Trying to decide between traveling to Dubai or Abu Dhabi? It’s one of the best dilemmas in the world to have, and we’re happy to help you solve it!
Both cities on the Persian Gulf are the epitome of luxury and wealth, but they each offer something slightly different to visitors. While Dubai remains the preferred playground of international tourists, Abu Dhabi tends to appeal more to the slower-paced travelers who want to explore the history, take in the views, and relax.
Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are remarkable, and this guide will help you decide whether you should visit Dubai or Abu Dhabi first!
Dubai is the better city to visit because it’s more popular with tourists, meaning that there are simply more things to see and do in the city. It’s also the city of superlatives, as it’s the home to many record-breaking buildings and attractions – the tallest skyscraper, the largest shopping malls, biggest aquarium, etc.
Also, Dubai is more westernized than Abu Dhabi, so the culture shock isn’t that big. It has laxer rules on the dress code, it’s easier to find nightclubs and bars that serve alcohol to people of age, and you can wear a bikini at the beach without worrying you’ll offend everyone present.
On the other hand, Abu Dhabi is more traditional and family-oriented, with prettier beaches. If you’re looking to go on a relaxing family vacation and don’t mind the stricter rules, you might actually enjoy scenic Abu Dhabi more.
More people tend to visit Dubai, so it is a more popular tourist destination. More tourists mean fewer locals, and laxer rules on dress code and behavior. You still can’t walk around half-naked in either city, but Dubai is generally more relaxed when it comes to the dress code for women, especially in areas that are filled with tourists.
Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, is much more conservative with fewer tourists, so the dress code is often enforced more strictly.
Another thing to note is that Dubai is known for its amazing nightlife, where dress codes are pretty much non-existent. It’s uncommon to see conservative Muslims at nightclubs, so both women and men are free to wear more revealing clothing.
So, what should you wear when exploring the UAE? Whether you’re in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, if you’re walking around the city during the day, you should wear something that covers your shoulders and knees, at the very least.
Covering your head is not required (except when entering a mosque), but it’s recommended to have a scarf handy, just in case. It will come in handy if you decide to venture off to a less touristy part of the city, but it can also help protect against the hot desert sun and all the dust!
For visiting mosques and any other religious buildings, women need to cover up head to toe, meaning a headscarf, long sleeves, and loose-fitting full-length skirts. It’s worth noting that this isn’t specific to the UAE, but rather how you’re expected to dress when entering a mosque anywhere in the world. Men must also wear pants (no shorts), but they can wear regular t-shirts.
Dubai is the city of superlatives, so head there if you want to see the world’s tallest skyscraper, the largest shopping malls, and many other best and biggest attractions. It’s known for great nightlife, spectacular views, and some of the luxury hotels on the planet.
Some people prefer Dubai because it is slightly less conservative than Abu Dhabi, so it’s the better fit for westerners who aren’t too keen on covering up in the middle of the summer. A dress code still must be followed, but the rules are much laxer in Dubai thanks to the abundance of tourists.
Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, is much more grounded. It’s still a big and bright city – in fact, it’s the biggest Emirate by land and the richest of them all by GDP. But it’s much more traditional and conservative than Dubai, so don’t expect to see many extravagant tourist attractions there.
Abu Dhabi is more about the beautiful beaches, serene natural settings, and theme parks that are fun for both kids and adults. It’s slower-paced than Dubai, so it’s more suitable for travelers who are looking to relax and enjoy themselves, instead of exploring during the day and partying at night.
Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are very expensive cities and you’ll need a juicy budget to thoroughly enjoy either of them. The cost of public transport, restaurants, and tourist attractions are pretty much the same in both cities, but the accommodation options are slightly more affordable in Dubai.
Visit Abu Dhabi if you want to see a less touristy city. Abu Dhabi is not as popular with tourists, so it lacks cheap accommodation options like hostels and budget hotels. It’s not that Dubai is swarming with them, but they are becoming more common throughout the city.
