I thought I would try to answer a slightly controversial and highly personal question I’ve been getting about holidays to the UAE – which is better, Dubai or Abu Dhabi?
Now, I’ve been to both Emirates and loved them individually. They also work great as a multi-centre trip. (Once Covid restrictions make it a bit easier to travel between the two.) But there is one of the two that I’m really keen to return to for a winter sun family holiday. Read on to discover which Emirate it is!
(Disclosure, I visited both Dubai and Abu Dhabi on a self-funded trip in 2016. I recently returned to Abu Dhabi on a press trip. This article is not related to that campaign and is based purely on personal opinion.)
Where are Dubai and Abu Dhabi?
Before we dive in I thought I should share a bit about this region with you. It is a common misconception that Abu Dhabi is a city within Dubai when it is, in fact, a separate Emirate with its own governance and identity.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai are 2 of 7 Emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. (Alongside Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain.) Dubai is the most populous of the two but Abu Dhabi is the largest, covering around 90% of the total land of the UAE. Abu Dhabi is also the capital of the UAE, and Abu Dhabi’s Emir, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, serves as the President.
One final thing to note is that the capital of Dubai is Dubai and the capital of Abu Dhabi is Abu Dhabi. (You still with me?!) In this article I am largely referring to what you can do in the capital of each Emirate, although getting outside the cities to visit desert camps or Abu Dhabi’s ‘garden city’ of Al Ain is something I’d heartily recommend.
Although the distance looks large on this map, it only takes about 90 minutes to travel between the capitals of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, so it is possible to see the best of both in one trip.*
*Please check Covid measures, if any, for both Abu Dhabi and Dubai though as they vary slightly.
How Abu Dhabi & Dubai differ
Speaking from personal experience, it feels like Abu Dhabi wants to attract a different type of visitor than Dubai. As the lesser-known Emirate, it seems to me like they have worked hard to differentiate themselves from Dubai from a tourism perspective, and they have done that by creating tourist attractions that focus on arts, culture, and history*. Very broadly speaking, Dubai has just opened the Museum of the Future, whereas Abu Dhabi is meticulously restoring historic forts & palaces in Al Ain.
(*Said with a touch of bias as I did do a press trip that focused on these things. I think the facts below speak for themselves though.)
Over the last few years, Abu Dhabi has invested hugely in the development of the Saadiyat Cultural District on Saadiyat Island. Here you’ll find Louvre Abu Dhabi, the only Louvre outside of Paris and the largest art museum on the Arabian Peninsular.
Plans are in place for Louvre Abu Dhabi to be joined by Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. (Construction is expected to be completed in 2025.) Designed by Frank Gehry, it will be the largest Guggenheim in the world and alongside plans for the Zayed National Museum designed by Foster and Partners, a performing arts centre designed by Zaha Hadid; a New York University campus and a maritime museum with concept design by Tadao Ando, it will cement Saadiyat Island as one of the world’s leading arts districts.
In central Abu Dhabi, historical sites like Qasr Al Hosn, the site of Abu Dhabi’s oldest building, have undergone huge restoration work, that brings together monuments, museums, the cultural foundation and cool coffee shops.
The beaches, particularly on Saadiyat Island, look like they belong in the Maldives, and don’t get me started on the palaces.
If that’s whet your appetite, here’s an idea of what you can do on a holiday to Abu Dhabi.
Best things to do in Abu Dhabi
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
I’ve visited Skeikh Zayed Grand Mosque twice now and I’d jump at the chance to go again. One of the largest mosques in the world, it’s the number one attraction in Abu Dhabi and it’s not hard to see why. Drawing from Muslim culture from all around the globe, the architecture of this mosque is truly unique. It took 12 years to build and cost a rumoured $545 million. In short, it’s phenomenal.
Find lots more pics and info in my guide to visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Another absolute must-see in Abu Dhabi is Louvre Abu Dhabi. Referred to as ‘the $1billion arts museum in the desert’ by the Telegraph, I truly believe this is one of the most iconic arts venues in the world.
Designed by Jean Nouvel, who was inspired by Arabian architecture and the museum’s unique location, the subtle play of concrete, water and reflected light through the dome-shaped roof is truly spell-binding.
The museum’s 12 galleries feature a global selection of around 600 masterpieces drawn from their permanent collection, as well as a rolling roster of world-class loans from international partners including Musee du Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, and Centre Pompidou.
Jubail Mangrove Park
I don’t think it’s wrong to say that neither Dubai nor Abu Dhabi are well-known for their nature reserves, which is why Jubail Mangrove Park is such an unexpected yet necessary addition to Abu Dhabi’s visitor attractions. Opened in January 2020, this nature reserve and mangrove sanctuary on the edge of the city offers a 2km trail where you can wander while learning about the UAE’s natural environment.
