Mumbai may have been rocked by a terrorist attack in 2008, but that tragedy has done nothing to diminish the exuberance, energy and sheer madness of this city of 16 million people. Chaos does not even begin to describe Mumbai, where people do daily battle with goodness knows how many cars for their own bit of space.
Indeed, Mumbai is a place where crossing the road is something of an art form, where your ears are constantly assaulted by the hooting of horns, where you’ll find knife grinders or food sellers plying their trade on the crowded pavements. It’s lively, fun and exciting — and it’s hard not to fall in love in an instant.
Mumbai is also a city of huge contrasts, with great wealth in some areas and unbelievable poverty in others. This is where the slumdog in the hit film “Slumdog Millionaire” came from — and as your taxi takes you through the city, you can’t avoid seeing the squalid shacks, cheek by jowl, that millions call home.
Where Mumbai stands now there were once seven islands that formed part of the kingdom of the Emperor Ashoka. They passed into the hands of various Hindu and Muslim rulers and in 1534 were seized by the Portuguese, who named them Bom Baia, meaning “Good Bay.” They became British in 1661, when they were given to Charles II of England in 1661 as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal, and the name was corrupted to Bombay. In 1668, Bombay was leased to the East India Company, the islands were joined through land reclamation projects and the city became an important trading port under the British Raj.
The region gained independence from Britain with the rest of India in 1947. The city’s name was changed to Mumbai in 1996. Some claim that was its name before the British arrived, others that it’s derived from “Mumbadevi,” the patron goddess of the Koli fishermen, who were the islands’ earliest known inhabitants. Whatever the truth, you’ll find many locals still call it by its British name.
The British did not waste their years here, but spent them building grandiose buildings that would turn the city into a little England. There’s the Victoria and Albert Museum, built in 1872; Crawford Market, completed in 1869; and its Victorian-styled clock tower, the Victoria Terminus, so reminiscent of St. Pancras station in London. The first train in India departed from this station in 1853; these days half a million commuters use it each day.
All these places are must-see sights for visitors, along with Mumbai’s numerous ornate temples, its bustling bazaars, its instructive museums and, yes, even its slums. And of course you cannot miss the Gateway of India, actually a quite small edifice by today’s standards but the jewel in Mumbai’s sightseeing crown for many people.
A note of warning: People hassling for money is an unfortunate fact of life in Mumbai, especially around the Gateway of India. Many are just selling things, so it’s up to you if you decide to buy, but there are also a lot of beggars and others who will ask for money for a good cause — an orphanage or elderly people, for instance. It all looks kosher, but it is just a more upmarket begging scam, so steer clear.
The first thing everyone wants to see when they visit Mumbai is the Gateway of India, an ornate arch built to celebrate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to what was then Bombay in December 1911. It opened in 1924 and used to be the first monument seen by visitors arriving in Bombay. The last British troops to leave India passed through the Gateway on February 28, 1948.
Although the arch is such a big attraction, it is dwarfed by the Taj Mahal hotel across the road. It opened in 1903 and is an attraction in its own right, as everyone wants their picture taken with the bearded doorkeepers in their white uniforms and turbans. More recently it gained notoriety as the site of the terrorist attacks on the city in November 2008.
Your sightseeing should include a drive along Marine Drive, Mumbai’s seaside boulevard, past Chowpatty Beach and to Malabar Hill, which is the Beverly Hills of Mumbai. Look out for the Parsi Tower of Silence, where people of the Parsi faith who die are laid out to be eaten by birds of prey and their bones left to disintegrate so they wash into the sea.
Mani Bhavan, known as the Gandhi Museum, is on Laburnam Road and is a shrine to the man who won independence for India. It is packed with books and photos from his life, along with a glassed-off reproduction of the room in which he lived (during visits from 1917 to 1934). Especially don’t miss the dioramas of his life’s events; the exhibit is haunting and illustrative.
The Jain Temple in Malabar, considered the prettiest temple in Mumbai, is worth a look (Jainism is one of the many religions in Mumbai and related to Hinduism). Two stone elephants adorn the entrance; inside there’s an ornate domed ceiling painted with signs of the zodiac. The last stop while in Malabar should be the Hanging Gardens. I never did find out how they got their name, but they offer great views over the city.
Be sure to visit Crawford Market, which is packed with stalls selling fruits, vegetables and spices. While you’re there, spare a glance or two at the building, completed in 1869, with its beautiful Victorian carvings, and Victoria Terminus, another Victorian masterpiece with a strong resemblance to St. Pancras station in London. These days it’s actually called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vaastu Sangrahalaya, but luckily taxi drivers understand “Victoria Terminus.”
Other highlights include the Mahalakshmi Temple, dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty, and Shree Siddhivinayak Temple, dedicated to Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed god (one of Hinduism’s most popular).
You definitely must also visit the Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai’s central laundry. Some 4,500 people work here, washing laundry from all over the city, whether from private residents, hotels or restaurants. The laundry has been here 350 years, and I can promise you that their whites, which have been scrubbed and beaten by hand, are whiter than anything my washing machine can achieve.
No matter how interesting a museum might be, I always think it’s a shame to spend time in one on a first visit to a city like Mumbai. It’s so different to what Westerners are used to that you need to spend time on the streets soaking up its atmosphere and excitement. However, if you’re back in Mumbai for a second or third time, a little historical digging would not go amiss. In particular, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Sastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum), opened in 1923, houses a huge collection of artifacts, from weapons from the Mughal Empire to Indian paintings and Greek-influenced figures.
