Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Blvd., Downtown
As a young city, Dubai is still building its cultural scene. Toward that goal, and the delight of many locals, the Dubai Opera house, which was under construction for a few years, opened at the end of 2016, a 5,800-square-foot marine-style, dhow-shaped building in the heart of downtown. The venue is the performance arts hub of the city, putting on a wide array of ballets, operas, plays, musicals, comedy shows, and concerts.
Kite Beach, Jumeirah
Best known for its prime kitesurfing conditions, hence the name, this busy beach has something for everyone: Try your hand at the water sports (rentals available on the spot) or simply relax and take in the beautiful views of the Burj Al Arab. In addition, there's a dedicated kids area with trampolines, a climbing gym, and a skate park—plus favorite food joint, Salt. And if your phone is running low on juice, there are charging stations right on the beach.
Sharjah + Ajman
Dubai's northern border is shared with the emirate of Sharjah, and right above Sharjah sits the emirate of Ajman—both within driving distance should you want to see more of the UAE. Visiting Sharjah is a really interesting contrast to staying in Dubai—known as a more conservative emirate, Sharjah is dry (meaning absolutely no alcohol) and calls for modest dress (leave your crop top in Dubai/inside your suitcase). It's really a place to go to discover and learn about authentic Islamic culture. The historic old town is captivating; there are markets and souks to browse (that feel less touristy than the Dubai variation), and where you can see traditional Bedouin jewelry. Sharjah has a number of quality museums, including the smartly curated Museum of Islamic Civilization, which is in a converted souk on the water. Sharjah is also known for its three lagoons, and Al Majaz amphitheater event venue. Sharjah's northern neighbor, Ajman, is the smallest of the seven emirates and very scenic; Dubai locals come here for a weekend beach getaway. Also here: Ajman Museum—the former ruler residence/late eighteenth-century fort now serves as a glimpse into the emirate's past,…
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
The desert surrounding the city of Dubai is a preferred escape for many locals/expats, who will rent quads and trek out to walk around the dunes, picnic, and hang, or ride bikes around the Al Qudra tracks. For a more organized journey into the desert, check out the touring group Platinum Heritage. You can arrange to be collected from where you're staying (or from a convenient group pick-up spot), and a knowledgeable guide will drive you the hour or so out into the desert, which is incredibly majestic—rolling bronze dunes as far as the eye can see in every direction. There are two main tour options: with the Platinum, you ride in a luxury Range Rover, and in Heritage, it's vintage Land Rovers with more of an emphasis on learning about desert life. (If you get carsick easily, the Platinum is probably the safer bet, although many will take something to help prevent nausea before the trip.) You can do both around sunset, which adds to the magic. They also allow for camel rides if that's of interest, but you're likely to see some wandering wildlife, too—like the Arabian…
Alserkal Ave., Al Quoz
A 4,000-square-foot loft group art space founded in 2005, thejamjar has an open painting studio that you can visit for two-, three-, and four-hour sessions. You choose your desired canvas size, and thejamjar provides all the other painting essentials, as well: easel, brushes, unlimited paint, coffee, tunes. Kid friendly, thejamjar can also be booked for parties, and they offer a series of educational events, including after-school courses via their Young Artist Programme (ages nine to fifteen), and the Art Academy for older students looking to build portfolios for art school. For adults, there are regular workshops taught by a variety of artists, including series like Abstract Acrylic Mondays.
Sheikh Mohammed Centre For Cultural Understanding
House 26, Al Mussallah Rd., Bur Dubai
One thing that's striking about Dubai is how brand-new everything is nearly everywhere in the city. The exception is the tip of the city that points toward Sharjah, sometimes referred to as—yes, Old Dubai. Water (Dubai Creek) divides this section into two main neighborhoods: Bur Dubai and Deira. Plan to spend a morning/afternoon exploring both, starting with SMCCU in the historic Fahidi district of Bur Dubai. Here, you'll see the oldest architecture in Dubai (meaning a couple hundreds years, but still, you'll feel a world away from the sleek Burj Khalifa—a mix of stone, tent, and palm tree structures that were home to the area's fishermen and pearl divers. The cultural center offers tours of the neighborhood, including Diwan Mosque (probably the only time women visitors will cover their hair—so it's a good idea to bring a scarf with you, but you can borrow one if you forget). What's really cool about SMCCU is they host breakfasts and lunches where visitors are invited to ask any and all questions about Emirati and Muslim culture. It can be a pretty fascinating experience—both learning more about different customs and traditions and…
E11 Sheikh Zayed Rd., Al Barsha
Going skiing at the mall could only be a thing in Dubai. The first indoor ski resort/snow park in the Middle East, Ski Dubai as it's called, is located inside the Mall of the Emirates—which isn't even the biggest shopping center in Dubai (see: Dubai Mall). Stop mid-mountain for hot chocolate.
The Marina, The Walk, & JBR
The Walk, Jumeirah Beach Residence
Dubai's Marina has become one of the city's most desirable neighborhoods—a lot of young expats live here—in part because the area, including the adjacent JBR, is so walkable, in a city that has typically revolved around drivers. To orient yourself: The Marina is the section that hugs the main Sheikh Zayed Road on one side and the interior waterway on the other. There are a few footbridges that connect the Marina to Jumeirah Beach Residence (called JBR), which is on the gulf side. The Walk at JBR is the name of the outdoor shopping promenade strip of Jumeirah Beach Residence. For a tour of the area, start by walking the waterway in the Marina, where you can watch the yachts going by, and then cross over to JBR toward the beach, where you'll find some of the best people watching in Dubai—a real cross section of the city's residents and visitors. Stop to eat while you're in JBR—see Blue Jade, Ramusake, and The Main.
1, Mohammed Bin Rashid Blvd., Downtown
Sure, there's a lot of hype around going to the top of the world's tallest building—but when in Dubai...provided you aren't deathly afraid of heights, just do it. The view is knock-the-breath-out-of-you crazy. Built by Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, excavation began in 2004, and the building, a series of rising, helix-shaped spires, officially debuted six years later, in 2010. It's 160 stories, or 2,716.5 feet (828 meters) tall. To put that into perspective: Shanghai Tower is 2,073 feet; One World Trade Center is 1,776 feet; and the Eiffel Tower is 984 feet. (Because it's Dubai, where more is frequently seen as more, an ever taller structure is in the works.) There are a few observation decks—stop at level 124, 125, 148—where you can look down at what appears to be an imaginative, sprawling paper city from that high up. At level 122, you can do high tea at At.Mosphere (it's about the view and the experience, not the food). Book in advance—even just to get up to the observation decks. While you're here: You can easily couple your tour of the Burj Khalifa with the adjacent Dubai…