If you happen to find yourself flying to somewhere in the world on Etihad Airways, there’s a good chance your route will include a stopover in their main hub, Abu Dhabi. I recently spent 2 days in Abu Dhabi during my travels between Europe and Australia and have documented my complete itinerary here for you to follow along during your next visit.
Originally used mainly as a layover city for international tourists, Abu Dhabi has literally sprung out of the desert in a short period of time. The oil-rich city is now a destination in its own right. Abu Dhabi has so much to offer for tourists, from desert safaris to marveling at the beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
This 48 hours in Abu Dhabi stopover guide will take you around the best highlights of this culture-rich city!
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Pro Tip: Etihad Airways is currently offering a free stopover for 2 days in Abu Dhabi with hotel included. So, next time you book a flight with Etihad Airways, why not extend your long layover to 48-hours in Abu Dhabi. Check out how to book your free stopover here.
Where to Stay in Abu Dhabi
Jumeirah at Etihad Towers – Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel offers sweeping views over the Arabian Gulf and the Abu Dhabi Corniche. It also boasts free access to the Observation Deck at 300 – a great spot for High Tea.
Beach Rotana – with its own private beach, the Beach Rotana is conveniently located in the Tourist Club Area of downtown Abu Dhabi.
Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort – not far from the Louvre Abu Dhabi, located on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi’s premier beach resort area.
Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri – located on a private beach with spectacular views across to the famous Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque.
St. Regis Abu Dhabi Corniche – great location, excellent Friday brunch and a rooftop bar with a view over the Arabian Gulf.
Start the first day of your 48 hours in Abu Dhabi with a coffee and croissant from % Arabica Abu Dhabi Corniche. Let's face it after a long flight you will probably need a caffeine fix before visiting one of the grandest and most famous tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi; the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
9 am: Visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi was constructed between 1996 and 2007 and is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates. It is the brain-child of the late great Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, President and founding father of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque a place of great religious significance to the people of the United Arab Emirates. Over the years it has become a very popular place for tourists to visit, and it’s not hard to see why. It is arguably the grandest Mosque in the world.
The first time I visited, tourists were allowed to wander freely around the central courtyard, however, now the area has been roped off, most likely to protect the intricate mosaic tilework. Visitors must stick to the outside hallways around the courtyard and the roped off photo areas.
The best time to visit the grand mosque is first thing in the morning before most of the tourists arrive. Alternatively, if you visit during the hotter months (April-October), I suggest visiting after sunset.
There is no entrance fee to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It’s free! Tourists are required to dress appropriately; women must cover their heads. Traditional Islamic garments are available for men and women at the entrance and are free to rent – most tourists are required to wear these.
The Abu Dhabi mosque opening hours are 9 am to 10 pm, most days of the week. Friday is holy day and the mosque is closed most of the day for worship, opening to visitors between 4:30 pm and 10 pm. During the holy month of Ramadan, the mosque operates reduced opening hours from 9 am to 3 pm, and it is closed to tourists on Fridays.
12 pm: Visit the Emirates Palace Hotel
The Emirates Palace is a lavish 5-star luxury hotel that somewhat resembles the Sultan’s Palace in the movie, Aladdin. Located at the end of the Corniche, the Emirates Palace Hotel is a great spot for lunch or afternoon tea and a wander around the impressive hotel grounds.
Head to Le Cáfe where you can try a Camelccino (made with camel milk), or their signature delicacy – the 23K Gold sprinkled Camel Burger. For an indulgent afternoon affair, stay for the High Tea at Le Cáfe, served daily from 2 pm. Bookings are recommended.
It is free to visit the Emirates Palace Hotel but be aware that some areas are only accessible by guests staying at the hotel.
3 pm: Visit the UAE Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi has recently opened to tourists after many years of construction. It is possible to visit the Qasr Al Watan wing of the palace compound and the surrounding gardens. The Emiratis certainly know how to take the notion of grandeur to the next level. The Palace is absolutely incredible.
