How to make the most of a stopover in Abu Dhabi



How to make the most of a stopover in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is an increasingly popular transit hub, especially with those flying further afield with Etihad or connecting to a Virgin Australia flight. While neighbour Dubai is often seen as a destination in its own right, Abu Dhabi is generally more of a blank slate. This is changing – it has opened a series of eye-catching attractions, such as the Ferrari World theme park, and more are on their way. Branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim should open in the next couple of years.

But whether it’s worth stopping in for a few days or not depends on what you’re wanting, and the following should be borne in mind.

There is no real centre

Abu Dhabi is a series of fairly disjointed clusters. Yas Island has a lot of the fun stuff – the Grand Prix circuit (which can be cycled around on Tuesday nights), Ferrari World and Yas Waterworld. But it is a fair old distance from the nominal downtown area. Saadiyat Island is the up-and-comer, where the big museums are going to go, but at the moment it’s a slightly lifeless work in progress.

The main area, on the main island, is sprawling. And although much of it is walkable, few people do walk around, meaning there’s a notable lack of street life. The city’s energy tends to be confined to hubs – mainly the hotels and malls, rather than spilling out all over the place. You kinda have to know where you want to do – serendipitous finds while ambling around are rare.



The hotel bargains are in the mid-range options

Abu Dhabi can be a phenomenally expensive place to stay at the top end, and a thoroughly depressing one at the budget end. There is, however, some excellent bang for buck in the middle of the range. £70 to £120-ish a night can get you a big resort, usually with an excellent beach club, several restaurants and a couple of sizable pools. The likes of the Hilton, Beach Rotana and Le Meridien fall into this category – they’re older than most, and the rooms aren’t flashy, but they’re good value for money. If all you’re wanting is a couple of days’ relaxation, Abu Dhabi can work fabulously well as a flop destination.

Leave the hotel, and it gets cheaper

Eating in the hotels can get very expensive – many of them treat guests as a milkable captive audience, with basic mains creeping around the £15 to £20 bracket. That tends to apply at lunch as well as dinner. For cheap eats, you need to venture further afield – either to the malls or the drab-looking Lebanese/ Indian/ Pakistani restaurants that can be found all over the place. Mercifully, taxis are so cheap they’re near-as-damn-it free.

Drink is very expensive

You can get alcoholic drinks very easily (although only in hotels), but expect to pay through the nose for them. We’re talking £9 a glass of wine, and £7 or £8 for a beer, and that’s at the bare minimum. This is why most expats have an encyclopaedic knowledge of when the happy hours are. It’s a good idea to take advantage of said happy hours.

Alternatively, just stock up in duty free on the way over. There’s a remarkably generous four litres per person limit.

You probably need to book ahead

There is a lot to do in Abu Dhabi, but a lot of it needs pre-booking. You can easily fill up days doing mangrove kayaking, dune buggying tours, water parks and daytrips to oasis towns (amongst others) but opportunities for spontaneous walk-in fun are relatively thin on the ground. Either go purely to relax, or plot ahead to explore properly.  


Dubai food tours


Arva Ahmed is changing her city. The 29-year-old came home from the US in 2010 “to reclaim my seat at the dinner table”, as she’s put it. Her quirkily titled food blog “I Live In A Frying Pan” has won a reputation across Dubai for sharp, insightful writing and encyclopedic knowledge.






Ahmed is one of the co-founders of Fooderati Arabia, an affiliation of 125 Dubai food writers who collaborate to investigate the city’s dazzling variety of cuisines.




Now she is launching Frying Pan Food Adventures, Dubai’s first-ever food tours, centred on the old districts by the Creek. “These are the pockets of town that depict a different, unglamorous, yet charming and historic side to Dubai,” she says.




These are the neighbourhoods where Dubai’s 19th-century trading links were established – and where vast numbers of new arrivals from South Asia, Africa and East Asia have settled, following the 1970s oil boom that spurred Dubai’s growth.




Each tour visits about 5 or 6 restaurants in a single area, walking a few minutes between each one. And they’re all in the evening: daytime is out because of the heat – and because everyone’s at work. It’s only after dark that Dubai’s street life gets going.




Dip into her African tour, which explores untouristed Hor Al-Anz to contrast Maghrebi cuisine from Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt with African dishes from Ethiopia and beyond.




The Indian tour focuses on Meena Bazaar, a web of streets in Bur Dubai that forms one of the city’s oldest commercial neighbourhoods. Ahmed led us from Gujarati nibbles to Punjabi delicacies to give a mouthwateringly vivid picture of the city’s North Indian culinary heritage, ending at a backstreet cafeteria for the deliciously sweet yoghurt dessert shrikhand, laced with cardamom.




I also loved the Arabian tour, which started with exquisite falafel at a garishly lit takeaway in Rigga, moving on to a Lebanese bakery for savoury manaqish pastries, then the Jordanian feast dish of lamb and yogurty rice known as mansaf, Yemeni roast chicken mandi, the Palestinian sweet treat kunafeh, and more.




Highlight of the night was an Iranian restaurant hidden on the upper level of a nondescript retail mall – otherwise impossible to find. Squatting cross-legged, we dipped hot bread into minty aubergine dip, before tucking into aromatic lamb kebabs.




