We arrived in AD in 2009 and the city has changed a lot since then. In this section I’ll talk about stuff to do in the city itself, rather than the emirate of Abu Dhabi (which covers 80% of the country).
You can find plenty of attractions like Yas Water World or Ferrari World, but we haven’t really done too many of these big attractions for the simple reason that we’d rather spent our hard earned cash on getting away, and a family of four day out at one of these big attractions is easily over $100. BUT there are some good deals and some free stuff too, and seeing as these are family specialties that’s what we’ll concentrate on…
The obvious starting point for families in AD is the Corniche, the sea front walk that starts at Marina Mall at one end and finishes up near the Mina port area of the city. Around the port you can have mooch around the markets, probably the only drive-through market in the world (at least for fruit and veg). You can also pick up some dates, the kind you eat, we have our regular dude who always gives a discount. Lorena always has to remember to take a shawl or similar to cover up a bit, it’s not mandatory, but she feels more comfortable.
When we first came to the UAE we lived near the Corniche and we were down there every weekend, sometimes to go to free events like the Terry Fox Walk, Beats on the Beach, The Red Bull Races, Volvo Ocean Race or the sadly defunct Womad festival.
You can go for a stroll down the Corniche anytime but evenings and weekends are busiest, don’t be surprised to see toddlers toddling and nippers nipping at midnight on a Friday night. We used to go down on a Friday afternoon, maybe to go to the beach, or to one of the playgrounds or for an ice cream.
It’s worth noting that the beaches are split into family beaches, where you pay to get in with the family or bachelor beaches, which are free. Do bear in mind that the bachelor beaches are used by bachelors funnily enough and women visiting the beach may feel uncomfortable in a swimsuit. On the other hand I do remember guys sharing their pop and biscuits with us and taking photos with the kids. This may be a bit of a culture shock if you come from the West, but we always felt comfortable with it and found people’s generosity touching.
If you don’t fancy the beach there are some playgrounds which are best suited to toddlers and if you cross the road there are LOADS of playgrounds along the road in the Corniche park. If you are this side at the weekend bring along your disposable BBQ and join the expat Arab families having a Shisha and a kebab, I even remember seeing a family take a bed with them for granny to have a sleep on.
Also at the Marina Mall end of the Corniche you can find the Heritage Village, which is a bit worn around the edges, but has enough to keep little ones entertained for a couple of hours, with a camel, some traditional crafts and a small beach and restaurant.
There are other parts of Abu Dhabi to explore as well, you check out the bus loads of tourists disgorging at Sheikh Zayed mosque, which again is free and includes a friendly introduction to Islam and a chance to look at a really big carpet… try and go off peak if you want avoid the aforementioned hoards, when the cruise liners are in town.
There is one other interesting new park in town, conveniently situated 5 minutes walk from our house 🙂 Mushrif Park is great to visit anytime (if it’s cool enough) it has plenty of green space, a petting zoo lots of play areas and a greenhouse thingy. We often go on a Saturday afternoon for the craft/organic market which has a reasonable selection of stall and some food vans. We have been known the send the kids for kick about while we browse or they can can find a quiet spot to shoot each with nerf guns, which are all the the rage for 7 and 9 year-olds.
There are also lots of events at the park, in the year or so it has been open it has seen world music concerts (Qawwali Flamenco were great), a food festival, a science festival (the one I have described somewhere else on this page) and an aeronautical interactive exhibition.
There’s definitely more to AD than malls but they will figure quite highly on your itinerary simply because of the weather and because so there is no real city centre, which I struggled with when I came, but it’s a fact. So you can give in either sooner or later and end up in one of the many malls. If you do want one that’s a bit different you can try the indoor Souk and World Trade Centre which is a Norman Foster design and looks funky and sells some nice Arabic nonsense and knik-knacks.
Also look out for one off shows and events at Malls, like the one at Yas Mall I mention somewhere here, we have seen dinosaurs, Santa Clauses, African drum circles and photography exhibitions over the years, it’s worth looking out in the free papers like Abu Dhabi Week for what’s going on.
