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Dubai or Abu Dhabi: which is better?

If you are sure you want to visit the United Arab Emirates, but you are not sure which city to go to, Dubai or Abu Dhabi, I will tell you everything you need to know to make up your mind.

María Cano

María Cano

12 min read

Dubai or Abu Dhabi: which is better?

Dubai, United Arab Emirates | ©Mohammed Nasim

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are two of the most popular destinations in the United Arab Emirates and have several attractions to visit. Going from Dubai to Abu Dhabi is a journey of only an hour and a half, so you can take advantage of your trip to visit both places, but if you are short of time or doubt where to stay, in this post I will explain the key features of each city to help you in your decision.

Choose according to your tastes: Dubai vs. Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi at sunset| ©Kevin Villaruz
Abu Dhabi at sunset| ©Kevin Villaruz

Both cities are impressive and worth a visit. Still, the choice of which place to go to will largely depend on your tastes and interests, as well as what exactly you are looking for in your trip.

On the one hand, Dubai has a lot to see and do; it is known as the city of skyscrapers and is characterized by luxury and glamour. It has almost three million inhabitants and 80% are of foreign origin. It is a hub for business as well as tourism. For its part, Abu Dhabi is the capital of the country, the seat of government and the second most populous city in the country. Located on an island in the Persian Gulf, it is a quieter and more conservative city.

  • If you are looking for a big city with a wide range of activities... Dubai.
  • If you are looking for a place to immerse yourself in Islamic culture... Abu Dhabi.
  • If you are looking for a city to shop... Dubai.
  • If you are looking to escape from western tourism... Abu Dhabi.
  • If you are looking for a city full of life and hustle and bustle... Dubai by night.
  • If you are looking for a more conservative city ... Abu Dhabi.
  • Dubai
  • City of skyscrapers and shopping
  • Luxury and Glamour
  • Main sights: Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall, Dubai Creek, Jumeirah Mosque
  • Abu Dhabi
  • Capital of the country and seat of government
  • Quiet and conservative
  • Top visits: Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Ferrari World Park, Yas Island

Book a tour to Abu Dhabi from Dubai

Main sights of Dubai vs. Abu Dhabi

The Burj Khalifa from the Dubai Mall| ©Maher Najm
The Burj Khalifa from the Dubai Mall| ©Maher Najm

Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have many must-see sights and attractions on your visit.

On the one hand, in Dubai they do everything big and in this city you can buy tickets to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, as well as tour the world's largest shopping mall, Dubai Mall. Also, in Dubai it is essential to visit the Jumeirah Mosque, one of the few mosques in the city that can be visited by non-Muslims.

Meanwhile, in Abu Dhabi you can visit the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, incomparable to any other in the United Arab Emirates. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a must-see whether you decide to stay in the capital or in Dubai. It is considered one of the most modern mosques in the world and has nothing more and nothing less than 22,000 square meters, 80 domes and a capacity of up to 40,000 people in total.

Shopping in the souks and adventures with the family

Another major attraction of both cities are the souks. On the one hand, Gold Souk, translated as Gold Souk, is a roofed market with more than 300 stores that mainly sell gold jewelry and is one of the most popular markets in Dubai. It is located in the Deira neighborhood, one of the most popular and oldest in the city. Next to it is the Spice Souk and the Cloth Souk.

Meanwhile, in Abu Dhabi highlights Camel Souk, for being the only one of its kind that remains in the country, and Carpet Souk, where you can find the most famous and best carpets in the Middle East. Likewise, The Central Souk-Sharjah has more than 600 stores of all kinds of products, from jewelry, carpets, collectors' items...

The parks

Dubai also offers an incredible range of activities such as the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo, the Ski Dubai skating rink and the Atlantis Aquaventure water park. But Abu Dhabi does not fall short in this respect either, with proposals such as Ferrari World Park, the Emirates Park Zoo and the falcon hospital Abu Dhabi Falcon.

  • Dubai
  • The Burj Khalifa skyscraper|element
  • The Gold Souk
  • Dubai Mall
  • The Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo
  • Ski Dubai Ski Resort
  • Dubai Museum
  • Jumeirah Mosque
  • The World and Palm Islands
  • Abu Dhabi
  • The Sheikh Zayed Mosque
  • Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum
  • The Camel Souk
  • The oldest building, El Qasr Al-Hosn
  • Emirates Park Zoo
  • Ferrari World Park
  • Yas Island
  • Yas Waterworld Water Park

Top places to visit in Dubai

In Dubai there are many attractions and places to visit. Even so, if you want to have a list of the must-see, here it is:

