From the tallest building in the world to an incredible ultra-modern Formula One circuit, the United Arab Emirates is undoubtedly a destination that should be on everyone’s radar. Whether you are road tripping from Dubai to Abu Dhabi or vice-versa, or perhaps heading out to explore some lesser-known spots in the UAE, this is definitely a destination you can quickly fall in love with.
During our visit to the UAE, we experienced the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi and want to share an itinerary on how you can enjoy the very best of both in only a few days. It’s definitely plausible that you would want to spend your whole trip in one of these cities but as is the norm with how we travel, we wanted to make the most of our visit and experience some of the best attractions in both cities.
The UAE is frequently renowned as being a “layover” spot for visitors flying on to other parts of the world such as Australia or South Africa but we would argue that this country should be considered as your final destination rather than just “passing through.”
Fly to UAE – Dubai or Abu Dhabi?
By the end of this post, we are convinced that you will be raring to book a trip to the UAE! You may have heard that Dubai, for example, is referenced as the “Las Vegas of the Middle East” or even “Las Vegas on steroids but without the gambling and Hangover-
More on that later…but first, you first need to decide whether you want to fly into either Dubai or Abu Dhabi. The reality is, it really doesn’t matter! Both are well-acclaimed international airports with leading Middle-East airlines Etihad and Emirates flying into both. It’s ultimately going to be down to where you are flying from, which airline you prefer and which offers the best deal.
Our trip saw us fly with Etihad from Chicago to Abu Dhabi but regardless of where you start, the distance between Dubai and Abu Dhabi is only 139km (86 miles) and it’s easy to commute between the two cities.
For those of you that follow our lead and opt to fly into Abu Dhabi, if you choose to fly Etihad, you have the opportunity to take advantage of their awesome luxury coach service where you can be transferred, FREE OF CHARGE, from Abu Dhabi to Dubai! We took advantage of this and we will be sharing more information on this later when we discuss the various options of traveling between each city.
As we started our adventure by spending 48 hours in Dubai, let’s start by taking a look at how you can maximize your time in the Las Vegas-esque city! By the way…I want to EMPHASIZE that based on our experiences, although I can see certain similarities between Vegas and Dubai, there is a lot more to this UAE city than the glitz and glamor of the Vegas Strip (including delicious cuisine)!
48 Hours in Dubai
When you first arrive in Dubai, you immediately notice the amazing skyline and myriad of skyscrapers that dominate this city located in the heart of a desert. For those of you intrigued by modern day architecture, Dubai is certainly one of the top cities in the world to explore the very best in terms of ultra-modern design. But visitors to Dubai can enjoy so much more than just architecture, though you would arguably miss out on part of the experience if you attempt to avoid places such as the Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab.
We stayed at the amazing Shangri-La Dubai Hotel which was perfectly located in the heart of the city just a short walk from the metro and gave us easy access to all of the below attractions that we explored during our short trip.
Here are some of our top recommended spots worth visiting in Dubai if you only have 48 hours to explore the “City of Gold.”
Let’s start with the iconic skyscraper which is currently the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted if you choose to take a tour to the highest platform but if you are looking to overcome any fear of heights, this is arguably the best structure in the world to accomplish this.
The view from the top of the Burj Khalifa is beyond breathtaking. Not only can you gain a birds-eye perspective of the city of Dubai, you are so high up that you can beyond the city and appreciate the beauty throughout the United Arab Emirates. Towering above the Dubai landscape at 829.8 meters (2,722 feet), the Burj Khalifa is a landmark everyone should have on their bucket list.
Take a moment to contemplate that height and put into perspective just how tall this structure is. If you have visited New York City, you may think the Empire State Building (1,454 feet) or even the new World Trade Center (1,792) are tall. When you compare them to the Burj Khalifa, they are dwarfed by the height of this architectural masterpiece.
Tickets are available to either level 125 or level 148 and regardless of which ticket option you choose, you will leave with amazing memories of the panoramic views that you enjoy. The challenge will be making yourself come down from the summit realizing that you have so much more to experience around Dubai.
Burj Al Arab
For many of us, contemplating a stay at the world’s only seven-star hotel is highly unrealistic. The Burj Al Arab is not only famous for this high-end luxury accolade but also because of the unique design that helps it stand out from fellow counterparts on the Arabian Peninsula and around the world.
