India is a very interesting place to visit. On one hand I’ve always seen India and one of the cultural and historical centre of the world and as such provides you with a colourful and varied experience. At the same time, however, it also overwhelms your senses, surprises you with shocking scenes and leaves you with digestive problems.
India is a huge and varied country, so to really get a feel for it one needs to take time and discover different places. I organised a 10 day trip at the beginning of 2016 to discover some of the most important parts of India. We started in Mumbai and spent 2 days there, followed by another 2 days in Kolkata. Then we continued for a day to Varanasi, the spiritual centre of India, and to Agra to see one of the most famous buildings in the world, the Taj Mahal. We concluded the tip with 2 days in Delhi and the last 2 days were in Amritsar to explore the Punjabi culture. I’ll split the blog posts in 3 parts, covering two destinations in each.
Mumbai is the biggest city in India and its economic capital. The city has been very important since the British empire times because of the trade that passed through its port. Nowadays, Mumbai is a city of contrasts. On one hand, it is a thriving modern city with loads of business and modern buildings; and on the other had, it has rampant rates of poverty and people living is some of the biggest slums in the world.
Sightseeing in Mumbai
The interesting experience in Mumbai starts already at the airport. The new airport is super modern and well organised. As you’re leaving you buy the taxi ticket at the official taxi stands. However, when you get to the taxi you realise it’s a tiny car the barely fits 2 people and the luggage goes on top of the car. The driver ties the luggage onto a rack, but I was really worried it will just fly off the roof as we drove onto the highway.
Everyone that I know that visited Mumbai went for a tour of the Dharavi slum. Initially I was opposed to the idea of going for a slum tour, as I found it degrading. However, then I read that the proceeds from tours organised by Reality Tours and Travel go to run their community centres in the slum. So basically I warmed up to the idea of the slum tour. We booked a morning tour and the meeting point was at Mahim Station, at the entrance to the slum. This was my first day in India and the poverty around the station was already shocking for me, but that was nothing compared to what I was about to see.
The agency separated us into smaller groups of six people and we were taken by young guides into the slum. Unfortunately, they don’t allow photography in the slum, but the tour agency give you a link to their photos online. To get the idea, the entrance to the slum looked like this:In the slum you see the different productive activities its residents engage is, such as recycling of plastic, production of leather, dying of fabric, but the worse is to see the conditions that people live and work in. It is quite an eye opening experience to see the conditions some people find themselves in.
The tour ends back at the train station. Our plan was to go to the centre of Mumbai and our guide was very nice to show us how to take the local train. He helped us to buy the tickets and accompanied us to the Churchgate station as he was going the same way.
This was one of the lines on the normal commuter trains in Mumbai and for part of the way it was extremely packed, some people were even hanging out of the open doors of the cars. The locals are not used to see many foreign (European) tourists on the train so they were quite amused with our presence. Many of them wanted to take a pic with me, so for quite a part of the journey I had to pose for pics. Churchgate Station is one of the main stations in Mumbai. From there it is easy to just walk around and explore of the the tourist sights around the downtown area. On the walk we passed by the Oval Maidan where locals play cricket and is surrounded by many imperial buildings housing courts of justice. We continued to the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the impressive Victorian station, definitely one of Mumbai’s architectural jewels.
The whole area East from the Oval Maidan and especially around Horniman Circle Garden is really fancy, with nice houses and old Victorian architecture. This was also where I realised how sacred cows were in India. It was the first time I really saw that cows were freely wandering round the streets, even blocking traffic, and people are patiently dealing with that. It was particularly interesting to see that in a very fancy area, just in front of a Starbucks.
We finished our walk at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel and at the Gateway of India waterfront.On the second day we explored other parts of the city. We started with the Dhobi Ghat, the open air ‘washing machine’ of Mumbai, where you can see people washing clothes, mostly new ones, with super modern buildings in the background (ever present contrast in India).
We also visited the Crawford market, a very colourful local market, and the Gandhi Museum, a house that served as Ghandi’s Mumbai headquarters.
We also went to the main Mumbai beach, which looks very nice from far, but I would not recommend swimming in the water. Although there are plenty of locals that do.
Food in Mumbai
Indian food is really delicious and Mumbai has some great selection of restaurants from all over the country. It is actually quite hard to talk about Indian food as such, because it varies a lot between the different regions.
- Samrat Restaurant: Delicious vegetarian restaurant close to Churchgate station. We really enjoyed the thali that was really huge.
- Khyber Restaurant: Delicious north-western Indian cuisine, with plenty of tandoori meat.
- Air India domestic flights: AI is not really good with meals on-board and in particular their handling of food is notorious for providing foreign visitors stomach problems. So I don’t recommend having any food on their domestic flights. However, what I do like on AI is that their question is not the usual [chicken or beef/pork or pasta] but [veg or non-veg]. Veg food is a big thing in India indeed.
Hotel: St. Regis Mumbai
The St. Regis Mumbai is really nice as most St. Regis hotels in the world. This one in particular has a huge lounge where you can have quite some food as well as nice roof top bar that is very popular among the well-off locals and has nice views.
Kolkata is the capital of the West Bengal state and was the first colonial capital under the British rule. This is basally where the British occupation started. At a certain point in time Kolkata used to flourish because of the trade, but in modern times it is really struggling. This is very evident on the streets, where poverty is rampant and the buildings are abandoned.
Sightseeing in Kolkata
For many foreigners, Mother Theresa is one of the icons associated with Kolkata. It is possible to see the motherhouse where she lived and died.
The impressive Victoria Memorial testifies to Kolkata’s importance, once upon a time. It was built in Queen Victoria’s memory in the beginning of the 20th century. The monument is very impressive from afar and the parks surrounding it are also very nice. Inside there is some sort of a museum, but unfortunately it is very badly maintained and doesn’t look that charming from close-up.
In the centre of Kolkata there is not much else to see. We went for a walk through the different parts of the city. There are a lot of old colonial buildings that are very badly maintainedlocal markets with a lot of noisepolluted streets with loads of cars and dangerous tramspoverty and rubbish in the streets
Slightly out of the centre towards the south there is the Kalighat Kali Temple. This temple was for me one of the most interesting sights in Kolkata. The temple attracts all sorts of very interesting people, there is a lot of colours, dirt and people selling everything. A fascinating sight.
Food in Kolkata
Kolkata is famous for Bengali food with a lot of rice and their own version of thali. We visited these restaurants:
- Kewpie’s Restaurant: The thali was delicious, but the restaurant wasn’t very clean and I think this is where my stomach problems started.
- Oh!Calcutta: A local chain serving delicious Bengali food for a very decent prices. Seems to be very popular among the locals. Recommended.
- Dum Phukt at ITC Sonar hotel: Delicious typical Dhum Phukt (slow oven cooking) style restaurant. Highly recommended.
ITC Sonar hotel
Slightly outdated rooms, but a nice back yard with pool area. It is a little bit out of town though.