Bollywood, beaches, bazaars, bargains, the Brits and Bombay (now back to Mumbai, the city’s original name) are all part of the many stories of the city’s past and present.
Mumbai, located in the state of Maharashtra is known as the “New York of India,” and not just because the exploding population is forecast to be 28 million in another decade.
The city is so cosmopolitan that world travelers can instantly feel at ease, while still experiencing authentic Indian culture.
It is an eclectic mix of colors, spices, smells that eventually all become a part of the energizing landscape. You may find ramshackle vendor booths alongside incredible architecture; beaches feature vendors selling food, oversized balloons, and a festive carnival atmosphere; Bollywood celebrities live, work, and are spotted out and about by locals seeking out their idols.
The city is packed with iconic gems and hidden pockets, making it possible to spend several days on the brochure, and then stepping off into then chaotic landscape for an entirely unique experience.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly the Victoria Terminus) is Mumbai’s most elaborate and ornate architectural structure, another merging of Indian and British styles. It’s among the busiest railway stations in the world and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2004.
Elephanta Island, the City of Caves (formerly Gharapuri Island) is one of the sights that acts a reminder of the spiritual, mystical aspects of exotic India. Reliefs, sculptures, and a temple all celebrate Hindu deities all in caves dating back centuries ago, located in the Mumbai harbor and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Elephanta Island is open every day except Monday, and costs 90 rupees on an economy boat and 110 rupees for an upgraded trip.
The Gateway of India was built to commemorate the 1911 royal visit of King George V (it was completed in 1924). Almost a quarter of a century later, the same basalt arch served as the point where the last British troops departed when India achieved its independence. It is also a meeting point for many, a sight filled with vendors and tourists about to board boats for Elephanta Island. The Gateway of India has a blend of styles, considered Indo-Saracenic or Indo-Gothic, with Indian and British influences.
FAST, FAMOUSLY FRIED, FRUGAL FOODS
Whether you’re a vegetarian or meat-lover, Mumbai offers an abundance of choices and flavors. Food is the lifeline of the city and meals can range in price from a couple of rupees at the roadside stalls to tens of thousands of rupees at the über trendy, cosmopolitan restaurants.
If you’re looking for a solid meal without any fear of gastro-intestinal problems, a hotel restaurant is a popular option for Western travelers. The Maratha Sheraton Hotel has two restaurants offering some of the best regional food in town: Dakshini, famous for South Indian food and Peshawari, known for Maharashtrian style food. (91)(22) 28303030, Sahar, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400099
A chain of restaurants, Rajdhani, offers excellent Gujarati thali (a plate of lentils), unleavened bread, rice, small appetizers and small bites.
The Sion Koliwada part of town is a fisherman colony where Bengali-style seafood is world-renowned. Hazara is an out-of-the-way eatery where you can find incredible selections of seafood—there’s even a dish known as prawn koliwada (named after this section of the city), a plate of spicy, crispy fried prawns that you’ll polish off in no time. 1 Guru Arjun Nivas, Antop Hill, Mumbai
If you have a strong stomach or plenty of preventive reflux meds, don’t miss out on Mumbai’s street food. Many stalls offer out-of-this-world satisfying fast food, crunchy bhel puris (puffed-rice snacks), ragda patis (spicy potato cakes), and paav bhaji (fried vegetable mash eaten with bread). A must-taste are the kebabs at Bademiya, a roadside joint in the Colaba district that is popular with locals.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that Mumbai is all about Indian food—virtually every type of cuisine is available city-wide. You can find made-to-order crepes at the Crepe Station in three locations, hipsters lounging at D’Nosh WFX (stands for “wine, food and xpresso”), and the revolutionary Blue Frog Lounge where late-night hipsters mingle in the 1,000 square-meter complex that includes a restaurant, club, lounge, sound stage, and recording studio all in one.
AFTERNOON TEA, MUMBAI-STYLE
The Brits adapted and adopted their habit of drinking tea during their 200-year rule over India. Even today the Queen of England insists upon drinking tea exported from the gardens of Darjeeling.
