Abu Dhabi, UAE – A Cruise Port Guide

Abu Dhabi Cruise Port Guide

Abu Dhabi Cruise Port Guide; Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates It is a very popular cruise port, both as a hub for itineraries in the Persian Gulf and as a stop on repositioning routes.

Abu Dhabi is one of the worlds richest cities, it has grown very rapidly over the last ten years from a small, low level fishing port to a modern metropolis of towering skyscrapers and ultra modern buildings. The city owes its wealth to the discovery of oil in 1958 and the astute way that Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who became ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, handled the subsequent wealth and development of the region. He negotiated the foundations of the UAE and became its first President in 1971. He died in 2004 but is still revered as father of the nation and his family continue to rule today. Abu Dhabi is a conservative and religious country with more than 400 mosques in the town alone. The call to prayer is heard everywhere and it is sensible to dress appropriately and respectfully for the country in clothes that do not display too much flesh!

Port Zayed Cruise Terminal
Port Zayed Cruise Terminal

What is available at Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal?

Abu Dhabi, the original name meaning ‘Father of Gazelle’, has a modern and efficient terminal at Port Zayed. The Cruise Terminal is light and airy and provides free wiFi ( the password clearly displayed on noticeboards inside the terminal).  There is a children’s play area at the top of the escalator, tourist shops, a small supermarket, passport control, check in desks and a large luggage hall.

HOHO buses, taxis and Shuttle buses wait just outside the terminal
HOHO buses, taxis and Shuttle buses wait just outside the terminal

The port area is closed (and a bit bleak) meaning that you are not able to walk in or out of the port but taxis are freely available immediately outside the terminal. There are also HOHO buses and a free port shuttle which takes you to the World Trade Centre Mall about three miles away. The last shuttle back to the port leaves at about 20.00 so be sure to check and have local currency ready to use a taxi if necessary. 

The local currency is the UAE Dirham and, although the official language is Arabic but due to the high level of education in the country and also the number of expatriates in the country, the majority of people that you will meet will speak English.

Shops usually close for lunch but are then open until 21.00. 

Friday is the Islamic Holy day so expect some shops and all mosques will be closed to visitors.

  Abu Dhabi has a dry, desert climate – from June to September it is extremely hot  with average temperature reaching 43°C. The cruise season sees lowest temperatures dropping as low (!) as 24°C in January, it is a very dry heat and sandstorms are common, often reducing visibility to as little as a few metres.

What is there to do in Abu Dhabi on a cruise?

Abu Dhabi from the waterfront

Downtown and the Corniche

Abu Dhabi city is well developed with beaches, tourist attractions, fast roads and lots of things to see and do. Everything is very spread out across interlinked islands so you will need to use transport to get about.  Taxis are reliable and inexpensive (just check that the meter is on) or you can use the HOHO bus that covers all the main attractions on a couple of interlocking routes.

Local tours provide good value, especially if you want to head inland to the desert.

One of the most obvious features of Abu Dhabi is that it is very green, with ‘state of the art’ watering systems helping to overcome the heat and the arid landscape to give an impressive demonstration of how money can change a landscape. Trees and parks soften the harder, relentlessly architectural look that you find in other Gulf States, emphasising the contrast between the flourishing city and the desert outside. 

Family Park on the Corniche and Downtown beyond
Family Park on the Corniche and Downtown beyond

The Corniche is a 3 mile boulevard along the waterfront, with skyscrapers behind you and a series of parks and beaches ahead of you it is a good place to hire a bike and explore. Some beaches are segregated and some for families. Opposite the beaches you can see the Heritage Village – a replica Bedouin village that demonstrates Emirati life with exhibits featuring traditional culture, workshops where craftsmen demonstrate Emirati metalwork and weaving skills, and an exhibit about the pearl diving trade which was the main source of income here before the invention of cultured pearls and local oil discoveries. Near to the Village you will find boats that take you on a short trip around the coast and marina, great for a good photo op! If you are using the HOHO bus then a boat ride is included in the ticket price.  Further out onto the island brings you to Marina Mall, a large and popular shopping centre, with an ice rink and some spectacular views from the revolving restaurant and coffee shop in the Marina Sky Tower back across the water to town.

