Food and Drink in Abu Dhabi
Emirati food, much like Turkish and Mediterranean, is wholly focused on spices, nuts, fresh and dried fruits, beans and hearty game meat, like lamb. However, it's also very vegetarian friendly. Thanks to the city's proximity to Morocco, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, almost all of the dishes are inspired by these cuisine types (think lamb shwarmas, Lebanese tabbouleh, Iranian honey dates) and are heavily infused with spices and ingredients from throughout other parts of the world too, like Asia and the Middle East. The most common spices are cinnamon, saffron and turmeric, along with nuts, limes and dried fruit heighten the flavor of Emirati dishes, some of the most popular of which are harees, a dish of meat and wheat slow-cooked in a clay oven or pot and served with ghee, and majboos, made by boiling meat in water to which a distinctive blend of spices and dried limes are added.
Hearty meats abound in most Abu Dhabi cuisine, but fish is also a mainstay in many of the local dishes. One of the most common fish dishes in the UAE is jisheed, which is Arabic for shark. It's typically minced or diced and served over rice that's been spiced with saffron and bezar and topped with freshly grated lemon and vegetables. If you're up for it, wake up before sunrise so you can catch a glimpse of the plentiful bounty of the Arabian Gulf at Mina Fish Souk then hop over to the Al Mina Fruit & Vegetable Souk to meet local producer-sellers and watch locals buy vibrant tomatoes, brightly colored peppers and more for their daily haul. Even if you are not buying, this area provides excellent photo opportunities.
Food is only a fragment of the dining culture in Abu Dhabi -- just as important is the concept of hospitality and generosity. You'll find the family table concept at almost every contemporary restaurant and can expect to find friends, family and even strangers laughing over a platter of grilled lamb, hummus and soft-baked pita bread. Often, a platter of meze -- a selection of four or five appetizer dishes to share -- is served with dinner, and sweet desserts, such as baklava round out the dinner with a traditional Arabian coffee.
Al Maqam: Translating to "The Gathering Place" in Arabic, you'll experience true Arabian hospitality at Al Maqam, a local restaurant that's in the heart of Arabian Nights Village in the desert. You can opt for a traditional dining room table or a low sofa, or you can dine like the locals do -- on a soft cushion on the ground. The palm-thatch-covered terrace is a hot spot year-round for stunning desert views. The food is traditional Emirati with an Asian spin -- think biryani (an Asian rice dish served with chicken or seafood), Mashwi (grilled meat slathered in sauce or accented with Middle Eastern spices) and honey and date sweets. The fare is served in large family style platters -- making it easy to share. (Arabian Village; +971 2 551 0590; open daily, noon to 3 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m.)
Byblos Sur Mer: Paying homage to the area's heavy Lebanese influence, Byblos Sur Mer, located in the InterContinental, serves up some of the best Lebanese fare in the UAE. The two-level venue sits right on the marina, which means most of the seats offer breathtaking views of the million-dollar yachts and sparkling Persian Gulf. The decor is bright and airy, with industrial accents -- like copper-colored hanging lights that cast a warm and welcoming glow. The first level serves as the dining room, while the second level serves as more a relaxed lounge. You can opt for the regular menu, which offers dishes like Raheb (whole roasted eggplant with apple vinegar), cold meze platters, kastaleta (grilled lamb with pine nuts and garlic yogurt) or, if you're daring, the fawaregh (lamb intestine filled with rice, chick peas and meat). Or, you can order off the signature menu, which has everything from hummus to snapper fish sashimi and deep-fried eggs coated with lamb. For something healthy and authentic, order the fattoush salad, which is topped with crunchy, sumac-covered bread rounds. (InterContinental Abu Dhabi, King Abdullah BinAbdul Aziz Al Saud, Al Khubeirah; +971 2 666 6888; open daily, noon to 2 a.m.)
Hakkasan: Boasting four dining rooms, a bar and a separate lounge, the 16,000-square-foot Hakkasan was designed and emulated after the flagship restaurant in London. Separated by carved wooden screens and featuring designs by Gilles & Boissier, the aesthetic is modern meets Asian, with the dining room being enclosed in a wooden cage and is backlit by a soft blue, ambient light. Located inside the super luxe Emirates Palace hotel, Hakkasan offers a mouthwatering blend of Cantonese and Chinese dishes. Signature dishes include the Peking Duck with caviar, the grilled wagyu beef with king soy sauce. Crowd favorites include the stir-fried lobster in black bean sauce, the succulent dim sum platter and hakka hand-pulled noodles with mushrooms and chives. (Emirates Palace Hotel Al; +971 2 690 7999; open daily, noon to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.)
Beaches in Abu Dhabi
Situated on the Arabian Gulf, so many of Abu Dhabi's beaches boast soft, white sand and stunning views of the sparkling gulf. Most of the top hotels feature private beaches, but there are also plenty of public beaches, too.
Yas Beach: Located on Yas Island, Yas Beach is open to all guests who are staying at any of Yas Island's seven hotels. For non-hotel guests, there's a small fee to rent a beach towel and a sun lounger.
Saadiyat Beach: Touting not only beachfront access but an infinity pool as well, Saadiyat Beach happens to be one of Abu Dhabi's most popular. A pass to use the facilities includes access to the pool, beach, cabana use and the sauna and gym. (+971-2656-3500; open daily, 9 a.m. to sunset)
Corniche Beach: This beach stretches for miles along the Gulf, offering one of a kind views of Abu Dhabi's iconic skyline. The breathtaking beachfront has been awarded Blue Flag status, which means it's been internationally recognized as being eco-friendly. There are about 1,100 free parking spaces and entry to the beach is also free -- which also means it's going to have the most crowds on weekends.