Of course Abu Dhabi doesn’t just mean the island, but the other islands that also surround the city. Yas Island is probably the best known, and for many of the activities there are quite heavy costs involved, but there are some cheap and even free options as well…
Ikea is a good bet in the hot months as they have a free supervised, high quality play area where you can leave the kids for an hour while you shop (or don’t). When it’s not so blistering hot, get yourselves down to the F1 race track on a Tuesday evening, you can rent a bike to ride round the track or have a walk round, it’s a one-off experience with a good atmosphere and they don’t charge to get in. Also on the Yas Marina circuit is the Saturday Market which is a welcome break from the malls.
And if you are in the money the post F1 gigs are great, but you have to buy tickets for the F1 to get access OR know somebody who has tickets but doesn’t want to go to the gig :),. Your other alternative is to turn up to the show you fancy and approach people who have wrist bands but don’t want to go in, which is how a group of us got in to see Blur. over the years I’ve also seen Beyonce, Jamiroqui, The Who, Muse and Kylie for free and also been to a couple of paying gigs with the family, Black Sabbath, Robbie Williams and Metallica. Also during the F1 there are the Beats on the Beach concerts which are free concerts on the Corniche that are a good chance to check out some free Arabic, Philipino or Indian singers.
Oh, and by the way they have just opened ANOTHER wacking great mall on Yas Island, which is really big and full of shops…. but also there are always some events worth looking out for in malls, with this one we recently went to a street ball tournament that was free, all you spend is several hundred dirhams on stuff you never intended to but in the first place, a bargain!
Other family days out
There are the usual suspects for killing a few hours at the weekend, the cinema is always good when it’s 40 degrees outside, as are the “play zones” in all the big malls. Thankfully, now the kids are a bit bigger we have knocked the play zones on the head, not only for the mind numbing noise levels, but also because you can spend $50 in as many minutes getting angry at a video game. There are couple of non-video game play areas, like the one in the Marks and Spencer’s Mall and in the big playzones themselves, but at the weekend they can resemble war zones as much as play zones. It also pays to keep your ears to the ground with what is happening with the various embassies and cultural centres. We have been to a few over the years, including the British, the Mexican and the Korean. The Koreans have a cultural centre that puts on events, check out the website and learn how to make a kite…
By the way if you want to watch a film in peace, avoid the cinema in the evenings, if you go to early showing at the weekend people are there to watch the movie but later on this is most definitely not the case…
The other great movie space is in Manarat Al Saadiyat, the art gallery has all the usual art gallery stuff PLUS free movies on Saturdays and Mondays. We have seen some classic films that we never would have otherwise seen, up to now including, The Railway Children, Once Upon a Time in the West, Safety Last, Born Free and the fantastic It’s a Wonderful Life.
Some of the workshops are also geared to kids, some of which are geared to kids, and indeed some of the exhibits are cool too.
And while you’re there you can visit the best public beach in Abu Dhabi by far, the Saadiyat public beach. You have to pay to get in, but it’s not too bad. You can also take your own snacks and there is a taxi stand if you don’t have a car.
Also good for the occasional workshop and BRILLIANT for free live gigs is the New York University also on Saadiyat Island. Since it started we have seen everything from comedy to experimental modern classical. For the kids we have been selective and taken them two or three times, but each one has been an absolute winner…
The newest addition to the city is also near Saadiyat in the shape of the Abu Dhabi Louvre. I’m not going to get into the politics of the place, that aside, it’s a worthwhile visit. We went when it first opened and there were too many people there, next time we’ll go in the Summer when there are less cruise ships in town. The boys enjoyed it as much as they’re going to enjoy an art gallery, and it was good to give them the chance to see some artists they had heard of. It’s not massive, but has a bit of everything and the building alone is worth the visit.
Further afield you can visit the Zoo, which has improved A LOT in recent years and is now pretty popular, but I have to say I still won’t be rushing back, especially now the kids are a bit older.
A couple of other waterside attractions are the Eastern Corniche for a spot of fishing and then further along the Antanara resort which has a walkway with a marina where you can rent out kayaks for a paddle in the mangroves and get a coffee or a meal at one of the restaurants. There’s also the Al Wathba Wetlands Reserve where you can do some bird spotting including a lot of flamingos.
