The United Arab Emirates is one of the most common spots for a layover when traveling to Africa or Asia from the West. Personally, I’ve made the stop there multiple times, but it wasn’t until a recent trip from Zambia to Nepal that I decided to step outside the airport and see what this place was all about.
The desert island of Abu Dhabi was never really high up on my bucket list, if I’m being perfectly honest. A dusty city famous for oil exports and commerce didn’t seem to have much to offer to the adventure-seeking wayfarer, not to mention its less-than-stellar reputation among the West as a tourism “don’t” for solo female travelers. Oh – but that mosque. I’d seen dozens of pictures of the perfectly sculpted white marble Grand Mosque, and had a sneaking suspicion that a city capable of creating something so beautiful was a city with something more to offer than oil sheikhdom and a conveniently located airport.
So, en route from Zambia to Nepal, I booked a day-long layover in Abu Dhabi and created a scavenger hunt of must-see-and-do activities around the city. And while it wasn’t my typical leisurely, get-to-know-life-as-a-local style of travel, it was certainly enough to make me fall in love with the little Arab island. And now I apparently dedicate my life to trying to convince everyone I know to get out of the stinkin’ airport during UAE layovers. Don’t think, don’t make excuses, don’t talk yourself out of it. Just do it. And here are some tips when you do:
ONE: Find your best friend for the day. This little trick made my life so much easier while in Abu Dhabi. I found a taxi driver straight from the airport who agreed to drive me around all day long. We agreed on a fixed rate, which was much lower than it would have been to grab new taxis in between every stop, and much more reliable, and he’d either accompany me on my sight-seeing journeys or wait outside until I was finished (I always liked when he chose to join me). We got to know each other quite well during the course of the day (turned out my next destination was to his hometown in Nepal!), I learned so much about the city through his stories and mini cultural lessons, and he even served as my own personal photographer which is probably the most lovely of gifts you can offer a solo traveler.
TWO: Start the morning with breakfast at the beautiful Shangri-la Hotel Abu Dhabi. With palatial interiors, an infinity pool overlooking the Grand Mosque, and a breakfast buffet that could bring you to tears, this is the perfect way to start a jam-packed day of sight-seeing and exploration. The breakfast buffet opens at 6am so it’s convenient even for those flights that land at wretched times in the morning. For a reasonable-ish USD$32, you can enjoy delicious and exotic foods from around the world, a fresh-pressed juice bar, indulgent crepes and ice cream (you’re on some other time zone anyway, so this is totally acceptable for breakfast), and some lovely scenic views of the famous UAE landmark – the Grand Mosque (don’t worry, we’ll be there soon). The trick is to not eat so much that you want to curl up in a ball and sleep forever, because come on, it’s only 8am and we have stuff to see . . . pull yourself together
THREE: Get your ice cream- and hummus-filled self over to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The Mosque opens at 9am (except on Fridays, when it’s only open to worshippers, so don’t make this mistake), and I’d encourage you to get over there right at the stroke of 9. You’ll get the most privacy, as well as the pretty soft morning sunlight to illuminate those stark white marble arches and domes at one of the most breathtaking man-made structures I’ve ever seen. Women, you’ll have to borrow an abaya – a black, head-to-toe gown – before entering the mosque, which is free of charge with proof of a valid ID. It will be hot, because hullo you’re wandering a dessert in a black cloak, which is also why it’s best to get this done early in the morning. Make sure you give yourself time to walk the arched walkways at the perimeter, admire the largest hand-knotted carpet in the world, be mesmerized by the colorful crystal chandeliers and mosaic walls reminiscent of the ice castle in Disney’s “Frozen,” and maybe even tear up a little bit because this place is truly magnificent. (Second time we’ve cried today, I know. Bring tissues.) There’s a serenity about this place that will make you feel like you’ve stepped into a portal connecting you to some shared universal experience, a portal that I think must exist in all beautiful, peaceful places in the world. Take a billion pictures. Visit the SZGM site for more information on hours of operation and etiquette.
FOUR: Take a break for a camel milk cappuccino. Yeah, you heard me: Camel. Milk. Uccino. Because why would you want to drink anything else in the Emirati desert? This little excursion will also take you inside the stunning Emirates Palace, where you can spin and dance your way through the regal halls and foyers before planting yourself in an upholstered chair at Le Café, shortlisted for Best Café in Abu Dhabi. Here, order a Camelccino, ignore the price tag, and sip your rich milky coffee feeling like desert royalty. You’ll also get some tiny camel-shaped handmade chocolates on the side, but try to be classy even though I know you want to shove these little morsels in your mouth and lick the plate. Take a minute to Google search how the heck one milks a camel, do what you can to talk yourself out of ordering the 24K gold-flaked Palace Cappuccino (or just go for it, no judgment here), and get ready for some more exploring.
FIVE: Go shopping at a souk. Although obviously more commercialized than the sacred mosque, wandering around one of the many vibrant souks (Arabic for “marketplace”) is a rich cultural experience that you’d be downright crazytown to not do while in Abu Dhabi. There are tons to choose from, depending on your interests – souks specializing in fish, spices, produce, carpets, fabrics, and on. Some popular options are the Fisk Souk at Mina Zayed, not for the faint of heart or smell, and the Souk Al Bawadi and Souk Al Zafarana, which are more traditional markets. My favorite is the lesser-known Souq Al Qattara which dates back to the 20th century and doubles as a cultural center featuring handicrafts from local artisans – carpet weavers, silversmiths and coppersmiths, leather makers, garment-designers, potters, and more. Pick up a souvenir here, maybe a hand-welded brass coffee pot, admire the Emirati-style abodes, and get chatty with the shop owners who would love to dress you up and talk about their crafts.
SIX: Get a snack and mocktail from the Observation Deck at 300. Because there wouldn’t be any better way to reflect on your whirlwind day than 360-degree views of the Abu Dhabi skyline from the 74th floor. Call ahead if you’re looking to do afternoon tea, which I’d highly recommend, and then FaceTime me the whole time so I can pretend I’m there with you.
SEVEN: Finish your day by dipping your toes in the sand at the Corniche Beach. Ahh. White sandy beaches, dusty city skyline views, and vast pastel-blue waters make this rather stunning oasis appear to have just plopped itself in the middle of a bustling desert city. Along with the beach itself, there is a big pedestrian walkway with food and shops and greenery to enjoy if for some strange reason the beach doesn’t hold your interest. Make sure you read up on appropriate dress codes and etiquette before you go!
This is certainly not a comprehensive list of all the wonderful things to do while in Abu Dhabi. Depending on the length of your layover, you may even want to do a desert safari or make a visit to Dubai (and if time allows it, you definitely should do these things). But even if you’re on a tighter deadline, the next time you have a layover in Abu Dhabi, give yourself room to leave the airport and see a bit of what this unique city has to offer.
Is Abu Dhabi on your bucket list? Have some must-see spots to add to this list? Let me know in the comments!