If panoramic views are your thing then you might also want to check out the Observation deck @ 300 which is at the western end of the Corniche, in the huge Etihad Tower development. This observation deck is at present the highest point in the city, the 74th floor of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers hotel. Although there is an entry fee for non residents the ticket price is refunded when purchasing refreshments from the restaurant – on a clear day the views are spectacular and it is a good spot for afternoon tea.

The imposing entrance to The Emirates Palace Hotel
The imposing entrance to The Emirates Palace Hotel

Further along the Corniche is the spectacular and very exclusive Emirates Place Hotel.  Day trippers are not encouraged although the dazzling gold lobby is open to everyone and the restaurants and coffee shops open to non residents  or you could book a visit to the stunning Spa.

The free port shuttle bus drops you at the World Trade Centre, on 1st Street – nearby you will find the oldest building in Abu Dhabi. The Al-Hosn Fort (also known as the Old Fort or the White Fort), was built in 1793 as the residence of the then ruling family, it was later the seat of government. The courtyard and the magnificent tile work at the entrance are worth seeing, the interior has been renovated and is now a museum that traces the history and culture of Abu Dhabi. 

The mall is the drop off and pick up point for HOHO and shuttles

Shopping is a national pastime in Abu Dhabi, and the World Trade Centre Mall is a popular destination for shopping, an air-conditioned modern mall full of big name shops opposite the large traditional World Trade Centre Souk containing craft, spice, food and souvenir shops. Hard bargaining is essential in the latter but not appropriate in the former! Even if you have no intention of buying, it is hard to leave the Carpet Souk empty handed – hard bargaining and a cool head is needed here – it is close to the port on Mina Road, not far in a taxi.

The glass fronted Galleria on Al Maryah Island is a new mall full of high end luxury designer brands, best reached by taxi.

Visiting the Abu Dhabi – Sheikh Zayed – Mosque

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is ABSOLUTELY UNMISSABLE!!
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is ABSOLUTELY UNMISSABLE!!

Some of the best tourist attractions are further out of town and of these the most important is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque which is truly unmissable. The HOHO bus reaches here but takes quite a long time and a taxi ride would be much cheaper and faster!

The mosque is very impressive for a number of reasons. Firstly it is huge – the largest mosque in the UAE and able to hold 40,000 worshipers – but it is also very, very beautiful! It is is Abu Dhabi’s landmark building, opened in 2007 after twenty years of construction. The hundred golden domes and the brilliant white Sivec marble are dazzling in daylight. At night a state of the art lighting system – that reflects the phases of the moon – makes it equally stunning. It some ways it is worth visiting twice! The symmetry and attention to detail in the design of the Mosque is extraordinary and the fusion of different design elements (marble mosaic work, stone carving, glass chandeliers) with materials from all over the world creates a beautiful yet modern mosque that celebrates Islamic architecture. There is no entry fee for the Mosque which is open from 9 am-10 pm (12pm in Ramadam) daily but closed to tourists on Friday mornings. Non-Muslims are allowed into all areas of the mosque but respectful dress is essential. Women in particular must wear respectful clothing, which means neither revealing or tight. In reality most women arriving in western dress are given an Abaya to wear which covers them from head to toe (you collect it at the entrance and hand it back as you leave). Men need their legs and upper arms covered and sloganed T shirts are frowned on. Everyone removes their shoes at the entrance and leaves them in shoe racks to be collected on exit, the polished marble is cool to walk on in bare feet but take socks with you if you prefer! You can just wander as you please or join a free guided tour (morning at 10.00 or 11.00 or a sunset tour at 17.00).


What is there for cruisers to do in Abu Dhabi?

Yas Circuit

Lots of the tourist attractions are on islands that can be reached both on the HOHO bus system although again it would be quicker and cheaper to use a taxi. Local buses aren’t really recommended for visitors. The first of these tourist islands is

Yas Island.

The central feature here is the Yas Marina Circuit, which is where Abu Dhabi’s Formula One racing takes place every year. Note that some cruises plan their itineraries to be in port for this – is a good way of attending F1 without the sky high land based hotel prices.

