11 places to encounter Abu Dhabi's amazing nature and wildlife
Abu Dhabi is more than a city destination. Apart from shimmering architecture and rich cultural heritage, the capital of the UAE boasts surprising nature and wildlife, so getting out to enjoy Abu Dhabi nature is an ideal choice for lovers of the outdoors.
There are plenty of natural places to visit in Abu Dhabi; from mesmerising deserts, fertile oases and archipelago islands to stunning beaches, mysterious mangrove forests and impressive wildlife reserves. These can be enjoyed through experiences catering to all activity levels, from walking and mountain biking to scuba diving, free diving, 4x4 safaris, horse rides and much more.
Closely protected by the government, Abu Dhabi's wildlife and nature has always been key to its prosperity. In keeping with the vision of the late UAE founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi is deeply committed to preserving the emirate’s environment and ecology. The Sheikh Zayed Protected Areas Network, for example, is made up of 19 protected areas. Some of these – such as the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve on Bu Tinah Island, the largest UNESCO-designated marine biosphere reserve in the region − are only open to researchers. Others – such as the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, Mangrove National Park and Jebel Hafit − are open to the public.
Here's our definitive list of where to get close to Abu Dhabi's most fascinating nature and wildlife.
1. Step into the Jungle
One of the top places to visit for families, the Emirates Park Zoo is home to hundreds of animals − including a 300kg-plus Siberian bear and a majestic pair of white tigers. Thanks to a park-wide misting system, you can stay cool while you wander around. Fun activities include feeding the hungry hippos and dining with elephants - a unique way to teach your kids how to care for animals! The park also has an aerial play area that spans across the Petting Zoo - with 2 circuits and over 50 obstacles for you to zip, slide and climb through.
2. Live the island life
The perfect example of Abu Dhabi nature is the stunning Sir Bani Yas Island, the largest island three hours away from Abu Dhabi. Founded by His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, this pristine conservation haven is home to giraffes, cheetahs, oryx and many more species. When visiting this private Abu Dhabi nature reserve, you can visit archaeological sites, including a 1,400-year-old Christian monastery; hop on a 4x4 to discover the wildlife; enjoy holidaying at the Desert Island Resort & Spa; or dive to see the vibrant coral reefs at the Al Mahara Diving Centre.
3. Sea-ze the day
Being an archipelago made up of over 200 islands, Abu Dhabi has an abundant marine life. Ranging from beginner to pro, there is no shortage of prime snorkelling and diving spots where you can discover sea creatures, coral reefs, shipwrecks and more. If you like to keep your head above the water, the city’s coastline is perfect for kayaking, SUP, sailing or jet skiing.
4. Find peace in the heart of culture
Nature in Abu Dhabi isn’t hard to find, but you do need to spend time exploring and learning about its importance. Part of the Sheikh Zayed Protected Areas, The Mangrove National Park is a biodiversity hotspot making up about 75 per cent of the total mangrove forest area in the UAE. Get closer to this ecological asset in a kayak by visiting the Anantara Eastern Mangroves Hotel. While rowing, you may see flamingos, herons and other bird or plant species. Take your time to soak in the sights and enjoy this integral piece of nature.
5. Float through the mangroves
A haven for birdwatchers, nature-lovers and photographers, Jubail Mangrove Park is a wholesome place to visit. Termed as a self-contained educational and leisure destination, take advantage of either of the three walkways for a closer look at the lush landscape. There is even a floating platform with a net that shows you the marine life below. For the best pictures, head to the viewing platform located at a higher vantage point, strike a pose or let nature be the main focal point. The best time to visit the park is during high tide.
6. Hang out with the kings of the jungle
Feed budgies, chill with the penguins or catch the cheetahs running, in an experience that will leave you amazed. Founded in 1968 by the late Sheikh Zayed, the Al Ain Zoo is a popular family destination that has welcomed millions of visitors over the years. An hour and a half away from Abu Dhabi, the zoo is also a centre for endangered species conservation such as the Arabian Oryx.
With the Jebel Hafit in the background, you can discover an array of wildlife at the massive 217-hectare park by exploring the world’s largest man made safari - the Al Ain Safari. From lions to wildebeest, you can either book a private 4x4 tour or hop on a truck tour that lasts about 45 minutes.
7. Tanline and turtles
An island of leisure, entertainment and cultural finds, the beautiful Saadiyat Island is just a seven-minute drive from downtown Abu Dhabi. Populated by free-roaming gazelles and gorgeous white sand beaches to laze on, the island is also home to the critically endangered Hawksbill turtles that use them as their nesting ground. Thanks to the Hawksbill Turtle Conservation Programme, some 650 eggs have hatched successfully on Saadiyat since 2010. The beach is carefully managed, even more so during nesting season, ensuring that the eggs are safe. You should also keep an eye out for dolphins frolicking in the bay.
8. Venture into the lap of nature
Putting a spotlight on natural places in Abu Dhabi is the protected Al Wathba Wetland Reserve. Once a coastal salt flat called sabkha, the reserve today is a blend of natural and manmade lakes where many different species thrive.
A 30-minute drive from Abu Dhabi’s city centre, enjoy a leisurely stroll on the two available pathways, where you get a closer look at the main residents of the island - the Greater Flamingos! There are also over 250 bird species, 37 plant species and a wide range of aquatic life that you could catch on camera.
9. Interact with the pride of the UAE
Sheikh Zayed had a great fondness for falcons and was deeply passionate about their well-being. His vision was to rehabilitate them and release them into the world. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital grew from that vision and today, the care centre treats over 11,000 birds. To meet the UAE’s national bird, visit the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, a 45-minute drive from the city. Go on a guided tour of the hospital and hold a falcon, under supervision.
10. Explore the golden dunes of the desert
Crossing the four borders of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates is the massive Rub’ al Khali, the second largest desert in the world. Commonly visited from the Abu Dhabi side, the expansive area is popularly known as the Empty Quarter. Led by expert local guides, discover the land’s best companions - camels - and learn why they are called the ‘ships of the desert’. Catch the falcon and saluki shows at the luxurious Qasr Al Sarab, which houses nine falcons of the ultra-fast Peregrine and Saker species.
11. Spend time with Saluki dogs
Set up in 2001, the Arabian Saluki Centre is a special home and care centre for the incredible breed, whose relationship with the region dates back decades ago. Similar to greyhounds, this breed of Saluki dogs were used by Bedouins primarily for hunting, because of their ability to be swift, fearless and loyal. Trained to work as a team; the falcon would first hover over the prey and then the Saluki would catch it. Before visiting the centre, make sure to reserve or book ahead of time so you can interact with these loyal animals up close.