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How Visiting Abu Dhabi (UAE’s Richest City) Was Like

Late Nov 2016, I arrived at Abu Dhabi Airport via Etihad Airlines, to begin an interesting trip. My first time in UAE, it was an eye-opening trip for a glimpse of life in UAE’s capital city!

First impressions visiting UAE’s Capital: Abu Dhabi!

Abu Dhabi is A Very Advanced City!

Airport security uses retina scans

When you arrive at the airport, you’ll have to go through eye scans at the immigration counter. Eye scans! Singapore hasn’t even implemented eye-scans as airport security. The eye-scans at Abu Dhabi’s airport was a pole with a tiny camera attached, so you’re supposed to stand in front of it and keep your eyes open. Easy-peasy. Not sure what happens if you’re wearing eye-enlarging, colored contact lenses though.

Lifts will know which floor you’re heading to

lift with no buttons • First impressions visiting Abu DhabiInside the lifts of my friend’s serviced apartment, there’re no floor buttons, just Open & Close and alarm buttons. Residents need to scan access cards outside the lifts and the system will allocate one to bring them to the desired floor. Which means you can’t visit your friend who lives on a different floor unless he’s with you. I was so curious, wondering if it’s an exclusive lift ride thing since I shouldn’t be too surprised at what UAE is capable of. Turned out, the lift does stop for others going up or down at the same time as you. Still!

Abu Dhabi’s really rich.

One of the richest cities in the world, with more than 9% of the world’s oil reserves, Abu Dhabi is rich beyond.. EXTREMELY RICH.

According to my day tour’s guide, Abu Dhabi’s citizens enjoy a lot of benefits and welfare from the government, and they can be described in two ways:
i) rich, or
ii) very rich.

Little-known fact: The tallest building in the world — Burj Khalifa– was supposed to be named Burj Dubai, but renamed to its current name to honour UAE’s then-president, Abu Dhabi’s then-emir — Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nayan. It was because Abu Dhabi took out $10 billion to bail Dubai out as Dubai was close to going bankrupt at that time.

At the serviced apartment we stayed at in Abu Dhabi, there were at least 2 swimming pools. At one pool, there can be more than 1 lifeguard on duty at any one time. It’s like.. a resort!

The people are so rich, they just discard their Porsches and cars at carparks.

Just kidding.

The truth is, in UAE, bankruptcy is a crime. You’re not allowed to default on payments to banks etc. If you do, you’ll get arrested. Which means you’ll go to jail. Before that happens, the people abandon their possessions and flee the country. These cars were at the airport’s carpark!

People are well-mannered.

There’re less than 2.8 million people living in Abu Dhabi, of which only 20% are locals while the rest are foreigners, just to give you a sampling of Abu Dhabi’s inhabitants. Everyone was pretty much respectful and civilized.

You don’t have to worry about food.

There’s a good selection of international cuisine! Fast food, Asian food, Western food, Middle Eastern food, they’re all available. So are supermarkets and malls. In fact, food delivery is well-used here.

Restaurants can get expensive.

At a normal restaurant (The Noodle House) in a random mall, my plate of Thai chicken rice with cashew nuts was more than S$20. A glass of Iced Tea cost more than S$6, a can of Coke almost S$5😦. Partly the reason why I settled many meals at Popeyes Chicken whahaha. At Popeyes, for less than S$10, I got 2 or 3 pieces of fried chicken, fries and a drink.

So guess who put on weight from a short trip to UAE? Yes, me, from fast-food!

It was interesting for me to note this as a designer 😉

First impressions visiting Abu DhabiMalls are in need of humans!

Granted, I only stepped into two shopping malls: Yas Mall (which is connected to Ferrari World theme park) and The Galleria mall. Yas Mall was still ok, there were people milling around, but The Galleria was just e-m-p-t-y. Where’s everyone?

The Galleria, Abu Dhabi • First impressions visiting Abu Dhabi
The Galleria, Abu Dhabi, on a weekday morning, at about 11am

Ferrari World theme park needs more visitors too!

