For those of you who don’t know- I am competing in a local competition. Let me explain.
The pleasure — or misfortune — of living in either Abu Dhabi or Dubai as an expat is the topic of many friendly debates, articles, blog posts, and dinner conversations. More often than not it’s a contentious battle: mangroves vs. metro, Emirates Palace vs. Burj Al Arab, flowy abayas vs. tiny shorts, locals vs. tourists…the list goes on and on and the comparisons are endless.
And while the aforementioned criteria do have their place in determining which city ranks superior, the comparison deserves to be much deeper than the superfluous availability of milk cake, or the abundance of dancing fountains…
So when I got tired of local Dubai residents- who happen to be people I know for many years from South Africa- constantly talking about how much better Dubai is, I decided to invite them over to my Emirate for a weekend in the capital so they could see what life here is like.
The challenge: One weekend to showcase the best of what we have to offer in our respective cities.
Abu Dhabi was up first so Expat Lion and I worked to create a 1.5 day itinerary comprising of our favourite places that would give our guests the real-feel of Abu Dhabi.
Stop 1: The Arthouse Café
Among the dazzling array of galleries, museums and cultural attractions that line the UAE capital lies an eye-catching café where you’re sure to feel right “art” home. The Art House Café is a cultural destination all of its own, with striking artwork adorning the walls and colourful furnishings made out of recycled items, including bird cages, old kettles, tin basins, barrels and much more. Art- from local and international artists is everywhere– on the walls, on the tables and in the form of the unique furniture and fittings which makes sense because the café is attached to one of the city’s cultural hubs, Etihad Modern Art Gallery.
Start your tour here for some delicious food, beautiful backdrops and a homely feeling.
Tel: +971 2 621 01 45
Opening times: Sunday to Thursday: 10.30am to 11.30pm
Friday: 1pm to midnight
Highly recommended are the karak chai, strawberry pina colada and dynamite shrimp!
Pug rating scale: 4 out of 5 pugs
Stop 2: Eastern Mangroves National Park
So for those of you who are not frequent readers of my blog- and therefore are living under a rock- you might not know that Abu Dhabi is home to thousands of acres of mangroves on its beautiful coastline. The best way to explore these mangroves are kayaking which is why I bundled my guests into kayaks and off we went! You start out in the open sea, before moving into the channels of the mangroves if you like. If you really love nature, you will be pleased as you get to see an abundance of nature including herons, egrets and black crabs – skirting along the shoreline.
The kayaking is very serene as you drift through the mangroves, taking in the sights and sounds of the ecosystem. I always take a break on a sandy strip of land within the mangroves to disembark from the kayak for a swim or to take photos on the dock. On your return journey you will feel like you have had a good workout, but it is well worth it to see an alternative side to Abu Dhabi.
What do you need? Access to a kayak, paddle and a life jacket. Take along sunscreen, a hat & sunglasses.
What to wear? Prepare to get bit wet so dress accordingly, you can wear some comfortable clothes or swim wear.
Where? I always book my rental kayak from Charif from Hydro Marine Sports. Its 160AED for a double kayak & 110AED for single kayak. Email or call them to do an advance booking ; their details can be found on Instagram & Facebook .
Pug Rating Scale: 5 out of 5 pugs
Stop 3: Sunset views along the road from Emirates Heritage Club Village
Follow your GPS to Emirates Heritage Village then drive right past it. At the end of the road is where the city skyline unfolds in front of your eyes and if you go on a weekend in winter- everyone else in the emirate will be there too.
Park your car in a safe (and preferably legal) spot and walk along the road while the sun sets in a myriad of oranges, yellows and reds. See for yourself:
Stay until night kisses the city skyline and take as many pictures as you can!
Pug Rating Scale: 5 out of 5 pugs
Stop 4: Gossip Café (Galleria Mall)
Not strictly an Emirati resturant, meaning their dishes aren’t purely local food, Gossip is a locally created brand mixing many different flavours to create unique & enjoyable dishes. Their food is appeasing and flavourful but its their desserts that make them really stand out. Having sampled most of their desserts just remember these two words- MILK CAKE. Try the original (amazing), pistachio (mouth-watering), rose (super sweet), lotus (mind- blowing) and saffron (haven’t tried it yet) variations.
Tel: +9712 6777520
Opening times: Sunday to Thursday: 7am to 11.00pm; Friday: 7am to midnight
Highly recommended are the coconut cake, tomato soup and chicken fusili pasta in addition to the addictive milk cakes.
Pug rating scale: 4 out of 5 pugs
Stop 1: Café Arabia
Set in a gorgeous Emirati villa opposite Um Al Emarat Park, this is probably the BEST place to curl up with a good book or enjoy an authentic Arabic breakfast. There are three floors-large but cozy- finely furnished with sofas, coffee tables, bookcases, paintings, where every detail of furniture, all shapes and colors in “Arabic style”, makes you feel as though you are in a home away from home. On the morning we went, the weather was beautiful and we were fortunate enough to be able to sit on this gorgeous terrace. Large teddies, surrounded by flowers and plants… yes please!
The breakfast menu is quite extensive so you’ll be spoilt for choice! I guess this also explains why we didn’t take many pictures of our food from here as we demolished everything swiftly!
Tel: +971 2 643 9699
Opening times: Sunday to Saturday: 7am to 11.00pm
Highly recommended are the pancakes, English breakfast, Chai karak and bruschetta.
