By Nicole Herrington http://travel.nytimes.com
IN a city already stocked with modernist towers, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is still a notable addition to the skyline. Rising precipitously more than 2,715 feet — just over a half-mile — this tapered stainless steel and glass structure became the world’s tallest building when it opened in January 2010.
Looking up from its base, it is almost impossible to take in the entire tower without straining your neck. But tourists to Dubai have not only gained an impressive building, they have also gained a host of attractions that lie within and surrounding its soaring facade.
Chief among them is the observation deck. To reach the 1,483-foot-high deck, called At the Top (1 Emaar Boulevard, 971-4-888-8124, burjkhalifa.ae), guests must first endure a gantlet of hype: after entering the building through the Dubai Mall — one of the world’s largest shopping centers — a network of displays relays the Burj Khalifa’s numerous records and inspirational quotes. (“The word impossible is not in the leaders’ dictionaries.”) Elevators then whisk visitors to the 124th floor in what seems like less than a minute, providing a light, music and video show meant to drum up anticipation as they do so.
The observation area provides 360-degree views of the city, with an exterior deck that is shielded from the elements by tall glass panes and a smaller, enclosed area with a gift shop. The exterior deck spans from the northeast to the southwest, and though smog typically limits visibility, you can make out the Persian Gulf and a shadow of Dubai Creek, which runs through the heart of the old city.
But the best views are closer to the Burj Khalifa: downtown Dubai’s network of residential and commercial towers, the Dubai Fountain waterway and a complicated highway interchange that feeds into the emirate’s main thoroughfare, Sheikh Zayed Road.
On the deck — a roofless area more than a quarter mile into the air — the breeze flows over and through openings between the glass panes, providing a refreshing break from the ground-level heat. At times, though, the slight gusts can be a little daunting: at one point a young boy, who was kneeling at the edge of the wooden floor, with nothing but glass separating him from the elements, urged his father to take a picture, fast: “I can feel the wind, and it’s making me nervous.”
The other attractions within the Burj Khalifa have an air of glamour that visitors have come to expect from Dubai. Elevating its sleek factor: the Armani hotel and spa (971-4-888-3888; armanihotels.com), which opened last spring at the tower’s base. The attention to detail and luxury is evident in chocolate-colored décor and a spa offering part- and full-day sessions, an outdoor pool and various treatments. Giorgio Armani also lends his name to several restaurants and nightclubs onsite, including Armani/Ristorante and the Armani Privé club.
Back at Dubai Mall (971-4-362-7500; thedubaimall.com), which is attached to the tower via a corridor, you can shop at the Porsche boutique, dine on virtually any cuisine, explore nature in the aquarium or get in a workout at the ice-skating rink. Nearby is the Souk al Bahar, an arabesque-themed shopping area where one can sample assorted date treats at the Bateel shop or dine on pan-Asian fare at Karma Kafe.
At night, the Dubai Fountain, at the base of Burj Khalifa, is a spectacle of water, light and Arabic music — and the occasional Céline Dion or Lionel Richie tune. The fountain is about the size of two football fields, and assorted spouts shoot water up to 500 feet in the air.
The best diversion, however, may be about 500 feet from the tower. The Address Downtown Dubai hotel (Emaar Boulevard; 971-4-436-8888; theaddress.com) has an infinity pool where visitors can swim or lounge under palms, sip a mojito and take in unobstructed views of the tower. You don’t have to be a hotel guest, either; visitors can head to the poolside bar or, if you want to swim, buy a day pass ($81), Sunday to Thursday. It’s a moment to breathe in the shadow of this bustling city’s ambitious development and grandeur.