Our 4 days as Western female tourists in Abu Dhabi were actually spread over 2 years. The first time we did what we rarely do – a group tour. We signed up with Gate 1 for a trip to Dubai. So it was with Gate 1 that we went to the Grand Mosque We did a write-up on it that you can read here.
The mosque was one of the most beautiful buildings we have ever seen and it absolutely shouldn’t be missed on any itinerary for Abu Dhabi. Luckily our Gate 1 guide gave us very thorough information about what to wear and what not to wear – primarily for the women. We made a very sincere effort to comply even though it nearly resulted in death from heat exhaustion, not to mention Blonde over-doing the head scarf and rendering herself nearly sightless for the duration of our visit.
There are guards everywhere checking to see if a hair has escaped or arms (on women) are being shown so just get with the program and save yourself a lot of grief. These are not mall cops – they’re some serious dudes and you can’t flirt your way out of trouble in the UAE (major drawback for Blonde).
Here are the rules:
Basically, wear your fat clothes . Lose the shame; we all have them!
Admission is free. You can also get a free guided tour (in English and Arabic) that lasts about 45 minutes. You can take all the pictures you want (even with a flash) and you will take a lot. Although you can get a tour as a walk-in it would probably be smarter to book it in advance on their website.
After we went to the mosque we had our noses stuck to the bus windows as we left Abu Dhabi and decided we wanted to come back and see more. And this year we had the chance to do that when Brunette won tickets on Qatar Airways. We needed to put together an itinerary so Brunette got on the job.
We had been constantly entering contests sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and the contests made Abu Dhabi sounds like it was full of fun exciting things to do but a lot of that is “aspirational”. (That was a word Blonde used a lot in her old marketing career when she meant “we’ll sell you this but it doesn’t really exist yet”.) Brunette, researcher extraordinaire, cannot be fooled by false claims (except perhaps her husband’s many years ago) so she ferreted out the real from the not quite ready for prime time.
Brunette determined that the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is one of the top attractions in Abu Dhabi as rated on Trip Advisor. Whodda thunk it? It isn’t very convenient (out towards the airport) and you have to book in advance but we decided to do it and loved it. You learn about the importance of the falcon in Arab culture (as boys will do with their toys there is some of the “my bird is bigger than yours” silliness.) You go into the hospital itself and see a minor procedure be done on a falcon and then visit the aviary and small museum. Here’s our more detailed account of our visit.
All tours must be booked in advance. They ask for a minimum of two days notice if it’s only a person or two but also be sure you check their hours ahead of time. You need to allow about half a day for this with transportation, the visit, poking around the museum and then getting back to town. There’s also an optional lunch you can add. We didn’t do that but their dining room (not in the same building as the birds) was very plush and they have a 5 star catering outfit. (More for the “whodda thunk it” category.)
A beautiful place, one you can visit for free, is right in town and doesn’t take much time is the Emirates Palace. Anyone can just bumble in and walk around. As is advisable everywhere in Abu Dhabi female tourists need to dress modestly which as you can see here we interpreted as “somewhat frumpily”.
Just so you know, the “palace” is actually a Kempinski Hotel which is why you can just walk in and wander around. But like everywhere you go in Abu Dhabi women (at least Western ones) will realize that you are being carefully watched. We never knew if it was our extraordinary beauty, our penchant for prostitution, journalistic fame, toilet paper stuck to our shoes or what it was that required constant surveillance everywhere we went. It’s as if you’re perpetually under suspicion of shoplifting and isn’t the most welcoming sensation. (It would be interesting to hear if a Western man experienced the same phenomenon.)
We spent a couple of our days staying at the St. Regis out on Saadiyat Island. It is near the next place we really enjoyed but that place may not be worth a long cab ride as it’s in the “aspirational” column. It’s the Manarat Al Saadiyat visitor center. The new, well-designed building showcases what is planned for Saadiyat. As this is the UAE they can afford to plan and execute big and they are. They are building The Louvre Abu Dhabi, a Guggenheim and the Zayed National Museum. None of them are built yet but it will be fabulous to go back there in 2016 when in theory they will all be built and in operation. Update: None of the museums are open and the Guggeheim has not yet been started halfway through 2016 when it was supposedly going to open. Apparently global oil prices matter in more than one way!
These are the models for the buildings.
The visitor center is free and staffed by lovely friendly people (not from the UAE) and has a very nice little restaurant where you can have lunch. It also has free wi-fi.
Some places lots of people apparently like but that didn’t do a whole lot for us are Ferrari World, the Heritage Village (kind of interesting but recreated history, not the real thing) and the Marina Mall. The Marina Mall was highly recommended to us by our concierge and we were quite disgusted that it’s nothing but a giant mall with brands you can find in any rich country. It isn’t beautiful and isn’t worth the time. So there -take that Marina Mall!
Also, we walked along the much touted (by the Tourism Authority) “corniche” but it wasn’t what we had hoped to experience. We didn’t find the “charming restaurants” or anything fun except for another place in the “aspirational” column, Aqua Fun. It’s a gigantic inflatable water slide and other inflated things in the water (resisting temptation for a joke here). When we were there it was devoid of any visitors and was blaring, at a decibel level so loud it distorted the music of the song “What Does the Fox Say?”. The fox would have been saying “get me out of here – this is killing my ears!” It’s possible that if we’d walked longer on the corniche we would have found the restaurants we were hungrily seeking and the corniche does have some very clean, lifeguarded (is that a word?) beaches for families so there’s that. (Except that when we were there, there had been an oil spill and none of the beaches could be used.)
A couple things to keep in mind when doing Abu Dhabi on your own.
- No one with a job (at least who you will encounter) in Abu Dhabi is from there. They are from Pakistan, India and all over the world. Most of them are lovely but they don’t know where anything is – anything. So you need to know where you’re going. Our cab driver couldn’t even find the St. Regis which seems a bit 101 for a cab driver. They also speak English but not necessarily to a degree that will prevent misunderstandings – lots of them! It really doesn’t seem to be intentional – just the age old failure to communicate. Be patient, speak slowly and don’t use idioms.
- There isn’t any decent public transportation and you probably don’t want to rent a car because there’s so much construction it’s hard to get around and the drivers make Sicilians seem mild-mannered.
- Cabs are cheap but there’s no nice way to say this, a lot of the drivers smell absolutely awful. Carry a tissue – it can help – a little. Be sure the cab has and uses a meter.
- Arab men have the interesting combo-trait package of seeming as if they literally don’t see western women and yet exuding a certain level of disapproval. It’s a cultural thing and you are very safe there but please remember that earlier warning about not being able to flirt your way out of trouble.
- Unlike Dubai and Doha you can have alcohol in restaurants – yippee!
Our feeling after two visits to Abu Dhabi was that that’s enough for us until all of the museums are built and open. It’s going to be an amazing art mecca. (Is it offensive to use “Mecca” that way?)
If you have the chance to visit, take it, but don’t drain your retirement savings or take the money out of your grandmother’s mattress to go to Abu Dhabi. We aren’t saying don’t engage in those activities, just don’t use the money to go to Abu Dhabi. Send it to us.