  • Burj Khalifa: Located inside the Dubai Mall, this 150-story, 828-meter tall skyscraper holds the title of the tallest building in the world. If you want to know what views you will have from the skyscraper do not hesitate to read the post The Burj Khalifa from above: Views from the tallest skyscraper in the world and if you want a recommendation I advise you to go up at night to see the spectacular views of the illuminated city. I leave you also information about the prices of the Burj Khalifa and how to get to the Burj Khalifa.
  • Dubai Mall: It is a luxurious shopping mall. In fact, it is the largest mall in the world. As you can see everything in Dubai is done in style. It has more than 1,200 establishments among which you can find the main brands of clothing, footwear and cosmetics. In addition, it even has an ice skating rink and an aquarium.
  • Ski Dubai: The Dubai Mall also houses a ski resort of more than 22,000 square meters.
  • Burj Al Arab: At more than 320 meters, it is the fourth tallest hotel in the world. It is located above the sea, on an artificial island connected by a bridge to the city of Dubai.
  • Legoland Dubai: An unforgettable visit for Lego lovers with four parks. In case you want to go, I leave you all the information about tickets, prices and schedules of Legoland Dubai.
  • Saeed Al-Maktoum: Built at the end of the 19th century, it was the home of the ruler of Dubai from 1921 to 1958.
  • Atlantis Aquaventure: It is the largest water park in the world. In this post you can learn everything you need to know to make the most of your visit.
  • Dubai Creek: It is a channel of approximately 10 kilometers that goes into the interior of the city of Dubai.
  • Jumeirah Mosque: This is the only mosque in Dubai open to the non-Muslim public. Even so, do not hesitate to visit the post the best mosques in Dubai and take note of which ones you have to visit.
  • Heritage and Diving Village: It is a reconstructed traditional neighborhood that illustrates to the visitor how life was in the Arab Emirates in ancient times.
  • Marina: This is one of the most visited neighborhoods by both residents and tourists and it has everything, restaurants, beaches, skyscrapers, hotels and the largest shopping mall in the world. Learn all about this neighborhood with the post 10 things to see and do in Dubai Marina.
  • Dubai Desert: One of the essential excursions if you go to Dubai is to visit the Dubai desert. Do not hesitate to make the visit that best suits your tastes. It will be an unforgettable experience.

And besides all this, there is much more, visit the post Dubai neighborhoods that you have to know and do not leave anything behind.

Book a tour of Dubai

Top places to visit in Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Mosque| ©Mohamad
Sheikh Zayed Mosque| ©Mohamad

Abu Dhabi also has other must-see destinations such as the following:

  • Sheikh Zayed Mosque: this is the must visit in Abu Dhabi. It is one of the largest mosques in the world and its beauty is unquestionable. It has more than 80 domes and around a thousand columns. I recommend you to go as the entrance is free.
  • Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum: Inaugurated in 2017, this museum was designed by architect Jean Nouvel and houses some works of great value such as 'Portrait of a Lady' by Pablo Picasso, 'Breton Boys' by Paul Gauguin or 'Nature morte au cabas et à l'ail' and 'Le Bohémien', by Édouard Manet.
  • The Qasr Al-Hosn: Built in 1761, it is the oldest building in Abu Dhabi.
  • Abu Dhabi Falcon: Opened in 1999, it is a hospital for falcons that includes guided tours.
  • Emirates Park Zoo: An impressive zoo that, among its species, houses white tigers, elephants, zebras, a Siberian bear and elephants.
  • Ferrari World Park: Located in Yas Island, it is a theme park dedicated to Ferrari with a total of 19 attractions. A totally recommendable visit. In fact, if you finally stay in Dubai do not hesitate to read the post How to go to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi from Dubai and do not miss this experience.
  • Yas Island: With its white sand is a luxury destination for those visiting Abu Dhabi.
  • Yas Waterworld: It is a thematic water park that hides almost 50 attractions.

Buy an excursion to Ferrari World

Is Dubai or Abu Dhabi more expensive?

Starting Sunrise in Dubai| ©Ryan Miglinczy
Starting Sunrise in Dubai| ©Ryan Miglinczy

If budget is one of the determining factors in your trip, you have to keep in mind that both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are two very expensive cities with similar prices. Generally speaking, you will find high prices in hotels, restaurants and clubs, as well as in its main attractions. In addition, the price of alcohol is prohibitively expensive as the locals have to obtain a specific license to sell it. Even so, there are certain times of the year when you can find discounts, promotions and offers, but keep in mind that the months of December and January, which coincide with the high season, will not be the months to do so.

Even so, in Dubai you will be able to find several dining options in tourist areas at low prices. On the other hand, in Abu Dhabi there are many workers whose salary is at the minimum wage so you can find inexpensive restaurants aimed at the inhabitants of the city.

Book a gastronomic tour of Dubai

When is the best time to go to Dubai and Abu Dhabi?

Sunset in Abu Dhabi| ©Shenli Leong
Sunset in Abu Dhabi| ©Shenli Leong

Now, if your vacation coincides with a specific time or days of the year, it is interesting to know what is the best time to visit both places in case this question helps you in your choice.

On the one hand, Dubai is a destination that is characterized by its extreme temperatures and a scorching sun so if you can match your trip with the winter season do not hesitate. It is the best time to travel comfortably. Even so, you must keep in mind that these months are the high tourist season so the city and its attractions are more crowded and you will not be able to enjoy the visit so comfortably. Do not hesitate to visit the post Best time to travel to Dubai if you want more information.

Likewise, Abu Dhabi is a city that is characterized by its desert climate and its intense heat in the summer season so winter is also the best time to visit. However, autumn and spring are also good options to visit this city.