Yas Marina and Grand Prix Circuit
Yas Marina and Grand Prix Circuit

If this is your thing then you will definitely want to visit nearby Ferrari World which is aimed at petrol heads, thrill seekers and families alike. Even small children can test out their driving skills on the Junior GT track, while adrenaline junkies can buckle up and ride the Flying Aces rollercoaster, the tallest loop in the world. It clocks up speeds of 120 kilometers per hour on a 52-meter loop. Other track themed rides include Formula Rossa and the Turbo Track. You can also take a Ferrari factory tour, a collection of vintage Ferrari, with models dating back to 1947 and Ferrari game show for true petrol heads to test their knowledge!

You could easily spend a whole day here but if the heat is getting too much you might also want to investigate the nearby waterpark, Yas Waterworld. This mammoth theme park, with waterslides and river rides boasts the world’s first hydromagnetic tornado water rafting ride; the world’s largest surfable sheet wave; and the Jebel Drop, a free-fall speed water slide. Alongside all that excitement there is a dedicated water play area for families with small children, restaurants, cafés, and shops.

The third main attraction in the area is Warner Brothers World,  the worlds first indoor theme park which opened in Summer 2018 with rides, restaurants, shows and queue as normal! Yas Island is also home to many hotels, a great beach and is very close to the airport, so if you were planning a few days pre or post cruise it could be a fun place to stay!

Saadiyat Island

Saadiyat Island  and the Abu Dhabi  Louvre seen from the port entrance
Saadiyat Island and the Abu Dhabi Louvre seen from the port entrance

Saadiyat Island is closer to the port, just ten minutes from downtown  – it the cultural centre of Abu Dhabi. The Louvre Abu Dhabi which opened in late 2017 is the star attraction but the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum are both under construction nearby.

Reflections from the water are an integral part of the design of the Louvre.
Reflections from the water are an integral part of the design of the Louvre.

The Louvre Museum is definitely worth a visit, it is just across the harbour from the port and easily accessible by taxi although again it is also a HOHO stop. It is a stunning modern building that cleverly integrates the light and water that surrounds it. The exhibits are from all over the world and are cleverly curated to show the similarities between cultures not the differences between them. There are twelve Galleries, a children’s museum and an exhibition space as well as a restaurant, cafe and shop. Entrance costs 63AED ( about £13.00/ US$17) – reduced for under 22s and free for children under 13. The museum is closed on Mondays and open from 10.00 until 20.00 for the rest of the week ( closing at 22.00 on Thursday and Friday).

The Manarat al Saadiyat ‘place of enlightenment’ and the dune shaped UAE Pavilion designed by Foster and partners are now a culture centre on the island2 with galleries & a restaurant, relocated here from China after the 2010 Expo. 5 star hotels, golf courses and pristine beaches make this another area to consider for a pre or post cruise stay. 

The Louvre, exhibition hall floor
The Louvre, exhibition hall floor

You can see local nature  and wildlife without leaving Abu Dhabi island at the National Mangrove Park on the north coast of the main island. The best way to do this is probably through a Mangrove Kayaking tour (www.noukhada.ae) who run kayaking tours for all levels of experience and age, ranging from 90 minutes to three hours of paddling. The Eco Tour teaches you about the ecology of mangroves as well as exploring these beautiful last remnants of the city’s forests. If you have an overnight stop you might want to investigate their night tours, gliding through the still dark waters…

Beyond the City

The Desert Fort of Al-Ain
The Desert Fort of Al-Ain

There are many out of town trips available either through local guides or as a ships tour – the price for ships tours here does seem to be significantly higher than those booked with local companies. The desert itself is a huge attraction with a huge choice of full day or evening ‘sunset’ trips out of town’. Everything from folklore shows, hawking and camel trekking to high adrenaline activities such riding dune buggies or sand surfing gives you plenty to choose from! Popular full day trips are to the Oasis city and desert Fort of Al-Ain, 170km east of Abu Dhabi, which is close to the Jebel Hafeet mountain (and which featured in a memorable Top Gear race!) on the mountainous UAE border with Muscat . In the opposite direction you could visit the Liwa oasis, 170 kilometres southwest across some very bumpy roads, close to the Saudi Arabian border – where you should see some interesting wildlife. Another option would be a day trip to Dubai but in all honesty there is so much to see in Abu Dhabi that I think you’re best to spend your time there and save Dubai for another day!

Abu Dhabi is an excellent place to visit or stay on a cruise, if you are inspired and want to look for itineraries that include it I would start here! I would love to know what you think so it would be great if you commented below! If you find any of our information is out of date or if you have anything you thing we should add please let us know!

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