Abu Dhabi – The Top 5 Sights on Your Own

Categories: Travel reports, Asia, United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi was the first stop after the start of our 7-day cruise with Mein Schiff. We already paid a short visit to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, ten years ago and were curious to see what has changed here over time. Since we only had one day to explore the city, we opted for a classic Hop-On Hop-Off tour directly from the Cruise Terminal.

Abu Dhabi header image

Things to know about Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi with its approximately 1.5 million inhabitants is the capital of the emirate of the same name and of the United Arab Emirates. The core of the city is located on a 70 square kilometer island in the Persian Gulf. Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayid Al Nahyan is currently ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Until the 1960s, Abu Dhabi consisted only of simple buildings – some even without electrical connections or a sewage system. People lived from fishing, pearl diving and date cultivation. Since the 1970s, the city has been developed into a modern metropolis with a chessboard-like master plan thanks to revenues from oil production. Due to the steady growth of the area, the construction of new buildings is now taking place on artificial islands and on the coastal foreland.

Abu Dhabi is a very young city and therefore shows its modern side with its numerous high-rise buildings and generously developed streets. In between, however, you will also find buildings from earlier times, such as the Qasr al-Husn fort, as well as traditional buildings and residential palaces. The Sheikh Zayid Mosque is considered – along with the Presidential Palace – one of the most famous landmarks of the city. It is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and one of the largest in the world. What we found very interesting: In the global ranking of the most economically powerful cities, Greater Abu Dhabi is in 47th place. This makes Abu Dhabi one of the richest cities in the world and even richer than nearby Dubai. This is because Abu Dhabi controls over 90% of the country’s oil and gas reserves and has about 9% of the world’s oil reserves.

The location of Abu Dhabi

The location of Abu Dhabi

Mooring for cruise ships & the berthing time of Mein Schiff

Berth Abu Dhabi: Port Zayed, Cruise Terminal, Berth 14/15
Laytime: 8.00 a.m. to 7.30 p.m.
All aboard: 19.00

In Abu Dhabi, we docked at the cruise terminal of the huge Port Zayed, where up to three cruise ships can be moored at the same time. The modern cruise terminal was opened in 2015 and has very modern equipment. Here you will find a tourist information office, ATMs, an exchange office, tour operators and some souvenir stores. Free Wi-Fi is provided in the building. The city center is located about 10 kilometers from the Cruise Terminal. Since you are not allowed to move freely on foot in the port area, cabs and sightseeing buses wait in front of the building.

“Hop-On Hop-Off” with Big Bus through Abu Dhabi

Since we only had one day to explore the city, we opted for a classic Hop-On Hop-Off tour directly from the Cruise Terminal. Here, the double-decker buses are already parked in front of the terminal and you can still buy tickets (from 79 USD) for the tours on site.

The Big Bus Tours company is the world’s largest provider of sightseeing tours by open-top double-decker buses. Currently, you can go on an urban exploration tour with Big Bus in 24 cities and four continents. In Europe there are 9 cities in the program (Berlin, Budapest, Dublin, Istanbul, London, Munich, Paris, Rome, Vienna), in America there are 8 cities (Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington DC), in the Middle East there are 3 (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Muscat) and in Asia-Pacific there are tours in 4 cities (Darwin, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney).

The advantage of a Big Bus tour is that you can see the main sights of a city in a short time. And you are completely flexible, because there are boarding and disembarking options at every stop, so you can put together your sightseeing program very individually. On the bus you get headphones and can learn interesting things about the city during the ride with the help of recorded commentary – and that too in many different languages.

The routes of Big Bus

From the Cruise Terminal, a shuttle service included in the ticket will take you first to Abu Dhabi Mall (1st bus departs at 8:40 a.m.). Here you can then change to either the red or green route buses.

Red Route: As part of the City Tour, you discover the center of Abu Dhabi and have the option of getting on and off flexibly at 14 stops – for example at the Louvre Museum, the opulent Presidential Palace, the waterfront or Al Hosn Fort. The first bus leaves from the mall at 9 am and the last bus at 5 pm.

Green Route: The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Shuttle Bus actually only takes you from Abu Dhabi Mall to Sheikh Zayid Mosque – without any stop in between. The bus departs from the mall 4 times a day (10am, 12pm, 2pm, 4pm) and returns from the mosque 4 times a day (11:30am, 1:30pm, 3:30pm, 5:30pm). Since the buses on the green route only run at longer intervals, it makes sense to think in advance about how to plan your sightseeing day in Abu Dhabi. It is almost impossible to get out and visit the sights everywhere, so make a good selection.

