Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 5 Days
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from my trip to the UAE in January 2020. It was right smack dab in the middle of the US-Iran crisis and there were threats flying back and forth with the UAE stick in between. For a place that is usually one of the safest countries on the world, it suddenly became somewhere that our parents absolutely panicked about us visiting. In the end, the conflict de-escalated literally the day we left, and we had an incredible trip.
One thing to keep in mind is that our trip was slightly unique in that we were actually going there for a wedding in Abu Dhabi, not just to visit the area. So, while the trip was a week long, we spent 2.5 of those days prepping for, at, and recovering from an absolutely insane Indian wedding.
Even with our shortened timeline, though, we got to see a lot of both cities and learned a lot about the country’s history and famous landmarks.
Flight: Seattle --> Dubai on Emirates (14+ hour non-stop flight)
We’d heard SO much good about flying Emirates that choosing to spend an extra $600 on the non-stop to fly with them seemed like the right option. I can tell you right now I probably wouldn’t ever do it again unless I was flying business class.
We chose to go through Expedia because their hotel + flight package actually helped us save a ton of money, but to keep it as cheap as possible, you have to fly in their “Economy Saver” class. While this might actually matter on another airline like Delta where choosing to fly their basic economy means no carry-on, late boarding, no seat choice, and no opportunity for upgrade, none of that matters much on Emirates. You’ll board based on how far your seat is from the back of the airplane, there’s no one checking who has what carry-on bags, and if you want to pay for a seat later you can. As far as upgrades go, they don’t have an upgraded economy section. Their “preferred” seats are the exact same seats as those in the back.
Basically, all I’ll say is that the direct flight into Dubai is actually a connector flight on to other places like India and Bangladesh, their food is not great at all – their Emirates pizza is basically just a ton of undercooked dough with some melted cheese on top, and their staff isn’t very friendly. The only plus side is that their seats do have quite a bit of legroom and their entertainment system is great.
In the future, just because of my status and familiarity with Delta and Skyteam, if I ever went back I’d go with their route with a stop in Europe.
We actually changed hotels constantly on this trip so here’s a quick overview of all of them:
Dusit Thani Hotel – we stayed here the night we arrived. The rooms are clean and big. The front desk upgraded us to a suite. The location is good if you want to go to the Burj Khalifa and the mall. The staff was super friendly. There’s a Joe’s Grocer breakfast restaurant in the lobby that made great coffee and breakfast.
Nikki Beach Resort and Spa – Absolutely loved this place. Wish we could have stayed more than one night. The rooms are beautiful. We actually slept three people in their two bed room, but the beds were like oversized twins. The staff is phenomenal. You can lounge beside the pool there or go hang out at the beach club just a few steps down the beach. Even if you don’t stay here, I’d recommend checking out their beach club for one of their special event days like rose brunch or ladies day.
Millennium Airport hotel – we spent the night here before our flight just for convenience-sake. Again, large rooms. The two bed room had large double beds that would fit two-to-a-bed. The staff was friendly and helpful. They have deals for flight attendants in their bar if you fit that category :). Lastly, they have a free shuttle that fits 24 people plus luggage and departs for the airport every 40 minutes.
Grand Hyatt Resort and Emerald and Pearl Suites – The location is perfect for sight-seeing - next door to Emirates Towers, right across the street from the Emirates Palace, and just a few blocks from the Presidential Palace. You are quite far from the Mosque but as you’ll see below we took a tour to that so it didn’t matter much. We got one of the Pearl Suites and it was absolutely incredible. My biggest complaint with them is that there are ZERO outlets in this gigantic room. In order to plug our phones in we had to either let them hang out of the TV USB ports or we had to unplug lamps. I even called the front desk to ask in case I was missing something and they suggested that they could bring me an extension cord. For someone that likes to curl her hair in front of a mirror, this became a huge issue. Even for the blow dryer, they told me that there was a plug in the closet. On top of that, there’s no good lighting to do make-up. The hotel, while beautiful, was clearly designed for men.
Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi –
This was the hotel location for the wedding. Like most 5-star Ritz Carltons, it’s a stunning hotel. The rooms are spacious with great balconies overlooking the pool. Their view of the Mosque from the front of the hotel is gorgeous especially at night. The pool is gigantic with tons of pool chairs. There’s multiple restaurants inside, they have their own bar/lounge that’s fun for late night, and there’s even a beach stretch if you want to put your toes in the sand. Highly recommend.
Uber and cabs are available in both cities. One thing to note is that Uber prices are generally a bit higher than cabs. Cabs in Abu Dhabi do not take cards at all, so if you go that route, make sure that you have cash.
For transferring between cities, we considered taking the bus due to the fact that it’s super cheap, but decided against it for multiple reasons. One, we had quite a bit of large luggage due to the wedding and we didn’t want to deal with that on a crowded bus. Two being that the bus leaves from the west end of Dubai, and we were staying on the far eastern end near the Burj Khalifa, so we would have had to add a 26 minute uber or another bus just to get to the bus. On top of that, we read on google maps that it’s a commuter bus and there’s times where it’s standing room only. That for an hour and a half plus luggage just seemed like too much. So instead, we went with a company called Kiwi Taxi. They were early picking us up, got us from door to door super quickly, and we could pay online in advance. It was about $109 total but split three ways it basically came out to a similar price as the bus plus two ubers would have been.
What I loved:
I mentioned this in the hotels section, but even if I wasn’t staying there I would have tried to spend a day at the beach club. It’s so relaxing and Nikki Beach is known world-wide for their exceptional service and awesome beach clubs.
Historic Old Dubai and Souk Walking Tour
We found this tour on TripAdvisor and while it’s got a smaller following, it was fantastic. It’s $36USD and it was so worth the price. Our guide, Pri, was so great. She explained the history of Old Dubai and took our group of 5 on what was basically a private tour of the area. We got to taste spices, ride a local abra boat with no one else on it, visit the Dubai Museum, taste coffee, and discover tiny incredible art galleries. Plus it has a maximum of 10 people, which is great! I cannot recommend this tour enough!
OceanAir Travels Desert Dinner Safari
This safari definitely takes up a huge chunk of your day but it’s so worth it. There are about 70 different companies that you can go with, but we chose Ocean Air travels and I think it was the right call. They contact you via WhatsApp, so I highly recommend getting that app for communication. The driver even mentioned to us that if he has to call a guest on his actual data plan, it costs him more than he makes that night. They pick you up around 2:00 in a big SUV that holds 6. So, if you have a smaller group, be aware that you won’t be alone in your car. From there you’ll head out into the desert and make a few stops;
ATV Rides – this is an optional activity, but it’s a blast. If you go out to one of these places on your own, you’ll pay about 50-100 AED more for an ATV than if you go with a company like OceanAir. Just remember to have cash with you to pay for this. You’ll basically get to ride an ATV on the dunes for 20-30 minutes in a specific area.
Pics on the dunes – this is a quick stop to get all of the OceanAir trucks in one place and to get some quick pictures
Dune bashing – after the stop, you’ll head out in a train of trucks into the desert where you’ll experience the fun of “dune bashing” which is essentially driving on dunes in SUVs and sliding on the sand. It’s pretty crazy and I definitely wouldn’t recommend eating beforehand. If you get motion sickness, make sure to take some Dramamine.
Sandboarding – you’ll make one more stop in the dunes to go sandboarding down one of the larger dunes. I’d probably recommend sitting down if you’re nervous.
The actual camp – this is your last stop of the night. It’s where you’ll get a BBQ dinner, get to hold a falcon, ride a camel, and watch the show with traditional Arabian performances like fire dancing and belly dancing. There’s plenty of salad and vegetable options if you’re a vegetarian and the activities are pretty cool. You can also get henna done and smoke shisha if you’re interested.
After the show is done, you’ll head back into Dubai. You’ll probably get back around 9:30PM. If you’re looking for a great driver, I’d recommend asking for Ibrahim!