And she knows her onions. Throughout each tour, Ahmed sparks with ideas, switching from a discussion of Dubai’s cultural mix to theories on the origin of the croissant, to stories of the 6th-century Persian king Khosrau, famed for combining meat with fruit.




There’s an intriguing hint of subversion to all this that undercuts Dubai’s carefully moulded tourist persona. Forget seven-star hotels and brand-conscious bling: Ahmed is shaping an image of Dubai that values cultural authenticity and one-to-one local encounters.




Like I said, she’s changing her city.




(At the time of writing prices had not been fixed for each tour, and may vary depending on date and group size – email ahead to check the details.)


Dubai airport transfers





DXB is an oddity: a major international airport that is effectively downtown. Located in Garhoud, it lay in open desert when it opened in 1960: the city has grown up around it. The cheap hotels and creekside souks of Deira are only about 4km away – great for quick, low-cost transfers, not so great for the folks living in the apartment buildings ringing the runways.






DXB has three terminals – 1 and 3 are side-by-side on the southern side of the airport; 2 is separate, on the north side. Where you arrive depends on which airline you’re flying.




If you’re on Emirates or Qantas, you’ll come into Terminal 3, the world’s second-largest building in terms of floor space – sleek, gleaming, high-ceilinged and air-conditioned.




Most other major airlines use Terminal 1 – older, shabbier and (in Arrivals at least) non-a/c.




As for Terminal 2, you’ll only end up there if you’re on low-cost regional carrier FlyDubai, or if you’re coming in on smaller airlines from – how can we put this? – less mainstream destinations, such as Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia and others.




Note that there are some oddities – for example, Air India uses Terminal 1, but Air India Express uses Terminal 2.




Onward options


Whatever you choose, be prepared to sweat: Dubai’s humidity is high day and night, and dragging bags around after a tiring flight is a recipe for a rapid wilt. Even if you’re going to watch the dirhams later on, paying extra to be whisked door-to-door on arrival has considerable appeal.






The standard Dubai cab is cream-coloured with a red roof. They wait 24/7 at ranks outside all arrivals areas – safe, metered and well-regulated by the Dubai Taxi Corporation. Drivers – invariably from South Asia – rarely speak much English, but you can usually make yourself understood.




There are also pink taxis for women only, driven by women, as well as taxis adapted for people with disabilities.




From the airport the meter starts at Dh20 in a normal-sized cab, or Dh25 in a larger vehicle, such as a people-carrier.




Sample fares are very dependent on traffic conditions – reckon on around Dh40 to Bur Dubai, around Dh50 to Jumeirah, around Dh55 to Dubai Mall or around Dh70 to Mall of the Emirates.




Taxis don’t tout for business – anyone who approaches you in airport arrivals is illegal and unlicensed.




Many hotels offer their own airport pick-up service, bookable in advance. These are handy for the lack of hassle – just look for your name on a card and then follow the liveried flunkey – but they invariably cost around twice the price of a metered cab.




New arrivals are occasionally hoodwinked by limousine operators, who hang around beside the taxi ranks, trying to entice customers into their luxury Audis and BMWs. They generally offer no starting fee and fixed prices. If you don’t mind paying a premium – say, Dh100 to Bur Dubai, or Dh180-200 further afield – then live the dream and hop in.






The Dubai Metro  is a wonder: clean, smooth, fast and efficient. The stations, platforms and trains are all air-conditioned and everything is signed in English.




Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 have stations side-by-side on the Red Line. From either take a train towards Jebel Ali to head into the city – they run about every 5mins – though bear in mind you’re only allowed to carry two suitcases per person, one large, one small. If you’re laden with more, take a taxi.




Every train has special carriage at one end, half of which is ‘Gold Class’ – reserved for those who pay extra – and half for women and children only.




First metro departs the airport around 5.55am (Fridays 1.05pm; no service Fri mornings). Last metro departs Sat-Wed around 11pm, Thu & Fri around midnight. Approximate journey times are: to Bur Dubai 10mins, Dubai Mall 25mins, Mall of the Emirates 40mins, Jebel Ali 1hr.




The citywide public transport card is called Nol – there are Gold, Silver and Blue options for locals, but the best for visitors is a Red Ticket. A single journey costs Dh4.50 for one zone (from the airport to Deira), or Dh6.50 for two zones (from the airport as far west as Dubai Mall/Business Bay), or Dh8.50 beyond that. Alternatively, buy a one-day city-wide pass for Dh14.




The big drawback is that onward transport connections from metro stations aren’t great: a network of “metro feeder” buses does exist but you need a PhD in urban planning to figure it out. Still, riding the metro to somewhere near your hotel, then hailing a cab to cover the last mile or two is a skinflint’s dream.






There are some from the airport, but they system is complicated. And they rarely go where you want. On balance, why bother?


Which option is right for you?


Pre-booked private/hotel transfer


Best for: high-rollers


Pros: zero hassle, door-to-door personal service


Cons: expensive




Best for: almost everyone


Pros: minimal hassle, door-to-door, modest prices


Cons: traffic delays, occasional miscommunication with drivers




Best for: frugally minded and/or adventurous souls


Pros: inexpensive, plunges you direct into the city atmosphere


Cons: generally leaves you a walk or short cab ride from your hotel





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