The Qasr Al Watan wing of the Presidential Palace opening hours is daily from 11 am to 10 pm. Entrance fees are paid at the main entrance – 60 AED for adults and 30 AUD for children aged 4-17 years. Alternatively, a garden only ticket to access the grounds and visitor centre costs 25 AED for adults and 12 AED for children, but I highly recommend paying the extra to see the palace itself. It’s simply spectacular! Tickets for general entry and tours can be pre-booked online which allows you to skip the queue on arrival.
From the main entrance, tourists are driven by bus to the Qsar Al Watan wing and are allowed to wander around on their own or join one of the tours that run every 30 minutes. Inside the palace, you’ll see the cavernous main hall with intricate tilework, gold trim and elaborate chandeliers. There is also the banquet room, the Islamic library as well as several other smaller rooms showcasing paintings and an explanation of the UAE rulers and hierarchy and treasured artefacts of Arabian craftsmanship.
It is possible to take photos around the palace grounds, but it is forbidden to take photos or film security staff and security systems.
5 pm: Sundowners with a View
For a spectacular sunset view, head to one of Abu Dhabi’s outdoor or rooftop bars. Check out the Azura Lounge Rooftop Bar at the St. Regis, which offers a spectacular sunset view of the Corniche or the Observation Deck at 300. Head to BOA Steakhouse for cocktails and a sunset view of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
8 pm: Dinner at One of Abu Dhabi’s Best Restaurants
No Abu Dhabi stopover is complete without experiencing one of their best restaurants. And in Abu Dhabi, there are so many to choose from. If you’re into seafood, head to Finz at the Beach Rotana complex. For traditional middle eastern cuisine, Li Beirut at the Jumeirah Hotel Etihad Towers is possibly the best I’ve ever eaten. Also check out Zuma (Japanese), BOA Steakhouse, Hakkasan at the Emirates Palace Hotel, or Tamba (Indian).
Pro Tip: Ask your hotel concierge to make a reservation on your behalf, and book early during the peak tourist season (November to March).
9 am: Wander Around the Louvre, Abu Dhabi
The recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi offers visitors a walk through history, with sculptures, paintings and artefacts dating as far back as the ancient Egyptians to the 21stCentury. The architecture of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is also a feature in itself and it’s well worth a wander around the grounds even if just to marvel at the spectacular helix dome roof.
The Abu Dhabi Louvre costs 60 AED to visit (30 AED for children). It’s well worth paying the extra 22 AED for the audio tour, as the written descriptions on the artworks were not very explanatory.
12 pm: Experience one of Abu Dhabi’s famous Brunches
If your 48 hours in Abu Dhabi happens to fall on a Friday, then you’re in for a real treat. Perhaps one of the UAE’s most favourite past time is their elaborate Friday brunch buffets. If you’re visiting any other day of the week, you can still experience brunch on a smaller scale. Most of these venues offer brunch any day of the week.
Some of the best Friday brunches in Abu Dhabi can be found at The Foundry Steak House, Safina at Saadiyat Beach Club and The Terrace on the Corniche, St Regis. For something a little more upmarket complete with spectacular views and French Champagne, check out Aqua at the Rosewood Abu Dhabi or Brunch in the Clouds at the St. Regis. Beware, these last two are extremely elaborate and will put a big dent in your hip pocket. Bookings are recommended.
Pro Tip: The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is not open during the day on Fridays, so if the first day of your visit falls on a Friday, then consider swapping days one and two of this itinerary.
3 pm: Go on a Sunset Desert Safari
One of the most popular things to do in Abu Dhabi is a desert safari through the sand dunes. Dune bashing in Abu Dhabi is so much fun with some of the largest dunes in the country and the drivers are very experienced at handling a 4WD in the sand.
Watching the sun dip below the sand dunes is a highlight of the sunset desert safari experience. Alternatively, you could opt for a sunrise desert safari if you prefer. After sunset, you’ll be treated to camel riding and an evening of traditional Arabic-style BBQ dinner and belly dancing. There are many tour operators to choose from. Some even offer overnight desert glamping as part of the experience.
