10 Malls That Will Make You Feel Cultured

by  Alex Schechter | Aug 19, 2013
Mall of America
Mall of America / Wolterk/iStock

Take a minute and ask yourself which of the following two activities you did on your most recent trip: checked out a new art exhibit, or went shopping at the mall? I'm embarrassed to admit the latter. Not that I go out of my way to find the malls, mind you. It's an unfortunate truth that shopping malls, souvenir kiosks, and multiplex cinemas often make themselves more available to tourists than museums, art galleries, and other cultural institutions. Like any traveler, I want to feel enriched by my trip, no matter where the destination, but sometimes the familiar allure of chain department stores, air-conditioned food courts, and gliding escalators just proves too strong. 

Luckily, there's a middle road. Speaking as an experienced mall rat, I've discovered it's possible to kill two birds with one stone: engage in some retail therapy and squeeze in a little culture at the same time. From pop-up art exhibits to intimate jazz venues, here are ten venues that add a little class to the usual shopping mall experience.

Las Vegas

This summer, light artist James Turrell debuted several of his signature light installations inside The Shops At Crystals, one of Las Vegas' most upscale boutique shopping centers. Alongside such designer outlets as Fendi, Prada, Tag Heur and Dolce & Gabbana, Turrell's bright rainbow bursts have transformed part of the mall into a wonderland – similar, in fact, to his current retrospectives at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Most interesting is his re-working of the mall's monorail station, which now glows in different shades of blue, purple, and pink with the arrival and departure of each train.


In central Tokyo, the 54-story Roppongi Hills Mori Tower is home to many different tenants – offices, retail stores, restaurants – though its most notable attraction can be found at the very top. The Mori Art Museum is a contemporary art museum founded in 2003 that curates exhibits, public programs, and events throughout the year. Accessible via elevator from the shops below, the museum sits on the 53rd floor of the building; the current "All You Need Is Love" exhibit features artworks by Chagall, Yayoi Kusama, Frida Kahlo, and Damien Hirst.


It's impossible to talk malls without bringing up the USA's largest shopping center, the Mall of America. You'd think between visiting the 500+ shops, going on rides at the indoor amusement park, and choosing from one of the 14 movie theaters, visitors would have enough to keep themselves busy – but there's more to do here than just shop and gawk, especially for families with young children. An on-site exhibit space that has traditionally hosted educational displays like "Body World" and the current "Camp Ice Age" (starring characters from the 2002 animated film), and this fall, the mall will debut a year-long exhibit focused around a certain well-loved American doll (hint: her name rhymes with Warby).


In Dubai, you don't so much visit malls as sort of…end up in them. Especially in the summer, when temperatures can soar over 105ºF, locals cool off and socialize in the air-conditioned sanctuaries of places like Madinat Jumeirah, Ibn Battuta, and the world-renowned Dubai Mall. But it's the iconic Mall of the Emirates that goes to the top of the list when it comes to cultural attractions. Housed on the mall's second floor is the 530-seat Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (DUCTAC for short), the region's first modern, non-profit creative center, boasting two theaters, rehearsal spaces, art galleries, a library, classrooms and studios. In addition to frequent music, dance, and theater performances, visitors can also sign up for classes and workshops in painting, photography, mosaics, and other media.


Topped by a 274-room Four Seasons hotel, the Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is one of the capital's most impressive buildings, with a unique cut-out design feature that inverts the top floors into an upside down 'U.' Concealed on the 77th floor is King Abdullah Mosque, also known as the highest mosque in the world (according to Guinness Book of World Records), which allows the public to visit during prayer times. Above that is the Skybridge, which offers 360º views from almost 1,000 feet above the city (admission costs $10 per person). You'll be so busy snapping photos, you won't have time to shop!

New York City

Few shoppers have passed through the Time Warner Center in Manhattan without stopping for a photo next to one of Botero's giant Adam and Eve statues. In addition to hosting regular on-site art exhibits (a recent one, "The Love of the Poet," showcased the paintings of Daniel Bottero – not to be confused with the Colombian sculptor), the Time Warner Center is also home to one of New York's most important music institutions, Jazz At Lincoln Center. Three distinct venues (Rose Theater, the Allen Room, and Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, in order of size) comprise the Frederic P. Rose Hall, for which jazz legend Wynton Marsalis serves as Artistic Director; live music is scheduled year-round, and has featured performances by Toots Thielemans, Bobby McFerrin, and Chick Corea.

Santa Monica

Open-air shopper's paradise Santa Monica Place has served as the backdrop for several films and TV shows (Beverly Hills 90210, Pretty In Pink), and it's easy to see why. The palm tree-lined courtyard, which tempts credit card holders with outposts of Tiffany, Barney's Co-Op, and Emporio Armani, as well as two large department stores (Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom), is a piece of Los Angeles architecture history: originally designed by Frank Gehry in 1980, the complex was gutted and renovated in 2010 to become the gorgeous sun-drenched oasis it is today, with a rooftop dining deck, and public art installations dotting the walkways.


Singapore's tallest vertical mall, Orchard Central, is also one of its most culturally-active, with a dedicated "Art Trail" that has commissioned over $7 million worth of international artworks on display throughout the entire space. Of course, you've got to battle through pedestrian-clogged Orchard Road to get there, but once you do, it's well worth the effort. Each artwork reflects the mall's architecture in different ways: for example, Hand Peter Kuhn's "A Vertical Lightfield" plays with light and sound using fluorescent tubes, aluminum, computer parts, mp3 players and amplifiers. Meanwhile, a "grove" of hand-forged stainless steel nutmeg seeds occupies Level 1, while Matthew Ngui's "Web Light" projects different images on the building's exterior, depending on the time of day.


In April, Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum re-opened after a massive, ten-year renovation project. Crowds flocked to behold the redesigned halls and galleries, which showcase works by Dutch masters Vermeer, Van Gough, and Rembrandt, among others. While that museum should be on every traveler's itinerary while visiting the Dutch capital, it's also possible to get a small taste of the collection at – yes – the airport shopping mall. Amsterdam Schiphol is fully-equipped with a range of retail outlets (Rolex, Tommy Hilfiger, Victoria's Secret), but also caters to art-y types with the Rijksmuseum Schiphol. The satellite museum, located in the area behind passport control between Concourses E and F, was founded in 2002 as a joint effort by Amsterdam Schiphol and Rijksmuseum, and hosts three new exhibitions (sourced from the original museum) annually.


Located in Sunny Isles Beach, the 2.7 million square feet Aventura Mall is one of Miami's biggest shopping destinations: in fact, with its full range of both high-end and regular chain stores (Camper, Cartier, American Apparel, Louis Vuitton), plus restaurants and a spa, it could be a valid excuse for not getting to explore other parts of the city. But all's not lost – thanks to Turnberry for the Arts, the mall's major cultural initiative, shoppers benefit from exposure to the works of various local artists. A variety of mediums are showcased throughout the mall, like Jorge Pardo's site-specific installation "Untitled," which features hanging lamps designed to look like butterflies, and Daniel Arsham's surreal broken columns.

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