Pug rating scale: 5 out of 5 pugs
Stop 2: The Louvre Museum
After breakfast, head straight to Saadiyat Island where the Louvre Museum opens at 10am everyday expect Monday when it is closed. Even if you, and your guests are not art aficionados and can’t tell the difference between a Matisse, a Derain, a Cezanne and a Monet and a Manet- key impressionist painters-(I am learning), its still worth a visit to see what is on offer, admire the architecture and soak up the views.
Once you’ve admired the art, taken silly pictures and are ready to call it a day, don’t forget to head on to the terrace to admire the roof and waterways. The roof seems to be made of an intricate criss cross lattice that lets in different amounts of light during the day, that is inspired by the region’s palm trees, which soften the sunbeams shimmering onto the ground.
Tel: +971 600 565566
Timings: 10am to 8 pm (Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday) and 10 am to 10 pm (Thursday and Friday).
Polar Bear Rating Scale: 3 out of 5 polars
Stop 3: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Of course the apple of the city’s eye would be a stop on this itinerary. Now I have written about this mosque before but I figure it doesn’t hurt to reiterate a few things. People always seem afraid to go near or much less visit a mosque- do not worry- Muslim people do not bite (well, unless you ask very nicely). This mosque is open to the public, offers guided tours, provides appropriate clothing to those who need it and is probably the most instagrammable spot in the city. Everything is FREE at this mosque including locker stroage facilities and guided tours!
Remove your shoes, follow the rules of where you are allowed to go (don’t worry there are a million guards who will direct you) and take as many pictures you like in the world’s third largest mosque. Just always be mindful that this is a place of worship so no PDA or inappropriate poses please.
The most asked question I receive is whether you need to wear an abaya- the answer is NO. You need long loose clothing that covers your arms will your wrists and legs till your ankles. Of course you must cover your hair, so a long hoodie with pants is fine. There are abayas (Harry Potter style robes as pictured above) available at the entrance for ALL ladies. Don’t worry, every one gets a fresh piece. Once worn, it goes straight to a hamper and they only give out freshly washed abayas, packed in plastics. Men don’t have to wear the traditional Arabic costume of long white dishdasha/kandura unless they come in shorts because have to cover their legs.
Tel: +971 2 419 1919
Timings: 9am to 10pm (Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday) and 4:30pm to 10 pm (Friday).
Polar Bear Rating Scale: 5 out of 5 polars
Stop 4: Sunset Views from Pool of Reflection
Wahat Al Karama (the official name for the Pool of Reflection) is actually a memorial site and serves as a permanent tribute to UAE’s soldiers and other Emiratis who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving their nation. It has a big amphitheater that can seat 1200 people, but the highlight is a shallow reflective pool, which makes for great photos of the mosque situated across the road. The centrepiece of Wahat Al Karama is actually a 90-metre long monument outside comprising 31 tablets which symbolise the support between the UAE’s military, the families of its servicemen and the country’s citizens in the face of adversity. The slabs are impressive and symbolic but realistically speaking, the average visitor is here at sunset to take pictures like this:
And later on, pictures like this:
I LOVE this spot because its peaceful, has plenty of parking, clean and always provides different views no matter what time of year or day you go!
Tel: +9712 668 1000
Timings: 9am to 11pm daily.
Polar Bear Rating Scale: 3.5 polars out of 5
Emirates Palace Hotel
A trip to Abu Dhabi wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of the most expensive hotels ever built! The Emirates Palace Hotel is one of the capital’s iconic structures and its free to visit and walk around. I usually take guests here for the ‘wow’ factor of eating 24k gold ice-cream next to the fountain in front of the hotel.
The Emirates Palace Hotel is an actual palace originally built for the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi so its architecture is truly Arabian in nature–grand and rich. (It’s the second most expensive hotel ever built.) Once you go inside, you’ll feel like the entire place is glistening in gold. Some parts are actually made of real gold! A walk through the hotel showcases the infamous glamorous golden atrium with a dome of gold and silver glass mosaics.
Panda’s Top Tip: Go for a snack and order the scones… you won’t be disappointed!
Tel: +9712 690 9000
Timings: Open 24/7 daily.
Polar Bear Rating Scale: 4 out of 5 polars
Its true that Abu Dhabi residents always look confused at their neighbours in Dubai who embarked on a mission to build the world’s tallest buildings, the greenest golf courses and the largest shopping malls. And yet we find ourselves there at least one weekend a month, navigating the roads as if we’re Vin Diesel in the Fast and the Furious. Likewise, Dubai residents seem to think Abu Dhabi is a vast wasteland of oil and desert and seem to pity us when they hear we live. The point of this challenge was not to outdo each other but rather, to appreciate the merits of each very different city. Our Dubai visitors clearly enjoyed their tour around the capital as none of their ratings went below a 3 and they said they felt a more laid-back and cultured vibe in Abu Dhabi- no matter where they went- which wasn’t something they were used to in Dubai. “In Abu Dhabi, you can never forget that you are in the Middle East… that you live in the UAE… in Dubai its easy to forget those 2 facts.”
Next month I experience Dubai vs. Abu Dhabi part 2 when its my turn to be a tourist in Dubai… just remind me closer to the time to go with an open mind! Do you have any rivalries between cities where you live or come from? Let me know in the comments below!