The heart of The United Arab Emirates capital beats strong in its voluptuous dunes, turquoise lagoons and bird-filled wetlands. But your pulse is best taken after trying out the most adrenaline-inducing things to do in Abu Dhabi.
Al Khatim Desert
There’s a shriek as our white Landcruiser starts skidding sideways down a steep slope. From the passenger’s seat, I had been filming the four-wheel drive ahead of us as it kicked up an impressive cloud of sand and dipped behind a dune. But I had to hit pause on the recording to grip the dashboard. It’s a thrilling way to start my discovery of the most exhilarating things to do in Abu Dhabi.
It felt like our driver had lost control, but he hadn’t. Nor had any of the other drivers who were seemingly hitting the accelerator like hotheads in the distance. In fact, they’re skilled ‘dune bashers’. Each is trained to push vehicles to their limits on a thrilling trajectory across the Al Khatim desert’s steep dunes.
The best things to do in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi isn’t just about the sand. And contrary to popular belief, it’s so much more than just a halfway point on a long-haul flight. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie or have the family in tow, there are endless things to do in Abu Dhabi.
Fast and Furious
Things move fast in Abu Dhabi – and that includes the development of the city itself. It sprung out of a sleepy desert landscape in a matter of decades, following the discovery of oil in 1958.
While Abu Dhabi may not have as big a profile as some of the UAE’s other great cities, it’s a hub for authentic cultural experiences and electrifying adventures. You’ll need to spend some time here to enjoy everything the vibrant city has to offer.
Dune bashing Abu Dhabi
With soaring dunes and impressive sand valleys, Abu Dhabi’s desertscape is a natural adventure wonderland. Dune bashing is the ultimate thrill-inducing way to explore the depths of the Empty Quarter desert. This vast landscape is larger than France.
Roam the expanse outside the Liwa Oasis in Al Dhafra or the sculptural dunes of the Al Khaznah area between Abu Dhabi and the garden city of Al Ain. Book a tour and you’ll likely experience other cultural offerings, like henna painting and sand boarding. Not to mention, you’ll get to witness those fiery orange sunsets.
Yas Marina Circuit
Abu Dhabi is also home to the Yas Marina Circuit. The location of the annual Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this is one of the world’s most technologically advanced tracks. It meanders through the Yas Marina, twisting and turning parallel to Abu Dhabi’s turquoise waters.
The Circuit offers thrilling drive experiences, as well as go-karting and tours. Guests can take a ride on the wild side with friends in a drift taxi. Or organise a group driving day for a speed competition full of action – all behind the wheel of an Aston Martin GT4.
We pit stop at Pier 71 for a waterfront lunch at Lighthouse before hitting the F1 track. Sliding doors that read ‘drivers only’ open as we step inside a cavernous building.
Rows of polished Ferraris, Porsches and Aston Martins are parked before us. Though these speed machines are available for hire (with or without a driver) to zip around the track, that’s not what we’re here for.
Instead, my travelling companions and I head upstairs to don a black jumpsuit, gloves, shoes and a shiny white helmet. Visors down, we rev our go-kart engines and inch forward to our starting positions on the grid. We hoon around the track, trying to outdo each other’s lap times.
Though we’re far from becoming stunt drivers for The Fast and the Furious, we leave pumped with adrenaline. On that note, filming for Furious 7 did actually take place in Abu Dhabi, including scenes shot outside the opulent Emirates Palace.
Abu Dhabi adventures
Al Forsan International Sports Resort
Al Forsan unites sports and entertainment, including the world’s highest and fastest wakeboarding cable parks with two lakes and a 1.2-kilometre karting track. Bring your stamina and focus for a session in the paintball arenas (indoor and outdoor) and then archery range. For those looking to stay at the heart of the action, the resort also features a hotel.
Located at the base of Jebel Hafeet mountain in Al Ain, Wadi Adventure is the first whitewater rafting, kayaking and surfing facility in the Middle East. For some perspective, hook on to the zipline and take a ride over the park. The traverse the climbing wall and get a little wild on a ride at the wakeboarding terrain park.