Hop on a local bus and take the short walk to the gates of the Burj Al Arab to admire this stunning hotel. If you plan your trip in advance, perhaps you could enjoy breakfast or afternoon lunch in one of the various restaurants.
If you are really fortunate and want the ultimate UAE experience, be prepared to spend quite a substantial amount to stay one night in a luxury room at the Burj Al Arab.
Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates
Looking for a little retail therapy while in Dubai? Honestly, it’s pretty difficult to avoid it with the amazing Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates likely attracting your attention as you consider things to do around the city.
The Dubai Mall – A place like no other. A new day, a new dawn.
The Dubai Mall is one of the world’s largest and most-visited retail and entertainment destinations. With a plethora of global fashion brands housed inside this mall and a number of restaurants available, this is a great spot to enjoy an evening before heading back to the Burj Khalifa to enjoy the light show.
Gold and Spice Souks
Ready for a truly authentic Arabian experience? Be sure to head to the center of “local” commerce by exploring the gold and spice souks in the heart of Dubai. While modern, global conglomerates can be found in the high-tech super-skyscrapers that are scattered across the Dubai landscape, local traders can be found selling their spices, gold, and textiles in the markets that make up the “souks”.
Dubai souks are vibrant, colorful and noisy just like any other marketplace that you have likely experienced around the world. Dubai is unlike any of the other emirates in Middle-East primarily because it has become wealthy through trade rather than the stereotypical oil industry that we associate with this part of the world.
The Gold Souk is certainly the most popular as it consists of covered walkways lined with many jewelry shops selling pieces crafted from gold, silver, and other precious gems. Be prepared to have your best haggling tactics on hand when you visit these souks because you can definitely enjoy some pretty good savings if you play your cards right!
How to Get from Dubai to Abu Dhabi?
After an epic 48 hours exploring the very best that Dubai has to offer, you will be raring to take the short journey to Abu Dhabi to experience another unique variety of attractions. For those of you that opt against renting a car while in the UAE, you have a couple of options available to you.
Airline Luxury Coach Transfer
If you fly into either Dubai or Abu Dhabi with the leading Middle-Eastern airlines, Etihad and Emirates, you can take advantage of the luxury coach service that will transfer you between the cities.
As we mentioned, we did this when traveling from Abu Dhabi and Dubai but the problem is that you can only return using this service on the day that you fly out of UAE which unfortunately won’t work if you are trying to explore both cities on the same trip.
Public Bus Service
Our method of transportation to travel between Dubai and Abu Dhabi was to utilize the public bus service that runs between the two cities. Travel time is around 90-120 minutes and we can attest that it is definitely a comfortable experience with plenty of space and a relaxing atmosphere.
Depending on which part of Dubai you are staying will determine which bus service you take. If you are located in the older part of Dubai, E100 bus will take you straight to Abu Dhabi Central Bus Station from the Al Ghubaiba Bus Station.
However, given that we stayed at the Shangri-La Dubai Hotel across from the Burj Khalifa, we hopped on the metro line to Ibn Battuta Metro Station and boarded the E101 bus direct to Abu Dhabi’s central station.
Tickets cost 25AED (approximately $7) each way between Dubai and Abu Dhabi and can be purchased from inside the Ibn Battuta Metro Station.
24 Hours in Abu Dhabi
When you first arrive in Abu Dhabi, you will immediately realize that this city is completely different to Dubai. If you are looking for a more relaxing visit to the Emirates, Abu Dhabi is certainly a better option than the “flashy” glitz and glamor we associate with Dubai. As you can see from this post though, given their geographic proximity, you can enjoy the best of both cities and make your mind up as to which you prefer.
Abu Dhabi is the capital city of the UAE and the seat of the government, therefore it’s no surprise to hear that it is much more conservative than Dubai. However, don’t let this stereotype fool you because based on our experiences, we would argue that there are even more things to do in this capital city than in Dubai.
As with Dubai, there is no shortage of amazing hotels to choose from. We highly recommend staying in a hotel that has direct beach access to the gorgeous Arabian Peninsula and based on our experiences, the gorgeous Khalidiya Palace Rayhaan by Rotana is definitely a choice you won’t regret!
