on gravity.

Clymb, Yas Mall (by Ferrari World entrance), Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, Sunday to Thursday 11am to 9pm, Friday and Saturday noon to 11pm, basic climb package Dhs120 for 60 minutes, Combo tickets from Dhs315. Tel: (600) 511115, clymbabudhabi.com

Dine at a revolving restaurant

Stratos

Rotating restaurant Stratos combines panoramic views, a sophisticated swinging 50s soundtrack and an equally jazzy menu. The highlight of their weekly promotions, has to be their much loved Friday evening Ratpack Supperclub (Dhs395) where you’ll also find yourself in one of the best spots in the city to watch the sun go down.

Le Royal Meridien, Sheikh Kalifa Street, daily 5pm to 1am. Tel: (02) 674 2020, @leroyalmeridienabudhabi

A super day out

Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi was your top pick for ‘Favourite Attraction’ in the What’s On Abu Dhabi Awards 2021. And we felt that. All of our favourite DCU superheroes (and villains), Tom, Jerry, Buggs, Daffy, Tweetie, The Flintstones, and backed up by some spectacularly wild rides – plus all those expertly choreographed shows.

Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi Dhs310 for adult and child. Tel: (600) 511 115. @wbworldad 

Conduct a prison break

Taking inspiration from iconic TV shows, The Crystal Maze and Fort Boyard, Prison Island – Beat the Bars is a new adventure experience now open at Abu Dhabi Mall. Set over a 1,000m² expanse, this is no escape room — it’s a network of 26 individual ‘cells’ featuring tasks each more fiendishly conundrous (shhh, that’s a word) than the last, and you’ll have to beat them all if you want to escape the island, with winner’s bragging rights.

Abu Dhabi Mall, Dhs125, @prisonisland.abudhabi.

Resorting to sports

The Al Forsan International Sports Resort has some pretty amazing recreational fun times to get involved with, and whilst a lot of it is staged on the outdoor grounds (including the karting track, paintball arena and archery range), there are indoor pursuits too. Take the shooting club for example, visitors line their on a range of firearms including handguns, rifles, sniper rifles, a bow and arrow – and even a virtual VirTra 300-powered shooting simulator.

Al Forsan International Sports Resort, Khalifa City. Tel: (800) 9900, alforsan.com

Try some Michelin Starred cuisine

The plat is now out of the Michelin bag in Abu Dhabi and, based on the whims and wants of its inspectors, we’ve learned who’s kind of a big deal on the capital’s culinary scene. A significant 42 restaurants were added to this inaugural 2023 Guide, four were awarded the sought-after Bib Gourmand status (good affordably priced food) and three more were honoured with what is likely international gastronomy’s most coveted prize of all, a Michelin Star. Those trio of Star-struck restaurants were — Hakkasan Abu Dhabi, Talea by Antonio Guida and 99 Sushi Bar and Restaurant.

Remarkable history

This section is for those cultural, historically-investigative, only in Abu Dhabi experiences.

Pop in to Al Ain’s camel market

You’ll find this dromedary expo about 15 minutes outside of downtown Al Ain. The camel is of central importance to the UAE story, and their trade still takes place in these bustling market places today. Lucky guests might get the opportunity to see camels flexing their A-game in demonstrations of racing pedigree. You’ll have to brave some pretty formidable scents, but it’s rare to find examples of traditional Middle Eastern life, this authentic and open to the public. It also affords a perhaps unmatched opportunity to catch a candid camel selfie.

Al Ain, daily 6am to 7pm (although most of the trading happens first thing). visitabudhabi.ae

See the Louvre from a different perspective

Seahawk.ae offers night kayak tours of the great Louvre Abu Dhabi, allowing you to observe the buildings and grab some privileged pics from rarified angles. New trophies unlocked. Trace the dome’s lunar-like curves and watch the ballet of artificial light, water and shadow create their own masterpieces on the exterior of the gallery. Once a (lunar) month you’ll be able to do it on a full moon. Guess when that is? Yep September 10 and 11 — this weekend you can find full moon night cruises on both Saturday and Sunday with departures at 7.30pm and 9pm.

Louvre Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat Island, 7.30pm and 9pm on Sep 10 and 11, Dhs126. Tel: (02) 673 6688, sea-hawk.ae

Visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

One of the world’s largest mosques, this inspirational building was commissioned by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and was completed in just over a decade. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has space for 40,000 worshipers each day and pulls design features from Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan and Egypt, and other Islamic countries. There are 1,096 amethyst-and-jasper-embedded columns, 82 white marble domes — one of which features beautiful gold lead calligraphy of Quranic text on the interior, reflective pools, Swarovski chandeliers, the world’s largest hand-woven carpet, a breathtaking prayer hall, and a courtyard with one of the world’s largest marble mosaics.

