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Cities Guide >>> Abu Dhabi                                                                 Book A Hotel

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Abu Dhabi is the federal capital of the United Arab Emirates and the largest city of the emirate of Abu Dhabi. It is one of the most modern cities in the world and the center of government in the UAE.

Understand

With a population of just under a million, Abu Dhabi is headquarters to a number of oil operating companies and embassies are based here. With only 420,000 citizens in the entire emirate, each has a theoretical worth of $17 million, & has been described by CNN as the richest city in the world. The city features large gardens and parks, green boulevards lining all the streets and roads, sophisticated high-rise buildings, international luxury hotel chains and opulent shopping malls.

Long viewed as a staid bureaucratic outpost entirely lacking in neighboring Dubai's pizzazz, things started to change radically in 2004 after long-ruler Sheikh Zayed passed away and his son Sheikh Khalifa took over. In a bid to attract tourism and investment, land sales to foreigners were allowed, restrictions on alcohol were loosened and several massive projects are under way, with the upcoming $28 billion cultural zone of Saadiyat Island and its centerpieces the Guggenheim and Louvre Museums scheduled to open in 2011. It remains to be seen how well the strategy will work, but the city is certainly experiencing a construction boom.

Orientation

The core of Abu Dhabi is a wedge-shaped island connected to the mainland by the Maqta and Musaffah bridges. The wide end of the wedge forms the city center, with the Corniche running along the coast and an road variously known as Airport Road or Sheikh Rasheed bin Saeed al Maktoum Street running lengthwise out to the bridges.

Street addresses in Abu Dhabi are simultaneously very logical and hopelessly confusing. Many roads have traditional names, like "Airport Road", which may not correspond to the official names, like "Maktoum Street", and the city is divided into traditional districts like "Khalidiyya". However, by recent decree the city has been split up into numbered "zones" and "sectors", with all roads in each sector numbered: 1st Street, 2nd Street, etc, and the vast majority of street signs only refer to these. Alas, there is little apparent order to the numbering, and the numbers go haywire when a street crosses from one sector into another. Most locals opt to ignore the system entirely, and the best way to give instructions is thus navigating by landmarks: if taking a taxi, odds are you will get to "behind the Hilton Baynunah" much faster than "5th Street, Sector 2".

Get in

By plane

Abu Dhabi International Airport (IATA: AUH) (ICAO: OMAA) is the UAE's second-busiest airport (after Dubai) and the home base of Etihad.Airways Despite its slightly dingy appearance, the airport is quite well-maintained. The airport is currently undergoing a major expansion which is proposed to be completed by 2010. Picking up luggage is also quite easy, although be forewarned that airport personnel may remove a flight's bags from the carousel and stack them in a pile next to it, as the airport has few baggage carousels. Al Ghazal taxis travel to the city at a flat rate of Dhs.75 and take around 40 minutes. Public bus route 901 also heads to the city every 30-45 minutes and costs just Dhs.

A viable alternative is to fly to Dubai instead, and continue onward by bus or, if really in a hurry, by taxi. A metered Dubai airport taxi direct to the town center will cost about Dhs 300.

If you are flying on Etihad, complimentary shuttle buses are provided at regular intervals to the centre of Abu Dhabi and to Dubai. These depart from the main car park at the front of the airport, by the car hire offices.

By bus

By road

The 5-laned highway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi is the country's heaviest-travelled route, and the 170-km journey can be covered in two hours. While there is a notional speed limit of 120 km/h, this is often wildly exceeded by young Emiratis and the highway sees over 20 accidents monthly stay out of the leftmost lane and drive carefully, especially at night.

Get around

Abu Dhabi does not currently have a usable system of public transportation, so the best way to get around if you haven't rented a car is by getting a taxi. Basic white-and-gold taxis with green signs on top are ubiquitous and crossing town won't cost more than Dhs 5 ($1.50) or so. However, slightly more luxurious cabs like Al Ghazal and National which monopolize the hotels charge anywhere from Dhs. 8 to 25.

If you're staying at a hotel, there are normally some which wait outside in the parking lot. You are not expected to tip cab drivers, but gratuity will be VERY appreciated. Many taxi drivers are displaced persons, far from their home countries and families, so don't be surprised if they take out pictures of family members for you to comment on.

 

By car

Unless they are very aggressive drivers or accustomed to reckless road behavior, most visitors find the Emirati style of driving far too dangerous to be willing to get behind the wheel themselves. Those who do should be aware that any traffic accidents between locals and expats will ultimately mean that the expat is deemed at fault in most cases. Rented cars / visitors are not treated differently if they get into a car accident; however it must be known that if you do get in a car accident that you should NEVER move your car unless 1) you are asked by the police to do so over the phone, or 2) the police ask you to move it upon their arrival to the scene. It doesn't matter how you feel about your car blocking off 3 lanes in the middle of the rush hour cause someone gave you a fender bender: if you move your car, you will be in some serious trouble. Tests for alcohol can also be administered, and even the blood-alcohol level rise of a glass of wine will be ground for one month's incarceration.