Dubai has record-breaking buildings, great nightlife, and a slightly more westernized culture. It’s also a great place for families thanks to the abundance of beautiful beaches and a myriad of amusement parks that the youngest travelers will adore.
Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest skyscraper with a total height of 828 meters. It’s one of the most famous record-breaking buildings in the world, and it’s easily the most iconic Dubai sight. The skyscraper boasts observation decks at levels 124, 125, and 148, but the tallest of the three can only be accessed on guided tours.
It’s best to visit Burj Khalifa on a clear, sunny day because then you get to experience a truly magical panoramic sight of the Dubai skyline. Visiting on a cloudy day is not quite as impressive, but there is something special about being so high up in the sky that you’re actually above the clouds.
NOTE: Here’s a one-day Dubai itinerary if you only have 1 day to visit the city.
Burj Al Arab is another one of Dubai’s many superlatives. It’s one of the most famous (and most luxurious) hotels in the world, known for its extravagant room décor and iconic waterfront location.
The modernist architecture is as impressive as the fact that nobody thought to connect it to the city’s sewer system, meaning that one of the most expensive hotels in the world actually has trucks taking out the sewage every day.
The Dubai Mall is the largest shopping mall ever built, so it’s the perfect place to go if you need to do some shopping in the UAE. The mall boasts thousands of shops, including everything from budget souvenir shops to high-end fashion designer stores. The iconic shopping mall is home to an indoor ice-skating rink that’s open year-round, the world’s largest aquarium, as well as countless eateries.
Dubai Miracle Garden is easily one of the prettiest sights in the entire city. It’s a vast botanic garden with a myriad of fun and colorful floral creations right there in the middle of the desert.
The Miracle Garden boasts a heart tunnel, topiary animals, and a life-sized airplane, all adorned with beautiful blooming flowers. It’s one of the most famous attractions in the entire city, and it should definitely be at the top of your list of things to see in Dubai.
Palm Islands are another iconic Dubai sight, but one that can actually be seen from space. The construction of the artificial islands has been one of the most talked-about things in the past two decades, both because of the sheer ambition of the project and the environmental implications.
Nevertheless, the artificial palm-shaped islands remain an iconic Dubai sight everyone should see if they get the opportunity.
If you’re traveling with children, Dubai is easily the better city to visit thanks to the abundance of amusement and theme parks. Dubai Parks and Resorts is the largest theme park destination in the entire Middle East, and it’s heaps of fun for both kids and adults. There’s Motiongate Dubai, Legoland Water Park, Bollywood Parks Dubai, and just the good old Legoland Dubai.
All the theme parks are huge with dozens of rides, eateries, and souvenir shops. Many of them also feature themed accommodation options and it’s possible to stay at an actual Legoland hotel, which is pretty cool.
Related: Buy yourself the perfect backpack for amusement park visits.
Ski Dubai is the city’s indoor skiing center that’s open year-round. It boasts (artificial) snow mountains, a chair lift, and some pretty decent slopes, making it perfect for anyone who needs a break from the desert heat. Ski Dubai is suitable for both children and adults, but it’s generally more popular with the younger crowds.
Marina Walk is a 7-kilometer waterfront walkway in Dubai Marina. It’s lined with palm trees, cafes, and restaurants, making it the perfect place for a romantic stroll in the evening. The walkway boasts beautiful views of the Dubai skyscrapers, and you can often see fabulous yachts docked at the marina.
Al Fahidi Historical District is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Dubai. It’s definitely worth checking out if you want to get a glimpse of life in the metropolis before all the skyscrapers and luxury hotels. The buildings in the historical district are all built in traditional style and they’re home to various museums and art galleries that explore and celebrate the history and culture of the region.
Dubai Gold Souk is a must-visit for anyone who is into jewelry and luxury or just looking for souvenirs. It’s a huge market with too many stores to count, and they all sell gold jewelry. The sheer amount of gold is blinding, and it’s impressive to see so many stunning pieces in one place.