While there are a few ways to see Abu Dhabi, especially if you’re flying into Dubai, we were already there for the wedding so we booked the day tour. The tour that we chose was through OceanAir Travels. They picked us up at our hotel and we joined a group that had already started with them in Dubai (the other way to see AD). We had a few stops during the tour, so I’ll go through those here but even if you don’t do the city with a tour company, I’d definitely recommend each of these places:
Qasr Al Watan – the Presidential Palace
This place blew me away. The main area is incredible, the main bathrooms are stunning, and the exhibits of gifts are pretty cool. In addition, you should make sure to wander all the way to the back room, go around the closed off stairs, and check out the space where the leaders meet. One thing to note is that I wish we had more time to wander around the outside of the building and go through the gift shop. If you go on our own time, you can spend as long as you want. With the tour, you’re limited in how long you have here.
If you’re a fan of the Fast and Furious franchise, you’ll get a kick out of this place. It’s the location where they drove the car from one tower into the other. For those who aren’t fans, it’s just a really cool skydeck observatory. There’s also a small restaurant up top. From what we heard from people in our group, it’s got a better view than the Burj Khalifa has in Dubai.
Sheikh Zayed Gran Mosque
The mosque in Abu Dhabi is famous, and rightfully so. The artistry that went into building this place is top notch, but the funny thing is that it really isn’t that old. You’ll find that it’s very different from mosques in places like Istanbul because it was built to impress.
If you’re a woman, make sure to either wear long pants and long sleeves (not even your ankles can be showing) and bring a head scarf. If you don’t have this kind of clothing with you – no worries you can borrow it either from your tour guide or you can get it at the entrance to the mosque.
The mosque interior is closed off to the public – only Muslims are allowed to go inside and pray and they also have their own separate entrance. Which brings me to my other point, make sure if you drive yourself, you park at the back of the parking lot – the entrance for tourists is the giant glass pyramid building.
One last piece of advice for the mosque, if you do want to go for twilight when they turn the lights on, I’d recommend going a couple of hours beforehand. The line for twilight was so long that it wrapped around and around outside. If you’re on a tour where you got picked up in Abu Dhabi and can take an uber home, I’d recommend bringing all of your belongings with you off the bus if it’s leaving at a specific time. That way if you want to stay for twilight and the lights, you can.
For those that are confused – this is a hotel that looks like a palace. It is in no way associated with monarchy of any kind. It’s a stunning hotel, definitely worth checking out. First thing, note that you will have to go through security on entry, so don’t bring anything stupid. Next, there is a gate, but you can easily just walk right up and in from the street. It was only a ten minute walk door-to-door from the Grand Hyatt.
This restaurant is part of the Intercontinental’s restaurant circle. It’s a Peruvian restaurant with an interior basically designed for Instagram. We made a reservation about a week in advance and we were left with the 9:30pm slot for 2 people. While that seemed late, the place was actually packed the entire time we were there. When we arrived a few minutes early, they suggested that we head into the bar area to grab a cocktail to wait for our table to be ready. The bar has specialty drinks both for that restaurant and Peruvian. I’ll just throw in there that the bartenders are all gorgeous in a Connor McGregor with all of his teeth kind of way. For food we ordered a bunch of different things almost in a tapas style. Their specialty is probably ceviche but we got the skewers, the salmon tacos, the potatoes bravas, and the broccoli. The waitress did warn me that a lot of their food is pretty spicy, so she recommended the items that weren’t. Everything we got was very tasty. The broccoli was actually the spiciest thing on the table. I’d recommend getting multiple orders of skewers as one order only comes with 2.
Marina Social -
In most major cities I try to treat myself to one Michelin star restaurant, and in Dubai we chose Marina Social in the Dubai Marina area. We made reservations way in advance for a Monday night, but it wasn't necessary. That said I can imagine that on the weekends it probably gets super crowded and the restaurant is huge but their patio is by far the best seating, so I'd suggest asking for a table out there in your reservation. As far as food goes, you could do the Social Club, but that limits the menu. Instead we split multiple appetizers including the English Tea and Bone Marrow Butter, the Steak tartar, the burrata, and the duck and foie gras. Everything was great. The guys were obsessed with the english tea. For dinner we actually ordered two of the beef wellingtons (split 4 ways) and our fifth person got the salmon. Definitely order this at the beginning of the dinner so they put it in because it takes 45 minutes to cook. We finished it off with their famous pear-shaped cheesecake. Our waiter was great, the view was great, and the food was excellent. Would highly recommend it.