Ferrari World theme park was the most empty theme park I’ve ever been, seriously. It means, you don’t really have to queue for rides! A little weird seeing such a crowd-devoid theme park though.

There’s so much land and space.

Abu Dhabi’s constantly developing the islands and building bridges to connect them. There’s so much space here, you can take a long time to drive from place to place.First impressions visiting Abu Dhabi

Perhaps because there’s so much land, it isn’t exactly optimized.

Just a simple example. At our expat friend’s apartment, he will drop us at the foyer, and then drive one hugeeee round to the back of the building because that’s where the entrance to the apartment’s carpark is.

Cars are monsters.

Look, I took these photos at just one carpark.

jeep in Abu Dhabi • First impressions visiting Abu Dhabijeep in Abu Dhabi • First impressions visiting Abu Dhabi

At Abu Dhabi, there’re plenty of jeeps and SUVs everywhere. Cars on the road are fast (though not as furious as Dubai). Even though the malls are empty, you might be surprised to find lots of traffic on the road. Because everyone drives so fast, SUVs and jeeps make safer choices as cars.

There’s plenty of wide roads. If you’re a pedestrian, definitely don’t jaywalk, other than for the fact that you should not endanger your life. It’s also an offence to jaywalk, by the way!

Buildings are tall and shiny..shiny buildings in Abu Dhabi • First impressions visiting Abu Dhabi.. and dusty.

It gets really dusty here.dusty building in Abu Dhabi • First impressions visiting Abu Dhabi

And buildings come in all sorts of shapes.

Abu Dhabi City Tour Review • The Petite Wanderess

Slim and sleek..
Abu Dhabi City Tour Review • The Petite Wanderess
As if it’s jiggling..
jiggly building in Abu Dhabi • First impressions visiting Abu Dhabi
building • First impressions visiting Abu Dhabi
Looking sliced..
building • First impressions visiting Abu Dhabi
Circular! Like a ferris wheel!
round-shaped building in Abu Dhabi • First impressions visiting Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi really likes Singapore 😆

First impressions visiting Abu Dhabi

😆 (Hope I don’t get into trouble for this!) Abu Dhabi has a building that really reminded me of Marina Bay Sands! Called Gate Towers, it’s a mixed-used development consisting of residential and retail units. According to this article, Gate Towers was largely influenced by Stonehenge, not Marina Bay Sands.

 Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque is really, really beautiful.

I’ll gladly fly back to Abu Dhabi to visit the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque again. You have to see it with your own eyes! If you really can’t make it there, well, you can always relish it through my blogpost)

 The desert safari was super fun!

First impressions visiting Abu DhabiDefinitely my favorite memory from Abu Dhabi! Sand-dunes, camels, dune-bashing and stars. Read all about the desert safari on my post!

There’s really not a lot that you can do in Abu Dhabi.

Other than a half-day city tour (read my review here) including going to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, visiting Ferrari World for a few hours, and a 6-hour desert safari tour, most of the time, I was just chilling at the apartment’s swimming pool.

Abu Dhabi’s very quiet, in a good way.

My itinerary was like this: Abu Dhabi > Dubai > Abu Dhabi. After leaving Dubai, I was glad to be back in Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is so quiet and subtle, I really love the peace I felt just being there.

What to know before visiting Abu Dhabi!

You should dress modestly in Abu Dhabi.

Although it’s the capital, Abu Dhabi’s more conservative compared to Dubai. The culture in Abu Dhabi is generally more traditional and reserved. It’s important to be covered up modestly, as well as refrain from any public display of affection, and not insult or indicate rude gestures especially to the locals. There’s also dress-codes that you should follow if you’re visiting malls and especially the Grand Mosque.

Stay respectful.

Pointing middle finger at someone, using swear words in correspondences (including WhatsApp or social media) are criminal offences that can get you in deep shit (such as getting arrested). Spend some time to read up on the laws before you travel to Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi consists of islands.

Abu Dhabi has various islands, such as Al Maryah Island, Yas Island, Al Reem Island, etc.

