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Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque | © Tanya Hart / Flickr
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque | © Tanya Hart / Flickr

What to Do on a Layover in Abu Dhabi

Picture of Jessica Harn
Updated: 12 December 2017

With its warm local traditions, colorful food scene and magnificent monuments like the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is becoming one of the hottest places in the region for both tourists and expats to visit and live in. If you are only here for a short amount of time while waiting for a flight but still want to discover the best of what the city has to offer, here are some of the best things to do in Abu Dhabi during a layover.

If you have three hours…

With such limited time, it’s best to focus on Abu Dhabi’s most famous landmark: the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, arguably one of the UAE’s most beautiful monuments. With its towering white marble minarets and domes, this iconic mosque built for the founding father of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, is a perfect place to explore. You can easily spend a few hours here basking in the colors and magnificence of the grand courtyard, taking in the lavish interior, spending some quiet time in the library, or just contemplating spirituality and the depth of human experience at one of the UAE’s most important sites.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street, 5th St, Abu Dhabi, UAE, +971 2 419 1919

If you have five hours…

Five hours in Abu Dhabi will give you enough time to explore two very different sides of this dynamic capital: the stunning main corniche and beach as well as the lavish Emirates Palace. The corniche of Abu Dhabi is one of the most popular places that residents visit and is one of the best areas to grab an ice cream and people-watch.

Quite the opposite of the corniche but just as important when it comes to the culture of the city is the majestic and utterly luxurious Emirates Palace, a magnificent five-star hotel that will amaze you. From its grand pillars and painted ceilings to its cappuccinos with flakes of gold, from its celebrity and princely guest list to its glittering courtyards and gardens—you’ll have a hard time pulling yourself away from here to get back on a claustrophobic airplane!

Abu Dhabi Corniche, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Emirates Palace, West Corniche Road, Abu Dhabi, UAE, +971 2 690 9000

If you have seven hours…

If you find yourself with a good seven hours in Abu Dhabi, it’s best to experience some of its history as well as its modern elements. First off, stop by the Abu Dhabi History Museum and Aquarium to learn more about the local history and cultural traditions of the people of the city and have fun at the large aquarium.

After delving into the history and colorful traditions of the city and the UAE, you’ll be in the perfect mood to delve into something delicious—and there’s nowhere better than the Al Fanar restaurant, which offers an authentic taste of the cuisine of the Arabian Peninsula. Here, they’ll serve you traditional Emirati dishes and desserts in a rustic and vintage old-UAE atmosphere, overlooking a small canal. Just remember to have the karak tea at the end!

Finally, to experience the modern sparkle of the city, visit the Marina Mall for a unique look into entertainment in the Arabian Gulf as well as the breezy waterfront shopping boulevard. Here you can people-watch and experience the local cultures that make up this beautiful city, do a little shopping, or explore the waterfront area to get a feel of the hustle and bustle of the heart of the commercial city.

Abu Dhabi History Museum and Aquarium, UAE, +971 2 449 4303

Al Fanar Restaurant, , +971 2 448 1144

Marina Mall, UAE, +971 800 6623

If you have 12 hours…

With a good 12 hours in Abu Dhabi, you’ll get to experience the full spectrum of things to do in the city. Besides the main attractions, such as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Emirates Palace, the city has a lot to offer. To start off with, try checking out Qasr Al-Hosn, an 18th-century palace and fort, the oldest stone building in the city, and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site! Bask in the history and archaeological wonders of this fort and come away knowing more about this small corner of the world.

For something a bit more adventurous, head over to Abu Dhabi’s Mangrove National Park for an entirely new perspective of the beauty of the UAE. Home to the city’s natural canals and mangrove trees, this lush park offers a range of activities, such as boating or diving. Either way, just make sure you keep an eye on your watch, as the beauty of this exotic park will distract you for hours on end!

Finally, to end your day in Abu Dhabi, have one last delectable meal in the UAE at Meylas, an authentic Emirati restaurant founded by Sheikha Al Kaabi, who creates all of her recipes by hand with only local ingredients and cooking methods. Be sure to try her most popular dishes, the chbaab, Emirati pancakes with date syrup, and the balaleet, brightly colored saffron noodles with fried eggs. After eating at this restaurant, you will always want your layovers to be in Abu Dhabi!

Qasr Al-Hosn, Al Nasr Street, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum Street, Sheikh Zayed the First Street, Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi, UAE, +971 2 444 0444

Mangrove National Park, Abu Dhabi, UAE, +971 2 445 4777

Meylas Restaurant, Abu Dhabi, UAE, +971 2 444 8884