If you’re in Dubai for a couple of days and wondering if you should head to Abu Dhabi, I’d say go for it! Take note, you’d probably need to allot a full day for Abu Dhabi (or maybe two), depending on what you’re keen to see. As for me, the two sites I really wanted to see were the Sheikh Zayed Mosque – which many claim to be the most magnificent mosque ever built (I can certainly believe this claim) and the Emirates Palace. Aside from these two, I would’ve liked to check out Ferrari World as well since I’m a complete adrenaline junkie – alas, I’m the type of person who needs to be the first to enter the amusement park and the last to leave – but that simply wouldn’t have been possible given my jampacked weekend. Because of that, I decided to skip the amusement park. Nevertheless, I felt that seeing the mosque and the palace, plus all the other incidentals, more than made my time in Abu Dhabi worth it. So tralala, here’s my two-cents on how a fabulous DIY Abu Dhabi trip should go!
How to get to Abu Dhabi from Dubai
As always in the UAE, you are spoilt for choice! There are four options for anyone itching to go to Abu Dhabi from Dubai, and I’ll enumerate them from the cheapest to the most expensive option:
Head to Al Ghubalba bus station (it’s right in front of Carrefour – which you’ll see as soon as you step out of the Al Ghubalba metro station). Once there, go to the ticketing counter and request for a round-trip ticket for Abu Dhabi. In total, the ticket will cost AED 50 (AED 25 one-way), but you’ll have to pay an additional AED 10 for the Silver NOL card (which you can use for all Dubai metros and buses, valid for five years)
Once you’ve bought the ticket, ask the ticket seller which bus you should head towards and you’re good to go. All the buses are clean, air-conditioned, and have wifi (IF you have a UAE mobile). There is a bus that heads to Abu Dhabi every 15-30 minutes, from 5:00AM to 12:00AM – so don’t worry, there’ll always be a bus for you. The trip lasts 1.5 to 2.5 hours, depending on the traffic. Don’t worry about missing your stop – the bus won’t have any other stops aside from the Abu Dhabi Main Bus Terminal. But when in doubt, just ask the locals who are with you.
At the Al Ghubalba bus station, you’ll notice a whole row of taxis parked. These are shared taxis that are heading to Abu Dhabi. Basically, if you want the comfort of your “car” but don’t have companions to share it with, grab a shared taxi. It’ll cost you AED 50 one-way, and you’ll have to wait for three other companions. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth it given that the bus is really comfortable, convenient, and half the price!
Taxi / Uber / Careem
You can book a taxi / Uber / Careem ahead of time for a trip to Abu Dhabi. It’ll cost you roughly ~AED 250 to 300, but they’ll pick you up directly from your hotel and drop you off wherever you want to go in Abu Dhabi. A worthy option to consider if you’re moving hotels, and have a ton of luggage with you
If you’re allowed to drive in the United Arab Emirates, why not rent a car? A friend suggested AVIS Car rental to me – full day car rental should cost AED 100+, but you’d have to pay for the fuel yourself. Having said that, this would be quite handy as all the major tourist attractions have parking spots AND as with Dubai, all the major tourist attractions are far apart (e.g. Uber from the Emirates Palace to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque would cost AED 45)
The Abu Dhabi adventure begins…
STEP 1: Arrive in Abu Dhabi after a ~2 hour bus ride from Dubai
If you have any questions around how to get to Abu Dhabi, please do read my previous section 😉 As for me, I took a nice ~2-hour journey via the bus!
Because I am a lazy bum, I left Dubai via bus around 11:30AM, and arrived in Abu Dhabi at 2:00PM. Hmmm, not my smartest moment as I realized the sun was unbearably hot. But then, any time between 7AM to 6PM would’ve merited the same results… Once you arrive at the terminal, no need to swipe your NOL card on the bus card machine, simply step down. Ask folks where the taxi stand is, and hop onto a cab!