Here you can download the map of Big Bus in Abu Dhabi, where all routes and stops are marked.

Big Bus, Abu Dhabi, Map, Plan, 2023

The routes of Big Bus through Abu Dhabi

Top 5 Sights of Abu Dhabi

On our Big Bus Tour through Abu Dhabi we saw the most beautiful sights of the metropolitan city. We also took a closer look at some of them.

The presidential palace Qasr Al Watan

Qasr Al Watan is the current presidential palace of Abu Dhabi and the new cultural landmark of the city. Construction was completed only in 2017 and since 2019 the palace is open to the public. Before its opening, the palace was used only for official purposes, mainly for receiving foreign heads of state and for meetings of the Supreme Council and the Federal Cabinet. Even after its opening to the public, the palace continues to be used for these purposes.

The entrance to the palace is through the visitor center, where you can also buy your tickets directly for 65 AED per person (17 EUR). It is not allowed to take drinks and food into the palace (except water). In addition, the knees and shoulders must be covered. If your own clothes do not comply with this dress code, cloths will be lent free of charge on site with which you can cover yourself. After the security screening, you board a shuttle bus that takes you to the entrance of the palace at regular intervals. It is not allowed to walk alone to the palace from the visitor center. In the palace itself you can then move relatively freely.

Even during the short bus ride, we could see the palace and as we got closer and closer, we really realized the opulence of the palace. The 380,000-square-foot white palace with its facade of white granite, limestone, and floral and geometric patterns is huge, very intricately designed, and richly decorated.

The heart of the palace is the magnificent great hall (“The Great Hall”), which has an imposing dome with a diameter of 37 meters, a chandelier with 350,000 crystal stones and a series of chambers. The great hall is surrounded by two wings on the east and west. Here you can see, among other things, a library with more than 50,000 books documenting the cultural, social and political history of the country, a room where the Cabinet meets, various art installations and a room where diplomatic gifts from other countries are kept.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The Sheikh Zayid Mosque is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and is considered one of the largest mosques in the world. It is located at the southeast end of the main island and is super accessible as part of the Big Bus Tour.

For a visit to the mosque are some things important to know: Admission to the mosque is free of charge. As there are often long queues at the entrance, it is a good idea to register in advance on the mosque’s official website. Then the check-in process on site is much faster. As in many other mosques, there is a dress code: arms and legs must be almost completely covered for both men and women. T-shirts, shorts or skirts are not allowed. Women must additionally cover their hair. In the past, long capes were distributed free of charge at the entrance; however, this no longer exists since the Corona pandemic. The capes must be purchased. It is not allowed to take drinks and food into the mosque – this also applies to water.

The 224-meter x 174-meter mosque was officially opened in the fall of 2007 and can accommodate 40,000 worshippers. Only very high-quality materials such as marble and gold leaf were used in the construction of the building – so it’s no wonder that the construction costs of the complex totaled $545 million. The huge main dome in the prayer hall has a diameter of 32.2 meters; in addition, there are 40 smaller domes on the structure. On the floor of the prayer halls is the largest hand-knotted carpet in the world. It consists of 2.2 billion nodes on 5,627 square meters and weighs an incredible 47 tons. And there is another superlative: probably the largest chandelier in the world hangs in the vaulted ceiling of the mosque. It has a diameter of 10 meters, a height of more than 15 meters, a weight of 12 tons and is equipped with 15,500 dimmable LEDs. Madness!

The Heritage Village

One of our next stops by Big Bus was the Heritage Village open-air museum, located on a peninsula near the Marina Mall and offering great views of the skyline and the Corniche waterfront. Admission to the site is free.

If you want to know what Abu Dhabi looked like before it became a burgeoning metropolis, Heritage Village is the place to go. Here, various stations illustrate the earlier history of the city and the traditional life of the Bedouins. There are demonstrations in traditional crafts, replicas of an old fishing village and many exhibits and photos from that time. The big highlight for our daughter was of course the camel, which we were also allowed to pet once.