Le Cafe in Emirates Palace -
The palace is actually famous for it’s gold leaf cappuccinos in their lobby café. If you don't like coffee, they also have golf leaf ice cream! The day we went it was pretty much empty there, but our friends went a few days earlier and they had to make a reservation and come back, so I’d recommend booking in advance. They also have pages and pages of tea flavors if you don’t like coffee.
LalQuila - This was the lunch buffet stop on our day tour of Abu Dhabi. While some of the group decided to take the option to eat McDonalds in the mall, us Americans opted for the local cuisine - complete with camel meat. The food was pretty good and it was fun to try camel. It's also got a nice view from their upstairs room.
What to Wear
This was something we were super stressed about. We went in January, when the temperature wasn’t that bad, and I cannot even imagine stressing about being fully covered in the summer or warmer months. While I’m definitely not an expert, I’d say you can generally be pretty comfortable. Short sleeves are fine for during the day. I’d also maybe recommend maxi dresses or longer skirts if you don’t want to wear pants.
For the desert safari, especially in the cooler months, bring a jacket and wear long pants – it’s chilly out there especially at night. Especially for the IG lovers out there, you may be tempted to wear a great skirt or something, trust me it won’t be fun to be in a skirt when the sand starts blowing up it.
Nightlife/Nice restaurants – we struggled with this when packing. My roommate even went out shopping to buy more clothes after our first night out. People definitely go all out, but not in the way that Americans or Europeans do. It’s more like snazzy-business. Lots of longer pencil skirts and black pants. Heels are good. Tops are more business chic than bar/club. That said, we didn’t go to a club, so I can’t comment on that.
At the beach or a beach club, just wear whatever makes you comfortable. Don’t worry about bikinis – totally acceptable.
The Mosque – like I mention in a couple of other places, you have to be fully covered. My maxi skirt was long enough, but the very bottom inch was transparent and it wasn’t good enough. If you don’t want to wear long sleeves and pants, just get something from your guide or at the mosque.
What went wrong:
The rain – we got unlucky and the time that we were there was the only 3 days of rain they get all year. It wasn’t a huge problem, but it did get annoying. Just remember to check the weather before you leave and plan for rain jackets if necessary.
What I may have done differently:
I wish we had gotten to the camel ride earlier in the night on our safari. Pictures just don’t work well in the dark.
I probably would have stayed at the mosque for the lights to come on. We didn’t think about it so we left our jackets in the van and when the van group left to go back to Dubai we had to leave as well. Since we were staying in Abu Dhabi we could have hung out for a bit in the mosque and taken an uber back to our hotel
The flight into Dubai – see above for notes on flying Emirates
More time - you might have noticed that we didn't really do a lot of the cliche things, the Burj Khalifa, the Burj Al Arab, the major malls. Since we spent so much time at the wedding, we really did lose quite a bit of time. that said, I'm not a huge fan of heights so seeing the Burj Khalifa from the road was good enough for me :).
General Tips and Tricks
When it rains there, all hell breaks loose. Some of the wedding guests spent 4 hours trying to get from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. There was standing water out in the desert 4 days after the rain happened. Most of the hotels had flooding in both lobbies and the rooms. It seems like it causes total chaos.
Be very careful when you’re booking hotel rooms if you have a single guy and a single girl. While there were three of us, we were questioned about our relationship multiple times and we stated that we were relatives. It is against the law to stay together if you’re not married.
If you go to the Mosque (which you should) be aware that they are very picky about clothing. Even a maxi skirt isn’t acceptable if any piece of it is translucent.
The line for the Mosque around twilight gets absolutely crazy. I’d highly recommend going about an hour or more before dusk so that you can get in and just hang out for a while until the lights come on