For many, the UAE capital is a hot, dusty nothing – a massive petrol station to be groggily squinted at through the window of a thirsty 747 en route to Asia or Australia. But while the summer months remain unbearable for visitors, fantastic food, quaint boutiques and sea breezes make an extended springtime stopover well worth considering. Here's where to go and what to do.
Dabble in watersports There’s nothing like a hefty dose of adrenaline to jolt your brain back into life after a long flight and besides, with the midday sun unthinkable, morning is the best time to kick up some spray. Al Forsan sports resort (+971 2 556 8555) in Khalifa City A offers the widest variety of activities (there’s water-skiing, wakeboarding, knee-boarding and more) but if it’s a good old Jetski you’re after, head down to Hiltonia beach club (+971 2 681 1900). Dhs280 will buy you an hour on a steed capable of nudging 100km/h – plenty of time to bob along the seafront and gawp at the city’s rapidly blossoming skyline.
Eat like a local Pure-bred Emirati restaurants are few and far between in Abu Dhabi (if you’ve sampled the native nosh, you’ll know why), but Lebanese grub is everywhere and everyone eats it. One of the best places to get a bellyful is Awtar (+971 2 644 1551) in Tourist Club Area, mainly because it’s one of the few spots where your hummus, tabbouleh and other assorted mezze dishes come served with a gigantic, freshly baked flatbread. Okay so the décor’s dated and most taxi drivers won’t know where it is, but at Dhs120 for two, it’s worth seeking out.
Trawl the souks While Dubai’s malls are glitzy, mind-boggling palaces to consumerism, Abu Dhabi’s are dated, dull and generally nothing to shout about. What the capital does have over its brash neighbour, however, is charming, traditional-style souks. The Souk at Central Market is the newest in town, where, among a handful of fashion and electronics outlets you’ll find traditional Arabian perfumes and spices. At the other end of town in the Bain Al Jessrain area, Souk Qaryat Al Beri is a great place to pick up gifts and sip coffee.
Conquer the sands Anyone who visits Abu Dhabi and doesn’t get out of the city is only seeing half the story. Book a Dhs200 half-day desert safari with Emirates Adventures (+971 2 644 5117) and they’ll pick you up from your hotel in a 4x4, drive you an hour out into the desert and - after letting the tyres down and instructing passengers to 'hold tight' - hurl you over sand dunes at pulse-quickening speeds. From here, it’s on to a traditional desert encampment to grab a barbecue dinner, smoke shisha and gaze dreamily at the stunningly bright stars.
Feel humbled Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (+971 2 441 6444) is the city’s most popular visitor attraction, and as soon as you see its gleaming domes on the horizon, you’ll understand why. Built as a monument to the UAE’s late founding father – who died in 2004, four years before its completion – the mosque is an intricate masterpiece of white marble, mother of pearl and a staggering quantity of gold. The interiors are just as jaw-slackeningly ornate, with the main prayer hall housing both the world’s largest carpet and the world’s largest, most expensive chandelier. Guided tours are free, starting at 10am, 11am and 5pm every day except Friday, when they take place at 5pm and 7.30pm.
Get stuffed If it’s Friday, the great Abu Dhabi Friday brunch (an unapologetically decadent, bottomless feast, which, for reasons known only to the city’s expat community, starts at midday and lasts until late afternoon) is obligatory. Try revolving restaurant Al Fanar at Le Royal Meridien (+971 2 674 2020) for excellent seafood and a spectacular view of the island, or the more modern CuiScene at Fairmont Bab Al Bahr (+971 2 654 3333) for a buffet that includes everything from sushi to shish kebab. Prices start at around Dhs250 and include alcoholic drinks, while a few dirhams more will get you an upgrade to the free-flowing champagne package. Buffets operate at all the big hotels on every other day of the week, too, albeit with a more subdued atmosphere.
Scream like a child Not only is Ferrari World (+971 2 496 8001) on Yas Island the largest indoor theme park in the world, it’s also home to the fastest roller coaster on Earth. Reaching its maximum speed of 150mph in under five seconds and subjecting riders to a face-warping G-force of 4.8, it’s safe to say that Formula Rossa will be the most exhilarating minute and a half of your entire trip. Elsewhere in the park, there’s also an impressive museum of vintage cars (all sporting the Prancing Horse, of course), a 200ft high tower drop ride and a restaurant that serves wagyu steak and foie gras. Only in the UAE.
Wet your whistle Contrary to popular belief, the drinking scene is alive and well in the Middle East – you just have to know where to go. Most hotels contain two or three bars, but choose wisely as shabby, prostitute-addled grief holes are just as common as chic urban hangouts. You won’t go wrong with Cho Gao at Crowne Plaza (+971 2 621 0000) which, as well as being the city’s only smoke-free bar, also does a mean line in creative, fruity cocktails. For a cosier evening, try Belgian Café at InterContinental (+971 2 666 6888), which boasts the city’s biggest selection of continental beers.
Meat your match Status symbols are big in Abu Dhabi, and it’s not just about vanity-plated sportscars and blinged-out mobile phones. On the dinner table, steak is king, and if you want to be taken seriously, the only way is wagyu. Less showy than the rest, Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill at Fairmont Bab Al Bahr (+971 2 654 3333) is the stuff of a carnivore’s juiciest dreams, where thick cuts of prime rib-eye or tenderloin come served with triple-cooked chips or truffle mash. Leave space for dessert, mind – the hearty renditions of apple crumble, sticky toffee pudding and other British classics are fantastic too.
Etihad Airways fly direct to Abu Dhabi from London Heathrow, with prices starting at £450 return.
The four-star Crowne Plaza on Hamdan Street (+971 2 621 0000) is the city's best value downtown stay, with rates starting from £95 a night.