STEP 2: Check out the sumptuous Emirates Palace and the “famous” Etihad Towers
Tell the taxi driver to bring you to the Emirates Palace and quickly check if he’s got the meter on. The entire ride takes ~20-30minutes, and costs ~AED 20. When you reach the Emirates Palace gates, just tell the guard you have a restaurant reservation so they’ll let you in for free. You’ll go up a long driveway to reach the entrance – make sure you’re dressed decently so they’ll allow you entry! Before you enter the hotel, you may opt to walk down the looong staircase to take a nice full frontal shot of the Emirates Palace. You’ll see the stairs I’m talking about in my shot below. No point in coming too early btw, the restaurant only opens 10AM onwards, so the guards won’t let you in before that!
At the same time, you can also get a beautiful shot of the Etihad Towers, which became extra famous because they were featured in a Fast & Furious 7 scene. If you’re feeling extra hot, feel free to play around with the fountains – they’re super refreshing against the heat 😉
Once you’re done taking your IG-worthy shots, head back up and get ready to be stunned by ALL THE GOLD when you enter the hotel. It’s like they couldn’t think of any other color, every single thing inside the hotel is gold gold gold! Just wow.
Even the bathroom is gold… Too bad I couldn’t find the gold ATM though
STEP 3: Experience the Heritage Village
If you’ve got the time, check out the Heritage Village. It’s supposed to be a recreation of an Emirati Village, and a great place to brush up on local culture. From the Emirates Palace, just grab a cab and you’ll be at the Village in ~10 minutes. Can’t tell you the cost, because I (stupidly) decided to walk the entire stretch thinking “How bad can a 30 minute walk be?” The answer? Very very bad – it was so freaking hot!!! On the plus side, walking to Heritage Village afforded me a beautiful view of the Corniche Beach as well as of the Pier, so at least I got nice photos out of it
Once at the Heritage Village, take a look around – they’ve got traditional souks, a small museum, some Bedouin tents. If you’re in luck, you may even be able to see craftsmen demonstrating their traditional skills. Having said that, do keep in mind that the whole village looks rather manufactured – so don’t expect to be transported in time into a land far far away. Still, it’s always good to understand the local culture if possible
At the back of the restaurant, you’ve got a beautiful stretch of white sandy beach, pristine waters, as well as an excellent view of the Abu Dhabi skyline. Having said that, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the skyline…
To leave the Heritage Village, keep in mind that you’re pretty much at the edge of nowhere, so there’s no Uber or Careem in the area. GASP. You now have three choices:
1) Wait for a taxi at the entrance, in case someone gets dropped off,
2) Walk to Marina Mall (~10mins) / towards the main road to flag down a cab, or
3) Book a cab through the TransAD hotline 600 535353
I’ll be honest, I’ve never booked a cab via phone before, what I did was I just walked to the main road. Heck, if I could survive a ~30mins walk from Emirates Palace to the Heritage Village, I figured I could do another 10 minutes…
STEP 4: Time to explore the wondrous Sheikh Zayed Mosque
Now you might be wondering… if Sheikh Zayed Mosque is THE must see site in Abu Dhabi, why leave it for last? Simple – I wanted to catch the 5PM free guided tour around the mosque. That way, I could take nice photos of the mosque interior BEFORE the tour while the sun was out and blazing… then once the tour had ended, I could then take nice sunset shots of the mosque exterior. Perfect timing if I may say so myself!
A taxi from the Heritage Village to Sheikh Zayed Mosque would cost ~AED 42, and last ~30 minutes. Once the taxi drops you off at the North Parking Area, head left and you’ll see a short building to your right. Once you enter the building, the guards will tell you if you need to wear an abaya (the traditional dress), depending on your attire. As I was wearing a sleeveless top, I had to wear an abaya. Now some blogs I read mentioned that you’d have to leave an ID (driver’s license shaped IDs only, passport size IDs not accepted), but when I went, they didn’t bother to ask for one… Just to be safe, make sure to bring an ID (that’s the right size). Here’s a photo of me in my abaya, with a beautiful tile mosaic behind me
Once you’re attired properly, it’s time to explore! If it’s before 4PM, check out the library – I heard it’s amazing! Now, before you enter the mosque, the first thing you’ll notice is the sheer whiteness of the mosque exterior. That’s because Sheikh Zayed believed in purity and felt that this color best represented that. He actually imported white marble from all around the globe for this purpose! Too bad he didn’t live long enough to see the finished product. He died before it was ever completed. Don’t be sad though, as he’s been reunited with the mosque in death. To the right of the mosque, you’ll see a small mausoleum of sorts – that’s where Sheikh Zayed is buried!