Boardwalk tickets are just 15 AED (approx. £3) so it’s an affordable, immersive experience that offers something quite different to the rest of the city.
Qasr Al Hosn
Qasr Al Hosn is the historical hub of Abu Dhabi that I touched on earlier in this piece. It’s a striking national monument in the heart of the city that encapsulates the development of Abu Dhabi from a settlement reliant on fishing and pearling in the 18th century, to the modern, global metropolis it is today.
This huge redeveloped site is home to the oldest standing building in Abu Dhabi, a watchtower from the 1790s, and a fort, which has been transformed into a museum that charts the area’s history.
Hidden within the monument is The Espresso Lab Cafe. In fact, the whole forecourt in front of the nearby Cultural Foundation is dotted with artisan coffee roasters & wood fire pizza vendors. For me, it’s this blend of the old, the new, the cultural and the coffee that really sums up Abu Dhabi.
Qasr Al Watan
One of the newest must-see attractions in Abu Dhabi is Qasr Al Watan – the working Palace of the President of the UAE. Since 2019 visitors have been allowed to visit the Presidential Palace on days it’s not being used for state business, and if there is ever a palace you need to see inside it’s one as incredible as this.
Found on 380,000 acres of land near The Emirates Palace (don’t worry a minibus shuttles you from the welcome centre to the front door!) the palace is a spectacular tribute to Arabian architecture on a very grand scale.
Inside you can take a peek at ornate meeting rooms, the library and the banquet hall, as well as find the incredible gold calligraphy sculpture ‘The Power Of Words’ by renowned Emirati artist, Mattar bin Lahej. (Above centre.)
After sunset on Saturday & Sunday the Palace is illuminated for the Palace In Motion night-time show that lasts 30 mins. It’s on our list for our next visit!
Soul Beach is a vibe. One of Abu Dhabi’s brand-new private beaches on Saadiyat Island, Soul Beach features 1 kilometre of immaculate golden sand and sunbeds you can hire to lounge or eat on.
The beach promenade is lined with a range of international eateries, which offer a more affordable place to dine than the beachfront resorts. The view is just as good though.
Zaya Nurai Island
One of my favourite things about Dubai and Abu Dhabi is how you can buy day passes to beach resorts and beach clubs. We prefer to stay in more boutique accommodation, so in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi we chose trendy city-based hotels close to the cultural attractions and then visited larger beach resorts when we wanted to use their facilities.
One of those places I’d recommend to anyone going to Abu Dhabi – solo travellers, friends, families, couples – is Zaya Nurai Island. Reached via speedboat from Saadiyat Island, Zaya Nurai Island is a boutique beach resort with Maldives meets Bali vibes to it. We purchased a day pass that includes speed boat transfers and resort credit to use on meals and drinks. (The AED480 purchase price basically covered our whole day out – frozen daiquiris included.)
The beaches are beautiful, the infinity pool as warm as bath water. We enjoyed our food at the Pineapple Beach Bar and overall it’s pretty good value for a day out in the UAE (where alcohol can be extortionate).
Both my friends Catherine from Lux Life London and Ana from Mrs O Around The World had been to Zaya Nurai Island and wrote helpful reviews that convinced us to go too. We booked our tickets prior to arriving in Abu Dhabi using the MyConcierge website Ana recommended. Check out their blog posts (linked above) if you’d like to know more.
Other things we enjoyed doing in Abu Dhabi was visiting the ‘Garden City’ of Al Ain. I also think it’s a really great destination for kids with places like Yas Island, Ferrari World, Warner Brother’s World and the Heritage Village being great for families.
Best things to do in Dubai
I always say Dubai is a desert city of superlatives. If you’re looking for a holiday that ticks off some the biggest and braggy-est tourist attractions in the world then Dubai has it. World’s tallest building- tick. World’s largest mall – tick. Man-made islands in the shape of the world – tick. World’s largest floating nightclub – erm, tick.
Dubai also has a cultural side that’s worth digging into, whether that’s learning about the early Emirati way of life in Bur Dubai or cruising around Dubai Creek in a traditional water taxi.
Dubai’s creative enclave, Alserkal Avenue, has grown massively since its launch in 2008. What started out as a small block of warehouse spaces housing 20 art galleries has now morphed into a 500,000sqft urban hub that fuses art, food, fashion and music with cultural events like Art Dubai and Art Nights.