There’s no train system in this city.

Your only mode of public transport is by bus, taxi or Uber.

There are no proper addresses.

You don’t get a “27 Some Road Name”. Addresses are marked by buildings. So your address could just be “Sky Tower, [unit number], Al Reem Island.”. Cool huh?

| Check for hotel rates for Abu Dhabi |

It’s possible to drive over to Dubai to stay for a few nights.

Dubai is less than 2 hours by car away. If you’re in Abu Dhabi, I’ll encourage you to drop by Dubai since it’s so near!

| Check possible hotels to stay when you’re in Dubai! |

Have you been to Abu Dhabi? How was it to you?

Visited: End-Nov 2016
Photo credits: “Sliced building” and trapezoidal photos were snapped by Sam K., edited by me.
Information credits: Abu Dhabi’s population information | Burj Khalifa fun fact is via NYTimes

More Abu Dhabi posts:
Admiring how grand Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is
How visiting Abu Dhabi was like

And from Dubai!
Is Dubai worth a vacation?
The Dubai Miracle Garden you should visit

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First impressions visiting Abu Dhabi







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  1. I recently returned from my first trip to Dubai and honestly I see no reason to really go back to the UAE (except I have a friend there). From what you’ve shown here Abu Dhabi doesn’t have much going on either. Maybe I just don’t get it. It’s kinda creepy seeing everything vacant. I’m glad you shared this though – it was insightful and I’m glad I don’t feel all that alone!

    1. Haaa I really wondered where everyone was at the malls, because the roads were full of cars but where’re the walking humans? Perhaps at the mosque and the beach I guess, since it wasn’t excruciatingly warm weather at the end of the year =D

  2. Thanks for sharing all these quirky facts and pics! I don’t think I’d spend much time in the city itself, but apparently the islands are being developed quite a bit with museums and wildlife safaris (guess that shows my personal preferences for travel :P)

    1. When I searched for places of interest in Abu Dhabi, not many results were returned that appealed to me, other than the mosque, so you’re not alone definitely. I didn’t get to visit a museum this trip! If I ever return to UAE, it would be to other places (Oman comes recommended by others!) too =D

  3. Sounds like you had an interesting trip even though you say that you didn’t end up doing a lot haha! I have yet to visit Abu Dhabi (or Dubai) but I am definitely intrigued!

    1. Abu Dhabi was so much more low-profile compared to Dubai but the quietness of Abu Dhabi is much more preferred!

  4. I visited Abu Dhabi in 2015 as a day trip from Dubai. It was interesting, to say the least. I especially enjoyed the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque – very ornate compared to other mosques I’ve visited – like the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

    1. Abu Dhabi’s grand mosque left a really deep impression on me as well! I’m sure from 2015 to now, the city has developed much more too. =)

  5. I’ve never been here but I feel like a poor peasant girl with all the fancy items abound LOL Great photos though and I love that there was a Popeye’s chicken (I’m from the south of USA). I was also surprised by the amount of dust the buildings collect!

    1. Don’t say that, Maegan =) We all start somewhere and go different places in our lives! Anyway, Popeyes was my comfort food in Abu Dhabi, glad to have it very conveniently near the apartment I stayed at. And yeah, the amount of dust on that building surprised me too, was wondering why the daylight in Abu Dhabi looks rather weird – it’s the dust and sand in the air =O

  6. Wow, I’ve never had an eye scan before!

    I really enjoyed your post! I’ve never been to the UAE but it’s pretty high on my list of places to go. I’d love to go on a desert safari and visit the Grand Mosque.

    I can’t believe how much that building looks like Marina Bay Sands!!

    1. It’s actually a camera mounted on a pole and it captures a scan of your irises, for future use! Thank you Kat! UAE (namely Dubai and Abu Dhabi) was pretty interesting to observe as a first-time visitor. Dune-bashing was fun at the desert safari! Grand Mosque is a must-see this lifetime =D

      And yep!! That building truly reminded me of MBS when I first saw! As if my eyes were playing tricks on me lololl

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