You will want to start early; Abu Dhabi is savored best before noon. Depending on how sympathetic the weather is to your flâneur spirit, you could walk to Al Khaleej Bakery down Hamdan and Salaam street (or you could take a taxi). Inside the bakery, the clientele stands at the counter, looking through the window behind the counter, where half a dozen men knead and balance paddles of dough into a large wood-fire oven. Above, there is a sign in Arabic that reads to the effect of “Cleanliness is from Faith.” I recommenced the cheese manakeesh (4.5 dhs), but there are other options, like za’tar, spinach or minced meat.
You will emerge from the bakery soaked to the bone with steam and the smell of bread, ready to take on this relatively sterilized side of the road. I’ll leave it in your hands to find somewhere to get chai (1 dirham) –chai kiosks are everywhere, and your status as a local depends on your ability to find them. Here’s a tip—you could try Afrah Refreshments, across the street near the Russian embassy. Then make your way to Capital Gardens. (You might wish that you’d brought a sturdier covered mug with you, to accommodate all this walking, but hey, casually sipping from a styrofoam cup makes you look more like a local than toting a Starbucks mug.)
Once you enter the park (walking beneath two tilted ibrik sculptures definitely justifies the one-dirham entrance fee), find a place to sit by the fountain, maybe near the flowers or some moody-looking teen couples. Politely decline the horse keeper’s offer of a horseback ride (or accept it, but then you might not have enough money left at the end of the day for ice cream) and peruse the charming—if not confusing—grafitti plastered on the electricity vaults .
Duck into Thrift, one of the few second-hand book shops you’re likely to find in Abu Dhabi. The books are incredibly cheap (averaging between 9-18 AED) and amidst all the would-be bestsellers, there are some legitimately unique finds. Linger for a while, buy something if you like, then be on your way. There are a few options at this point: you could get your free art fix of the day and hang out at the Cultural Foundation, check out Ghaf Gallery, or Acento Gallery at the Mina. If you’re hungry, then follow Hamdan Street in the general direction of NYU’s Downtown Campus, but turn into the alley two buildings before the Crowne Plaza, where you’ll find Hatam at-Tae’i.
Named after a Pre-Islamic Arabian poet known for his extravagant generosity, this aptly titled restaurant knows their stuff. They offer 25-dirham specials of Persian-style meat/fish/vegetable combos with rice. Sit down, and savor the place in all its yellow-walled, TV-documentary showing glory. If you didn’t buy a book or a horse ride, then you probably have enough to buy some ice cream (15 dhs). If you don’t have any extra dirham, then forego dinner in favor of ice cream. The ice cream here is not just any ice cream: it is thick, vaguely chewy, oh so refreshing saffron ice cream and its clean taste is the perfect companion to a hazy Abu Dhabi evening. Take the ice cream to go—you should be outside for such a transformative experience—and walk or take a taxi to the mina, then sit by the dhow harbor and watch the sunset.