A lot has changed in recent years too. Ever forward-thinking, Dubai’s Museum of the Future, opened its doors in February 2022. Billed as a ‘living museum’, it incorporates elements of traditional exhibitions, immersive theatre and themed attractions, to help visitors imagine the future’s limitless possibilities. The building itself has become an instant icon. Designed as an asymmetric torus clad in steel and glass and decorated with swirls of Arabic calligraphy, the Museum of the Future has been recognised by National Geographic as one of 14 most beautiful museums in the world.
In short, a holiday to Dubai is just a lot of fun, whether you come for the shopping, sunshine or soaking up that iconic skyline from a rooftop terrace.
These are some of my favourite things to do in Dubai.
At The Top/ Burj Khalifa Sky
There’s no better way to get acquainted with Dubai than by soaking up the views from the top of the world’s tallest building, The Burj Khalifa.
The general observation deck is on level 124 but if you want the bragging rights of having stepped foot on the highest outdoor observatory in the world then book yourself into Burj Khalifa SKY and you’ll get access to level 148, which has an outdoor terrace and premium lounge.
An afternoon of dune bashing followed by a Bedoin style feast in the desert has long been on the list of popular excursions when you visit Dubai or Abu Dhabi. But if you’d like to dine in the desert in both a stylish and sustainable manner then the name to know is Sonara Camp.
Situated in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, Sonara Camp in an eco-friendly restaurant nestled among acres of rolling dunes where oryxes and gazelles roam. It’s chic, unique and the kids are more than welcome too.
The Dubai Mall
The king of all malls, the Dubai Mall is the largest mall in the world by surface area and contains over 1500 stores and counting. (I dare you to name a brand that’s not found here!)
Not only is the mall a shopaholic’s paradise but it’s like a destination in itself with waterfalls, an aquarium and a giant ice rink all under the one roof.
Just outside of the world’s largest mall is the world’s largest choreographed fountain. (Did you expect anything less?) Designed by the same folks who created the Bellagio Fountains in Vegas, The Dubai Fountain puts on a nightly show with water, music and light that’s pretty extraordinary. You can book a ride on a traditional abra to get up close to The Dubai Fountain, or reserve an outdoor table at Serafina for a front-row seat while dining.
Old Dubai/ Al Fahidi Historic District
Much like visiting Qasr Al Hosn in Abu Dhabi, visiting Bur Dubai and Deira is a must do to understand Dubai’s history and culture. A stroll around the Al Fahidi Historic District will teach you about how early Emirati lived in the desert, plus stick your head in the coffee museum to try some traditional Arabic coffee in a restored traditional building.
A short abra (water taxi) ride across Dubai Creek will bring you to the Spice and Gold Souks – great places to bargain for some holiday souvenirs.
Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary
Abu Dhabi’s Jubail Mangrove Sanctuary may be beautiful but it doesn’t have pink flamingos like the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary. Yes, you read that correctly. They have pink flamingos in the desert!
Found just outside the city of Dubai, skyscrapers looming in the background, is this wetland reserve and wildlife sanctuary that is home to tens of thousands of birds, including herons, egrets and flamingos.
Best time to visit is on an early winter morning (October to March) when the flock (or flamboyance should I say!) is at its fullest.
I think thanks to a certain crowd (ahem Love Island) Dubai has become quite well known for its beach club scene. Whether you fancy Ibiza vibes at Nikki Beach, 5 star luxury at Bulgari Resort Dubai or multiple pools and activities to wear out the kids (there’s a reason Sofitel Dubai Palm was voted Favourite Family Hotel in the region by Condé Nast Traveller for 2 years running!) Dubai has a beach club for everyone.
Which one I prefer
So, let’s get to the main point of this article, whether Abu Dhabi or Dubai are best for a holiday?
There’s no denying Dubai has more choice when it comes to beach resorts – the choice is plentiful and the resorts are so huge that you need never leave them if you didn’t want to. The number of accommodation options on offer can make the prices for holidays to Dubai more competitive than Abu Dhabi, and there is literally a board type and room type to suit everyone.
But outside the hotels, if you really want to get a feel for the UAE, my vote goes to Abu Dhabi. I like that it’s the lesser known of the 2 (for now). It feels a lot more local and both the variety of cultural sights and the scale of them makes for a really unique holiday itinerary.
I’d happily spend a week in Abu Dhabi (well, I did) whereas Dubai felt too full on for me to spend more than a couple of days there. I’m glad I’ve been to Dubai, it’s worth seeing at least once in your life, but it’s Abu Dhabi I’m keen to go back to. The Saadiyat Island Rotana Resort is really calling out to me!
Have you been to Dubai and Abu Dhabi? Which did you like best?