In Mumbai, tea is available at every (yes, every) restaurant and with innumerable street vendors in almost 25 different varieties.
If you want to drink like a local, order masala chai, a concoction of tea, ginger, cardamom, clove, and other spices, along with plenty of milk and sugar. You’ll see most Indians, from boardroom billionaires to roadside paupers, drinking tea in the mornings and afternoons, even in the sweltering heat.
A good place to sample all the possible varieties is the Tea Centre, located in an unassuming building in the Churchgate area of south Mumbai. 78, Veer Nariman Road, Churchgate.
If you’re a fan of tea, don’t miss Tea Plantation Tours: the New Wine Tours?
Although at first glance, Mumbai seems like a city crammed with no open spaces, a few steps in the right direction will lead you to quiet respites among the urban chaos.
The Hanging Gardens, overlooking the posh neighborhood of Malabar Hill, offers great views of Mumbai, particularly of sunset over the Arabian Sea. Opposite Hanging Gardens is the Kamala Nehru Park, with views of Chowpatty Beach and the Queens Necklace (aka Marine Drive, which, when viewed from above at night, resembles a jeweled necklace).
Travel toward the sea and you’ll stumble upon Priyadarshini Park to the west of Napean Sea Road. This area was once nothing more than rocks and dirt, and has been reclaimed and transformed into an open space, with a jogging track, tennis courts, a gym and a health club.
A visit to Oval Maidan just south of Churchgate means a chance to catch a cricket match, or even join one (if you can figure out the rules). Other options include: Mahalaxmi Racecourse, a popular horse-racing ground; Cross Maidan, a nearly 5-acre green space; and Shivaji Park, a historic site that has seen a number of political rallies freedom-fighter demonstrations over the decades.
ART, HERITAGE, CULTURE
Though very much on the brochure, a visit to the Jehangir Art Gallery is a must. It’s managed by the Bombay Art Society in Kala Ghoda and is home to weekly exhibitions that fill four exhibition halls, with natesans (licensed antique dealers) and artists selling their work outside the building.
Next door is the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly the Prince of Wales Museum (at left), which celebrates Indian heritage and culture … another must-see destination. www.bombaymuseum.org
For a more off-the-beaten-path option, check out a new gallery in town, Chemould Prescott Road. Located in a century-old British building, this hip space showcases the works of modern Indian artists. www.gallerychemould.com
The Nehru Centre Art Gallery, located in the Discovery of India Building, exhibits paintings, photography, pottery, featuring everyone from art-school students to established visual artists. www.nehru-centre.org/artgallery.html
These days, the Bollywood studios can be found in the Goregaon and Chandivali neighborhoods outside of the city center. Star-spotting is common all around Mumbai, and Bollywood stars are stalked by fans and paparazzi alike … and enjoy their share of scandals.
India’s cinematic history is known for its copycat flicks, borrowed from America’s best. In recent years, more original films have begun to receive worldwide acclaim, and not just for their extravagant wardrobes and song-and-dance numbers.
Because Bollywood films are notoriously long (all those song-and-dance numbers and fight scenes take time), intermission is a fun tradition in Mumbai; it’s a welcome break for a snack with tea or a cold drink, and plenty of gossip.
Eros Cinema, which dates back to 1938, is a work of art itself, with Art Deco architecture and grand marble staircases. 42 M.Karve Road, Churchgate
The old Regal Cinema has been open since 1933, making it one of the oldest theaters in the world—its décor is a throwback to the old days, with balcony seating, dark woods and mirrored designs. Kala Ghoda, Colaba
By Neha Shah for PeterGreenberg.com.
Photo credits: Mumbai City Collectorate (top 2), Mumbai.co.uk (#4 and 5)
Don’t miss more insider guides in our Off the Brochure Travel Guides series.
For example, if you’re planning a trip to India, don’t miss our Off the Brochure Travel Guide to New Delhi, India.
And you’ll find helpful hints for traveling to India with Cheap, “Secret” Intercontinental Flights to Asia, Europe and the Americas.
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