Travel Hacks

How to Spend a Layover in Abu Dhabi

by Jaime Morrison Curtis
Sheikh Sunrise views of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center. All photos by Jaime Morrison Curtis.

Passing through the UAE on a layover with a few hours to spare? Travel writer Jaime Morrison Curtis makes a quick list of Abu Dhabi happenings so that you can make quick work of it when you find yourself in the Emirates' capital city.

ABU DHABI – Like many major cities, Abu Dhabi acts as a hub for tens of thousands of travelers connecting east to west and north to south every year. One thing that makes the transfer port unique is the unusually long layover times most travelers will experience. Whether their final destination is an Asian city or a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, travelers are likely to find themselves with anywhere from a six- to 24-hour layover in Abu Dhabi. Consider it an opportunity to experience the UAE's stunning Arabian architecture and wonderful hospitality.

Some travelers may opt to take a 90-minute luxury bus transfer to neighboring Dubai, but sticking around affords a deeper, more local glimpse into Emirati culture in the bustling yet more traditional capital city. Less hectic than its flashy neighbor, Abu Dhabi has enough Arabic experiences within twenty minutes of the airport to make a layover feel less like a hassle and more like another destination on your journey.

Pool at Shangri La Abu Dhabi

Home base: Shangri La Abu Dhabi.

Pool at Shangri La Abu Dhabi

A pool and private beach at Shangri La Abu Dhabi.

Where to Stay

Though Abu Dhabi airport was the first to offer luxury sleeping pods (Go Sleep, Terminal 3), there are other options for really stretching out after a long flight.

The U.A.E. is known for delivering the highest levels of hospitality to travelers, and that luxury is almost universally associated with brand names. A boutique hotel is a rare find in this part of the world, while chain brands flourish.

Grand Canal is about ten minutes from the airport and has plenty to do nearby to get the most out of a short stay. For a luxurious taste of Arabic hospitality, book a room at Shangri La Abu Dhabi for private beaches, pools, spa, and spectacular views of the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center.

Budget-friendly but still luxurious is the neighboring Trader's Hotel. Bright and contemporary, the hotel has a private beach along the gulf and access to all of the same luxuries from the Qaryat Al Beri complex as the Shangri La.

Those with travel points saved up should use them to book a room at a similarly high-end spot like Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi or the Hilton Capital Grand Abu Dhabi.

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What to Do

Visit the Mosque
A visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center is a must. While the view from the hotel room is stunning enough, the complex is worth seeing up close. The mosque is just across the water and is an architectural experience that is even more majestic at night, making it perfect for layovers. (Closing time is 10 p.m.) There are signs for self-guided walks and free, 45-minute guided tours in English or Arabic. Visitors have to wear modest Arabic dress or borrow a free abaya on-site to enter the mosque.

Shop the Souk
There are six perfumeries and three shops selling beautiful abayas in Souk Qryat Alberi, which is accessible from Khor Al Maqtaa by traditional abra boat. After shopping, get traditional Arabic coffee (no visit to the United Arab Emirates would be complete without it) at the sophisticated Finyaal (Bain Al Jeserain, West Maqta; +2-444-5919), a favorite of locals and tourists alike.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center

Better than any terminal window view.

Fly the Falcons
Falconry is an Emirati tradition dating back to antiquity. Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is six kilometers from the airport and offers a two-hour guided Falcon World Tour that covers the heritage and history of falconry in the UAE, giving visitors the option to see the majestic birds in flight and to hold them.

Race Car Mania 
Emiratis are passionate about luxury cars — Formula 1 car racing, in particular. In November, Abu Dhabi hosts the Formula 1 Grand Prix and the city goes wild. For a taste of the passion year-round, visit Yas Marina Circuit on Yas Island, about 30 minutes from the airport, where you can watch the action on the track or drive a Formula 1 car for yourself.

Also on Yas Island is the famous Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, a theme park which offers twenty thrill rides that you may or may not be in the mood for after your long flight.

Hit the Beach
Just twenty minutes from the airport is Saadiyat Island, a man-made island where you can enjoy the peaceful gulf waters at the Saadiyat Beach Club. Purchase a day pass to enjoy the seaside, saunas, and a beachside pool. In 2017, Saadiyat will unveil The Louvre AbuDhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Amazing.

Eat Your Way Around the World
Fill up on delicacies at the souq-style buffet at Sofra, which is truly the most luxurious selection of live cooking stations you are likely to experience. There's Emirati, Iranian, Moroccan, Indian, and Asian food (from unlimited lobster to fresh fusion sushi to hot curries) that gives you a peek into the spices, aromas, and flavors that define Middle Eastern cuisine. Sample the delectable preparations of local dates at the end of your meal.

Views from Shangri La Abu Dhabi

Sunrise views from Shangri La Abu Dhabi.

Plan Your Trip

If you're flying Etihad business or first class, you can book the free chauffeur service in advance of your flight. Otherwise, work with your hotel to pre-arrange (and pre-pay) a transfer from the airport, or grab a taxi at the always-bustling (even in the wee hours of the morning) taxi stand.

The Grand Canal, mosque, and other destinations are an drive (10-20 minutes) from Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH), and one-way fares run about USD $12-$20. Taxis in the U.A.E. accept cash only (Arab Emirates Dirham), so make sure to check the current exchange rate and withdraw some at an airport ATM. Note that almost everyone you meet will speak English and be more than happy to help you on your journey.

Keep Exploring the UAE

Hospitals and Harps in the Desert
Dubai Is Way Cooler Than You Think

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