The traveler's advice

My recommendation is that if you plan a trip to Dubai or Abu Dhabi go in the winter months. Even so, you have to keep in mind that these will be the most expensive months as it coincides with the high season.

Is the dress code stricter in Dubai or Abu Dhabi?

Dress in Dubai| ©RODNAE Productions
Dress in Dubai| ©RODNAE Productions

Undoubtedly, the dress code is less strict in the city of Dubai because this city is more touristic and many people of foreign origin live there so, in this sense, the rules are always more relaxed.

Still you have to be very careful when packing your suitcase for both destinations. The United Arab Emirates is a Muslim country and, therefore, although in certain cities the rules are more relaxed, they still follow a specific dress code.

Men should dress smartly, wear a shirt and avoid wearing sneakers in certain establishments. Women, on the other hand, are the ones who have to follow this code in more detail and are advised to wear clothes covered from the shoulders to the knees or, if they have their sleeves in the air, to wear an overshirt, jacket or scarf to cover their shoulders. Even so, and as I comment, these two destinations are not as strict in terms of their dress code as other places of Islamic origin and in Dubai, especially in the most touristy areas, there is greater permissiveness in this regard.

If you want to have more details on how to pack your suitcase and what clothes to choose do not hesitate to read the post how to dress in Dubai and all your doubts will be cleared.

Book a tour to Abu Dhabi from Dubai

Where is the best place to go shopping?

Inside the Dubai Mall| ©Ole Bendik Kvisberg
Inside the Dubai Mall| ©Ole Bendik Kvisberg

Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are vacation destinations for shopping. But undoubtedly, Dubai stands out in that sense and in this city is the largest shopping center in the world, Dubai Mall, which houses establishments of all the brands you can imagine.

Luxury, ostentation and consumerism go hand in hand in this city. And to give you an idea of this, you should know that every year a shopping festival is held in January, coinciding with the best time of the year to visit it and, in addition, it has several large shopping malls that include in its interior from mosques, kindergartens, theaters or art galleries, luxury restaurants.

For its part, Abu Dhabi is another shopping destination and, in fact, houses an impressive shopping mall that is included among the main tourist attractions of the city, Marina Mall. In addition, it also has a large open-air Arabian market that is a must-visit.

Which city registers the highest number of visitors: Dubai or Abu Dhabi?

Through the streets of Al Fahidi in Dubai| ©Ankur Panchbudhe
Through the streets of Al Fahidi in Dubai| ©Ankur Panchbudhe

Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the two most touristic cities in the United Arab Emirates. However, there is no doubt that more and more visitors visit Dubai every year. In fact, the last recorded figure for 2019 Dubai reached its all-time record with more than 16.5 million tourists. For its part, Abu Dhabi recorded more than two and a half million tourists. A very considerable difference. Specifically, Dubai was in the top 10 of the most visited cities in the world, while Abu Dhabi was beyond the 90th place.

Book a tour to Abu Dhabi from Dubai

Is Dubai or Abu Dhabi safer?

Dubai Marina neighborhood| ©Enrico Strocchi
Dubai Marina neighborhood| ©Enrico Strocchi

One of the most searched questions on Google is whether Dubai or Abu Dhabi are safe cities. You may be surprised by the answer, but yes, they are two of the safest destinations to visit from an international point of view. Due to the strict law of the land, the crime rate is practically zero. So go with peace of mind. It is very unlikely that you will suffer any mishap on your trip. In fact, both are listed in the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2021 Safest Cities Index.

How to get to Dubai and Abu Dhabi from Spain?

By plane from Dubai| ©Aero Icarus
By plane from Dubai| ©Aero Icarus

Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are two cities that are very well connected from an international point of view. The price of flights varies greatly depending on the time of year you travel, whether or not it is high season and how far in advance you buy it but, in general, it is cheaper to go to Dubai.

If you want to take a direct flight to Dubai you can do it from Madrid, whose approximate duration is from 7 to 9 hours, or from Barcelona, which will be around 7 h. Regarding the price, from 300-odd you can find the ticket.

On the other hand, to go to Abu Dhabi from Spain you can also take direct flights from Madrid and Barcelona. The price will be from 400 € and the flight takes approximately 6:20 h. from Barcelona and 6:40 h. from Madrid.

To go to Dubai you will obviously need a passport but no visa as long as you stay a maximum of 90 days. On the other hand, to go to Abu Dhabi you will need a visa even when you are in transit at the airport. This can be provided to you at the airport when you land. For this, you will have to go to the immigration office.

Excursions from Dubai to Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi Desert| ©Tours Egypt Memphis
Abu Dhabi Desert| ©Tours Egypt Memphis

If after reading this post you decide to stay in Dubai but visit Abu Dhabi, remember as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, that both cities are about an hour and a half away and it is also possible to travel in an organized tour to Abu Dhabi from Dubai. They are usually a full day and start early in the morning. During these tours you will see, among other places, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the Heritage Village, Ferrari World and the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Book a tour to Abu Dhabi from Dubai