The expat lifestyle in Abu Dhabi has achieved nearly mythical proportions; many foreigners moving here conjure images of paradise and a life characterised by lavish luxury.

And for a good number of expats, life in the emirate is indeed centred on shopping, relaxation and socialising. For many, material wealth is much easier to come by in the emirate and, initially, finding new cause to swipe the credit card is invigorating.

Malls abound, an energised nightlife beckons and with such a large community of foreigners, there always seems to be something exciting happening.

That said, for others with less lucrative salaries or for those who no longer value the pull of the spend, it's necessary to be a little more inventive when it comes to living the good life. This is especially true in summer, when the oppressive heat eliminates any opportunity for outdoor fun.

Shopping in Abu Dhabi

There is no doubt that the shopping in Abu Dhabi is excellent. Plenty of souks (markets), malls and airport duty-free shops exist in and around the city.

Souks are the place to go for oriental carpets, gold and antique jewellery, electronic gadgets, designer clothes, cosmetics, spices and souvenirs. Great shopping locations include the Souk at Central Market, the Fish Souk in the Mina Zayed Free Port, the Al Mina Fruit and Vegetable Souk or the modern adaptation of a marketplace at Souq Qaryat Al Beri. Typical gifts for family members back home include traditional coffee pots, Bedouin jewellery and antique chests.

Shopping malls open around 10am most days, and close late, even past midnight in some cases. In Abu Dhabi alone, there are more than 10 separate malls or centres, each with familiar Western outlets and cinemas. The two largest are Marina Mall and Abu Dhabi Mall. The famous Abu Dhabi Shopping Festival, held in March each year, offers amazing bargains and shopping prizes that lure visitors from all over the world.

Nightlife in Abu Dhabi

Emirates Palace at night

The nightlife in Abu Dhabi is surprisingly lively, even if the city claims a reputation for being more 'family friendly' than neighbouring Dubai. As most expats will quickly realise, there are two centres of the Abu Dhabi social scene: malls and hotels. Malls are places to see and be seen, to go to the cinema, or to shop. Hotels have everything else, and all under one roof – happy hour, dinner, drinks and nightclubs.

Local nightclubs tend to feature international DJs as well as traditional Arab singers and belly dancers. Expats can also look out for regular live music, happy hours, quiz nights and ladies' nights to spice up the regular routine.

While hotel bar house bands tend to be the most consistent form of music and theatre in Abu Dhabi, world-class acts come and go with regularity. After the summer, the Abu Dhabi Classics season brings in orchestras from around the world, such as the Berlin Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, among others.

Every mall has a cinema showing box office favourites from Hollywood, and the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute also hosts occasional film screenings that would appeal to a more highbrow crowd. This is in addition to their extensive programme of public lectures given by visiting and local authors, politicians, musicians and scholars from across the academic spectrum.

For expats who tire of the clubs and restaurants in Abu Dhabi, Dubai is only 90 minutes away. The nightlife scene is bigger and wilder in Dubai, and plenty of hotels offer weekend specials for those in need of an escape.

Eating out in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is home to a wide range of international cuisine, top-notch restaurants and delivery options. As a general rule, the best (and most expensive) restaurants in Abu Dhabi are in hotels. They're also the only restaurants allowed to serve alcohol.

Local cuisine largely consists of rice and lamb dishes accompanied by salads, hummus and bread on the side. As Islam frowns upon the consumption of pork, very few restaurants serve the 'other white meat'.


The holy month of Ramadan is marked by fasting. Eating and drinking in public during the day is not permitted for the duration of the holiday. Many restaurants remain closed until evening, although those in the larger hotels will still serve food.

Lunchtime dining during this period takes place behind covered windows in order to show respect. As takeaway meals are allowed, many restaurants remain partially open to provide this service or else do home deliveries. The sale of alcohol is also impacted during this period, with some restaurants not serving it at all for the duration of Ramadan.

That said, Ramadan is a great time to try local food as come Iftar (breaking of the fast), big hearty meals are often the norm. Plenty of restaurants reopen after sunset during Ramadan, and the family-oriented vibe can make this a great month to eat out.

Meeting people and making friends in Abu Dhabi

Tourists chatting on a waterfront in Abu Dhabi

Perhaps one of the most daunting parts of moving to a new country is figuring out where and how to make new friends. This can be an intimidating task, but opting into a group or club is a great way to meet people with similar interests in an environment that makes it easier to break the ice. Here are a few clubs to get started with.

The Club

Simply known as The Club, this ultra-exclusive society gives members a host of top-notch facilities, not to mention plenty of opportunities to mix and mingle with fellow members. The Club's grounds have just about everything one could need, from swimming pools and beaches to restaurants and on-site shopping. There's even an art gallery, theatre and library, while those looking for a bit of exercise can head to the gym or partake in activities like diving, football, tennis and climbing.

Abu Dhabi Strollers Football Club

Abu Dhabi Strollers is based in Zayed Sports City and is one of Abu Dhabi's most popular amateur clubs, uniting football lovers from across the world. The club gets together to kick a ball around every week of the year, with each session being regularly attended by around 70 participants. There are also fun social events and outings aplenty, so members can get to know each other both on the field and off.

UAE Volunteers

A government initiative, the UAE Volunteers website lists volunteer opportunities of all descriptions, making it easy to choose a cause based on one's interests. The benefits of giving time and energy to a good cause are manifold, from the positive feelings that come from simply doing a good deed to providing an opportunity to meet others with similar passions. The website is available in both English and Arabic.

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