If you’re planning on traveling to the UAE, you’re probably searching for that perfect combination of traditional culture and modern comforts that the Emirates have to offer travelers.
But where, specifically, you want to focus your explorations can be a little bit of a challenge. Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have excellent attractions for Western visitors to enjoy, along with a nice selection of more traditional Arab activities.
To help you decide whether you want to visit Dubai or Abu Dhabi, we’ve put together a guide comparing the two on multiple points, including:
- Location & Demographics
- Popular Cultural Attractions
- Popular Outdoors Attractions
- Popular Tours
Thinking About Visiting Abu Dhabi or Dubai?
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Location & Demographics
迪拜While both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are located on the southeast coast of the Persian Gulf in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is further north.
Dubai is also the largest city in the Emirates, and the most densely populated. It’s typically a popular destination for travelers from the West looking for city-based explorations because it has a modern urban vibe as well as plenty of family-style attractions.
Abu Dhabi is further south, about an hour and a half away from Dubai (measuring from city center to city center). It’s actually the capital city of the Emirates, and the second most populated city.
Abu Dhabi is also known for natural attractions and outdoorsy activities due to its unique location on an island that juts out into the Persian Gulf. It’s filled with parks, gardens, and public beaches, and is an excellent destination for the eco-conscious traveler.
You can easily travel between the two via bus or car, but keep in mind that it is a 3-hour round trip, so it may make sense to stay in each city on the days you’ll be exploring there to avoid losing too much time to transit.
Popular Cultural Attractions
Both cities offer a bevvy of cultural attractions to curious travelers from the West. You’ll find everything from historic buildings to hyper-modern construction, as well as museums, theme parks, and more.
Dubai is home to perhaps the single most iconic building in the Emirates – the Burj Khalifa. The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa has an impressive observation deck, spanning multiple stories in the tower and providing panoramic vistas of the city and ocean below.
It’s also home to luxury hotels on a scale practically unheard of outside of the Emirates. The Burj Al Arab, for example, is one of the most world’s most elite hotels. Even if you can’t stay there, it’s worth a walk by to see their signature sail-shape.
If you’re a fan of theme parks, you’ll find that Dubai is unrivalled when it comes to these types of attractions. You can explore IMG Worlds of Adventure, MOTIONGATE Dubai, Bollywood Parks Dubai, LEGOLAND® Dubai, and so much more (the last three of which are also available on the Go Dubai® Card via the Park Hopper Pass). As far as water parks go, Aquaventure is a top destination.
As for museums, Dubai is home to many smaller cultural attractions (many of which offer free or low-cost admission), as well as the Dubai Museum, the expansive new Etihad Museum, and the fascinating, family-friendly Hatta Heritage Village.
As the wealthiest city in the Emirates, Abu Dhabi is no slouch when it comes to amazing architecture and beautiful buildings. Their most famous offering comes in the form of the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, which some say is the most visually striking mosque in the entire world.
Abu Dhabi is also home to a selection of athletic venues with their own impressive architectural designs, including the Zayed Sports City Stadium, Al Jazeera Stadium, and the Yas Marina Circuit, host to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
There are also some theme parks and water parks here, although there are fewer than in Dubai. The most popular are Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi and the indoor Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.
For the museum lovers, Saadiyat Island is a must-visit destination that will only become more popular as it continues to be developed. For now, you’ll find the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which is the largest art museum in the Arabian Peninsula.
Popular Outdoors Attractions
Both cities are subject to the same extreme temperatures during certain times of year, but when it’s not summer you’ll find plenty of outdoorsy activities to do in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. There are more water-based activities in Abu Dhabi by virtue of its island-location, but Dubai is no slouch with Palm Jumeirah and its associated activities.
If you want to enjoy basically any water sport you can think of, Dubai is an excellent destination. Embark on a kayaking adventure, try your hand at windsurfing, or get a bit of exercise with some stand-up paddleboarding.
You also have multiple cruise options (including a few dinner cruises), so you can enjoy the beautiful, vibrant waters around Palm Jumeirah at your leisure.
Cycling enthusiasts will also love the opportunity to explore Jumeirah Beach with a convenient bike rental.
For those visitors looking to explore the greater natural world of Dubai, a desert safari is a top option.
There are other places to enjoy the water in Abu Dhabi, too, including the region around Yas Island. Take a sightseeing cruise that allows you to sit back and relax and spend some time swimming, too. There are also some charming sunset cruise options that are great for couples.
An especially unique thing to do in Abu Dhabi is a camel-trekking tour: this distinctively Arab activity is often on many bucket-lists. You could also choose from a morning desert safari to keep cool.
Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai offer a variety of tours to help visitors to explore their respective neighborhoods, highlights, and hidden gems. Many of the same companies operate in both cities (for big, international tourism organizations), although each also plays host to many small businesses.
The hop-on, hop-off Dubai tour from Big Bus is the most popular way of exploring this city. It offers multiple stops across several tourist-friendly neighborhoods with three routes to choose from.
Sightseeing doesn’t have to be confined to land, either – especially in a city like this! You’ll be able to enjoy a speedboat sightseeing tour in Dubai Marina, another must-see part of the city. A similar sightseeing cruise option explores the Palm instead.
There’s also a hop-on, hop-off Abu Dhabi tour from Big Bus that’s very convenient for visitors to this city. Choose from two routes (Yas Route or City Route) and enjoy pre-recorded commentary in eight languages.
If you want to explore the city via the water, there are many daytime cruise options to choose from.
In Summary (the biggest differences between visiting Dubai vs. Abu Dhabi)
Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have much to entice the Western traveler. From food and culture to entertainment and water sports, you’ll find it all at these top destinations. However, there are some key differences.
At the risk of generalizing a bit, you’ll find more nature-oriented activities and eco-friendly things to do in Abu Dhabi. Because of its island location, Abu Dhabi has plenty of cruises and boat activities, too.
On the other hand, you’ll find more high-end things to do in Dubai, from shopping and dining to theater and music. It’s the flashier city and has a lot to offer those looking for top-notch entertainment.
Dubai is the slightly more popular destination for Westerners (and more heavily populated city), so you’ll find a greater familiarity with English, better nightlife, and more tolerance of Western habits (including alcohol consumption – available at the resorts and hotels).
Abu Dhabi, however, has much to offer curious travelers who are interested in exploring the cultural side of things, including mosques, museums, and even a famous falcon hospital. It’s a bit quieter but can make for a very peaceful getaway.
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