The luxury hotel Emirates Palace

Abu Dhabi’s most famous hotel is the luxury Emirates Palace, which opened in 2005 and is located on a pristine private beach. The hotel belongs to the ruling family of Abu Dhabi and has been operated by the Mandarin Oriental hotel chain since 2020. In our research, the cheapest room rates are currently around EUR 500 per night in a Deluxe twin room in May and go up to EUR 20,000 per night in a Suite Royal in December.

The hotel is not a normal hotel, but serves mainly to accommodate state guests, hosting international conferences and jet-set guests. There are a total of 302 rooms and 92 suites; a private butler is available to each guest around the clock. The best and most exclusive service is provided by an incredible 1,500 employees from 50 countries!

The hotel complex measures 243,000 square meters and features, among other things, a 2,800-person ballroom, a 1-square-kilometer park with gardens, a 1.4-kilometer private beach, two helicopter pads and a private marina nearly 500 meters long. With its construction cost of about three billion USD, it was long considered the most expensive hotel in the world, but was later superseded by an even more expensive hotel project in Las Vegas.

On our first visit to Abu Dhabi in 2012, we managed to “cheat” our way onto the hotel grounds by saying at the entrance that we had a reservation for a tea party. That worked out wonderfully at the time. We read on Abu Dhabi’s official tourism site that the hotel is now open to the public (it wasn’t back then) and you can also visit restricted parts of the hotel – without being a hotel guest. In addition, there are now day passes for visitors (390 AED; includes pool and spa use, about 100 EUR) and private tours (150 AED, about 40 EUR).

The Louvre Abu Dhabi

Everyone probably knows the famous Louvre Museum in Paris. In the meantime, however, there are 2 other Louvre museums in the world: one in Lens (in the north of France) and, since 2107, also in Abu Dhabi.

For some years now, Abu Dhabi has been trying to place greater emphasis on the cultural component and is therefore investing heavily in large-scale projects for the visual arts, music performance, theater and cultural education. Most of these will be built on the artificially expanded Saadiyat Island, which is located east of the main island. For example, there will be museums of historical and contemporary art, an architecturally spectacular philharmonic hall, and a multipurpose hall for opera and theater performances. The best-known example of this is the Louvre Abu Dhabi art museum, which opened in November 2017 and has since attracted numerous tourists.

Other places of interest in Abu Dhabi

In addition, Abu Dhabi has several other attractions to offer. Since 2009, for example, the Abu Dhabi Formula One World Championship Grand Prix has been held on Yas Island at the Yas Marina Circuit. Accompanying it, a year later, the Ferrari World theme park was opened, with the Formula Rossa roller coaster as its main attraction. With a top speed of 240 km/h, it is the fastest roller coaster in the world.

During our sightseeing tour through the city we could also see the former fort Qasr Al Hosn, whose watchtower is the oldest building on the island. It once served as the seat of the ruling family and provided shelter for early settlers. It later served as the seat of government for the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, and as of 2018, it has reopened as a museum after a long period of renovation. With our Big Bus we also drove along part of the impressive Abu Dhabi Corniche Road, which stretches for eight kilometers parallel to the waterfront and beach promenade. Here there are numerous play areas for children, landscaped paths for cyclists and pedestrians, cafes and restaurants.

All travel reports of our cruise with Mein Schiff

On our one-week cruise "Dubai to Oman" with the Mein Schiff 6 from TUI Cruises, we were able to experience five eventful and varied days ashore: Our journey took us from the city of superlatives - Dubai - to Abu Dhabi, where the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates is located. We continued to the oriental Khasab (Oman) with its breathtaking fjord landscape and to Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman, which is surrounded by mountains and desert. The last stop of our trip was after a relaxing sea day the island Sir Bani Yas (UAE), which offers a kilometer-long sandy beach and a nature reserve with 10,000 animals. With beautiful memories in our luggage, disembarkation then took place back in Dubai.
Map Mein Schiff Orient Crusie Day 1 » Mein Schiff 6 - Check In, Cabin & Discover the Cruise Ship
Crusie Day 2 » Abu Dhabi - The Top 5 Sights on Your Own
Crusie Day 3 » Khasab - Boat trip through the fjord world & Khasab Castle
Crusie Day 4 » Muscat - Top 5 Sights & Photo Spots
Crusie Day 5 » Seetag
Crusie Day 6 » Sir Bani Yas (Beach, Safari & Island Tour)
Crusie Day 7 » Dubai (Day on board & Check Out)