A Guide to Abu Dhabi For Active Soul – Worth More Than A Weekend Visit

Father Zayed Potrait in Abu Dhabi

On the way to Ireland via the national’s carrier Etihad Airways, SOTG had a quick stop in the capital city of Abu Dhabi, one of the 7th state in United Arab Emirates.

While many expats in the country prefer Dubai for a living (no surprise here) and tourists enter from Dubai normally do an excursion day trip, there are other diverse elements of Abu Dhabi worth to look at; apart from the famous landmark and world-class events such as the Sheikh Zayed Mosque,  Emirates Palace, Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix, Mubadala World Championship, and Volvo Ocean Race.  

Abu Dhabi means Father of Gazelle – a city that maintains its low-key charm, reserve in certain way and calm. It’s city centre located on a main island shaped of left foot. The roads in city centre are numbered in grid system. It is connected to the mainland by 3 main bridges: Maqta Bridge, Mussafah Bridge and Sheikh Zayed Bridge. 

Here are top picks (by no mean the only list) based on insider knowledge and experience while living in the United Arab Emirates combined with further discovery during recent visit:

  1. Potrait of the founder – A landmark in Abu Dhabi of the country’s largest portrait of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan on Corniche not far from Emirates Palace (512 square metre). So you know who’s the Father of UAE and appreciate the effort in building a nation towards progress where it stands today. 
  2. Appreciate the surrounding islands – While Dubai is famous for its man-made islands, Abu Dhabi’s geography pride for developed islands and some untouched natural islands with mangroves, salt domes, and salt flats. Abu Dhabi city island is surrounded by other smaller islands: Saadiyat island, Yas island, As Sammaliyyah island, Umm Yifenah island, Al Reem Island, Lulu Island, Hudayriat Island and Futaisi Island. Sir Bani Yas Island is a salt dome desert island that now holds a nature reserve and Arabian wildlife park as well as a 5 stars boutique hotel – proud 2015 winner of World’s Leading Sustainable Tourism Destination.
  3. Al Ain – The garden city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visit the Al Ain Palace Museum used to be home of Sheikh Zayed and ruling families. Drive up (or run up like yours truly did) to the highest mountain in Abu Dhabi Jabal Hafeet (1240m), dip in indoor spring pool at Green Mubazzarah, check out the animals at the Al Ain Zoo and then visit the date palm oasis. If that is not enough – visit Wadi Adventure, the region’s only man-made white water rafting, kayaking and surf facility built-in the foothills of the majestic Jebel Hafeet.Check out series of tough event at Wadi Adventure called Wadi Adventure Racer. Al Ain also is a gateway to Oman via few border controls that is less busier than Dubai side.
  4. For adventure lovers, fitness die-hard and endurance enthusiasts, pick among activities that suit you:
  • Endless playground – dune bashing and off-road driving in the Western Region, visit Empty Quarters to witness the largest uninterrupted sand mass in the world and Tel Moreeb, the world tallest sand dune.
  • Camp at uncrowded Mirfa beach or hire a sail to one of the small island.
  • Cycling – click here for SOTG’s first 100km ride in Liwa. Or how about dune-cycling at Qasr al Sarab by Anantara? Hire bike from Funridesports and cycle along the beach-line at Corniche, Yas Marina Circuit, or Al Wathba track. 
  • HUA Fitness bootcamp style run by Guinness world record holders (7th time for now – though knowing her this digit will not stay constant).
  • Kayaking along mangrove trees in Saadiyat Island – Complimentary when staying at Eastern Mangrove by Anantara or hire at Noukhada.
  • The 7 Emirates Run cross-country fundraising run (which yours truly undertook twice in a row). Start point in Abu Dhabi on 22nd December.
  • Abu Dhabi Half Marathon organised by local club Abu Dhabi Striders that takes place on Yas Island.
  • ITU World Triathlon Abu Dhabi – participate or come to watch the amazing athletes.
  • Liwa Challenge Master Trek – 100km or 200km running in the extreme of heat and distance (SOTG’s bucket list of races to do – just saying).

5. Emirates Natural History Group – both non-profit chapters in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain show genuine interest in nature – marine, wadi, flora and fauna. Check out the links provided to see events being organised such as field trip and hiking.

6. Events worth looking into to get or deepen knowledge on Emirati culture:

  • Dates festival showcasing local produce of fresh to dried dates, and processed dates products such as at the Liwa Date Festival.
  • Liwa International Festival includes variety of races (cars, bikes, falcons, camels and horses).
  • Al Dhafra Camel Festival is the well-known camel beauty contest among local for high prize money that also showcases pedigree and dark-skinned camels.
  • Qasr Al Hosn Festival is  a celebration of rich Emirati cultures with informative curated programmes by community involvement such as the best of the traditional Emirati food, making of sail, pottery, and wool-spinning.