Al Maqta’a, daily 11am to 11pm, free. Book your visit at visit.szgmc.gov.ae 

Meet the ancient residents of Jebel Hafit

Part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jebel Hafit is Abu Dhabi’s tallest peak, located in Al Ain, about 90 minutes’ drive from the capital city. Now operated by Pura Eco Retreats, the team that brought you those gorgeous glamping bubbles on Jubail Island, the campground offers static high-end tented accommodation as well as pitches for those that wish to bring their own canvas and poles. Holiday-makers come here to hike the heritage trails, mountain bike (rental available), enjoy dune buggy tours, ride camels and breathe in the rare fresh air (and lack of light pollution) that contributes to the perfect conditions for astronomy. Those with a historical thirst should make the trek to Jebel Hafit’s two archeological sites. One, a neolithic excavation, dates back 8,000 years — whilst the other, a 5,000-year-old tomb was excavated in 1959 on the orders of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

Jebel Hafit Desert Park, Jebel Hafeet, Abu Dhabi. Tel: (0)3 711 8362. jebelhafitdesertpark.com

Watch a light and sound show at the Palace of the Nation

qasr al watan

The grand ‘Palace of the Nation’, Qasr Al Watan lies at one end of the city’s main Corniche, caught between the unyielding blues of the Arabian Gulf and the chasm of skyscrapers that define the city’s skyline. It is by all measures a newcomer on the UAE’s heritage scene, having opened its ornate doors to the public in 2019, but it already commands a place amonst its most precious cultural gems. Entry to the attractions is just Dhs6o and contained within its white granite walls, you’ll find a blend of educational and inspirational experiences — architectural masterwork; a library with storey-high book shelves; the great hall; the seat of the UAE’s cabinet; a ‘house of knowledge’ learning hub; exhbits telling the story of the nation’s rich and nuanced history. There’s also a Palace in Motion Sound and Light show (adults Dhs25, kids Dhs12), which now takes place daily. An entertainment extravaganza that illuminates tales from the nation’s past, present and future.

Al Ras Al Akhdar, now open daily between 10am and 6.45pm Dhs60, kids Dhs30. Book on qasralwatan.ae

Just deserts

This section is for those off-the-beaten-track, only in Abu Dhabi experiences.

Of sands and stays

From stargazing eco-pods to luxurious dune-clamped pamper palaces — Abu Dhabi’s collection of off-piste, on-sand desert hotels is as diverse as it is enchanting. There’s the stunning Anantara Qasr Al Sarab, an oasis of elegance amid the rugged Liwa sands; the wellness paradise of Al Wathba, A Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa; the AirStream glamping active adventures available at Bab Al Nojoum Al Mugheirah; and the stunning panoramic dome tents of Pura Eco Retreat at Jebel Hafit. And opening soon, in 2023, you’ll also be able to check in and check out the sand-swept stylings of Liwa Hotel, Autograph Collection, Abu Dhabi.

Experience the magic of Dubai’s dune skeletons

The desert areas of the UAE hold many wonders, but few can compare to the ethereal beauty of Al Wathba’s fossil dunes. These naturally occurring monoliths are jutting, jagged reminders of the emirate’s storied geological past, having been forged over the past 120,000 years. Found a short distance away from the (also well-worth a visit) Al Wathba Wildlife Reserve, an expanse covering more than 1,700 of the fossil dunes has now been designated as a protected landmark. The Al Wathba Fossil Dune Protected Area now features a visitor centre, a viewing area, an amphitheatre and 7kms of hike-able trails with educational signage explaining the origins and cultural significance of these magnificent sand relics.

Blaze your own trail through the empty quarter

Abu Dhabi’s Off-Road Driving Project is a series of six cross-country driving routes mapped across meandering terrain, compiled by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT). The trails have been designed for those with a taste for adventure to head off on safe self-drive expeditions, and track down intrepid desert camping experiences. The routes have been graded at different accessibility and driving ability levels, from beginner to expert. Each option offers its own exciting sight-seeing opportunities, with wildlife encounters such as gazelle and camel, the entrancing dune configurations of Al Quo’a, secret ghaf forests of Al Mirayr, camel racing tracks, desert tombs and hidden oases. You can pull up detailed information on routes, points of interest and camping opportunities as well as safety procedures, emergency information and pre-trip checklists on the visitabudhabi.ae website.

Check out Abu Dhabi’s salt lakes

Abu Dhabi’s Salt Lakes took Instagram by storm last year. Bloggers, influencers and the naturally curious headed out to their location near Al Wathba Wildlife Reserve, to capture snaps with the narrow pastel green lakes filled with crystalline lily pad features. You can find the exact location on Google Maps, but getting there isn’t easy. Take an SUV, take snacks and back up supplies, tell someone where you are going, do not litter, and make sure you’re all fuelled up. We promise it’s worth it.