Be sure to read our post on where to stay in Abu Dhabi for a detailed review of this hotel.
Ready to head out and explore what Abu Dhabi has to offer? One of our recommendations is to take the Big Bus Tour so that you can “hop on and hop off” if you want to experience one of the following attractions. The two routes take you to Abu Dhabi’s iconic landmarks as follows:
- Red Route – This incorporates a “city tour” and passes landmarks such as the Marina Mall, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and Dhow Corniche Cruise. Click here for detailed times and stops on the Big Bus Red Route.
- Green Route – Hop on the green tour to venture across to Yas Island where you can experience the Yas Mall, Yas Marina Formula One Circuit and of course, one of the pièce de résistance attractions in Abu Dhabi, Ferrari World! Click here for detailed times and stops on the Big Bus Green Route.
Here are a few spots along both routes that we don’t think you will want to miss!
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Regardless of your religious affiliation, the breathtaking sight of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a real sight to behold and definitely an attraction you should want to visit during your trip to UAE. Whether you choose to hop off the Big Bus red route line and explore inside this mosque or perhaps just admire the architectural ingenuity from the outside, you cannot help but appreciate the grandeur and size of this amazing construction.
The “Grand Mosque” as it is more commonly referred, was designed by a Syrian architect by the name of Yousef Abdelky and constructed between 1996 and 2007. During the religious festival of Eid, more than 40,000 visitors will enter the Grand Mosque, reiterating just how large this place of worship is in comparison to other churches and religious buildings you may be familiar with.
With over 80 marble domes held aloft by 1000 pillars and accented with four 107m-high minarets, the Grand Mosque is a true masterpiece of modern, Islamic architecture. The pure white marble exterior is what makes this landmark stand out, while the positioning ensures that you can see from several miles away while approaching Abu Dhabi.
Visitors are welcome to enter the Grand Mosque except during prayer times, though it’s worth noting that you should be prepared with appropriate dress code prior to visiting. As with all mosques, it is typical etiquette that females will wear a headscarf when visiting the Grand Mosque, while everyone is required to wear long, loose-fitting, ankle-length trousers or skirts and long sleeve shirts.
For those of you that visit wearing inadequate attire, don’t worry, after passing through security, you can find hooded “abayas” (cloaks) and “kandouras” (male equivalent) that can be borrowed for free.
A free 45-minute guided tour provides visitors with a brief history of the Grand Mosque along with pointing out some of the intricate details of both interior and exterior. You will also learn some of the brief fundamental characteristics associated with the Islamic religion!
Are ready to experience the world’s fastest roller-coaster? Head to Ferrari World to sample the Ferrari Rossa to enjoy a top speed of 150 mph. Although the ride around the 2.2km track only lasts 1.32 minutes, it’s the ultimate “thrill a minute” experience!
But if you prefer to enjoy something a little more relaxing and leave the rollercoasters for those adventurous folks out there, Ferrari World is home to an abundance of attractions that will keep you occupied throughout the day. From the intense G-Force, you can experience from these state of the art rollercoasters to a family fun go-kart experience, you cannot help but fall in love with Ferrari World.
If you are ready to purchase a Ferrari inspired gift for a loved one (particularly if the thought of purchasing an actual Ferrari is a little too expensive for your budget!), head to the shopping experience to enjoy a myriad of Ferrari memorabilia and souvenirs.
Five on-site restaurants ensure that you won’t leave hungry and proving that anyone visiting Ferrari World can truly make this a full day experience.
It’s fair to say that we enjoyed our fast and furious (sorry for the Ferrari World pun there!) visit to the United Arab Emirates. If you are raring to enjoy an action-packed itinerary during your visit, regardless of the amount of time you spend in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi, you can be assured that there will be plenty to keep you occupied.
Visiting both cities on the same trip is definitely our recommendation given that they are so unique and “different.” When you are an architecture aficionado like myself, it’s hard to look beyond the Burj Khalifa and Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque for the highlight attractions in UAE but there is certainly something for everyone to enjoy.
Have you visited either Dubai or Abu Dhabi? What would you recommend to someone visiting either or both these cities?