What to see
Escape the buzz of the city by taking a kayaking trip through the mangroves. The area outside Salam Street, next to the Anantara Eastern Mangroves Hotel, is always a treat. Book in with Seahawk kayaks and, after a quick training session, you’ll be on your way. Navigate little nooks and holes and see flamingos and other wildlife up close. Some packages offer night-time and sunrise kayaking, when it’s cooler. It’s a peaceful and therapeutic way to disconnect from the city.
When day turns to night, take to the desert. There is something magical about camping out there overnight – from the scenic sand dunes to the wildlife to just sleeping out under the stars. There are a number of tours that offer a memorable experience – I like the Arabian Nights Village.
Where to stay
The Abu Dhabi Edition is my favourite hotel hands down. The feel is more like a gallery than a hotel, with a cool, storied lobby area and designer furniture. Owned by Ian Schrager, co-founder of the iconic Studio 54 in New York, it has a true boutique aesthetic. It also has an incredible steakhouse called Oak Room, and my favourite swimming pool. The Edition is stylish, laid-back and guaranteed to have an amazing soundtrack playing in the background.
Where to eat
Start the day off right at Jones The Grocer on the Corniche. An Australian-inspired café, it has all the brunch staples at its beachside location and without a doubt the best coffee in town. Aside from the usual classic egg dishes try the harissa chicken: chargrilled, spicy and with Morrocan-style couscous, it’s an Arabic twist on a simple dish.
For later on I’d recommend the downtown hole-in-the-wall Al Sayyad Restaurant. Having recently moved from the Mina Zayed Port, it’s a firm favourite with locals for its fresh seafood. With such a simple menu, it’s hard to go wrong but if it were me, I’d order the tiger prawns – they’re grilled to perfection.
If you’re feeling fancy, head to La Petite Maison at the Galleria Mall. A French fine dining restaurant, it channels the sophistication of the Riviera. My go-to dish here is the lamb chops with the potato gratin. Washed down with something from the amazing French wine selection, it’s truly phenomenal.
Where to drink
For a down-to-earth beer-garden vibe, check out Captain’s Arms at the Meridien Hotel. Modelled on an English pub, its mock-Tudor interiors are a refreshing contrast to Abu Dhabi’s predominantly modern architecture. If you don’t feel like trying the fish and chips, you can order from next door’s Italian joint Pappagallo.
For something a little livelier try Loca at The Galleria. It’s all about sports and Mexican food here – order the shrimp salad while catching a game. For classic cocktails visit the Library Bar at the Abu Dhabi Edition and ask for an Old Fashioned. Otherwise, order from the laid-back pool bar. It’s an ideal al-fresco location – you can sip on your drinks by the water – and the prices are pretty reasonable, too.
When it gets dark…
Check what club nights are happening with Boogie Box, a series of parties that’s been going for 10 years. It’s a night that I run myself, hosting both local and international house and techno headliners. The NYU Abu Dhabi has a varied programme of art and music shows for the public. Intended to enrich the cultural fabric of Abu Dhabi – presenting music from around the world, including folk, jazz, soul and electronic – the events are usually free to attend and bring an international flavour to the city.
My advice for a first-timer…
Abu Dhabi is a multicultural city; people are approachable, hospitable and open-minded. Don’t feel worried about asking for directions or recommendations. And don’t be surprised if we speak loudly and gesture a lot with our hands. We’re not annoyed – just very expressive people!
Where to shop
I’m not a huge shopper myself but if you’re looking for fine art and antiques, check out Estuary Auctions – you can always find gems in here. And a visit is a full experience, as you can learn about the history of the collections through lectures and enjoy the thrill of a live auction.
For a more old-school experience, go to the Gold Souk in Madinat Zayed. This is where we take Boogie Box’s international headliners who are looking for a traditional Abu Dhabi experience. It’s more authentic and grassroots than the modern malls. Tourists can pick up souvenirs, local garments and cultural ornaments.
Though Abu Dhabi is more famous for its islands than its parks, Umm Al Emarat Park is one of the most popular. There’s a community feel here, with yoga, cinema screens and live music events. At weekends there are stalls selling independent-label clothes and organic food.
My perfect day in Abu Dhabi would include…
This was what I would do here every weekend when growing up, and still do whenever I get the chance. Start off by hitting one of the many islands in Abu Dhabi (I would recommend Dolphin or Lulu Island as they’re quieter) to soak up some sun. Then grab a late lunch of fresh grilled seafood at Fishmarket in the InterContinental Hotel. Have a quick change of clothes and freshen up before watching the sunset at a beer garden. Drift over to the rooftop lounge at the Abu Dhabi Edition’s Annex club, which offers panoramic views of the city. Drink in hand, it’s a good place to wrap up a busy day.