16 amazing free things to do in Abu Dhabi

Free or at least super affordable…

Unless you’re sitting on Crypto millions or packing that Jeff Bezos money, budgeting is probably a very stark reality this January. So with that in mind, if you’ve got visitors or you’re just looking to make the most of your free time, these are some of our favourite free (or almost free) things to do in Abu Dhabi.

What are the best free things to do in Abu Dhabi ?

Visit the fossil dunes

Located in Abu Dhabi’s Al Wathba region, you’ll find a collection of truly natural wonders. The otherworldly Fossil Dunes (geo location linked) are gnarled time-forged dune ‘skeletons’ that require an SUV to access, but there is a campsite nearby if you want to take your time gawping in awe. Although, and we cannot stress this enough, you must not touch them. Despite being eons old, the site is at genuine risk of irreparable damage from irresponsible visitors.

Catch a movie in the park (Dhs10)

Umm Al Emarat Park’s popular alfresco cinema is in full theatrical swing, showing its schedule of family-friendly film classics. Whilst it’s not quite free, at Dhs10 (for the park entry fee) that’s some pretty incredible value. Showings take place on Fridays and Saturdays at 5:30pm and 7:30pm. There’s a AAA line up of animated movies come over the next few weeks — the Pixar afterlife caper, Coco; sister quest, Frozen; and sea monster saga, Luca. Umm Al Emarat Park also has its own fun-size train, a petting zoo, wisdom garden, botanical garden and more.

Movies are free, but entry into the park is charged at Dhs10. Located at Umm Al Emarat Park, ummalemaratpark.ae 

Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open

Enjoy world class tennis action as the top women’s tennis stars from around the world descend on the Zayed Sports City this February. You can sit back all weekend and take in the qualifying rounds for free on February 3 and 4, and young ones aged under 12 get to catch the action for free, for the first six days of the tournament. Need we say more?

Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open, Zayed Sports City, Abu Dhabi, February 3 to 11. @muabadalaabudhabiopen

Dolphin spotting

We all know Abu Dhabi has some pretty unique adventures on offer. It’s a city with more records under its belt than Paul McCartney after all, and usually that scarcity of experience is something to celebrate, enjoying these indigenous gems make us feel special, privileged. But there are some encounters we wish weren’t so rare. The Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD) has calculated that the coastal waters of Abu Dhabi are home to approximately 700 humpback dolphins, which, sadly, makes it potentially the largest community of these endangered creatures in the world. And Saadiyat Island is one of your best shots at seeing these magnificent animals in the wild, as their preferred feeding grounds stretch along the northern beaches and across to Jubail’s mangroves. Grab a pair of binoculars and head to one of the many hotels along that shorefront (including Jumeirah at Saadiyat and Rixos Premium Saadiyat Island) and get yourself a day pass. Or there’s the beach club, Soul for an affordable alternative to hotel flop-and-dropping.

Play sports in a park

Many of the parks in Abu Dhabi have their own free-to-use sporting facilities. But some of them go extra hard on the active attractions. The recently reopened Sheikha Fatima Park on the Corniche for example is positively brimming with ways to KO those Kcals. It includes a fully fitted skate park, a pet park, a splash pad area, a toddler play zone, and an indoor boulder climb attraction. You’ll also find ample shaded parking here, with a multi-story car park. Reem Central Park offers four multi-sports courts, water features, a skate park, dining facilities (including 800Pizza, Jelly Belly ice cream and Taqado) beach sports, canal walks and playgrounds. It also has a stunning mural to the late, great basketball legend Kobe Bryant.

Enjoy a beach day

jumeirah saadiyat

With an average of 1,052 days of sun each year (we guesstimated, don’t look it up), Abu Dhabi has always been a strong pull for beach seekers around the world. There’s also the fact that Abu Dhabi itself is made up of sandy islands, meaning — ratios, there’s more surface area shoreline to top up that tan than your average beach destination. And there are some spectacular public beaches dotted across the many coastal areas of our emirate, but some of our favourites include: Saadiyat Island public beach, there really is no stretch of shimmering sand in the UAE quite like it, rugged dunes, native turtles and dolphins, turquoise waters, and wave swells — it really is a straight 10; Corniche beach is super convenient for Downtown dwellers, and packed with family friendly activities as well as a smorgasbord of dining options; Al Bateen beach is nearly 1km stretch of blue flag sandy lushness, there’s a playground and several sport courts to keep you and the little ones entertained too; finally, the newcomer — Hudayriyat public beach, in addition to the forever-blue horizon, highly Insta-appropriate Hudayriyat sign, and gym equipment — you have the island’s whole world of leisure, dining, and entertainment facilities within walking distance.

Visit Al Ain’s verdant oasis

If you’re looking for green, Al Ain AKA ‘The Garden City’ is a pretty good place to start.  This 1,200-hectare desert oasis is found in the middle of Al Ain and attained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2011. It contains more than 147,000 date palms, trees bearing mangos, oranges, bananas, figs and jujube. With its whimsical shaded pathways beneath fractal canopies it’s a place that provides a shuddering contrast to the urban jungle of Abu Dhabi’s cityscape. There’s also an Eco-Centre that offers insight into the conservation efforts at the oasis, and a look back at its history.