And while we’re on the subject of aquatic fun, if you’re in Abu Dhabi for any length of time you could always try joining a Dragon Boat team, like the Capital Gragons who meet at the marina near Marina Mall or another one of my old teams the Club Dragons who meet on the Eastern Corniche.
There are other ways to get on the water as well. You can club together and rent a boat (with Captain), from the Yas Island Marina, fill it full of goodies and take it out to the mangroves, it’s not cheap at around AED2000 but you can upwards of a dozen on the boat so it’s doable if it’s full. Our mate Ben worked for a company that included access to a boat so we went out a few times with him over the years and always had a great time.
I have also been out on what are quite frankly booze cruises, when it’s more about adults letting their hair down.
A more energetic option is to go kayaking, which is not cheap either, but is definitely worth it. You can to paddle about and your guide will explain what you’re looking at. We did this when Lorena’s cousin was over from Ecuador with the kids, and I will be repeating it again I hope.
If you are sports fan there’s always a football match to see how not to play the beautiful game….but despite the low level of footy on offer it’s worth going because games are often free to get in and with smaller clubs like Baniyas it’s a chance to see the Emirate fans doing their stuff…
Also worth looking out for are events like Abu Dhabi Science Festival, Mubadala tennis tournament, international cricket matches and the Qasr Al Hosn festival in February which is good freebie look at Emirati culture.
Eating Out in Abu Dhabi
This is by no means a food blog, but after 6 years we have got a handle on where to eat in Abu Dhabi with a family. The city has everything you would expect from a biggish city, but with some quirks that take time to digest. Booze can only be consumed in hotels with the exceptions of a couple of clubs (more of which in a minute). This means that if you drink you will be spending at least some time hunting down family friendly hotel brunches. These vary in price and quality, you can check out the options in Time Out . I don’t have any real hotel favourites, the brunch at the Intercon has plenty of outdoor space and even a bouncy castle, but some of our friends are real brunch junkies who spend the weekends looking for the best deals.
The other reason we’re not big on the hotels is that we’re members of the Club and we spend most of our free time down there. Now rather than eulogizing about the place for the next 500 words, just have a look at the link if you’re interested. But safe to say it’s well worth the membership dues. Still if you are not the dues paying type there are other clubs where you can walk in off the street to eat (unlike the Club), notably the City Golf Club, which if you don’t mind the glacial service has better prices than most of the hotels and has space for the kids.
The next quirk is that many of the restaurants frequented by Arabs have family rooms. These are designed for family who want to be ‘discrete’ but we also used to use them when the kids kept trying to escape and would less loose lung busting screams. So just ask when you go in if you can have a family room and you will soon be ensconced in a private room away from the cares of the world. One we went to recently was also an interesting off-the-beaten track (booze free) brunch spot hidden away in the Mina area, which I got from this fellow Abu Dhabi blogger, which is a winner for all you who something a bit more Emirati than the usual fare.
An honourable mention has to go the Art Cafe in El Bateen, as one of the only independent cafes in the city that also has cool stuff for the kids. I’d recommend the cafe for some grub and for a kid’s party. As well as reasonable food the decor is fab and you get to add another brick in the wall, this time a hand painted one….
It’s also worth mention to make the most of the city’s Iftar spots, this could mean a 5 star affair or forming a queue at the Iftar tents spread around the city like these at the Grand Mosque. And of course you can’t beat a cup of super sweet chai and a couple of samosas all for under AED5, from just about any street corner in Abu Dhabi. Tommy is the samosa fan and they both love the tea…And to be honest I think anything boiled to buggery is a winner, I had an AED8 chicken curry with chapati that was bloody lovely. It’s a shame that these cafes aren’t a bit more woman friendly….
I know I have already mentioned the Club, but we have spent so much of our life here over the years that it seems remiss not to include some pics so we can look back in years to come and see how our hairlines (at least mine) have receded…
Tommy’s Abu Dhabi
we live opposite Sheikh Zayed Mosque and I always like a good game of manhunt in Mushrif park you should go check out Mushrif park. its always hot but we enjoy every time we go there 🙂