The United Arab Emirates kicked 2023 off with a bang. In January alone, Beyoncé performed live for the first time post-Renaissance album release to celebrate Dubai’s biggest hotel opening around the same time influencers like Alix Earle and Monet McMichael flocked to the same Middle Eastern country for that viral Tarte press trip. Now, as the year closes out, all eyes are on Abu Dhabi.
On Sunday, Nov. 26, the capital of the UAE will host the final Formula 1 race, an event that’s been celeb central throughout 2023. Hollywood superstars like Ryan Reynolds and Michael B. Jordan and athletes like Travis Kelce have invested in an F1 team this year. More recently, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, David Beckham, and more showed face at the Formula 1 Las Vegas Grand Prix, which took place earlier this month. That means the upcoming race — the last one until 2024 — will undoubtedly be a major spectacle, solidifying Abu Dhabi as *the* celeb hot spot of the season.
Even if you don’t have a bank account like a Reynolds or a Kelce, you can still live your best life in one of winter 2023’s most popular travel destinations, according to Airbnb. After spending a week in the area earlier this month, I curated a 48-hour itinerary that’s packed with must-try activities in Abu Dhabi like touring a landmark visited by Selena Gomez and Kendall Jenner, tasting the most delectable treats (did someone say camelccino?), and exploring so many IG-worthy sights — and all for less than $500 (flights and accommodations not included).
7:30 p.m.: Arrive at Abu Dhabi International Airport
I actually preferred my end-of-day arrival in Abu Dhabi compared to my afternoon arrival in Dubai, because who wants to schmooze and try to look not-at-all-exhausted after a 13-hour flight? Post-airport, my plans consisted of a 30-minute drive to my hotel, some food (though I did have two square meals on the plane plus snacks), and a looong shower.
Taxi to accommodations: ~$22
8:30 p.m.: Eat dinner nearby
Wherever you choose to stay, you’ll probably want to grab some supper to hold you over until the next morning. Since I was staying at the Rixos Marina Abu Dhabi Resort, I was able to go to one of the restaurants on the property. Did you know it’s possible to get an entire seafood bolognese dish — with shrimp, clams, the works — for less than $13 USD?? Now you do.
Dinner at People’s: $20
DAY 1 TOTAL: $42
8:15 a.m.: Head out to Yas Island
If you want to know where all the celebs are going to be during F1 weekend, it’s Yas Island. Best known for being Abu Dhabi’s entertainment hub (think Las Vegas or Atlantic City), the leisure location is not only where the final race will be held, but it’s also home to a stunning white-sand beach, world-class restaurants, and four theme parks: Yas Waterworld, Warner Bros. World, Seaworld Yas Island, and Ferrari World.
Taxi to Yas Island: ~$22
9 a.m.: Have a traditional Arabic breakfast
Whenever I’m in a new city, my goal is to eat like a local at least for a couple of meals. One place you can do that is at Al Fanar Restaurant & Cafe, where they serve everything from a ~$9 mohalla (an Emirati-style crepe stuffed with dates, cardamom, and turmeric) to a build-your-own breakfast tray (~$25) comprised of two main courses, like shakshouka (poached eggs in a spicy tomato sauce and spices) and keema (a minced meat dish), and six (!) sides, like bajella (beans) and a traditional sweet dish called khabiyah. This one’s meant for two people, so I say go for it if you have someone with you because that’s a lottt of food.
10 a.m.: Choose your own adventure
Take until the early afternoon to explore what Yas has to offer. There’s Yas Marina Circuit, where you could drive around the actual F1 track; CLYMB, with the world’s biggest indoor skydiving experience; and the W Abu Dhabi, the only hotel in the world on top of a racetrack — you could actually watch the F1 races from some of the rooms.
If you prefer to preserve your energy until the nighttime activities, then you could also pop into the Yas Mall for some souvenirs or participate in one of the lighter water activities (and snap all the pics) at Yas Marina. Personally, I’m here for Ferrari World, which has the world’s fastest roller coaster (and it’s so worth it, OMG). Yas Island’s Chief Island Officer Jason Momoa would definitely approve.
Ferrari World: $94
2 p.m.: Try something new for lunch
Less than a 15-minute drive away is a restaurant called Meylas, located on Al Muneera Island, where you can find more local dishes like an Emirati meat wrap (FYI, the meat is camel) and baby shark with rice. What really sold me was the legeimat, a fried sweet dough similar to a doughnut dipped in date syrup.
Taxi + lunch: ~$25
Psst, if you love felines, you should take a peek next door at Meow Café, Abu Dhabi’s first cat café. I didn’t partake because the allergies are real, but tickets are around $12 USD and you could spend your afternoon sipping coffee and playing with cute kittens.
3 p.m.: Bash some dunes on a desert safari
Back when Bella Hadid and The Weeknd were still together in 2018, one of their most iconic dates was when they went dune bashing after the singer performed at an F1 event. And you could do the same type of off-roading experience, along with sand skiing and camel riding. My group was picked up in a Land Cruiser from our lunch spot, which made planning even easier.
