Anywhere you look in the city, you are confronted with side-by-side wealth and poverty, power and despair, the sublimely beautiful and the shockingly ugly. I've lived here all my life and I revel in this study in contrasts. Stately Victorian buildings are shadowed by skyscrapers; traditional bazaars adjoin state-of-the-art shopping malls; and opulent neighbourhoods are surrounded by immense slums.
Nothing can diminish the city's appeal - not the crowds, nor the queues - because Mumbai's indefatigable appeal is the constant surprises amid the clutter. It has a dynamic energy that attracts Indians from all over the country and you're likely to bump into many a villager who's come here to try to land a part in the world's biggest cinema industry - Bollywood. Keep your eyes peeled, too, for the little old lady struggling to preserve her tile-roofed bungalow in the quiet lanes of the city's vanishing Portuguese enclaves. And rub shoulders with the new jet set who inhabit the villas dotting the seafront promenades. Just like each of them, you will be seduced by this city that, for all its traffic jams, is still both siren and saviour.
The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel (www.tajhotels.com; 0091 22 6665 3366) is one of Mumbai's grandest landmarks. Built in 1903, its architecture is a tasteful blend of the classical and the contemporary. Presidents and kings have chosen to stay here - not just for its seven award-winning restaurants and splendid Moorish arches and columns, majestic stairways and galleries - but also for its glorious view of the sea stretching to the distant horizon. A double room costs from US$235 (Dh864) per night.
For something more boutique, you can't go wrong with the Gordon House Hotel (www.ghhotel.com; 0091 22 22871122). It is stylish, charming and the service at this little abode, situated right at the heart of town, is warm and efficient. Double rooms cost from $325 (Dh1,194) per night. If it's a budget room with a view you're after then the Sea Green Hotel (www.seagreenhotel.com; 0091 2282 2294) facing Marine Drive is your answer. Double rooms cost $68 (Dh249) per night.
Start your exploration of the city at Mumbai's most famous landmark - the Gateway of India. Wander on to Kala Ghoda, the city's cultural nerve centre with its art galleries and trendy cafes set among grand colonial buildings. Halt at the Prince of Wales Museum, if only for its superb sculptures and Rajput miniature paintings. You'll pass the National Gallery of Modern Art, the Jehangir Art Gallery, the Kenneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue - the oldest Sephardic synagogue in the city - and smaller galleries, boutique shops and pavement artists as you wander onward into the Fort area. Here you'll burn down your camera's battery shooting such granddaddies of colonial architecture as the Victoria Terminus, the High Court, the University of Mumbai and Rajabai Clock Tower.
While on this trail, walk onward to Crawford Market and explore the surrounding maze of smaller bazaars. Starving by now? Have a juice shake at Badshah Snacks and Drinks, but save your appetite for unforgettable street-side barbecue at Bade Miya. Another good way to find an orderly route is to book a tailor-made tour. The websites www.bombayheritagewalks.com and www.mumbaimagic.com can help you arrange an itinerary to suit your interests. The one-hour MTDC Open Deck Bus Heritage Tour that sets off every weekend at 7pm and 8.15pm is a great way to see the city lit up at night. Tickets are available from the Gateway of India Counter of MTDC and cost only $2 (Dh7.2) for a seat on the upper deck.
For an escape from the bustle, take a taxi ride along the newly established Worli-Bandra Sea Link, a cable-stayed bridge, to spend a day in the prosperous suburb of Bandra. Discover posh boutiques and then stroll through the exclusive Pali Hill area to admire the seafront villas of Bollywood stars amid vestiges of the area's past as a Portuguese enclave. The quiet lanes, tile-roofed homes and Roman Catholic churches of Ranwar village were built by successful Portuguese traders in the late 18th century. At the Mount Mary Basilica you'll find an intriguing little market selling body parts made of candle wax. For spectacular views of the sea and the hinterland, pause at the Castella de Aguada, a deserted Portuguese fort on a hill.
As street cafes go, Leopold's and Mondegar on Colaba Causeway are long-standing favourites with travellers. At these multi-cuisine hubs, there's always music playing on the jukebox, fellow travellers happy to swap stories and locals ready to volunteer advice. Another great way to meet people is to head to Blue Frog or Zenzi Mills in Lower Parel for some seriously hip music acts. In general, however, Mumbai is not a cheap city when it comes to nightlife and a night out on the town can easily cost $100 (Dh367).
Here you'll find any type of cuisine for a broad range of budgets if you look long enough. Dakshinayan Restaurant in Walkeshwar is the place to go for sumptuous South Indian fare. The dosas - Indian versions of pancakes fried in oil - are on offer at attractive prices. Brunch for two costs from $6 (Dh24). Copper Chimney in Worli is the top place for specialities from the tandoor and a platter of grilled vegetables, meats and fresh hot breads as part of a meal for two costs about $43 (Dh158). Trishna just off Sai Baba Marg is hugely popular for its seafood. Indigo on 4 Mandlik Road is situated in a pleasant old mansion and swings with celebrity clientele who swear by the elegant surroundings that complement its nouvelle Indo-European cuisine. Dome at the Intercontinental Hotel is great for leisurely drinks and spectacular views of Marine Drive and the Arabian Sea. At each, dinner for two costs from about $85 (Dh350).
Fab India in Kalaghoda features the work of artists from around the country and stocks an eclectic collection of garments and furnishings, organic foods and body care products perfect for pampering yourself. The Bombay Store on PM Road is the place where tourists can find lots of cheap souvenirs and other trinkets. Chimanlal, off DN Road, is an emporium of beautiful paper products with Indian motifs like elephants and lotus flowers. Pop in to Ensemble for a fine selection of Indian haute couture including bejewelled dresses and exquisite silk wear from India's top designers such as Tarun Tahiliani. Be aware, however, that a sari here will cost at least $500 (Dh1,837).
For all that sparkles and shines, Zaveri Bazaar is not to be missed for its unique designs of gold, silver and diamond studded jewellery. Chor Bazaar may be cramped and noisy, but when it comes to antiques it has Mumbai's best selection of old English tea sets, teak tables, brass gramophones and vintage movie posters. And remember that at any of the markets in Mumbai the following rule should be your guide: whatever the shopkeeper demands, make a counter offer of half the price.
Getting taken for a ride. Always check that your taxi driver turns the meter on and charges you by it. A common scam is to charge the night fare during the day, so check the card yourself - the night fare is printed in red, the daytime fare in black. Another ruse is for a driver to swap a 500 rupee note for a 100 rupee note and say you have short-changed him. Be alert.
The one-hour boat trip across the bay to the Elephanta Cave Temples dating from the 6th century. Chiselled into a rocky cliff, dedicated to Shiva and containing masterpieces of Indian sculpture, it's like poetry in stone. Boats to these temples leave the dock at the Gateway of India every half-hour starting at 9am every day. Return fares cost $3 (Dh9.50) per person.
Sonia Nazareth lectures on anthropology and literature at St Xavier's College in Mumbai