Warner Bros World
A 10-minute drive from the F1 track is the world’s largest indoor theme park, Warner Bros World. Pushing through the turnstiles, I look in awe at the central plaza’s high-domed roof, painted with wispy clouds. They gradually change colour to mirror the intensity of the midday sun, before shifting to a soft pink at sunset.
The air is cool and there’s a city-like buzz as we walk through rows of buildings lit with neon lights. I line up for the Green Lantern simulator – an immersive 4D-theatre experience that feels like falling into another universe.
I do, however, chicken out at the Scarecrow Scare Raid in Gotham City (where screams can’t be heard, apparently). If you have the energy to try out the 29 rides and five themed ‘lands’, you can easily spend a day here.
Ferrari World Abu Dhabi
Get set for high-adrenaline rides – including racing simulators and the world’s fastest rollercoaster – and motorsports displays that bring to life Ferrari’s fascinating history. The complex also offers the new Family Zone. Here, you’ll find miniature versions of Ferrari World’s most iconic rides, as well as restaurants for little adventure-seekers to refuel.
CLYMB Abu Dhabi
Home to the world’s biggest indoor skydiving flight chamber, CLYMB is one for the adventurer wanting to soar skyward. Standing at more than 25 metres, you’re sure to have a wild ride. You can also tackle the world’s tallest indoor climbing wall, while guided by expert instructors to ensure that any visitor aged over three has a fun-packed day out.
Nature activities in Abu Dhabi
Though the city plays on its glittering image and proudly flaunts its desert location, there are more than a few nature-based things to do in Abu Dhabi.
Firstly, the city’s abundant white sand and turquoise water beaches rival those of the best beach resorts around the world. Secondly, it has an intricate mangrove system that serves as an avian and marine sanctuary on Jubail Island.
Jubail Mangrove Park
We opt for a one-kilometre walk around Jubail Mangrove Park. Our guide Fawaz explains the significance of the ‘coastal guardians’ and points out the scuttling red-claw crabs that help provide oxygen to the tidal shrubs.
As we make our way back to the cafe and reception area along a raised boardwalk, I spy rainbow-hued canoes pulled up on the sand and make a mental note to join a kayak tour on my next visit. Fawaz explains that if you paddle to the end of the island, you can sometimes spot flamingos in the distance. Pink flamingos against turquoise water? Where do I sign up?
Snorkelling and diving in Abu Dhabi
Explore Abu Dhabi’s underwater world at the largest coral reef in the UAE, Ras Ghanada. Being an archipelago, Abu Dhabi is constructed of hundreds of islands. These are home to an abundance of marine life including barracuda, spotted eagle rays and stingrays.
Glamp, camp, exercise, dine and find adventure – take your pick on this island. Bring your family for outdoor challenges and to learn new skills. Or simply chill out on a leisurely bike ride, at the beach cinema or over a tasty meal. There are dozens of dining options to choose from.
Sir Bani Yas
For even more animal encounters, head to Sir Bani Yas – the UAE’s safari island. Established in 1971 as a natural royal reserve, it’s home to 17,000 free-roaming animals including sand gazelles, blackbuck antelopes, giraffes and cheetahs. Sign up for a 4WD nature and wildlife drive accompanied by expert guides, provided by luxury resorts on the island. What’s more, Sir Bani Yas has two cruise terminals on its dedicated Cruise Ship Beach. The beach was created to offer an incredible cruise stopover experience, hosting an array of activities and facilities to suit all tastes.
Upcoming things to do in Abu Dhabi
Snow Abu Dhabi
Reem Island is set to host a number of ground-breaking attractions, including the world’s largest indoor snow park – Snow Abu Dhabi. Chill out in the Blizzard’s Bazaar, Snowflake Garden and Flurrie’s Mountain – a winter wonderland in the heart of the city.
This article was created in partnership with Abu Dhabi Tourism.
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