Images: Instagram / @a.c.h.r.i.s.t.y / @perspectivesofjames / @vishnu.ae

The wild side

This section is for those adrenalin pumping, only in Abu Dhabi experiences.

Shark tank

In addition to the eight themed zones; an XXL reticulated python known only as ‘Super Snake’; back stage tours; and marine animal rehabilitation projects, The National Aquarium also offers a range of marine life meet and greets. You can, for example, have an ‘Ocean Encounter’ feeding sharks measuring up to two metres in length for just Dhs180. And that price includes access to the ‘Aquarium Journey’. Want to take it to the next level? You can also now dive with the sharks, and experience their gentle shrapnel-toothed beauty up close.

The National Aquarium Abu Dhabi, Al Qana, Al Maqta, Abu Dhabi, general admission from Dhs105. Tel: (02) 418 6666thenationalaquarium.ae

Breakfast with giraffes

Emirates Park Zoo has an incredibly diverse population of animal inhabitants, some of them cuddly, some of them decidedly less so. They also have awesome immersive experiences where you can get up and close and relatively personal with a select crew of animal pals. The Big Cat Brunch lets you eat lunch in the company of an actual leopard (because, UAE), you can pose questions, take photos and there’s even a private expert-led tour. Too willd? Why not book up the famous ‘breakfast with a giraffe’? The zoo also has its own resort, with chalets, zoo view rooms and accommodation with pool access.

Emirates Park Zoo, 12th St – Al Bahyah, 1pm to 2.30pm, Dhs149 per person (minimum of four people) which includes zoo admission. Tel: (02) 501 0000, emiratesparkzooandresort.com

Ferrari World Abu Dhabi

Beyond the record-breaking rollercoasters and connoisseur’s collection of classic cars, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi boasts a couple of new adrenalin-baiting experiences especially for those that court the edge. There’s a huge zip-line and roof-walk adventure attraction that you can purchase in combo packages with your park tickets.

Yas Island, open daily midday to 8pm, adults Dhs310, kids Dhs240. @ferrariworldabudhabi

Go Island hopping

This nautical tour operating outfit is extending an invitation for you to live your very best Disney pirate life. Jump aboard one of their modern vessels for a six hour tour of Abu Dhabi’s islandscape, with barbecue (though you’ll need to bring your own food). It’s land ahoy with scenic stops at such enchanting sea-hemmed spots as Salt Island and Bahrani Island. Their boats come with music systems for stereophonic shanty support and soft drinks are included in the Dhs450 per person package price (private charters of up to eight are available for Dhs2,500, or Dhs3,000 for 15). seasafari.ae

Feed the lions at Al Ain Zoo

lions in al ain zoo safari

This 400-hectare park’s animal register includes gorillas, lions, cheetahs, giraffes, jaguars, lemurs, hippos, chimpanzees, wolves, and crocodiles. It also offers off-the-beaten-track experiences, Al Ain Zoo recently opened a pair of mountain biking experiences (from as little as Dhs15), allowing you to take a tour through the local landscape under your own steam. For those rocking a bit of a Steve Irwin vibe, the zoo is now giving visitors a rare shot at making friends with Mufasa, by heading into the lion’s den and feeding the king of the jungle. Blimey, what a ripper. At this stage, we should point out that safety equipment, including caged vehicle, is provided. Hop in the back of the all-terrain truck, gingerly grasp your tongs and offer pieces of meat through the gaps in the cage into the jaws of waiting lions. And doesn’t it makes a nice change for once, you being the one behind the cage, rather than the animals?

Al Ain Zoo, Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, daily 10am to 6pm, adult price of park tickets Dhs29, lion feeding experience, Fri and Sat Dhs150. alainzoo.ae

Kayaking through a serene green wilderness at Jubail Mangrove park

Mangroves abu Dhabi

Jubail Mangrove Park offers visitors the opportunity to explore one of this region’s most fascinating natural habitats. Found nestled away on a quiet outcrop of Jubail Island, Abu Dhabi — the mangrove park became an instant hit with locals, residents and tourists. It features a meandering 2.3km boardwalk and sits in close proximity to the city. There are plenty of ways to explore this fascinating ecosystem including boardwalk meditation sessions (Dhs120) ranger-led, guided boardwalk (from Dhs50), kayak (Dhs100), and e-dragon boat tours (from Dhs80) of the mangroves.

Jubail Mangrove Park, Al Jubail Island (next to Saadiyat Island), Abu Dhabi, 8am to 7.30pm daily, Dhs15 for adult, Dhs10. Tel: (05) 63032423. park.jubailisland.ae

Images: Provided/Getty

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