Direct flights are usually very convenient, but they can also be much more expensive than connecting ones, leaving you with the hard choice of picking between practicality and money.
I recently faced this exact same alternative on my way back from Tokyo to Italy.
In my case, giving priority to a cheap flight, I opted to fly with Etihad: from Tokyo to Abu Dhabi and then change to a connecting flight to Milan.
That’s when the idea of a layover came to my mind. Abu Dhabi’s famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque had always been on my bucket list. And being just a few miles away from it, how could I miss the chance of a visit? Obviously, I couldn’t! So I booked a flight that allowed me to do a one-day layover.
All in all, my 24 hours in Abu Dhabi couldn’t have been more worth it! Here are a few tips on how to have the perfect layover in the UAE capital!
24 hours in Abu Dhabi!
Book a flight with Etihad Airways
Etihad allows you to buy multiple destinations tickets under one booking. Instead of a 2-hour layover, I decided to stay one day longer. I was expecting the fare to raise but, to my surprise, the difference was a mere 100 US dollars, still way cheaper than a direct flight.
Reserve a room at a hotel close to the airport
My first flight was scheduled to land in Abu Dhabi at 12.45 am. So I reserved a room at “Premier Inn Abu Dhabi International Airport“, conveniently located right in front of Terminal 3. You can easily check in late at night and get a good rest before exploring the city.
After checking out, the hotel allows you to leave your luggage until the time of your flight. And if you have a long wait ahead, you can still have access to the rooftop pool.
The hotel also provides a complimentary shuttle bus that brings customers to Abu Dhabi’s main attractions. (Do check out the schedule beforehand and keep in mind that pick-up service from the attractions is only once a day, so be prepared to take a taxi if needed. A ride from the city center to the airport doesn’t cost more than 80 AED/ 21 USD)
Visit Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
With its stunning white architecture, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the world’s largest mosques and has room for up to 40,000 worshippers. Beautiful floral decorations, crystal blue pools, elegant white marbles, ceramics and golden elements, the stark contrast with the blue sky. Every single detail contributes to the harmonious and magical atmosphere of the complex.
The charming marble portico offers visitors several photogenic spots from where to capture this exquisite building in its many angles. The interior, just as breathtaking as the external design, features a magnificent hand-knotted carpet (the world’s largest) with elaborated arabesque motifs, as well as shining chandeliers made with Swarovski crystals.
During your visit, you might get the chance to hear the Adhan, the call to salah (prayer) recited by the muezzin from the minaret at set times of the day. I was very lucky to have this experience. Right during my visit, at some point, the melodious chant of the muezzin pervaded every corner of the Mosque. A delicate and yet very powerful tune.
Never have I had such an interesting and fascinating experience before in my life. And while listening to this melody, I couldn’t help but realize how little I know about this more than thousand-year-old religious belief and how I would love to learn more about it.
Visitors are welcome to enter Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque daily, except for Friday mornings which are reserved for worshippers only.
You must wear an appropriate attire in respect of the Islamic etiquette: long trousers or skirts, long sleeves and a headscarf for women. Abayas and Kanduras can also be borrowed for free before entering the complex.
What to do the rest of the afternoon
After visiting the mosque, I decided to challenge the 40°C weather (July is among the hottest months) and go explore somewhere else. There are plenty of things you can do in Abu Dhabi.
If you’re a big fan of Formula 1 car races, you should visit Ferrari World Theme Park. Alternatively, you could visit Yas Island and enjoy its amusement parks and golf courses. You could even go on a safari to the desert if you plan it in advance! I would have loved to try the safari but, having little time and no reservation, I picked something more flexible.
Here’s how I spent the rest of my afternoon in Abu Dhabi!
UAE Heritage Village
Located in Breakwater, this lovely reconstruction of a traditional oasis village will give you an idea of how life in the UAE must have been in the past. The village consists of some traditional barasti huts and a museum that provides information on the lifestyle in the desert, and a display of traditional clothing (Kandura for men, Abaya or Burkha for women).
What I loved the most about this interesting attraction is the stunning view of the city skyline. The white sand of the beach, the crystal clear water and the shining skyscrapers in the background offer a panorama that is postcard-worthy.
Just a few minutes walk from Heritage Village, you’ll find one of the city’s most popular shopping malls. With over 400 stores, cafes and restaurants, Marina Mall is the perfect place where to take a break and find relief from the heavy heat. From the observation deck in Marina Sky Tower, you can also get a spectacular view over Abu Dhabi.
After resting for a while at Marina Mall, I decided to walk to Emirates Palace, a luxurious hotel that has also become an iconic landmark of the city. The most impressive part of this fairy-tale-like hotel is probably the many fountains and the garden which reminded me of an oasis in the desert.
This complex of five shining skyscrapers was used as the setting for the popular American movie “Fast & Furious 7”. I only admired the stunning architecture from the outside but, on the 74th floor of Tower 2, there’s a nice observation deck from where you can admire the view of the city and the surrounding islands.
After the long exploration, I finished off my day in Abu Dhabi with a dip in the pool back at the hotel, the perfect way to prepare for my upcoming 6 hours flight to Italy!
These 24 hours in Abu Dhabi were magical! I loved the atmosphere of this vibrant and exciting city. Most of all, I treasure my visit to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque as I had the precious chance to experience a culture and religion very different from what I’m used to. Missing out on the opportunity to get a glimpse into the fascinating Emirati culture is something I would have regretted so much.
If you’re considering a layover in Abu Dhabi, don’t hesitate further and get ready to enjoy an extraordinary day in the amazing capital of the UAE.