Al Ain, open daily 9am to 5pm. Tel: (03) 711 8251, take a virtual tour at visitabudhabi.ae

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

Have a picnic in a park

Life really can be a picnic if you focus on the little things that make you happy. And one of those things should undoubtedly be picnics with your besties. Abu Dhabi operates a patchwork of mini green oases where you can spread your blanket and break bread with your nearest and dearest, and it just so happens that the Department of Municipality and Transport (DMT) has just dropped a list of 38 parks across the emirate where you can add a side of barbecue to your alfresco festival. Our pick of the picnic spots is Khalifa Park, which also operates soothing water features. It also has an aquarium, Maritime Museum, a library and its own splash park.

Catch the fireworks at Zayed Festival (Dhs5)

This one is not technically free, but it will only set you back Dhs5 (book at zayedfestival.com) and includes access to the many cultural and entertainment-based delights of this epic festival. Its weekly firework fiesta will continue every Saturday taking place at 10pm, all the way up to the festival’s close on April 1, 2022.

Drop by Bait Mohammed bin Khalifa

Once the home of the late Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, father-in-law to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Founding Father of the UAE — Bait Mohammed bin Khalifa has been renovated and transformed into a cultural community centre in Al Ain. Its new role, as well as preserving an important artefact of heritage, is to provide a space for community arts, crafts and creativity. *Curtain Drop* An integral element of the centre’s identity, Al Ain Theatre has established a permanent hub at Bait Mohammed bin Khalifa, offering authentic artistic and cultural events such as festivals, courses and workshops.

Al Ain, daily 10am to 8pm (Fri 2pm to 10pm), free. Tel: (03) 118335, baitmohammedbinkhalifa.ae

Go for a walk along Abu Dhabi’s ‘other Corniche’

Abu Dhabi has just opened a brand new waterfront promenade, Al Gurm Corniche — and it has far more than simply (cor)niche appeal. Its shaded walkways and Mangrove National Park views are open seven days a week, 24 hours each day and dotted with engaging opportunities to rest, get fit, or learn about the local area and its inhabitants. There’s a cycle track; three outdoor gym-style exercise platforms; kayaking adventures; areas designated for alfresco yoga sessions; a range of food and beverage outlets; overwater cargo net chill stations that are perfect for getting lost in the pages of a riveting read. There are also nodes dedicated to edutainment — with activities including water play, swings and installations that teach kids about tidal movements, nature and gravity; binoculars to peer into the green beyond in search of fascinating forna; there are historical hubs, filled with fascinating facts about the region’s past and local ecology; and also fun-filled play areas.

Al Gurm Corniche is located along Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street, next to Anantara Eastern Mangroves. Find out more at @algurmcorniche

Immerse yourself in nature at the Al Wathba reserve

Al Wathba Wetland Reserve

The reserve re-opened on January 1 2021 and is a great place for families and children to take a wander through some real undeveloped UAE habitat. It’s primarily known for its large population of shocking pink flamingos but is home to more than 250 species of birds, 37 plant species and a wide range of aquatic life. Some of which were discovered here — completely new to science, and yet more that may be unique to this region. The reserve is free to visit and open from Tuesday to Saturday from 8am until 6pm (last entry is at 4pm). Read more here.

Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, Directions: Take the E22 Abu Dhabi-Al Ain road and connect with the E30 Abu Dhabi-Al Ain Truck Road, then follow signs for the reserve, open Tue to Sat, 8am to 6pm, free entry. ead.gov.ae

Take a tour around the heritage village (Dhs5)

Get a taste of life before the skyscrapers and vibey beach clubs at this recreation of a traditional Emirati village, conveniently located next to Marina Mall on the edge of the city. Conceived by the Emirates Heritage Club, you can catch local artisans demonstrating their skills in metalwork, pottery, weaving and glass-blowing. There’s even a mini souk where you can pick-up souvenirs from these time-honoured crafts.

Abu Dhabi Corniche Breakwater, daily 11am to 11pm, Dhs5. Tel: (02)  681 4455, torath.gov.ae

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

Find sanctuary in Jubail Mangrove Park (Dhs15)

Jubail Mangrove Park opened in January 2020, offering visitors the opportunity to explore one of this region’s most fascinating natural ecosystems. Found nestled on a quiet outcrop of Jubail Island — the mangroves became an instant hit with locals, residents and tourists. It features a meandering 2.3km boardwalk and sits about 20 minutes drive from Downtown Abu Dhabi. Park inhabitants include herons, flamingos, turtles, gazelle, crabs, as well as some more mysterious creatures. There’s plenty of ways to explore this fascinating turquoise expanse including ranger-led, guided boardwalk (from Dhs50), kayak (Dhs100), and e-canoe 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