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Top 10 Things to do in Abu Dhabi

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Thanks to its oil power, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has quickly grown to become a center of innovation, luxury and culture. The UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, has invested a lot in recent years in international education, welcoming branch campuses and collaborations with leading universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Paris Sorbonne.

It is no wonder, then, that a growing number of students choose to study in a city dubbed among the “best in the Middle East”. International students have the opportunity to live in a busy and affluent business environment (the richest city on Earth), experience the Arabic lifestyle and traditions, and meet people from all over the world. The warm and sunny climate is also an additional enticement!

So grab your sunscreen and check out these top 10 things to do in Abu Dhabi

1. Revel in the beauty of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The first thing you should visit in Abu Dhabi is the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the biggest and most beautiful mosques in the world. You will be amazed by the lavish materials used to build the 82 domes, 1,000 columns and 24 chandeliers.

The mosque was built by Sheik Zayed, who wished to unite Western and Arabic cultures. The marble used for the exterior comes from Italy, while the interior is decorated with exquisite Arabic patterns.

Remember that you are visiting a Muslim country, so make sure to respect the dress code (long dresses for the women, pants for the men). Guided tours are free and available every day to ensure you make the most of your visit!

2. Go for a stroll along the Corniche

Abu Dhabi is a buzzing place, but it is also the home of some green and peaceful areas. The most famous of these is the Corniche, a strip of land stretching eight kilometers along the beach front. Here you can enjoy the view of the sea, while also taking in the skyscrapers for which the UAE is famed.

Go for a jog in the morning, swim in the pristine waters of Corniche beach or relax in the shade of a tree. All of these activities are totally free, making the Corniche a refreshing option in pricey Abu Dhabi.

In the evening, when the temperature starts to drop, you can enjoy the sunset with a nice meal in the restaurants and bars along the beach. Make sure you take a snap of the Volcano Fountain while you drink your tea!

3. Get wet at Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi

In the summer, the temperature can climb up to 50°C, thanks to Abu Dhabi’s desert climate. Nothing could be more enjoyable than spending the day at Yas Waterworld. Located on the entertainment wonderland that is Yas Island, Yas Waterworld offers 45 rides in four thrill levels.

A one-day ticket will cost you around US$65.34 (AED 240) for the bronze package, but you can buy tickets that give you access to other attractions on Yas Island for better overall value.

Yas Waterworld also includes shops, restaurants, kid-friendly attractions, and recently created a Ladies Night every Thursday evening from 6pm to 11pm. It is also close to the Yas Mall, so combine the two if you’re in the mood for retail therapy!

4. Go back in time at Abu Dhabi Heritage Village

Located near the Marina Village and Mall, Abu Dhabi Heritage Village offers the chance to take a stroll back through history. When you pass the gates of the village, you enter a time capsule that brings you back to pre-oil life in Abu Dhabi. It’s a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and experience a calmer way of life for a day.

In the reconstructed village, you can practice the ancient art of trade at the souq, stroll around the traditional houses, learn more about Arabic craftsmanship in the many workshops (including brass beating, tannery, pottery and swordsmithing), purchase exotic spices and visit the museum to marvel at the pearl jewelry.

Of course, the experience wouldn’t be complete without the camels. Pay them a visit in the Bedouin camp of goat-hair tents, and, depending on the hour, you could even take a ride.

5. Enjoy the view from the Observation Deck

No list of things to do in Abu Dhabi would be complete without this stunning view. To get this, you’ll need to climb the 74 floors of the Etihad Tower Complex… Just kidding! A lift will take you to the 74th floor for US$20.5 (AED 75), with US$13.6 (AED 50) redeemable as vouchers at the venue. If you are lucky enough to be a guest at the Jumeirah Hotel, access to the Observation Deck is included in your stay.

The deck was inaugurated in 2012 and offers a 360° view from Tower 2. The breathtaking views of the Corniche and the nearby Emirates Palace are praised by visitors from all over the world.

Take your time to stroll around and appreciate the city from every angle. Food and drinks are available, and you can use your voucher in the café. Taking “high tea” at 300 meters is quite the experience.