Don't Miss in Abu Dhabi
Ferrari World Theme Park: Located on Abu Dhabi's Yas Island is the Ferrari World theme park, a must for any F1 fans -- or just people curious for a peek into the world of high-speed car racing. Dubbed The "world's biggest indoor theme park," the park offers a wide range of Ferrari-themed rides and displays meant for both adults and kids, including the chance to drive an F1 simulator or to ride the Formula Rossa roller coaster (the world's fastest) or to experience race-day acceleration in the G Force "tower of speed." For kids, the junior grand prix (which comes with private driving lessons for the little ones) and the speed of magic (a 4D fantasy universe) are top contenders for the little ones. Beyond the theme parks, there's ample shopping and dining too, like the Italian Ristorante Cavallino or the more laid-back Officer's Quarters (complete with french fries, burgers and pizzas). (Yas Island; +971 2 496 8000; open daily, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.)
Abu Dhabi Pearl Experience: One of Arabia's most time-honored traditions, the Pearl Journey takes visitors on a jalboot -- a traditional pearling vessel -- and guides them on a leisurely cruise along the channel between Abu Dhabi and the Hudairi Yat Islands. In addition to enjoying date desserts and traditional Arabian tea, you get the chance to learn all about the ancient art of pearling from generations of Emiratis. It's not all just talk, though, you also learn the traditional way of opening a living, natural oyster and receive a souvenir pearl. There are a few different outfitters who do this, but the Abu Dhabi Tourism Bureau recommends A Pearl Journey. On some of the journeys, a tour of the unique mangrove system is also included. (P.O. Box 75858; +971 2 641 9914; open daily, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: One of the most recognizable landmarks in the entire city is the snowy-white mass of domes and minarets that make up the breathtaking Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is visible for miles around and provides a spectacular symbol of Islamic pride at the entrance to the capital of the United Arab Emirates. The mosque, which was built in 2007, features 82 domes, more than 1,000 columns, 24-carat gold gilded chandeliers and the world's largest hand-knotted carpets. Most of the mosque is open to the public, however, some areas are reserved only for the locals. The main prayer hall, which is decked out with large chandeliers that measure 10 x 14 meters, is flanked with stunning reflective pools. To enter, women have to cover their legs, arms and heads and, if you don't come prepared, you can easily rent a hijab. If you'd prefer, you can join the mosque's free 60-minute tour. The mosque's first ceremony was the funeral of its namesake, Sheikh Zayed, who is buried at the site. One of the best times to visit isn't the morning or afternoon, it's during sunset -- where the pinks, purples and oranges of the setting sun reflect in the pools to create an incredibly stunning image worthy of many Instagram shots. (Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street, 5th Street; +971 2 4191919; open Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Fridays, 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.)
Emirates Palace Hotel: One of the most iconic landmarks in the city, Emirates Palace is the ultimate place to see and be seen. This luxurious, five-star hotel blends Arabian splendor with impressive landscaping -- boasting a private white sand beach outfitted with cabanas and a stunning fountain display overlooking Etihad Towers. During the day, the golden-sandy color contrasts against the lush green gardens. However, at night, the light changes -- thanks to a rainbow-changing display dancing over the fountains. Featuring 114 domes, gold and mother of pearl decorations, there are ample places to grab a bite (like the Sayad Seafood House or the award-winning La Vendome buffet restaurant) or shop. The entrance features two handmade wall display carpets that weigh more than a ton and portray the palace in sparkling light. (West Corniche Road, Ras Al Akhdar; +971 2 690 9000)
Yas Island: One of the most popular entertainment districts in the UAE is Yas Island, which is home to an array of restaurants, landmarks, malls and theme parks. One of the biggest landmarks is the Yas Marina Circuit, which is the annual home for the Etihad Airways Grand Prix. During the day, you can enjoy a private driving tour or a passenger experience -- both of which give you the chance to get in a Formula One race car. Along with this, the island is home to the Ferrari Theme Park. Besides Formula One, Yas Island also has Yas Waterworld, which spans an area of around 15 football pitches, with 43 rides, slides and attractions -- five of which are one-of-a-kind; Yas Links Abu Dhabi -- an award-winning golf course, designed by Kyle Phillips, one of the world's leading golf course architects -- is in line with the traditional links golf commonly associated with the coastal towns of Scotland and Ireland; and Yas Beach, the island's only stretch of public beach. For shopping, Yas Mall is the UAE's second largest shopping center and offers hundreds of stores, restaurants, spas and entertainment options for just about anyone.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital: Take a guided tour of the specialty hospital treating the royal bird. See the luxurious wards where the birds are kept; visit the museum to learn more about the sport of falconry and a free-flying area to see falcons soar; and try your hand at the sport in the garden. The hospital is in the Al Raha district near Abu Dhabi International Airport. (P.O. Box: 45553; Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
Golfing: Several courses are located within a half-hour of the central city. Among them are the nine-hole Abu Dhabi City Golf Club on 19th Street in the Al Mushrif district; Abu Dhabi Golf Club, home to a 27-hole championship course on Umm Al Nar Street in the Umm Al Nar district; Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, an 18-hole ocean course designed by Gary Player with several beachfront holes, on Saadiyat Island; and Yas Links Abu Dhabi, an 18-hole links course and nine-hole academy course on the Western shores of Yas Island.