Additional Tips for Abu Dhabi
Other Things To Do
Do you have more than 48 hours to spend in Abu Dhabi? Extend this itinerary and check out these other popular things to do in Abu Dhabi:
- Spend an afternoon at Ferrari World and try go-karting at the Yas Island’s Formula One Circuit.
- Take a glimpse into the United Arab Emirates rich cultural history on a visit to the Abu Dhabi Heritage Centre.
- For a unique experience, visit the Falcon Hospital.
- Go on a safari around Sir Bani Yas Island and see a variety of animal species such as the Arabian Oryx in their native habitat.
Recommended Tours in Abu Dhabi
- Desert Safari with Camel Riding, Sandboarding and BBQ
- Abu Dhabi City Tour with Grand Mosque & Royal Palace Visit
- Full-Day Tour to Al Ain Desert Oasis
- Sheikh Zayed Mosque Tour with Professional Photographer
Additional Tips for Visiting Abu Dhabi
Currency – The main form of currency accepted in Abu Dhabi is the UAE Dirham (AED). At the time of writing, 1 USD is worth 3.7 AED and 1 AUD is worth 2.5 AED.
Tipping – Tipping is not expected in the UAE but is commonly practiced, at your discretion.
Visas – Apply for a United Arab Emirates Visa (or check if you need one) using iVisa.com.
Getting There – Etihad Airways in the main airline based in Abu Dhabi that services hundreds of destinations around the world. If you're visiting Abu Dhabi from Dubai, it's only a one-hour drive away. Pre-book a private vehicle transfer from Dubai here.
Getting Around – A relatively cheap and effective way to get around Abu Dhabi is via taxi. A taxi ride between most places in this guide will cost between 20-50 AED. It is also possible to arrange a private vehicle and driver for the day. Pre-book a private transfer from the airport to your hotel here.
Best Time to Visit – the best time to visit Abu Dhabi is during the winter (November to March) when the temperature is mild, between 20-26°Celsius (68-79°F). The desert heat can be brutal during the summer, often reaching temperatures of 50°Celsius (122°F) during the day. Avoid visiting during the month of Ramadan, as you are not permitted to eat or drink in public areas during the hours of daylight and many restaurants close down during this time.
Language – The native language in the UAE is Arabic, but most locals also speak English very well. Abu Dhabi is a truly international city with many expats who speak a variety of languages.
Safety – Abu Dhabi has a global safety score of 56 according to GeoSure (1 = low risk, 100 = high risk), which is average for the high population, urbanized environments. Driving in the UAE can be quite hazardous.
Power – The United Arab Emirates type C, D and G power outlets (European, Indian and British).
Dress Standards – The United Arab Emirates is a Muslim country with conservative dress standards. Women should always ensure their shoulders are covered and wear long skirts/pants. Men should wear full-length trousers.
Don’t forget to Bring – A camera, a pair of sunglasses and a lightweight scarf for the ladies. It will be useful in case you need to cover up at any time.
Can you recommend any other great things to do in Abu Dhabi? Let our readers know about them in the comments below.
Planning a trip soon? Here is a list of the websites and resources we use for booking everything from flights, to accommodation, tours, and more:
- Skyscanner for booking the best flight deals
- Booking.com | Agoda | Hotels.com for booking the best hotel deals
- Airbnb | Stayz | VRBO for home rentals
- Rentalcars.com for quick and easy car rentals
- Luxury Escapes for luxury package holiday deals and tours
- Get Your Guide for a great range of day tours
- Tourradar | Intrepid for multi-day experiential and adventure tours
- Priority Pass for airport lounge access in hundreds of locations around the world
- Skyroam to stay connected to WiFi everywhere I go
- iVisa for processing entry visas for many countries around the world
- Covermore for the best worldwide travel insurance coverage (Australians & New Zealanders only)
About the Author:
Amanda Twine is the founder and creator of Fly Stay Luxe – a luxury travel blog sharing informative travel guides, food guides, hotel reviews, itineraries and tips about how to make luxury travel more affordable.