When it comes to exciting city breaks, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are two that should be near the top of everyone’s bucket list. That’s because both of these lively cities can offer unique experiences and unforgettable vacations.
However choosing whether to visit Dubai or Abu Dhabi for that once-in-a-lifetime holiday can be exceptionally difficult.
Thankfully we know both cities well, so are here to help you decide which one is right for you.
Dubai or Abu Dhabi: Which should you choose?
Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are ultra-modern cities, with great infrastructure and a host of things to do. But there are important differences between each as we show here.
Below we compare both cities, and give our honest opinion on which is safer, cheaper, has the best excursions, nightlife, and more:
Dubai vs Abu Dhabi: Which is the better cultural experience?
Dubai has risen out of the desert, creating skyscrapers, malls, and even artificial islands in an attempt to become one of the world’s most sought-after vacation spots. It’s worked, and the result is a fast-paced city with lots of things for tourists to do (as we show you below).
The oil money that has driven this change has transformed Dubai, but Islam remains at the heart of the city, and the beautiful Jumeirah Mosque is worth visiting.
There’s plenty of local food to try out in restaurants too, but you’ll struggle to find street markets like in other big cities around the world.
Abu Dhabi on the other hand is older and feels more traditional, and there’s more chances to meet and talk with locals here than in Dubai. It’s a more relaxed place than Dubai too, and feels less glitzy and glamorous – but it’s also a city that feels lived in and authentic. With the mangroves, desert, and far fewer high rise buildings it’s a more beautiful city than Dubai too.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is quite spectacular and worth visiting for its sheer size alone. For something very local, visit the local tea joints or one of Abu Dhabi’s many souks (markets).
At Al Ain Camel Souk you can meet Bedouin herders that are selling camels (always ask permission when taking photos), while at the Abu Dhabi Carpet Souk you can barter your way to an oriental style carpet.
For culture and a taste of the Middle East, there’s only one winner in our mind when it comes to cultural experiences.
Winner: Abu Dhabi
Dubai or Abu Dhabi: Which has the better excursions?
Dubai has styled itself as the ultimate vacation destination and has been successful in doing so thanks to the wide range of excursions and things to do here. That includes surprising options like skiing indoors on actual snow, huge water parks, and swimming in the world’s highest pool.
Visiting the highest building in the world – the Burj Khalifa – is a must, as is Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo. Outside of the city are more adventurous options, like dune buggy racing in the desert, sky diving and camel riding. If you have kids, there will be no shortage of activities to keep them busy.
There’s no real scenic beauty in Dubai, but this is a place for adventure rather than scenery.
Abu Dhabi is a more laid back city than Dubai, and that can be seen in its main attractions which are often historical and cultural in nature. Visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi for probably the best art collection in the Middle East, or the historic Emirates Palace to experience one of the world’s best hotels and where you can eat a camel burger with gold flakes for lunch! For a faster paced activity you can try out the world’s fastest rollercoaster on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island.
You can find a living exhibition of the lifestyle and traditions of the Bedouin people and culture at the Heritage Village, and if that whets your appetite then why not camp under the stars in the Abu Dhabi desert? There are several Bedouin experiences at desert camps outside the city where you can camp in style.
When it comes to excursions both of these destinations have great choices. But in our opinion, Dubai probably edges it due to the variety of excursions on offer.
Dubai vs Abu Dhabi: Which has the better nightlife?
Despite being part of the Muslim majority UAE, there are many clubs and bars that serve alcohol in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and both cities have an exciting nightlife scene.
However only certain establishments can sell alcohol – like hotels and restaurants – so most of the drinking spots in both cities are quite exclusive and sometimes expensive as they are mainly located inside hotels.
Along with lounge bars and shisha joints, there’s a lively clubbing scene in Dubai which tends to get better every year. There’s many good evening spots in the city but one of our favorites is Muscovites Night Club & Lounge – this dance bar has entertainment, nightly DJ sets, and great Russian food and drinks. Another favorite spot is The Penthouse Dubai which has spectacular views, great cocktails and a fun atmosphere.
Abu Dhabi feels like less of a party city than Dubai, and the nightlife reflects that. One of our favorite evening spots is B-Lounge which is a relaxing outside bar and lounge that serves good drinks and even better shisha. Another stylish cocktail lounge which gets lively as the night goes on is Relax@12 – this rooftop bar has superb service and stunning panoramic views of Abu Dhabi.
In both Dubai and Abu Dhabi there’s a burgeoning nightlife scene, but which has a better nightlife depends on what you are looking for. If you’re a partygoer who wants club nights and exclusive parties then Dubai may be the better choice. However, if you’re looking for a relaxing evening with a cocktail or shisha in a stylish bar then Abu Dhabi could suit you better. For that reason, we will have to call this one a draw.
Dubai or Abu Dhabi: Which has the better shopping?
Both of these cities have famous stores and mega malls, so you’re unlikely to be disappointed if you have ambitions of a shopping spree.
Dubai has several massive malls selling luxury goods and brands from around the world, and may be one of the best shopping cities on the planet. However in the old town you can still find more traditional markets like Bur Dubai and Souk Madinat Jumeirah where it’s possible to pick up a bargain, antiques, and more.
The shopping options in Abu Dhabi are similar to Dubai with a selection of luxury malls as well as local souks. However from what we’ve found, Dubai tends to be slightly cheaper than Abu Dhabi when it comes to shopping. That said you can pick up good deals on carpets and jewelry in local souks like the Abu Dhabi Carpet Souk and Gold Souk Abu Dhabi.
Dubai vs Abu Dhabi: Which is cheaper?
In terms of expenses we’ve found Dubai to be a slightly cheaper destination than Abu Dhabi in regards to accommodation. There isn’t a huge difference in price though, and because of that we don’t believe it’s worth basing your holiday decision on price. Particularly as eating out can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be in either city.
Cab prices and excursions are similarly priced in both cities too.
Dubai vs Abu Dhabi: Which is safer?
Both are safe destinations, which is why tourists visit in huge numbers every year. However, as always when on holiday you should avoid confrontations with locals, avoid walking in unlit areas at night, and keep an eye on your drinks when at clubs and bars.
The reality is that both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are two of the safest cities in the world, and crime against foreigners – even petty theft – is incredibly rare. That’s partly down to the UAE police taking an extremely tough stance on crime and drug use.
Dubai or Abu Dhabi: What about the weather?
It’s worth mentioning the weather, as both Dubai and Abu Dhabi can get extremely hot during the summer months – upwards of 40 Celcius (104 Fahrenheit). Between November – February, the temperatures are far more pleasant (25C/77F), which is worth factoring into your decision about where and when to go on holiday.
If you’re looking for an exotic city break from March to October with good temperatures (25-30C/77-86F) then one of the capital cities in southeast Asia like Bangkok, Singapore, or Manila may be a better choice. (Recommended: Bangkok vs Singapore).
Dubai vs Abu Dhabi: Which is the better choice?
Both cities are definitely worth visiting at some point, and each has its own unique charm and quirks. As they are just a 1.5 hour drive away from each other, it’s possible to combine them in one trip too – that’s something we would recommend.
If you’re looking for adventurous excursions and great shopping, then Dubai may be a better choice than Abu Dhabi. The nightlife can also be pretty lively in Dubai.
An Abu Dhabi vacation has some great excursion options too, and may be a better choice if you’re looking for a relaxed city break with cultural experiences and a more laid back nightlife.