7. Food lovers – Don’t miss the Taste of Abu Dhabi and Love Food Festival (in city and Al Ain) happen this weekend (18th – 20th Feb). How about a blog from Emirati Shaikha Al Ali’s about long-forgotten traditional recipes while exploring Emirati culture?

8. Eating options:

  • Yas Mall – click here for options that includes well-known street style cafés Angelina Café, authentic Emirati cuisine at Al Fanar with nostalgic ambiance (which SOTG paid regulars visit at their Dubai joint) and ROGO’S The Rollercoaster Restaurant (a tornado-shaped gigantic spiral, loops and sensational rail tracks to serve your meal). The cascade dine area housed few restaurants facing the fountain and with view of Ferrari World – a fantastic open air view in winter months. Dinner at BouBouffe did not disappoint as it is an old Beirut hotspot for ‘best’ shawarma in town cooked via special coal-grilled that even David Lebovitz paid his respect when in Beirut. An extensive menu and daily dishes prepared to customers. Staff explained well on serving portion and even recommended the frozen jallab drink (popular in Levant) that washed down with the food well. Ordered oriental stuffed lamb with yogurt and rice. My other half ordered meat skewers dish. Both dishes cooked well in good mix of Arabic spices. BouBouffe also displays stylish interior that is modern and trendy. 
  • Masdar City – click here for options that include a new gourmet Emirati restaurant called Osha. Melius is another one to check out – a Middle Eastern cuisine with Western twist (on Irena HQ Building a bit of walk from main building). A sustainable concept city could not complete without Organic Foods and Cafe.
  • Al Raha in Khalifa CityJones The Grocer is the highlight and they have several joints in Abu Dhabi. Could not go wrong with Circle Cafe as the menu represents ethos of Simple,Fresh and Delicious created by 2 expat moms in 2003. The ambiance is very homey, relaxed yet has stylish appeal. Succulent lamb kofta made very well and marinated with fresh herb and spices. The haloumi however did not taste too great to my liking (with slight coconut flavour) but came with fresh salad and delicious zatar dressing. Kale juice could have a lot more kale leaves.
  • For fine dining options with independent review visit Foodiva which does Abu Dhabi coverage as well.
Eating in Abu Dhabi - Circle Cafe and BouBouffe
Eating in Abu Dhabi – Circle Cafe and BouBouffe. And more eating at Etihad Business Lounge

9. Modern architecture – View Mubadala’s distinctive round-shaped building (was voted the Best Futuristic Design), Capital Gate’s the leaning tower of Abu Dhabi, or the elegant Viceroy Yas Hotel by the Formula 1 Circuit.

10. Others – Visit to  NYU Abu Dhabi Institute that offer interesting talks. Ride the Personal Rapit Transit then check out the Masdar City a sustainable city that is pedestrian-friendly. For avid readers – visit Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

In near future, very much looking forward to this oil rich capital’s exciting projects: Saadiyat Cultural District which house Louvre and Guggenheim Museum first in Middle East and the Al Maryah Island new financial center.

So for your trip to Abu Dhabi plan more than a day trip to discover Abu Dhabi city, its surrounding islands, and surrounding regions. It is not just mall and sandpit comfort living in Abu Dhabi. 

More details on Abu Dhabi click here and on events happening click here

Before I say ma’a Salama (see you again in Arabic), here is a slideshow of what to expect in Abu Dhabi city and surrounding – move arrow horizontally to view. If video is what you prefer, get your eyes and ears lock on these two amazing projects in the desert by 2 UAE resident: Adrian Hayes’s In the Footstep of Thesiger and Wouter KIngma’s The Project Pause – Emty Quarter. 

Hire a car from the airport and drive – refer here. Use Careem service if you like to be chauffeured. Otherwise taxi is very affordable. For off-road lovers, get guidance from UAE Explorer site. Note about parking in city centre – tripple parking is kind of norm due to limited amount parkings on the island.

While you may want to avoid summer in the Gulf (yes August is hotter than Death Valley), it is very sensible to optimise stay by planning a visit in cooler months from November to March where there are many events happening. Expect a drop in temperature in winter – average of 10 to 15 degrees Celcius. It is especially cold when in desert and on mountain. So pack your shawl and cardi in winter, sunblock (not sunscreen) and kaftan to cover a bit (moderation please) in summer. Check rain and sandstorm update – that is if you don’t want to get stuck driving in sandstorm!

English is widely spoken – though handy to know few Arabic phrases like Marhaba (Hello), Shukran (Thanks)  and Shway, Shway (Little Bit).

Have you been? Any thing else worth mentioning to add to list?

Live to thrive.


2 thoughts on “A Guide to Abu Dhabi For Active Soul – Worth More Than A Weekend Visit

  1. This is a very nice list for anyone who gets to visit Abu Dhabi. I’m actually glad you included Circle Café ’cause it’s really a very nice hangout spot in the area.

    1. Hi Khris,

      Thanks for your note. Much appreciated. Yes I enjoyed my visit there at Circle Cafe.
      I hope you are keeping yourself dry. And the weather is improving.

      Best regards,


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