Also, you’ll notice that there’s a pool surrounding the mosque. In ancient days, the pool was used by worshippers to cleanse their feet before entering the mosque to pray. Nowadays, it’s purely for decorative purposes and to help create the illusion of clouds (with the help of some light beam projectors)!
At the main entrance, you’ll see a standee stating this is where the free guided tour will start. I highly recommend joining this free English guided tour (which lasts for 45-60 mins) because you’ll learn lots of interesting tidbits and be given the opportunity to ask candid questions to the guide. Note that the free guided tour occurs several times each day – I’d recommend you go with the 5PM one, but if you can’t, check out this link for all the tour timings. Otherwise, if you don’t have the time to spare, turn right and grab a free audio guide (which comes in multiple languages).
And now, it’s time to plumb the depths of this mosque! When you enter, you’ll notice these beautiful beautiful white columns with its gold tips and the exquisitely hand painted flowers. Not only is it aesthetically beautiful, but there’s actually meaning behind the flower paintings! Columns in the north area of the mosque show flowers that only grow in the Northern Hemisphere, while those in the south area show flowers that only grow in the Southern Hemisphere. Isn’t that so amazing?
At the same time, while you stroll around, you’ll see intricate tiled mosaics everywhere, including the water fountains. Note, if you’re thirsty, feel free to drink from the water fountain. I drank from it several times and didn’t experience any issues
Time to enter the inner sanctum! Before you can do so, they’ll request you to take off your shoes to preserve the cleanliness of the sanctum. There are rows and rows of shelves for shoes, just take note of the shelf’s number so you can come back for it later. Another reason why you might want to enter the inner sanctum is… it’s air-conditioned! Perfect place to cool down after a long day spent in the sweltering heat.
Aside from that, the inner sanctum also holds the world’s BIGGEST carpet. They spent several months just planning out the design, then another 2.5 months to weave it. Of course, they didn’t weave the ENTIRE thing in one go. No, they came in separately, and the final weaving of the six separate carpets occurred inside the mosque itself. Beyond the carpet, the other jawdropping spectacle you must see are the chandeliers – which come in three sizes. These chandeliers were fairly dripping with Swarovski crystals and I was half worried that it would fall and shatter if I stared at it for far too long!
Lastly, our guide explained the concept behind the writings on the wall. Apparently, each inscription referenced a characteristic of God, as shared in the Quran. But, one was left blank – because as humans, it is impossible for us to fully understand God or what encompasses God
Hopefully the sun has gone down slightly by the tour ends. If so, go out the main entrance and take the stairs all the way down to take a perfect snapshot of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in its full blown glory
STEP 5: If you’ve got another day in Abu Dhabi, why don’t you head on over to Ferrari World?
Try your hand at the go kart track AND enjoy the adrenaline rush as you speed through the world’s fastest roller coaster. Otherwise, head back to Dubai via the Abu Dhabi Main Bus Terminal. Taxi to the bus terminal costs ~AED 30, and the ride should last for ~30 minutes. Afterwards, the bus ride back to Dubai will then take another ~2 hours
For other Dubai-related posts (including day trips)
The other highlights of my Dubai trip were as follows:
- Dubai Desert Safari: Definitely an adventure to remember
- Yellow Boat tour: A chance to see Dubai from another perspective
- Deira (Old Town): Reacquainting myself with the history of Dubai
For first time travelers to Dubai, you may have questions regarding visas, how to get around the country, where to stay, and so on. If so, you might be interested in reading my logistics and travel guide to Dubai blog