You can also find other items for sale at the Gold Souk, including shoes, scarves, spices, and pretty much everything else that’s common in Dubai!
As the slower-paced of the two cities, Abu Dhabi remains the better option for families and travelers looking to have a more relaxing vacation. It boasts beautiful beaches, historic sights, and some amazing theme parks that are fun for everyone!
Sheikh Zayed Mosque is one of the largest mosques in the entire world, and easily one of Abu Dhabi’s best-known sights. The extraordinary mosque boasts 82 domes, and it is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates.
Everything about the mosque is fascinating, from the ornate columns to the mesmerizing interior of the Great Prayer Hall. Just bear in mind that you need to be appropriately dressed if you want to go inside the Sheikh Zayed Mosque to explore it, meaning proper pants for the gentlemen and long sleeves and headscarves for the ladies.
Emirates Palace is Abu Dhabi’s most iconic hotel. The palatial hotel has its own marina and a private beach, so it’s the perfect place for people who are looking to be away from everyone. You can even book camel rides directly at the hotel, which is as fun as it sounds.
The luxury hotel boasts a mixture of Islamic and modern architectural elements that come together wonderfully. And the good news is that regular people who have no intention of staying in the hotel are free to come and check out the grand building!
Ferrari World is an amusement park on Yas Island, and it’s the first Ferrari-themed park in the world. It’s home to the fastest rollercoaster in the world, which reaches speeds of over 200 km/h. It’s safe to say that the ride is not for those faint of heart, but Formula Rossa is a great rollercoaster for anyone looking to get the same adrenaline rush that comes with being behind the wheel of a Ferrari.
The Abu Dhabi amusement park is regarded as one of the best theme parks in the Middle East, and it’s one of a few theme parks that’s more fun for adults than kids. That’s probably because kids don’t get excited to see the displayed Ferrari cars, and they certainly don’t understand what an honor it is to be in the presence of an actual Ferrari F1 car.
Louvre Abu Dhabi is an innovative art museum known for its extensive collection and impressive modern architecture. The museum is surrounded by water and features a dome roof that is inspired by the Louvre pyramid, hence the name.
The museum collection boasts exhibits from the Iron and Stone Age, as well as many famous artworks from European masters. You’ll also find a restaurant at the museum, and there’s even an option to go kayaking in the museum! It’s worth noting that Louvre Abu Dhabi features a separate children’s museum, so it’s fun for the entire family.
Sir Bani Yas Island is one of the top tourist projects in Abu Dhabi, and it’s home to many interesting attractions. Most of Abu Dhabi’s theme parks are on Yas Island, including the iconic Ferrari World.
The island is also home to Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi’s race track that famously hosts F1 races. The layout of the Yas Marina Circuit can be accommodated to serve pretty much any motorsport race in the world, and you can even drive vehicles on the track, provided it’s not hosting an event while you’re visiting.
The island is also home to Yas Waterworld, which is Abu Dhabi’s largest water park with waterslides, static waves, and excellent shopping opportunities. You’ll also find the Warner Bros theme park on the island, as well as the stunning, mangrove-lined Yas Beach.
Mangrove National Park is a great place to visit while you’re in Abu Dhabi. It’s a mangrove forest with more than 60 different bird species and countless opportunities for kayaking and other water fun. It’s such an interesting sight because it’s not every day that you get the opportunity to visit a mangrove forest in a city that’s mostly just desert!
Saadiyat Island is one of Abu Dhabi’s most developed islands with numerous resorts, museums, a sprawling marina, and some of the best beaches you’ll see in the UAE. The entire island is a large tourist project that’s yet to be completed, so it’s only going to get better as the years go by.
There’s an entire district on the island that’s dedicated to arts and culture, and this is where the famous Louvre Abu Dhabi is. It’s also planned for the island to host a Guggenheim museum, which is supposed to be the largest of all Guggenheim museums ever built. The island is also home to Saadiyat Beach, which is a vast stretch of white sand featuring water sports and chair rentals.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.