Unless you live in neighboring Dubai, it's likely that you've never considered Abu Dhabi as a suitable candidate for your next weekend away. I certainly never had. But when an unexpected offer arose to visit the fabled city on the Persian Gulf, I had to say yes — when you have a chance to jet halfway around the world, you accept.
The only catch? I'd only be there for three short days.
I quickly learned that 72 hours in Abu Dhabi isn't as crazy as it sounds. In fact, the trip (jet-lag and all) was a piece of cake.
Hear me out: Not only does Abu Dhabi boast a burgeoning art scene, buoyed by the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in fall 2017, it's also easier than ever to make the journey.
Here's everything you need to know before you go.
Join The Jet-Set
Traveling to the UAE from the United States takes time, but the transit logistics are remarkably painless, as long as you know what you're doing.
Book The Right Ticket
The United Arab Emirates have two national airlines, Emirates and Etihad. Emirates operates out of Dubai, and most flights to the UAE via Emirates require a transfer through Dubai. To fly direct to Abu Dhabi, Etihad is your best bet. Even better news? from many major U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, and Dallas.
Both airlines offer a range of different seating. If you can swing it, it's worth shelling out for business class, where the seats recline into beds and the walls pull out into tiny cubicles. Take it from me, a long flight zooms by by when you spend it sipping champagne (gratis) in your cozy bunk in the sky. For the serious high rollers, Etihad also offers whole cabins and suites.
A flight from New York to Abu Dhabi is 13 hours, and the time difference is about 9 hours. This might not sound like promising fodder for a weekend trip, but consider this: If you fly out on a Friday afternoon, block out the world, and go to sleep, you'll wake up Saturday morning, ready to shower, have some breakfast, and hit the city. For the return trip, book a flight in the wee hours and go to sleep — technically you'll fly "backward" in time, and arrive, refreshed and rested, back on your home soil the same morning.
No Visa Required
If you're flying from the US, or any other special documentation to visit Abu Dhabi. You also don't require medical clearance or vaccines. Just make sure you have an up-to-date passport that won't expire within the next six months.
Breeze Through Customs
When you arrive in Abu Dhabi, you'll go through Emirati customs before officially entering the country. This was quick and painless for me, and I was out the door and into the bright Abu Dhabi sunshine in no time.
For the trip back, I have even better news. You go through . That means:
- When you touch down in the US, you get to avoid the soul-crushing crowds at customs and go straight on to baggage claim or your waiting taxi.
- You should build in some extra time. US customs in Abu Dhabi moves at a steady clip, but you're still going to want to get to the airport at least two hours before take-off, and don't linger in the lounge or at the duty-free.
Pack Like A World Traveler
That means, pack light. If you can, pack carry-on only to avoid the endless waits at baggage claim. I recommend a hard-sided spinner wheel suitcase and an oversized handbag or backpack, no more, no less.
When packing, remember that Abu Dhabi is a conservative city in a hot, dry climate. That means summer-weight clothes in linen, cotton, and silk, but try to avoid anything too skimpy. You aren't likely to get in trouble for wearing short-shorts, but it's always better to stay on the safe side, and observe local customs. Don't hesitate to pack your bathing suit, though — beachwear (as long as it stays on the beach) is totally acceptable. If you visit in winter, as I did, bring light layers; the evenings get cool.
Lodgings You'll Love
Looking for the right hotel to book? Abu Dhabi is flush with five-star options.
Four Seasons at Al Maryah Island
I booked in at the , which was light and airy, redolent with the scent of oud wood, and primed to give every guest exceptional service.
My first day, I took a late lunch on the spectacular terrace, marveling at the incredible quality of the Abu Dhabi light. The desert climate means that the light is hazy, even on a cloudless day, and the sunsets are otherworldly. I experienced my first that evening, looking out across the water — one of the many inlets of the Persian Gulf that twine through the city.
If you visit: Enjoy the hotel's array of restaurants (including a steakhouse and a cafe serving light mezze dishes), the posh spa, and easy access to the water-front boulevard. The Four Seasons also has the advantage of opening directly onto the below, anluxurious shopping mall packed with more dining options, and fine designer goods.
Rooms start at $214
Emirates Palace Hotel
This quintessentially Emirati hotel, pictured above, might look just like an old-fashioned palace, but it was built in 2005. If you're in Abu Dhabi to experience total opulence, this is the hotel for you, lavishly decorated in marble, with design inspired by traditional Islamic art.
If you visit: Be sure to take advantage of the two swimming pools, kids' center, private bay into the Gulf, and .
Rooms start at $587
Don't Leave Without Seeing...
The Louvre Abu Dhabi
Visitors to Abu Dhabi shouldn't miss the newly opened , a spectacular display of art and architecture. The museum, a collaboration between Abu Dhabi and France, has been ten years in the making, and is the first universal museum of its kind in the region.
The dome-shaped, sculptural building by Jean Nouvel is nearly an island unto itself; waves lap at the complex from almost all sides. During my visit, I was stopped cold by the mesmeric "rain of light" effect of the webbed dome, which has the organic look of something cultivated, rather than constructed, and by the ringing music of birds, seemingly nesting overhead.
The galleries inside are no less remarkable. Unlike most museums, works are not divided by geography. Instead, they follow a chronological path, and works from the same era, but from vastly different cultures, are displayed side-by-side. The pieces on display run the historical gamut, from ancient stone hand axes made in the distant past, to a monumental crystalline construction by Ai Wei Wei.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
If the reminds you a bit of another landmark, the Taj Mahal, that's no mistake. The Taj Mahal was one of the design inspirations behind the magnificent multi-domed mosque, which has the look of an ancient monumental structure, but which is actually ten years old.
The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan , built to honor the diversity of the Islamic world by displaying exquisite examples of Islamic art.
During my tour, I discovered that interior is made of pure white marble, inlaid with semi-precious gemstones to form flowers and vines. Elsewhere in the mosque, I found mosaics and figural floral designs, as well as the world's largest carpet, intricately knotted by hand.
Female visitors should be aware that a is rigorously observed. During my visit, I thought I had dressed carefully in a full length skirt and a headscarf, but was turned back by eagle-eyed female attendants, who caught the kick flap at the back of my skirt, exposing a glimpse of calf. In the end, every woman in my group was provided with a mosque-issued polyester abaya at the entrance.
Abu Dhabi Or Dubai? What To Know Before You Book A Trip To The Emirates
Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the bustling hub cities of the United Arab Emirates, often seem confusingly similar from the outside. In the decades since the Emirates struck oil and rapidly gained astonishing wealth, the two cities have become bywords for Jetson-esque architecture and incredible luxury — ranging from an archipelago of artificial islands designed to look like the globe off Dubai's coast, to the sail-shaped Etihad towers of Abu Dhabi.
Both cities deserve their luxe reputations, but each offers something a little bit different to the potential visitor.
Dubai is a flashier city, with the outrageous assets to prove it, from an indoor ski slope (in a desert climate) to the famously vertiginous Burj Khalifa skyscraper. Abu Dhabi, though it has its fair share of high-altitude buildings, is a slightly quieter city, that has defined itself in recent years with renewed dedication to arts and culture.
Both cities expect visitors to comport themselves with dignity — alcohol is largely illegal outside of hotels and public intoxication can land you serious jail time — but Dubai has more nightclubs and more of a party scene. If you'd like to experience lavish, outrageous living, give Dubai a shot. But if you'd prefer touring a , followed by a mellow evening, Abu Dhabi might be your destination of choice.