“It was warmer diving into the pool in Abu Dhabi.” ~ Martin Allen.
Ever wondered what the secret is to having the most enjoyable trip possible? Welcome to my “Be Invisible” series – your ultimate guide for how to avoid looking like a tourist on your next adventure and guaranteed to boost your entire travel experience.
Bursting with helpful tips and tricks, I’ve asked locals from particular cities around the world to share their insider knowledge on the best ways travellers can become “invisible” when visiting their city and enjoy it like a local. If you’re ready to challenge travel stereotypes, overcome language barriers and embrace what I like to call invisible tourism, you’ve come to the right place!
|This guide to do’s and dont’s in Abu Dhabi was written by Keri from OurGlobetrotters.com. The best way to see this city is by being an invisible tourist, so I’m very excited to share her top Abu Dhabi travel tips and advice for how to best blend in amongst locals. These tips also provide a great insight to values and culture in the United Arab Emirates.
If you’re planning a trip to Abu Dhabi, these tips for visiting from a local’s perspective will help you have a more enjoyable experience and know what to expect before you go. Read on for more!
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Visiting Abu Dhabi: Do’s and Don’ts for Tourists
The idea of visiting a Muslim country in the desert heat for the first time can be a daunting prospect if you are unfamiliar with the culture and etiquette required in the Middle East.
A glittering skyline, gold flaked coffee, super cars are all external images the city loves to exude but there’s far more to the capital of the United Arab Emirates than first meets the eye. Certainly, an air of mystique but let’s creep under the glossy veil and see what awaits your average tourist to Abu Dhabi.
The good news for tourists is, nearly everyone looks like a tourist! The native Emirati population in the UAE is estimated to only be around 11%, the rest made up of foreign workers and their families – many who’ve lived here for decades – so rest assured, you only need to understand a few cultural norms to slide right in.
Do dress the part
Now I’m not about to suggest that you need to run out and buy yourself an Abaya or Kandura to fit in with the local crowd in Abu Dhabi, but you will want to leave your short shorts and spaghetti strap tops at home – or at least reserve these clothing items for resort time only.
Not quite as liberal as Dubai has become in recent years, however, anywhere in public beyond beach resorts we recommend tourists – male and female – aim for the very least shoulders and knees covered. This is not just for respect but by law if you are over-exposed (in an excessive way to cause offense) you could land yourself in hot water with the police.
Don’t worry about “looking” like a tourist of Western clothing – there’s such a mix of attire – almost anything goes! As long as it’s respectful, just dress appropriately for the weather. And no, women do not need to cover their heads!
The only place you really do need to dress the part is visiting Government buildings (unlikely needed as a tourist) or a mosque, specifically the cities most popular attraction the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has a strict dress code. Here, local staff will assist you in looking the part with free hire of conservative clothing for your visit (this is where you DO want to look like a tourist so you can take some nice photos in traditional clothing!).
Do drink alcohol in moderation and water in abundance
It’s a myth that as a Muslim country the UAE is dry (this only applies to one of the seven Emirates of the UAE, Sharjah). It is legal to drink alcohol in Abu Dhabi, when done in the right way.
Keep your drinking to licensed locations (usually bars and restaurants attached to hotels or sports clubs) and don’t go overboard; most certainly never drive with any alcohol in your system and mind your behaviour; any aggression, abuse or swearing again would see you in trouble with the law.
DO drink plenty of water to keep hydrated. Unfortunately tap water doesn’t taste the best (though it is potable) which leads tourists to drink bottled water. We’ve found filtered water bottles will save you a heap of cash, not to mention are friendly on the environment when traveling in the Middle East.
Be warned, water is not served for free with your meals. If you’re ordering water, make it clear you want LOCAL water (brands like Al Ain and Masafi) so you’re not being served up expensive imported water.
Do embrace the sand
Yep, its everywhere! Do leave the glossy high rises behind though and get out there and embrace it! The easiest way to experience the desert is to join a 4×4 safari tour – don’t worry that its typical touristy stuff, it’s far from cheesy.
The operators here have been perfecting the offering for years and offer tourists enough of a taster you’ll experience both modern and traditional desert experiences from camel rides to henna and often traditional dance alongside shisha.
Sure, you can head into the deserts alone. However, if you don’t know the dunes and have the right equipment with you, it’s tough going. There’s absolutely no shame in jumping on one of these organised desert tours, local expats do it too!
Don’t overlook navigating by landmarks
Although attempts have been made over the years to come up with a postal addresses and street naming systems, old habits die hard. The city still very much works on a navigation system of landmarks. Even if you know the street address, it probably won’t mean anything to your driver.
If you’re catching taxies, they will most likely know all the major buildings and hotels though. Rather than a street address, give them the building name or description; “turn at the pineapple tower” or “immediately behind the wavy building, next to the Carrefour” are all adequate instructions!
All else fails – use Google maps (yes, taxi drivers will ask you to type it into their phone too), or download the Careem App (Uber) – all very safe and easy options for tourists navigating the city.
Do give your taste buds a treat!
With such a diverse multicultural population, it should come as no surprise there’s an amazing foodie scene in Abu Dhabi. No one says you HAVE to eat just Arabic cuisine in Abu Dhabi, but with such incredibly variety, you’d be mad not to give it a go!
Traditional Bedouin food may not be too much to get excited about, but strong influences from Turkey, Lebanon, India, Egypt and many other cultures, all lend themselves to what you’d call modern Arabic cuisine. Some favourite spots to give it a try are Meylas at Al Muneera, Al Raha Beach, Al Fanar, Yas Mall or Yadoo’s House in the downtown area.
