Abu Dhabi vs Dubai: Which one should you choose?
It’s the ultimate battle of the luxury cities: Abu Dhabi or Dubai? Sure, they both have impressive skylines and flashy resorts, but which one offers the most for travellers? If you’re struggling to decide which of the emirates is a better holiday option, fear not – we’re here to help you choose. From beaches and activities to food and culture, this is an insider’s guide to the popular debate. Slather on the sunscreen and buckle up – this could be an intense battle!
Sights & Culture
If you can tear yourself away from the postcard-worthy manmade beaches long enough, both cities have some fantastic offerings in the way of local culture. Abu Dhabi is the more traditional of the two, and with that comes more chances to experience real Arab customs and heritage. The Grand Mosque is an absolute must, but there are plenty of other cultural sights including Zayed Heritage Center and the fascinating Qasr al Hosn fort museum. Did you know falcon hospitals are a thing? They are, and Abu Dhabi’s is the world’s largest. Pay a visit and learn why these birds are such an important part of Emirati culture.
Dubai offers lots of impressive sights – the world’s tallest building, anyone? And there’s also a solid amount of cultural stuff to see here too, though it tends to be very tourist-driven. Old Dubai is a great spot to potter around, and its home to the city’s most notable souks, selling gold, spices and perfumes. One of the best ways to get a taste for the Dubai of the past is to take an Abra ride on the creek – by happy coincidence it’s also one of the cheapest things to do in the city.
Winner: Abu Dhabi
While both cities have something for culture-lovers, Abu Dhabi’s offerings are largely more authentic, and you’ll see a lot more of the local customs by just wandering around.
Things to do
They may have begun life as sleepy desert towns, but nowadays both cities can keep visitors busy. Abu Dhabi has Yas Waterworld, Warner Bros World and Ferrari World, the latter being home to the world’s fastest rollercoaster. You can also pay a visit to the Formula 1 track at Yas Marina Circuit, and even try your hand at racing on it if you’re feeling brave.
Dubai has an impressive amount of things to do, both indoors and out. First there are the theme parks; Legoland and Motiongate are great, and a trip to Bollywood Parks is the day out you didn’t know you needed. There’s the boutiques and eateries of City Walk to dive in and out of, areas like the marina and DIFC to explore… we could go on for ages; even the malls have ski rinks and aquariums.
There’s no denying it; Dubai is the clear winner here. It’s all-singing all-dancing (particularly at Bollywood Parks), and kids will also find more to do.
Need a bit of R&R during your trip? Both cities have a mixture of private and public beaches, though you can usually buy day passes for the private ones. Abu Dhabi is home to Saadiyat Private Beach, often touted as the best in the entire UAE, and with its pristine white sands, clear blue water and regular dolphin visitors, it’s a pretty well-deserved title. Saadiyat Public Beach is also stunning, as is Corniche Public Beach – a big hit with families in particular.
Dubai has the benefit of more beaches, although they aren’t quite as pretty as those in their neighbouring emirate. They do have great facilities though; developments like JBR beach and La Mer mean plenty of boutiques, cafes, and food trucks nearby so it’s easy to make a day of it. If you don’t like sharing the water with jellyfish (really who does?), keep your eyes peeled from notices put up by the local lifeguards warning that they’re about.
Winner: Abu Dhabi
Dubai has more beaches, but they’re just not as nice as the ones in Abu Dhabi, so we think the latter deserves this win. Plus, fewer jellyfish.
An important one: are the best eats in Abu Dhabi or Dubai? Somewhat surprisingly, neither city is home to a Michelin-starred restaurant (yet), though both cities try to get around this by dining out (pun game 10/10) on the Michelin-starred chefs that head up restaurants there (note: not the same thing). Both cities do have plenty to offer foodies though, so which one takes the cake? (8/10 for that one).
Abu Dhabi has a solid international food scene, you can find everything from Italian to Japanese here. There are some good casual dining options, but if you’re looking for quirky cafes and indie coffee shops you’re hardly spoilt for choice; the dining scene mainly centres around hotels. Celebrity chefs like Hemant Oberoi, Marco Pierre White, and Tom Aikens all head up restaurants in the city.
Well Abu Dhabi, Dubai sees your celeb chefs and raises you Nobu Matsuhisa, Gordon Ramsey, and Heston Blumenthal, who all have eating spots here. As such a multicultural city, it’s no surprise that the food offerings in Dubai are so diverse; you can spend the afternoon wolfing down cheap curry then finish it off with ice cream that costs 2999 AED (£633/$816. It’s at Scoopi if you’ve got cash to burn). There are also plenty of relaxed and quirky spots here – check out Cassette, Tom & Serg, and Brunch & Cake.
With more buzz, more variety and more Insta-worthy decor, Dubai is our clear winner here. Vegan and veggies will also find more plant-based menus in Dubai.
The Abu Dhabi vs Dubai debate gets a little trickier here. Both cities have plenty in the way of outdoor activities, including fishing charters, jet skiing, desert quad biking, wakeboarding, kitesurfing, and kayaking, to name just a few. You can also skydive in both, though we think doing it over The Palm in Dubai is a bit more impressive. Regular diving is pretty mediocre at both, with limited visibility and, with the exception of a few wrecks (more easily accessed from Abu Dhabi) not much to see.
While both cities are around 45 minutes from the desert, Abu Dhabi has the edge – it’s home to the largest sand dunes in the UAE, but tends to be less crowded. The city also has the Yas Marina Circuit for cycling, the Arabian Wildlife Park reserve and the Mangrove National Park, where you can kayak or just potter around the boardwalks. Hikers can visit Jebel Hafeet; the second highest peak in the UAE, around 90 minutes from the city.
Dubai has its fair share of outdoor fun too. Kite Beach is a watersport hotspot, and cyclists are set with the 86km Al Qudra Cycling Trail. If you’re feeling brave you can ride the XLine – the world’s longest and one of the highest and steepest ziplines ever. If you want to fully commit to an outdoorsy holiday, you must pay a visit to Hatta. Around 90 minutes from Dubai, this mountainous enclave offers something completely different from the bustle of the city. It’s a fantastic spot for mountain biking, hiking, or swimming at Hatta Wadi Hub.
In true fence-sitting style, we’re calling this one even. Abu Dhabi and Dubai may be known for their skyscrapers and luxury resorts, but there are plenty of opportunities to get down and dirty.
Abu Dhabi vs Dubai: our verdict
So, Abu Dhabi or Dubai – where should you book that flight to? Well, it depends what type of holiday you’re craving. If you want something action-packed, with plenty of things to do where you can revel in luxury for a few days, it’s got to be Dubai.
If, on the other hand, you fancy something a bit slower paced, with more local culture and beautiful beaches, plus the added bonus of being able to humble-brag that you’ve been somewhere most of your friends haven’t, go for Abu Dhabi.
Then again, they’re only 90 minutes from each other – why not both?
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