Before the discovery of oil, Abu Dhabi was a Bedouin outpost with not much more than a modest fishing port, oyster beds, and sand. Today it's the capital of the United Arab Emirates—one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Sprung from oil fields tapped in the 1950s, Abu Dhabi brandishes an ultra-modern edge with social, cultural, and architectural touchstones that preserve its past.
When to Go
High season in Abu Dhabi runs from late September to mid-May, when the weather is perfect for exploring by foot, enjoying a swim in the Arabian Gulf, and dining al fresco. Sweltering summer heat comes on full blast by the end of June, and in July and August visitors need to be prepared for temperatures that can reach up to 120 degrees.
Held each year in late December, the Al Dhafra Festival celebrates the best of Emirati heritage and Bedouin culture. Held outside of Abu Dhabi in the town of Madinat Zayed, events include falconry skill contests, saluki and camel racing, and a camel beauty contest. A traditional market with locally crafted items highlights the heritage industries of the United Arab Emirates.
What to Eat
A date served with a glass of camel’s milk is considered a perfect way to end a day’s fasting during Ramadan, and it makes a simple, classic Arabian sweet treat anytime. For the freshest dates, visit the date souk located near the Al Mina Fishing Port. Other delicacies include Arabic sweets made from light pastry, nuts, and honey.
Souvenir to Take Home
One tradition of Emirati culture is to burn oud (wood from the agar tree) in the home, and from top hotels to small shops, visitors quickly catch on to the various wood, musk, and floral fragrances that infuse the city’s surroundings. For a sensory remembrance of Abu Dhabi, purchase a wooden or ceramic incense kit along with a selection of oud, amber, or frankincense sourced from the region.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Sustainable Travel Tip
Given the heat, it’s important to drink plenty of water in Abu Dhabi, but what about all those plastic bottles? A reusable water flask to fill at fountains or larger containers of bottled water is the best way to cut down on plastic use. If you can’t get around the plastic conundrum, opt for the purchase of local water brands rather than the fancy French stuff to help keep the carbon footprint down.
While a site for religious prayer, the Grand Mosque is also one of the most visited and photographed locations in the city. Time a visit for late afternoon to capture the bright white marble and delicate floral inlays. Then, stay as the sun sets—not only to experience the evening call to prayer sung from the minarets, but to capture images of this architectural marvel as purplish-blue lights envelop the mosque and surrounding reflecting pools.