Do pick yourself up local discount voucher apps! Whilst Abu Dhabi might be known as a glitz 5-star hotel town (in fact more than any other city!) you don’t need to pay full price for your meals. Popular local programs that pay themselves back within a meal or two such as the Entertainer or Best Bites.
Look out for Friday Brunch too; an all-inclusive dining & drinking experience at Abu Dhabi’s top restaurants every Friday afternoon. Combine it with one of the discount vouchers we mentioned above and you’ll find the most incredible food at a bargain. Just watch your behaviour if you’re indulging in the drinking side of things, bottomless drinks combined with heat and jet lag can hit you fast!
Don’t forget to come prepared for the weather
It’s no secret, Abu Dhabi gets super-hot. You’ll need to plan your day around the heat, no matter what time of year you visit. There’s nothing surer to make you stand out as a tourist then trying to bravely tackle a lengthy outside walk during the heat of the day in summer. There’s no shame in needing to take a taxi even a short distance (there is a public transport network but it’s not that user friendly for short-stop tourists).
The “feels like” daytime summer highs can often be well in excess of 50c, whilst the indoor air conditioning can feel arctic.
Conversely winter brings mild days, but the sea water is chilly water (OK, by UAE standards from December to February) and overnight lows particularly in the desert will have you reaching for your woolies. Check if your accommodation offers a pool it is temperature controlled!
Do take the time to LEARN about the Emirati culture
There’s undoubtedly a glossy façade projected by Abu Dhabi in its marketing campaigns, but rest assured there is more and more traditional culture becoming accessible to tourists.
Some mustn’t miss stops are, of course, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – grab yourself a free tour for a more in-depth experience – and the Presidential Palace, Qasr Al Watan. The Louvre is a fabulous modern museum, but it is an international exhibit rather than specific to the Middle East. You’ll get more local history visiting Qasr Al Hosn, and to a lesser extend the Heritage Village on the marina breakwater.
Remember, not all Bedouin culture is visible. The best way to get involved and experience more of the intangible culture is by visiting around late November and December when you can experience the Al Dhafra Festival in Madinat Zayed (think falconry, date packing, saluki racing and a camel beauty parade!) and the Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival in Al Wathba.
Both held further into the Abu Dhabi desert, You WILL look like a tourist at these events, but that can be a good thing! Emiratis take pride in making tourist welcome at these off the beaten track locations and you’ll experience true Bedouin hospitality.
National Day Festivities around 2 to 3 December (and extended around Grand Prix season) are also a great way to see more of the dance, poetry and ceremonial traditions of the country on display.
Do understand prayer times and respect religious occasions
As a Muslim country, we’ve mentioned you need to dress respectful and avoid being excessively drunk in public, but a few more etiquette tips won’t go astray.
The most important religious event for tourist to be mindful of is the Holy Month of Ramadan (the 9th month on the Hijri calendar, the exact dates change by about 10 days each year to the Gregorian calendar). Throughout this month Muslim’s must abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours, amongst many considerations so they can focus on their faith.
There used to be heavy penalties for anyone – regardless of their religion – caught eating or drinking in public during daylight hours of Ramadan, however laws have relaxed in recent years. Restaurants, cafes and food courts now open during the day, but you are reminded to be respectful where and when you eat. Also avoid public displays of affection and dress more conservatively than at other times of year.
You may also hear the “Call to Prayer” several times a day during your visit to Abu Dhabi at any time of year. There’s nothing you need do at this time as a non-Muslim. Unlike many other Gulf countries, life goes on during this time of prayer, but do be respectful that workers may need to perform their religious duties. Take the time to understand the Pillars of Islam and never vocalise anything that may be perceived as derogatory of blasphemous.
Don’t worry about your Arabic skills
Whilst it’s always polite to brush up on a few “Shukrans” and “Marhabas”, knowing Arabic is NOT an essential to get by as a tourist in Abu Dhabi. As we’ve mentioned before, the vast majority of workers, especially in the hospitality and retail industries are foreign workers.
The official language of the United Arab Emirates is Arabic, but English is the common language – alongside Hindi, Farsi, Urdu and Tagalog… but don’t feel ashamed if you only speak English. The vast majority of Emirati’s (and expatriate workers for that matter) are highly educated learning both English and Arabic at school.
You will get along just fine and not be frowned upon for not trying (9 years and I haven’t got past the basics, it’s a super tough language to learn!)
|Keri is an Aussie mum of three living in Abu Dhabi, UAE since 2012. She uses her opportunity based in the Middle East to share her travel stories and indulge in the best of the local culture from the traditional to contemporary. An avid travel writer and content creator, she is the Editor of local publications familytravel-middleeast.com, abudhabitravelplanner.com and dubaitravelplanner.com, as well as her personal blog ourglobetrotters.com. Follow along over on Facebook and Instagram!
Visiting Abu Dhabi for Tourists: Where to book tickets in advance
Here are some cultural things to do in Abu Dhabi you can book in advance to be prepared for your trip:
Ready to be invisible in Abu Dhabi?
Now you’ve discovered the best secrets for how to act like a local in Abu Dhabi, perhaps you’re ready to make the trip! Why not compare hotels in Abu Dhabi? If you’d like some more travel ideas, learn how to “blend in” at more destinations around the globe.
Until next time,
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