Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Skip brunches and try public transport: 10 things you should know when you move to Abu Dhabi

After his first year in Abu Dhabi, Rupert Hawksley shares his recommendations

Dragon boats race at the Dragon Boat Festival.Courtesy Shangri-La Hotels 
Dragon boats race at the Dragon Boat Festival.Courtesy Shangri-La Hotels 

People like to give advice, not because we actually want to help one another (wise up!) but because it makes us feel important, possibly even a little bit superior. “You went there for dinner? You should have asked me – there’s a great place, super-cheap, just around the corner.” It’s good to be the one “in the know”.

So I hold no grudges against those people who rushed to offer me advice before I moved from London to Abu Dhabi last summer. They were merely indulging a basic human impulse. The problem? Well, almost none of this advice was helpful. Most of it was predictable and linked to the heat (if you’re losing your hair and moving to a hot country, hat-related words of wisdom are apparently irresistible), while some of it was oddly specific (one friend insisted that “everyone wears pastel colours in Abu Dhabi”, and not a day goes by when I don’t miss my navy chinos).

Having now actually lived in Abu Dhabi for a year, I wonder if I can do any better – and not only because I want to feel important. Here are my top 10 recommendations based on what I’ve learnt over the past 12 months. If you’re new to Abu Dhabi, I hope you find something useful. If you’re a veteran, you can snort in derision at how much I still have to learn.

1. Join a sports team

In all the excitement of moving to a new country, finding a place to live and meeting friends, exercise is easily forgotten. Before you know it, six months have passed and, to borrow a phrase from P G Wodehouse, you’re starting to look as if you were poured into your suit and forgot to say “when”. There are so many sports teams and clubs in Abu Dhabi – from football and squash to softball and dragon boating – so just take your pick and dive in. People talk about the “Dubai stone”. Believe me, the “Abu Dhabi stone” is very real, too.

2. Find time to walk every day

Discover the side streets of Madinat Zayed. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Discover the side streets of Madinat Zayed. Chris Whiteoak / The National

With so many taxis on the roads, it’s tempting to wobble from your apartment block straight into the back of a cab. Don’t. Despite the heat, Abu Dhabi is actually a city that rewards walking. The side streets around Madinat Zayed, for example, are full of tea shops, cobblers, butchers and bakers that you’d easily miss in a car. Travelling by taxi also makes you feel as though you are in a rush all the time, as the drivers battle one-way systems, traffic lights and jams.

3. Always carry cash

If you do decide to take a cab, though, remember to carry cash. In my experience, none of the drivers in Abu Dhabi accept cards. They also tend to carry very limited change (offering a Dh100 note for a Dh35 journey often leads to pained expressions and vigorous shaking of the head), so make sure you hoard those smaller denominations.

4. Remember less is more when it comes to brunch

You’ll hear plenty of stories of epic Friday afternoon brunches and the occasional one to let off steam is certainly no bad thing. But there is something slightly odd about some expats’ obsession with paying hundreds of dirhams every weekend for the privilege of stuffing oneself in a four-hour binge with piles of sushi, barbecued meat, puddings and cheese – often all on the same plate. Make like the long-term residents and locals instead, and ease into a long lunch with some friends.

5. Try and resist the Reem Island stampede

When you arrive in Abu Dhabi, everyone will tell you to find an apartment on Reem Island. I can understand why – a lot of people live there and the facilities in all the tower blocks are exceptional. But did you really move all this way for access to a Waitrose and a nice pool? For your first year at least, resist the Reem Island stampede and try somewhere like Khalidiya, where you will be surrounded by cheaper restaurants, fabric shops and food markets – or, to put it another way, real life.

Think of the summer as your chance to make good on decades of lapsed promises to learn a language, take up the piano, etc.

6. Embrace the summer

It’s tempting to put a red ring around “October 1” in your diary, turn up the air-conditioning and log in to Netflix. Approach it more positively – you may never again have so much free time. Think of the summer as your chance to make good on decades of lapsed promises to learn a language, take up the piano, etc. There are art classes and classic film programmes at Manarat Al Saadiyat and plenty of summer activities and exhibitions at Louvre Abu Dhabi and NYU Abu Dhabi.

7. Eat in these restaurants

Bonna Anne, Al Liwan, Moti Mahal and Dragon Bao Bao.

8. Explore the other emirates

There is more to the UAE than Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Don’t get stuck. Venture into Ras Al Khaimah’s rugged mountains, enjoy a weekend of diving in Fujairah or explore Sharjah’s world-class art museums.

9. Use public transport

City buses start at just Dh2. Victor Besa / The National
City buses start at just Dh2. Victor Besa / The National

One of my colleagues admitted recently that it took her an hour-and-a-half by bus to get from her apartment block to the office. So I’m not advocating using the buses for the daily commute (although at Dh2 a journey, you might think it’s worth the hassle). But, if you need to get to Dubai, for example, there are air-conditioned buses every 10 to 20 minutes from Abu Dhabi Central Bus station, which take you right into the centre of the city – and only cost Dh25. A taxi might easily cost you 10 times that.

10. Get The Entertainer app

This should be the first thing you do when you arrive in Abu Dhabi. Dozens of restaurants and bars offer discounts or two-for-one deals for customers with The Entertainer. It costs Dh495 for the year but after one or two meals out with friends, you’ll have recouped that cost. After that, it’s all plain saving.

Updated: July 11, 2019 06:42 PM

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