Dubai keeps rising like a mirage out of the desert, but it’s not all just for show – take a trip in a water taxi to the souqs and see for yourself.

The malls
Air-conditioned shopping malls symbolise Dubai to the rest of the world in much the same way that pyramids represent Egypt.

With more than 70 shopping malls, Dubai – the most populous of the seven emirates in the UAE, with by far the largest number of tourists – is rightly considered to be the shopping capital of the Middle East.

Consider these facts relating to the emirate’s greatest palace of commerce, the Dubai Mall: it is the world’s largest shopping centre by floor area, with 1,200 shops and more than 160 food and drink outlets spread across 548,000 square metres; it contains the Dubai Aquarium, where shoppers are separated from a giant tank holding 33,000 marine creatures by the world’s largest viewing panel; and the entire complex sits at the foot of the tallest building on Earth – about which more later.

Dubai Mall’s Olympic-sized ice-skating rink is trumped by the indoor ski slope at the rival Mall of the Emirates, although you are more likely to see Emirati men and women in their dishdashas and abayas taking to the ice than swishing through the snow.

Diversions aside, the biggest draw of the year is the monthlong Dubai Shopping Festival, from mid-January, thanks to that most traditional of attractions – big discounts.

Further information can be found online about the Dubai Mall and the Aquarium.  Tickets cost £10.

The souqs
The malls of Dubai don’t exist in a vacuum. Behind their marbled precincts, there lies a long tradition of merchants bringing exotica from around the Gulf and beyond to be ogled and haggled over.

Madinat Jumeirah is the halfway point between old and new Dubai – a shopping resort-restaurant-entertainment village that takes architectural inspiration from the pre-1960s trading port, while everything else is very much in the spirit of the 21st-century emirate.

Yet however tastefully done the arcaded streets of Madinat Jumeirah’s souq may be, the city’s merchant tradition is more palpable in the souqs of Deira and Bur Dubai, on opposite sides of Dubai Creek. In Bur Dubai Souq, which sits between the historic Bastakia and Shindagha quarters, it’s the clothing that stands out, particularly the saris and other fabrics from India and beyond.

Across the creek in Deira’s dusty streets, traders come from as far afield as Ethiopia, Iran, Pakistan and the Philippines. The Spice Souq offers saffron, sumac, dried lemons and frankincense from the south of Oman. Next door, the Gold Souq is piled with lustrous necklaces and bracelets for countless bridal dowries, in a city where two in three people buy gold at least once a year.

Traditionally, souq shops close for a few hours in the afternoon and for most of Friday, although many now open all day. In souqs, as in malls, Friday evenings after the end of prayers are the busiest times.

Dubai engineering
Before 2009, the question ‘What is the tallest building in the world?’ had no simple answer, what with a number of radio masts, offshore platforms and observation towers making the very definition ambiguous. Happily, the Burj Khalifa has ended the debate by surpassing the title holder in every record category, reaching more than 828m high.

The tower was topped out shortly before the global financial crisis hit Dubai’s property market. Plans to build artificial islands in the shape of palm trees and a world map were put on hold, with only one of these palm islands finished.

Yet despite this setback in trying to raise new land from the waters of the Gulf, it’s unlikely that the Burj Khalifa will mark the limit of Dubai’s ambitions.

Pre-booked tickets to the Burj Khalifa observation deck cost £18 and are valid for a set date and time. Instant admission tickets for those in a hurry cost £70.

Bastakia Quarter
The designers of the Burj Khalifa had to factor in something called the ‘chimney effect’ – the movement of air that results from temperature differences at the top and bottom of very tall towers. However, Dubai’s builders have a much longer history of designing buildings adapted to the climate, as a stroll in the Bastakia Quarter shows.

The area has become something of a hub for arty guesthouses, cultural centres and eateries – the XVA gallery, hotel and café is a stand-out.

The narrow lanes offer shade and a vision of the days before oil and globalisation. In a city where Emiratis make up less than 10 per cent of the population, heritage areas like this count for a lot.

The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, a not-for-profit group, offers tours of the Bastakia Quarter (from £6).

Dubai Creek
As Dubai spreads to the southwest, ever closer to its fellow emirate Abu Dhabi, it moves further from its old centre of gravity and original raison d’être – Dubai Creek, called Khor Dubai in Arabic.

The days of pearl divers and Bedouin camps are long gone, but the nine-mile-long inlet that gave Dubai its low-key start still offers a daily spectacle, not least thanks to its fleet of abras. These jaunty wooden motorboats still ferry local workers and curious visitors between the Deira and Bur Dubai sides of the creek, even now that road bridges and Metro lines span the waterway.

The water taxis take up to 20 passengers, leaving when full, on two routes that go from Bur Dubai to stops near the Spice Souq and the less romantically monikered Electronics Souq.

A standard abra fare is 20p, which you pay to the driver halfway across the creek. Chartering your own abra costs £17 per hour.

The article 'Changing tides in Dubai' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.