6. Explore Abu Dhabi’s wild side

If you need a break from the concrete jungle, head over to the Eastern Mangroves Lagoon National Park. It is a secluded oasis stretching five miles along the Eastern Ring Road, home to 75% of the total mangrove of the UAE. The park is also an ornithologist’s dream, as you can observe 50 different bird species (and around 200 fishes if you are more of a fish person).

The best way to admire the nature here is by taking a kayak. Renting options with guides are available, as well as fishing expeditions and island exploration. If don’t want to risk getting wet, evening walks into the wild are also very popular.

The conservation of the mangrove is a challenge for Abu Dhabi, especially in the last decade with the city’s expansion and the increase in pollution. Initiatives have been taken to encourage people not to litter in the area.

7. Various the desert during a safari

The desert has always inspired travelers and adventurers, and if you really want to tick off all the top things to do in Abu Dhabi, a desert safari is a must. Many companies offer organized trips, which are mostly very similar.

You will be picked up at your hotel for a ride in a 4x4 vehicle. Be prepared to go up and down the dunes – a great way to rouse the Lawrence of Arabia inside of you! Nightly activities are also included, featuring belly dancing shows and traditional nomadic cuisine.

Camel rides are an unforgettable way to appreciate the so-called Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert. A pit-stop at the Liwa Oasis may well be the highlight of your tour, providing the chance to relax under the shade of a palm tree and gaze back upon the desert landscape.

8. Get your heart racing at Ferrari World

If you are a fan of F1 and recently watched the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, then you must have seen this giant expanse of red in the desert. The enormous building houses Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, a theme park dedicated to the Italian car manufacturer.

Ferrari World is no stranger to superlatives; it’s the biggest indoor theme park in the world, while its ride “Formula Rossa” is the world’s fastest rollercoaster. More gentle rides will take you on imaginary tours into the heart of the Ferrari factory and through the narrow streets of Italy.

Don’t miss the Scuderia Challenge! Sit in a state-of-the-art simulator and experience an F1 race from the driver’s seat. Book your tickets online in advance for the best value.

9. Get a coffee at the Emirates Palace

Abu Dhabi is the home of the 7-star Emirates Palace Hotel. A night in the “cheapest” room will cost you US$470, and its construction is rumored to have cost around 2 billion dollars. The palace is usually not opened to the public, but by booking a 45-minute guided tour, you will get to take a look at the suites, the ballroom and the auditorium.

In the lobby you will find a gold ATM. And if you’ve got expensive taste, you can even purchase a cappuccino served up with gold flakes! Or for a truly luxurious dining experience, make a reservation at one of the hotel’s numerous restaurants.

Call the Relation Guest Office one or two days in advance to ensure a place on the tour, and maybe you’ll even spot a celebrity on holiday. Elton John and Bon Jovi have been known to frequent the hotel.

10. Various Abu Dhabi’s cultural heritage at Manarat al Saadiyat

In the heart of the Saadiyat Cultural District, you will find the Manarat al Saadiyat, a modern art and culture center. The center is the first step in a plan to bridge the gap between Western and Arabic cultures and arts. Temporary international exhibitions and permanent educational programs can all be accessed by visitors.

Fan of architecture will be amazed by the UAE Pavilion, located on the Manarat Saadiyat plaza. It was designed by Norman Foster and hosts the annual Abu Dhabi Art show, a festival of contemporary art.

The Cultural District is also the home of the largest Guggenheim museum in the world. Frank Gehry designed the 450,000-square-foot building, whose distinguishing features (apart from sheer size) include a focus on Arabic modern art.

In addition, art lovers will be soon be able to visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi, currently under construction. The city paid US$525 million to be associated with the world-famous Parisian museum.

Planning to study in Abu Dhabi? Don’t miss the QS University Content: Arab Region, coming soon on 10 June 2015.

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Céline Fraimund's profile image
Written by Céline Fraimund
Celine is studying a Masters Marketing & Corporate Communications at Université Libre de Bruxelles, and is currently joining QS for an internship in social media. She's a movie fanatic and loves to travel, discover and laugh.

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