Skydive Dubai
Credit: Skydive Dubai

Planning a trip to the city of gold? You'll want to do more than just shop at the mall. With a vast array of adventure activities, some top-notch beaches, and a seriously beautiful historic quarter, Dubai ranks as one of the most culturally interesting destinations on the planet. Here, our list of where to eat, drink, relax, and yes, shop.

Chill out at 1,821 feet in the air.

Of all Dubai's novelties (skiing in a mall, man-made islands, an aquarium restaurant), the one attraction you shouldn't miss is Burj Khalifa. Not only is it the world's tallest building (941 feet taller than the World Trade Center), the spiraling steel-and-concrete tower, whose silhouette was loosely designed after the hymenocallis flower, is a marvel of engineering. Do yourself a favor and ride the elevator up to the world's highest observation deck, which broke (yet another) record when it opened in 2014. At 1,821 feet above ground, the views won't disappoint. Tickets from AED 350.

Fly a kite, at the beach.

There are plenty of decent spots for a leisurely dip in the Arabian Gulf, but Kite Beach, located in Umm Suqeim (between Jumeirah and the Palm), is one of the most unique. Unpretentious, open to the public, and wonderfully development-free, it's a wide-open stretch of sand where kite surfers gather to do what they love most. It makes for some great photo opps; and if you're the sporty beach type, there's also a gym, stand-up paddle boarding, volleyball and kayaking.

Have a drink in the sky.

It's hard to call a Dubai trip complete without stopping in at Burj Al Arab—often cited as the world's most luxurious hotel. Perched right on the ocean, with a unique sail-shape design, non-guests can spend an evening at the 27th-floor Skyview Bar, with unrivaled views of the city and surrounding coastline. Sip a specialty cocktail, enjoy the nightly live jazz, and for goodness' sake, don't forget to dress up.

Walk The Walk.

To see and be seen, head to The Walk at JBR. Part of a residential complex where many expats live (the city is home to over 200 nationalities, thanks to the large number of international corporations with offices here), this mile-long strip is the Santa Monica of Dubai, with high-end shops, plazas, street performers, and plenty of outdoor restaurants. The vibe is mainly western (in many ways, it's the opposite of Deira's souks), but a fun, and lively scene nonetheless.

Get a taste for Emirati food.

Since you've flown halfway around the world, plan on getting adventurous with your meals. Middle Eastern cuisine is notoriously rich, with its mezzes, dips and salads, and dishes like al mochboos (cinnamon- and clove-spiced rice and chicken) and fraeeth (meat and vegetables layered with thick slices of bread). Plan a dinner at the new Al Barza, which offers traditional Emirati plates in a contemporary setting. If food is high on your list, visit the first-ever Dubai Restaurant Week, taking place February 25 to March 5, with 30 top restaurants around the city.

Jumper under canopy flying over the Dubai Palm
Credit: (c) Oliver Furrer

Skydive over the Palm.

Why walk or drive Dubai's palm-shaped island when you can view its entire shape from above, as you hurtle down from the sky at 130 miles per hour? Skydive Dubai opened in 2010, and its popular tandem jumps (from 1,999 AED)—in which you're safely hooked and harnessed to a professional instructor—can be done without any prior skydiving experience. During the 60-second free fall, you'll get a wide-view glimpse of the man-made island, followed by a 5-minute parachute glide to the ground. (Note: booking dates are announced in batches, so check the website ahead of your trip, and make sure there are available dates when you're in town.)

Enjoy your layover. Really.

It's one of T+L's favorite airports, and after a few hours exploring the shops (Terminal 2 boasts the world's largest duty-free facility), Zen gardens, Snoozecubes, pool, and spa, you'll see why. DXB became the world's busiest airport in 2015, and it's the home base of international carrier Emirates, which means travelers are likely to have a connection here at some point. If you have lots of time, simply use the bag drop-off facility in Terminal 3 and do some sightseeing in the city, 20 minutes away by metro.

Cross Dubai Creek in an abra.

For a cheap, easy excursion, hop on a motorized water taxi (abra in Arabic), which costs just 1 AED, and runs from 5 a.m. to midnight. You'll pass through Dubai Creek (where the city's pearl trade took off in the early 1900s) which is lined with gorgeous mosques, old-fashioned homes, and a few resorts. Once you've crossed to the Deira side, browse hundreds of jewelry stalls in the gold souk, and then shop for frankincense and dried fruits in the spice souk—and don't forget to haggle, the shopkeepers practically expect it!

Stay at the city's only art gallery hotel.

Inside XVA, Dubai's only art gallery boutique hotel, you'll feel like you've left the city behind altogether. The 14-room hotel is built around three open-air courtyards with wicker chairs, hanging plants and original artworks hung up on every wall (the space hosts regular art exhibits and events, too). Each room has a different theme, though all are tastefully furnished and full of character—no, the hotel doesn't break any Guinness world records, but the vibe sure is pleasant.

Go desert cycling.

A 15-minute drive outside the city, the Al Qudra Cycling Track charts a 62-mile course through pure desert, with frequent sightings of camels and Arabian onyx. Riders in the know show up around 5 a.m. to watch the sun come up over the dunes (not to mention beating the heat—midday riding is not recommended). Best of all, the well-equipped Trek Bikes has affordable rentals, with helmets and helpful staff to get you on the right path. Who needs malls, anyway?

Visit a luxe Turkish hammam.

Inside the Palm Jumeirah Hotel, the Talise Ottoman Spa claims the Middle East's largest hammam—a heated marble slab surrounded by tile mosaics and intricate carved wood panels. For the full detox effect, there are cabanas, saunas and a snow room (day passes from 1,925 AED); it's a good Valentine's Day spot, too, with the couples' facilities taking up an entire floor of the building. After sweating it out in the hammam, book a 60-minute "Gold Mask" treatment (519 AED). You're in Dubai, after all.