As you may or may not know, schools in this part of the world generally close for 1-2 weeks in April for what is known as “spring break”. I was fortunate enough to be presented with the opportunity to spend 2 nights in Abu Dhabi during this time and I enjoyed it so much.
Abu Dhabi is the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. Yes that’s the same country that Dubai is in. Still confused? Ok let’s break it down with a quick PPG (Panda’s Progressive Geography) lesson. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) consists of 7 emirates (like our 9 provinces in South Africa). The most well known emirate is Dubai but the actual capital of the UAE is Abu Dhabi. If you want more knowledge about the UAE, click here. PPG lesson over.
Now that we have cleared that up, let’s discuss why you shouldn’t forgo Abu Dhabi when you’re planning a trip to the UAE. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that Dubai isn’t my favourite place in the world… but most people are besotted with Dubai. Honestly the Emirati government could erect a huge statue of a rubbish bin and people would think it’s an artistic masterpiece purely because it’s in Dubai. What’s up with that? Anyway, my point here is that lots of people are heading to the UAE only to visit Dubai without seeing the capital city (I made this mistake 3 times!) and I want to prevent you from doing the same.
I had business to take care of in Abu Dhabi so my time for sightseeing was limited. However, this was what I managed to squeeze into 2 days:
Sheikh Zayed Mosque
If you’ve heard of Abu Dhabi (and most of my readers are way too clued up not to have), then you’ve seen pictures of this iconic mosque. Let me tell you right now, that pictures (mine included) DO NOT do justice to this architectural wonder. This mosque is the reason humans were given eyes: to visually feast upon spectacular marvels such as this:
The entire experience is well thought out. There’s plenty of parking, clear instructions about etiquette, abayas and scarves for free hire (no need for an ID card), a cafe onsite and of course the beauty of the mosque is available for you to marvel at. It’s cleverly designed so that it does not need to shut down at prayer times; certain sections are just closed off.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this was better than the Taj Mahal. Yes I said it. No I won’t take it back and hell yes, I mean it! Of course it doesn’t have the romantic story or history behind it but as a tourist site, this trumps the Taj. My favourite bit was this super quirky clock that has all of the prayer times on it, in Arabic and English:
This place is a photographer’s dream and a great place to learn about Islam if you join one of their free tours! For more facts about this mosque check out this informative post by A Blonde on the Move.
The last thing I will say about this mosque is this:
A lot of people have asked me to compare some of the mosques that I have been fortunate enough to see while living in the gulf. Here is a quick visual comparison with 5 being the bees knees and 1 meaning you should just stay at home:
Verdict: Kuwait Mosque wins on interior, Oman Mosque wins on exterior but Abu Dhabi Mosque wins for best overall experience! Note: My judgement is based on the mosque as a tourist site and not a place of worship. I have not prayed in any of these mosques.
Abu Dhabi atmosphere
One of things I love doing is examining the vibe of a city/place. For example, I love the hustle and bustle of frenetic Hong Kong but I also enjoy the relaxed pace at which life unfolded in Udaipur, India. Abu Dhabi has this absolutely mellow vibe about it, completely unlike Dubai, Doha or Manama. People are so courteous on the road! I was driving along in my little Ford Figo and people were not upset that I was going slowly or making U turns in strange places. In Kuwait, I would’ve been mowed over by a Hummer or two. I hired a car for my 2 day stay (a steal at 120 dirhams) and it was such a pleasure driving myself around the shiny roads. I got lost a few times but I was not hooted at or ever feared for my life! This is a complete contrast to Kuwait/Jordan/Bahrain where I have seen some of the worst driving in the world (outside of India). What is it about countries like Oman and the UAE that offer drivers peace of mind as they traverse the country?
Sure the city is thriving and one drive downtown assures you that this is a very influential city. But not every building is a gleaming skyscraper, and not everything is catered to tourists. This city has retained its old world Arabian charm while still progressing forward.
The most important thing for me is that when I was out and about in Abu Dhabi, every second person I saw was Emirati. The most common language I heard, other than English, was Arabic. On every visit to Dubai, the most common faces out and about are white (white people I love you but we all know you are not native to the GCC) and you hear a mix of European and other languages. It’s nice to see local people out and about just as I did in Oman and just as I do see, all the time, in Kuwait.
Abu Dhabi has some gorgeous beaches, much quieter than those in neighbouring Dubai and much prettier than those in Kuwait. While I was in the emirate, I was lucky enough to catch up with an old friend from university who took me to the St Regis Hotel on Saadiyat Island for mocktails and dinner.
With our toes in the softest sand and the gorgeous sunset painting the ocean a prism of colours, we enjoyed catching up. If I had more time I could’ve definitely explored more of the public beaches of which there are numerous.
Tip: Try the sumptuous churros at Turqioz…
Shakespeare & Company
Sometimes I can be the laziest panda on earth. Like the afternoon in Abu Dhabi where I typed in, “Places to eat near me” into Google and it directed me to this restuarant called Shakespeare and Compnay. It was like Google suddenly had this intimate knowledge of my interests… This place is a Victorian era lover’s dream. I honestly felt like I had stepped back in time by looking at the kitschy furniture and frilly Victorian interior of sugary pink, purple and powder blue.
On paper, Shakespeare and Co should be the kind of restaurant that I cannot tolerate- it does not have a specific cuisine, the menu is way too long and confusing, they serve shisha so sitting outside is a death trap for me, and their chairs can be extremely uncomfortable, but for some reason I really liked the food and the service! Tell me why we don’t have this chain in Kuwait?!
Abu Dhabi International Airport
I know this is a weird thing to put on this list but hear me out. Yes Abu Dhabi International Airport is clean, modern and HUGE. It’s definitely one of the largest I’ve flown into into a while. Anyway, what I LOVED about this airport is that when you are leaving Abu Dhabi, instead of standing in a line and going to a counter where someone stamps your passport, you merely scan your passport after which a gate opens for you. You pass through and stand on the appointed place where a photo is then taken of you.
Khalas! No stamp, no queue, no crabby Arab lady who acts like you’ve torn her away from the love of her life. This was the first time I experienced such efficiency and I have to say, if this is the way of the future- sign me up ASAP! Kuwait learn a thing from Abu Dhabi- your immigration queues are awful!
I am not the only one obsessed with this airport… check out this article by Travelstart for 15 reasons to fly via Abu Dhabi Airport.
Side note: I believe that the national carrier of a country can tell you a lot about a place. For example, the average South African will pay a little extra to NOT fly South African airways! Kuwait Airways is reflective of the country- a hit and miss. Sometimes you get lucky with a clean plane with friendly crew and sometimes you’re flying in a metal box with irritable stewards. But Etihad Airways (national carrier of the UAE- not Emirates which is what I assumed for years) is definitely on my top three of favourite airlines for fabulous service right from when you check in for your flight to disembarking at your final destination.
On the whole, Abu Dhabi is clean, welcoming and happy- yes happy. I feel that the people living here are content. Everyone is smiling and offering you help should you need it. It is essentially, a crossroads between two worlds (Arab & Western) and at the same time a place full of identity and charm.
Note: I stayed at the Novotel Abu Dhabi Al Bustan and it was really value for money with tons of on-site facilities, free valet parking and this pretty pool overlooking Abu Dhabi:
There is a lot more I want to see and do in not only Abu Dhabi but also it’s neighbouring emirates within the UAE. So hopefully I will get to go back soon!
Next up is my tropical getaway in paradise with Fox… Get ready for an onslaught of dreamy pictures of crystal blue waters of the Indian ocean, white powdery beaches, abundant coral reefs and a whole lot of Panda & Fox love!