Everything you need to know about the UAE's desert metropolis
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates is the largest emirate taking up 80% of the country’s landmass. It is the richest of all Emirates and holds nearly 10% of the world’s known oil supply. Here’s what you need to know before you arrive.
While Abu Dhabi emirate is perhaps best known for modern and hotels and visionary developments, underneath the glamour and the headlines lies an ancient past that is intertwined in Emirati traditions and practices.
Consistent throughout is the theme of warm Arabian hospitality which infuses every interaction and goes back to a heritage where a stranger would be offered food and shelter without hesitation, and this philosophy still stands today.
Benefiting from recent hospitality sector investment, Abu Dhabi possesses enviable event facilities and a wide range of accommodation, from the iconic Emirates Palace hotel – one of the world’s most opulent - to properties from well-known 3, 4 and 5 star international chains now managed by instantly recognisable international and established brands.
The UAE has a sub-tropical climate with sunny, hot and dry weather most of the year. Temperatures begin to drop in September and the humidity finally begins to subside, marking the end of the summer. The average daytime temperature during September is 33°C, and average night-time temperature is 26°C.
The UAE is considered to be one of the safest places in the world to visit, with a very low crime rate. It is however advisable to take out travel insurance, and to take the normal precaution to safeguard yourself and your valuables.
Islam is the official religion of the UAE, and is widely practised. The Islamic holy day is Friday. Muslims are required to pray (facing Makkah) five times a day. The times vary according to the position of the sun, when the modern-day call to prayer is transmitted through loudspeakers on mosque minarets. The UAE Constitution provides for freedom of religion in accordance with established customs. Abu Dhabi is tolerant of other religions with people being free to practice their religious beliefs, so long as they do not interfere with Islam.
Arabic is the official language, although English is widely spoken.
Lightweight summer clothing is suitable for most of the year, but something slightly warmer may be needed in winter months. Take a jacket or sweater when visiting hotels or the cinema, as the air conditioning can be fierce.
Although the attitude towards dress is fairly liberal throughout the Emirates, a healthy amount of respect for local customs doesn't go amiss, especially when shopping or sightseeing. Short or tight clothing may be worn, but it will attract attention - most of it unwelcome.
Malls, health clubs and resort facilities are generally more accepting of what's fashionable, but when visiting government offices it is best to cover your shoulders and legs. It is especially recommended that you dress more conservatively during Ramadan.
Did we mention that the UAE is home to around 200 differently nationalities? As a result, there are restaurants that cater to almost every taste. Hotels usually have several restaurants ranging from buffets to Michelin-starred chefs – at a price.
For a taste of the real Abu Dhabi, head to the neighborhood restaurants and cafes, especially downtown. All the meat in the UAE is halal, meaning the animals have been slaughtered according to Islamic teaching. Most restaurants have vegetarian and fish options.
Fish and seafood lovers may want to visit the fish markets at Mina Zayed and indoors at Mushrif Mall. For a few dirhams extra, you can get your purchase cleaned and then cooked to taste, fresh off the boat.
Pork is considered haram, or unclean, by Muslims according to the teachings of the Quran. Dishes with pork are served in some hotel restaurants, clearly marked as such, as are dishes containing alcohol.
Alcohol is freely available in hotels, clubs, restaurants and bars. However, many restaurants outside hotels do not have a license to serve alcoholic beverages. The drinking of alcohol in public places or outside of licensed establishments is not permitted.
Getting around Abu Dhabi is easy and taxis are reasonably priced, plentiful and can be flagged down at the roadside or booked by phone through the TransAD hotline (600 535353).
Street taxis are easily recognised. They are either silver with a yellow roof sign (newer taxis) or white and gold with a green roof sign (older taxis). Both old and new taxis are metered, yet many of the old taxis may negotiate the fare in advance. A tip is not expected but always welcome.
The bus network is very efficient. In the capital, modern air-conditioned buses operate round-the-clock. The service is easy to use, with passengers hopping in and out of any bus by placing a one dirham coin in the collection box next to the driver. There are also buses travelling to Al Ain and other parts of the emirate, which can be taken from Abu Dhabi’s Central Bus Station on Murour Road.
You will find all major car rental companies in Abu Dhabi. All rentals are inclusive of registration, maintenance, replacement, 24-hour assistance and insurance (comprehensive insurance with personal accident cover is advisable). For short term rental, many companies offer daily rates - there are booths at the airport and most of the major hotels, and there are numerous shops dotted throughout the city. It's worth ringing around for rates, although usually the most competitive rates can be found online.
To hire any vehicle you will need a passport copy, credit card and a valid driving licence from your home country, or a valid international driving licence. If you have a UAE residence visa, you will need to have a valid UAE driving licence.
Tipping is not expected, but is commonly practised in the emirate. Gratuities to staff at hotels and restaurants are at your discretion. Many fine dining and high-end restaurants may add a service charge (usually around 10%) and a tourism levy of 6% to your bill.
These charges are often included in the menu prices and the menu will denote when they are. That being said, if you are very happy with the service, it is not expected but quite common to leave a tip on top of the already included (16%) fees & service charges. If these charges are not included, then you may like to add a 10-15% tip to the total bill.
Money & Banks
The currency of the UAE is the dirham, which is pegged to the United States dollar at the rate of Dh3.67 to $1.
The highest coin is Dh1, with smaller coins for half and a quarter, in units known as fils. Bank notes come in Dh5, Dh10, Dh20, Dh50, Dh100, Dh200 and Dh500. A Dh 1,000 note exists but is not widely used for ordinary transactions. Please note that small shopkeepers and taxi drivers may have problems giving change for any bank note above Dh100.
You can make international withdrawals at cash machines/ATMs that are found at banks, larger hotels and shopping malls.
Currency exchanges can be found at the airport and in most shopping malls and will generally offer a better rate of exchange than banks, especially for larger amounts.
The international code for the UAE is 971, followed by the number, but dropping the first digit. As a guide, mobile phone numbers begin with 05, while Abu Dhabi is 02 and Dubai numbers start with 04.
The local phone providers are Etisalat and Du. Both companies sell special SIM cards for visitors which can be purchased at their airport shops or in outlets at the bigger shopping malls. Most hotels offer free internet for guests, as do shopping malls with simple registration via e-mail or SMS.