As the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is a bustling, modern metropolis teeming with ornate mosques, glorious desert landscapes, and sleek skyscrapers. Now, this small island in the Persian Gulf is one of the trendiest travel destinations. After all, the rise of Abu Dhabi is a major reason why Spartan chose to host the 2021 Spartan World Championship there.
But before you lace up your Spartan RD Pro shoes and travel across the world for one of the biggest races of the year, step back and absorb these 10 facts about Abu Dhabi. It’s a melting pot of expatriates and locals alike, and the culture is vastly different. Know before you go.
10 Abu Dhabi Travel Tips
Tip #1: It consistently ranks as one of the safest cities in the world.
Despite whatever misconceptions you have about life in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi is quite safe. In fact, it was named 2020’s safest city in the world by Numbeo, a global database company that calculates the report based on factors like crime rates and the quality of healthcare. This marked the city’s fourth consecutive year topping the list.
Tip #2: If you're going to bring medication, do some research.
The UAE government has extremely strict laws and regulations when it comes to pharmaceuticals. Even over-the-counter medications, which are legal back home, could be considered controlled substances. The same goes for prescribed medications. The full list of restricted medications can be found online, but to avoid an unnecessary legal predicament, it’s best to contact the Ministry of Health and Prevention directly via phone or e-mail to ensure your medications are approved.
Tip #3: Residents pray up to five times per day.
Although Abu Dhabi is a multicultural hub (with non-citizens making up approximately 80% of the total population), Islam is the official religion throughout the UAE. The call to prayer, or adhan, is a daily ritual that starts around dawn and ends long after sunset. Participants pray a total of five times, and this can come as a surprise to visitors (especially if you're a light sleeper). If you’re interested in watching, the prayer is broadcasted from the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The exact times change based on the sun’s position, but an updated list can be found on the official Abu Dhabi tourism website. Keep these times in mind and be respectful if you’re out and about during the call to prayer.
Tip #4: Your credit and debit cards will be widely accepted (but carry some cold hard dirham).
Almost all of the city’s restaurants, hotels, and stores will allow visitors to pay with card or even a traveler’s check. But if you plan on venturing into the local souks, or marketplaces, your best bet is to bring along dirham, the official local currency of the UAE. ATMs are scattered liberally throughout the city. Abu Dhabi also has an extensive network of local and international banks where travelers can exchange money (remember to bring your passport), but the most competitive rates will be found at “Bureau de Change” exchange offices.
Tip #5: You’re not expected to tip, but it’s appreciated.
Compared to the United States, tipping culture in Abu Dhabi isn't as common. People in the city don’t necessarily expect a tip, but a small gesture is greatly appreciated by workers in the service industry. For example, if you’re paying for a taxi ride in dirham, you can round up the fare as an appropriate tip. Some restaurants will automatically add a minimal service charge onto the bill, but if they don’t, consider leaving 10 percent as a token of your gratitude. And plan to tip hotel porters that carry your luggage approximately 10 dirham (which equates to about $3). Overall, it’s completely up to your discretion, but a tip for solid service will rarely be refused.
Tip #6: Yes, you can drink alcohol if you want.
Although the legal system in the UAE is widely determined by Sharia law (which prohibits the consumption of alcohol), visitors can drink while on vacation in Abu Dhabi. Certain venues such as hotel bars, restaurants, and nightclubs have a special license that allows them to serve alcohol to guests — but drink responsibly. It is illegal to be drunk in public and consume alcohol in public. In severe cases, the police will arrest tourists for disorderly or offensive conduct, so use common sense.
Tip #7: No, you don’t need to be covered up at all times.
While it’s traditional to see Emirati women donning an abaya (a long black robe) paired with a headscarf known as a shayla, and men dressed in a kandura (a white, ankle-length garment) and a ghutra headdress, tourists don’t have to follow suit. However, try to dress a little more modestly than you would back home. Men should avoid wearing tank tops or sleeveless shirts in public, and women should leave the skin-tight outfits, short shorts, and plunging necklines at home. However, it really all depends on your location. When visiting mosques, expect to don traditional garb. But the times are changing, and it’s more common to see women at the beaches and hotel pools wearing bikinis or skirts in shopping malls. There are also exceptions to the rule, like wearing form-fitting athletic gear when participating in sporting events.
Tip #8: December is an ideal time to visit Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi can get brutally hot, due to its desert climate. Between May and September, temperatures regularly soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, making it difficult to comfortably enjoy the city’s outdoor attractions and natural wonders. However, the heat and humidity tend to cool off from December to March, with average temperatures hovering around the mid-to-high 70s in December. Visitors will also find shorter lines and less congestion than in March and April, the more popular travel time for tourists, making winter the perfect time to plan a trip.
Tip #9: Go easy on the PDA if traveling with a partner.
Holding hands in public is tolerable for married couples, but kissing and cuddling out in the open is not considered the cultural norm, so locals may find it offensive. In extreme cases, playful canoodling can even result in jail time and hefty fines. There aren’t necessarily police officers roaming the streets looking to handcuff flirtatious lovebirds, but over-the-top behavior may be reported.
Tip #10: English is widely spoken, but try learning a few key phrases ahead of time.
Despite the fact that Abu Dhabi is an Arabic-speaking emirate, the vast majority of residents speak English, especially in the more tourist-friendly areas. It’s typical to find road signs and restaurant menus printed in both Arabic and English to accommodate visitors. So don’t stress about the communication barrier too much. That said, do try to pick up a few simple Arabic words and phrases that you can weave into everyday conversations with the locals. For example, use “salam” as a friendly “hi” when greeting people and “shukran” to express thanks or gratitude. It may seem like a small gesture, but the effort will be greatly appreciated.