After sunset, the excursion ends with a Bedouin-style dinner (hummus, kebabs, and more barbecue dishes) and a show (belly dancing and skirt dancing). Stargazing, henna painting, and falcon-holding were also activities anyone could participate in, so I dabbled in a bit of each.
Desert Rose safari experience (including transportation): $57 by shuttle bus; up to $136 for personalized car
8:30 p.m.: Head on back to your home away from home
If your drop-off location is at one of the city hotels (like mine was) or malls in Abu Dhabi, then transportation is included in your desert safari experience.
DAY 2 TOTAL: $223
8 a.m.: Start your day with a camelccino
Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental is one of the most stunning hotels I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. I can definitely see why movie premieres are held there; most recently, the latest Mission: Impossible film.
Even if you don’t end up staying there, it’s worth the trip to take in the architecture and grab yourself a light breakfast and a camelccino, espresso with camel milk topped with date syrup.
Taxi + breakfast: ~$40
10 a.m.: Tour Qasr Al Watan
Another architectural marvel, Qasr Al Watan is the presidential palace of the UAE. Each room is luxe yet full of culture; I couldn’t help but be in awe of the library, which features a collection of about 50,000 (!) books of Arabian history and knowledge.
If you plan to visit this cultural landmark, you’ll need to cover your knees and shoulders. My best recommendation is to wear a long maxi dress that reaches your ankles and a shawl for your shoulders.
Taxi + tour: $22
12 p.m.: Explore Corniche Road
At your leisure, take in one of Abu Dhabi’s most iconic roads, The Corniche. The 5-mile seaside boardwalk can be explored by bike or segway, but if you have the time and it’s not too hot, you may choose to traverse it on foot (it’d take about an hour and a half from Qasr Al Watan to the next location). There are parks, gardens, and nearby restaurants, but the pièce de résistance is the picturesque Corniche Beach, which is free and open to the public and overlooks the Arabian Gulf.
You can end your trek at Qasr Al Hosn, the oldest stone building in Abu Dhabi. The historical landmark’s House of Artisans was one of my favorite stops because we got to watch craftswomen create works of art using the land’s natural resources. This is a great place to pick up some handmade souvenirs like hats and fans, since so much of it is made on-site.
I wish we could’ve participated in the Bait Al Gahwa experience, which involves the traditional preparation and presentation of Arabic coffee. (It was closed for filming when we went.) Alas, my group was able to get their coffee (or, in my case, matcha) fix two minutes away at The Espresso Lab. One word: yum.
Qasr Al Hosn ticket + souvenirs + matcha: $52
2 p.m.: Snap pics throughout Louvre Abu Dhabi
With two more must-see adventures on the list before heading home, you’ll want to fuel up. Thankfully, after a 15-minute drive, you’ll find that the Louvre Abu Dhabi has everything you need right on the property. There are a couple of cafés, a bar, and a lounge that serves beverages and light bites, plus fine dining restaurant Fouquet’s, where you could get a starter like lentil soup with cumin and a soft-boiled egg and a main course like grilled salmon with fennel and pink peppercorns for ~$45. The selection of teas and infusions is the cherry on top. (Pro tip: Make a reservation in advance.)
Once you’re done, it’s onward to the Louvre, where you could stroll around exhibit after exhibit of artwork from every period. One of the most popular pieces is of John the Baptist, an unfinished work by Leonardo da Vinci, on loan from the original Louvre Museum in Paris.
Taxi + lunch + tour of Louvre Abu Dhabi: $75
5:30 p.m.: End your trip at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
If there’s one place anyone *has* to go in Abu Dhabi, it’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, where stars like Selena Gomez, Kendall Jenner, Rihanna, Gigi Hadid, and Shay Mitchell were all spotted over the years.
With your legs and head covered, you can take in the colossal palace of worship’s 1,000-plus columns, 24-carat-gold chandeliers, and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet, all for the low, low price of $0 — even for a tour, which I highly recommend taking so you can access even more breathtaking spots in the biggest mosque in the entire country.
7:30 p.m.: Leave for Abu Dhabi International Airport
Within 15 minutes, you can find yourself back at the airport, with a bag full of goodies, a stomach full of delectable food, and memories to last a lifetime.
Taxi to AUH: $12
DAY 3 TOTAL: $215
Total Cost: $480
I honestly cannot believe all of these activities are able to be experienced for under $500 — and that’s not even with a +1. (As someone who lives in NYC, I’m not used to such cheap taxi fares!) And this is only the tip of the iceberg. If you want to extend your vacay, there’s also Heritage Village that shows what life used to be like in Abu Dhabi, The Directors’ Club restaurant at The WB hotel, and even a falcon hospital you can tour. Ugh, BRB, now I have to plan my next visit.