Compared to its larger and glitzier brother Dubai, Abu Dhabi is substantially more compact.
Nowhere in the downtown area is more than a short bus or taxi ride away from anywhere else, but you will still be using motorised transport more than walking. There is also still a fair amount of sprawl in Abu Dhabi, so you may be staying somewhere a bit outside the centre.
Whereas Dubai has invested heavily in rail-based transport, there is no such service in Abu Dhabi, and proposals to develop such a network are on hold. You’ll have a choice of waiting outside in the dusty heat for a bus or taking the much more commonplace option of a taxi. Then there’s the natural question that if you are spending let’s say one week in Abu Dhabi, will you also want to visit Dubai? Will you want to travel elsewhere within the UAE, and possibly even on to Oman? Abu Dhabi car hire certainly isn’t for everyone, but it might still be an option for your visit.
It certainly is perfectly possible to travel between Abu Dhabi and Dubai by bus, and plenty of people do so. Abu Dhabi is also not lacking in its own huge range of architectural gems. Visitors can either use state-backed scheduled bus services, or they can take guided tours.
For trips into the desert, then 4×4 vehicles tend to be more popular, although the practice of “dune bashing” has been heavily criticised for its environmental damage.
Reasons why you need a car in Abu Dhabi
Visiting Abu Dhabi without a car
Any Abu Dhabi car hire advice also has to come with the significant caveat that the roads in the United Arab Emirates have some of the worst accident figures of any country that publishes this data. However, given the sheer volume of tourists and expats, these figures tend to look even worse than they actually are. On balance, there is certainly no need to get a hire car if you are literally just stopping over in Abu Dhabi, but for a longer trip then car rental starts to become something as well worth considering.
James says - a few trip notes:
Anyone with an interest in technology might well want to take a look at the futuristic Masdar City near Abu Dhabi International airport. Masdar is designed to have much more in common with traditional Middle Eastern cities, with steep sided streets having additional natural climate control systems to make them inherently walkable.
Masdar does also have its own bus terminal. If all of Abu Dhabi was built like Masdar, then our verdict would be very different, but sadly it is not – Masdar is the experiment, not the reality, and it’s only really worth visiting if you have an interest in the architecture or the technology.
Do I need a car in Abu Dhabi? Verdict – yes (may be useful for longer visits, especially for getting out of the city).