If you do decide to take the plunge, beware that the street numbering system is unusual and it can take 30-45 days to get used to it. U-Turns are allowed at almost every intersection: when the left lane signal turns green, you simply have to swing a U-turn and come back. One tip: whatever other flaws drivers here may have, they do NOT run red lights. There are cameras at many intersections, fines are high (US$100-150), and residents who are not citizens can be DEPORTED for running too many red lights. When the light turns yellow, that taxi in front of you WILL jam on the brakes, and you should, too. But when the light turns green, expect someone behind you to honk at you within the first 1.2 milliseconds to get you moving.

See

Abu Dhabi has several large green spaces, many of which include play areas and equipment for children. The city is studded with lovely fountains, swathes of neon light, and the occasional sculpture.

Abu Dhabi sits on the Arabian Sea, which while it is commonly referred to on western maps as the Persian Gulf, the Arabs of the Emiraties prefer their traditional name for the sea and can become offended with the westernization of their region. As Abu Dhabi is a trading port it is possible on most days to observe boats and ships of all sorts going about their business. This part of the Gulf is also home to a set of man-made islands called the Lulu Islands, part of a tourism venture that is currently still in development.

The Yas Island project is scheduled to commence construction in two phases during 2007. Yas Island occupies a total land area of 2,500 hectares, of which 1,700 hectares will be claimed for development. The Island will feature attractions such as a world-class motor sports racetrack, signature hotels, the Ferrari theme park, water park, and the Abu Dhabi destination retail development of 300,000 sq m retail area, links and parkland golf courses, lagoon hotels, marinas, polo clubs, apartments, villas and numerous food & beverage outlets that will create a unique international tourist destination.

Do

Abu Dhabi offers little in the way of historical or cultural sights, but there are several unique stops that no visitor should miss.

  • Cultural Events The Abu Dhabi Cultural Centre has become a landmark in the Emirates and holds cultural events and workshops throughout the year. It has a well-stocked library, children's programs, art exhibitions, benefit fundraisers, and other culture-related activities that are the hallmark of any city. It's well worth a look.

  • High Tea The Emirates Palace is a luxury hotel on the water. Not as contemporary as other Emirates hotels such as the Burj in Dubai, the Emirates Palace is an elegant and intricate building swathed in gold and marble. Tea here is a nice treat in the afternoon.

  • Swimming Nearly all hotels and private clubs in Abu Dhabi offer swimming facilities, usually in the form of private beaches. You can pay for a day's use, or for a year's. Another option is The Club, an organization geared towards expatriates that's notably cheaper.

  • Lessons Some hotels also offer dance lessons, aerobics classes, and other physical entertainment.

  • The official sport of the Emirates is shopping, and Abu Dhabi offers millions of opportunities in this area (see below).

Buy

Abu Dhabi is a compulsive shopper's dream. There are several malls, most of which have the same stores as other malls. Besides establishments aimed at locals, malls also include popular English, American, and Canadian chain stores, as well as designer places. Many visitors will be surprised at the female fashion dichotomy- while local custom calls for women to be covered in public, most stores sell short skirts and halter tops alongside the more sedate floor-length skirts and high-necked shirts.

  • Abu Dhabi Mall is a three story shopping mall located in Tourist Club Area, adjacent to the Beach Rotana Hotel.

  • Marina Mall boasts a musical fountain and ceilings that thunder and rain. It is located in the Water Breaker area near the magnificent Emirates Palace. It also contains one of two Carrefour hypermarkets in town and the Abu Dhabi branch of IKEA.

  • "Al Wahda Mall", opened in 2007, is a large, modern mall in the center of downtown (11th and 4th Streets). Stores are high-end, the food court is extensive, and the LuLu Hypermart in the basement is probably the largest grocery and dry goods store in, well, anywhere.

There are also millions of small, independent stores around the city. On the bottom floor of one building, a person can purchase fancy chocolates, computer parts, antiques, and clothing. It is better to purchase things like carpets, art, native jewelry, and antiques at the independent or souk-like places than at the malls, as the price will be lower and the shopkeepers more willing to haggle.

Bargaining is a big part of shopping in the Emirates, but be prudent. Don't bargain at Marks and Spencer or Hang Ten. Save your discounting skills for independent shops dealing in antiques and the like.

Shopping in most places can be frustrating, as the clerks will follow you around the store. This is partly due to their concept of what constitutes good service, and partly because there is a shoplifting problem. Most will not be intrusive, but some employees can be very pushy and overly obsequious. Smile and thank them often, and you're more likely to be left alone after a bit.