The Elephanta Caves, on an island about six miles off the east coast of the city, are definitely worth a visit. The caves, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, form a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Shiva and are believed to have been carved between the 9th and 13th centuries. The complex is full of huge sculpted images of Hindu deities carved in the hard rock, including a colossal 20-foot-high, three-headed image of Lord Shiva depicting his three facets — creator, destroyer and protector. You can reach the caves by motorboat from the pier at the rear of the Gateway of India. Boats leave roughly every 30 minutes; journey time is about one hour. You’ll need to climb 120 steps to get to the entrance to the caves. See Elephanta Caves excursions from Viator.
There are cafes, coffee shops, plenty of McDonald’s franchises and quite a few Pizza Huts in Mumbai, but you’ve come to India — so this is the place to stop and have a really good curry. Mumbai is a city where you can find just about any type of Indian food imaginable — including Konkan (coastal) seafood, spicy kebabs, and South Indian favorites like dosas (rice and lentil crepes) and vadas (savory fried doughnuts). One feast not to miss is a thali, a traditional Gujarati meal encompassing a wide variety of rotis, dals, vegetables and other dishes (thalis are the silver plates on which the meal is served).
A note of warning: Steer clear of food from street vendors, as you’ll probably end up with “Delhi belly” — which is really only traveler’s diarrhea but will spoil the rest of your trip.
Visiting Khyber (145, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Fort, Mumbai) is like stepping back in time, with its big wooden doors, oil lanterns and weathered wood. There’s a vast menu of soups, salads and kebabs, and then you get on to curry dishes. There’s seafood, chicken, lamb and plenty for vegetarians. It’s a great choice for a leisurely romantic dinner.
Indigo (4 Mandlik Road, Colaba) is an uber-modern eatery in a leafy residential area that would not look out of place in London’s West End. The lunch menu is simple, with soups, salads, sandwiches and main courses, while the dinner menu offers a mouth-watering array of seafood dishes, pastas and more. All are quite delicious, but this is not the place to come if you fancy a curry — the dishes here are mostly European, with splashes of local flavor.
Rajdhani (Mumbai Central Mains, Mumbai Railway Station) is the place to enjoy a traditional vegetarian thali. Menus change daily but include dishes like sweet or spicy dal (stew made from lentils, peas or beans), aloo tikki (a boiled potato snack) and various types of rotis (bread stuffed with curries or vegetables). Servers wear traditional Rajasthani garb.
Trishna (7, Sai Baba Marg, Kala Ghoda, Fort) is the place to see and be seen in Mumbai. Inside, the decor is nothing special, but the food is. Seafood is a specialty, with king crab, lobster or jumbo prawns and various types of seafood tandoori on the menu — but there are plenty of meat and vegetarian choices as well. Reservations are highly recommended.
Swati Snacks (248 Karai Estate, Tardeo Road, Tardeo) is about as close as a Western can get to authentic Indian dining without risking Delhi belly. The decor is fast-food cafe, but don’t let that put you off. You can’t make reservations, so just put your name down when you arrive and join the queue — there is always one — for a table. On the menu are traditional curry specialties and snacks — pizza, falafel, patties.
Yauatcha (Raheja Tower, Bandra Kurla Complex, Mumbai) is a new arrival on Mumbai’s fine dining scene, offering delicious and authentic dim sum. It’s worth the high price tag for a romantic or special night out.
Gajalee (multiple locations, including the original at Kadamgiri Complex, Hanuman Road, Vile Parle East) regularly earns raves from locals who claim it offers the city’s best seafood. Start with the solkadi, a mix of coconut milk and kokum (a fruit), which the restaurant calls “just the right digestive.” Then follow it with spicy seafood dishes like tandoori crab or lobster in green chili sauce. Prices are moderate.
Soam (Sadguru Sadan, Ground Floor, Chowpatty), located across the street from the Babulnath temple, is an affordable place to try traditional Gujarati fare. It’s an excellent bet for vegetarians.
Shopping in Mumbai
Mumbai offers a dizzying array of places to shop, from multi-level department stores to crowded bazaars. Be sure to brush up on your haggling skills before hitting the street markets. (See Shopping Abroad: A Traveler’s Guide for bargaining tips.) There isn’t really any one souvenir that “says” Mumbai, but there are plenty of places to shop for things that will remind you of your time in town. Plan to use cash for small items when out shopping in the markets and bazaars. (Credit cards are generally only accepted in big outlets.) There are ATM machines in the main shopping areas, but they are not 100 percent reliable. Remember never to carry too much cash at a time.
If you are interested in jewelry, visit the Zaveri Bazaar in south Mumbai. Just remember — all that glitters probably isn’t gold, and you must bargain before buying. Chor Bazaar, also known as Thieves Market, specializes in antiques — wood carvings, jewelry and furniture. Again, you’ll need to haggle, and bear in mind that you need to get anything you buy home!
Shoppers Stop is one of the biggest department stores in Mumbai and offers a wide variety of apparel, accessories and housewares. More fun is Fashion Street, in Colaba, a street lined with stalls selling export-surplus clothing. Time for more haggling.
If you’re looking for traditional Indian handicrafts, fabrics and decorative items, try the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, a government-sponsored showroom filled with goodies from around India. If you’re concerned about finding genuine local articles as opposed to cheap fakes, this is a good place to look.
–written by Jane Archer