In carpet stores- or anywhere that sells tapestries, Indian antiques, and the like- don't feel too pressured to buy, and don't be shocked if they start unrolling beautiful rug after beautiful rug at your feet. You are under no obligation to buy, no matter how much time they spend with you. However, the pressure will be very steady, and shyer shoppers may want to travel in packs for comfort's sake.

Grocery stores such as Spinney's, Carrefours, and the Abu Dhabi Cooperative Society are inexpensive and usually stocked with Western goods. Be careful to examine all produce before purchasing. Visitors wishing to purchase pork products will likely have to enter a separate room to do so, as no nationals are permitted in these sections of the grocery stores.

Prices in Abu Dhabi tend to be very competitive, and there is no tax.

Eat

Abu Dhabi is host to a wide range of palates and ethnicities when it comes to cuisine. Lebanese/Arabic food is usually cheapest; hotel restaurants usually the most expensive. The city is home to all manner of fast food like McDonald's and Hardees, but there is little call for most people to eat at those places. Some of the best and cheapest food in the city can be found at its many Indian restaurants. Portions are almost always generous, prices low, and quality excellent. Some foreign residents complained of a lack of good Chinese food, but several Chinese restaurants have been openned in recent years and serve authentic and contemparary Chinese food.

The fun thing about Abu Dhabi is that everywhere, literally from tiny falafel shacks to the cushy hotel restaurants to Burger King- delivers to anywhere in the city. Delivery is quick and reliable, and usually doesn't cost extra.

Vegetarians will find the city's selection of meals very satisfying. Vegetable and bean-heavy native dishes, the array of splendid pure vegetarian Indian cuisine, and the ready availability of fresh salads make eating in Abu Dhabi a stress-free experience. Strict vegans may have a little difficulty communicating their precise demands, but most places offer vegan dishes and are always willing to accommodate a paying customer.

Visitors should always check the Islamic calendar to determine whether they will be visiting during the month of Ramadan. Since Muslims fast during daylight hours, restaurants are -- by law -- closed during the day. It is also against the law to eat or drink anything, even water, in public and tourists (and non-Muslim residents) have been arrested and given fines. Large hotels generally have one restaurant open during the day to serve meals to non-Muslims. During the evening, however, it's quite a different story, as the festive atmosphere of Iftar begins and residents gather for lavish, Thanksgiving-like meals. As long as you don't mind tiding yourself over in private, the evening meals are magnificent.

Budget

  • Arabian Palace (behind Baynunah Tower), 02-6343396. The decor is basic and the food, while cheap and filling, is forgettable, but the shisha here is excellent. Puff up a pipe, order their excellent "lemon with mint" drink and gaze at the skyscrapers. Dh 50.

 

Mid-range

  • Zahrat Lebnan. An institution in Abu Dhabi, they have 3 locations and are well known. The name in itself means Lebanese Flower Restaurant. Excellent Shawarmas (Grilled Chicken or Lamb wraps), Koftas (Beefburger meat), Felafel (Lentils), and Farouj (Broiled chicken).

Splurge

Sleep

Hotels in Abu Dhabi are generally half price compared to Dubai, but you'll still be looking at well north of US$100/night. However, all are well-tended and host to first class restaurants, pool, and other high-end hotel facilities.

  • Emirates Palace, Corniche East, . Built at an estimated cost of US$3 billion, this was by many accounts the world's most expensive hotel to build, with oodles of gold and marble plating every available surface. The scale of everything is gargantuan you need directions just to find your way from the gate to the lobby! and the hotel feels like it's straight out of Las Vegas, minus the slot machines. Daytripping visitors are welcome, and entertainment options include caviar and champagne at the Caviar Bar, a fine Cohiba and cognac at the Havana Club, or a Turkish coffee (Dh 30) at Le Cafe. Rooms for the night start from about US$500.

 

  • Hilton Abu Dhabi, Corniche East, +971-2-6811900, . One of the older hotels in Abu Dhabi, but kept in good shape and recently renovated. Huge Hiltonia beach/pool/spa complex across the street (free for guests), small gym in hotel itself. "Plus" rooms face the sea but are otherwise identical to normal ones. Located a fair distance from the city center, which is both good (no construction noise) and bad (virtually nothing within walking distance, although there are shuttle services to the Marina Mall and the city center). US$150.

 

  • Hilton Baynunah, Corniche,  +971-2-6327777,. Popular with business travelers, the Baynunah's main selling points are the central location and spacious rooms equipped with kitchens. Indoor pool, gym, small lounge open to all guests. Downsides are thin walls and a construction site next door which is unlikely to be completed before 2009. US$120.

 

  • Le Royal Meridien

  • Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel & Resort

  • InterContinental Abu Dhabi

  • Le Meridien Abu Dhabi

  • Beach Rotana Hotel And Tower

  • International Rotana Inn Hotel

  • Millennium Hotel Abu Dhabi

  • Sheraton Khalidiya Hotel

  • Hilton Corniche Residence