The magnetic metropolis of Mumbai is the city that perhaps best captures the energy, spirit and ambition of modern-day India. As India’s biggest financial hub and the home of Bollywood, this is a place of money, big business, high-end fashion and top-tier dining yet it also has bargain bazaars, cheap-as-chips street food and glaring poverty.
Mumbai’s modern metro – a work in progress – is a pleasure to use, and can be supplemented by suburban rail network and, for those who don’t mind a navigational challenge, buses. The easiest way to get around Mumbai is probably by taxi. Look for the black-and-yellow cabs, which can be hailed on the street.
Mumbai crams in its fair share of emblematic, instantly recognisable monuments onto the island, among them the hulking Gateway of India triumphal arch and the iconic Taj Mahal Palace. Less grand though equally recognisable is the oft-photographed Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, the open-air site where hundreds of hard-working Mumbaikars wash dirty clothes by hand.
While the tree-and-colonial-era-mansion-lined boulevards of Fort recall the city’s Raj-era role, Mumbai’s more modern, prosperous side is most evident in the Nariman Point business district, where tightly packed skyscrapers stand to attention. Contrasting with the orderly, modern style of this downtown district are the city’s many legendary maze-like bazaars, whose tangled web of streets seems designed to confuse. Lose a couple of hours and rupees to browsing the stalls of Colaba Causeway and Chor Bazaar.
Sunsets are best spent on Girgaum Chowpatty, Mumbai’s much-loved beach strip, and can be followed by a stroll down the adjoining Marine Drive. Built on land reclaimed from the Arabian Sea, this breezy boulevard leads past a long stretch of residential Art Deco buildings adorned with curving balconies and elaborate metal grills.
If you want to escape the city for a day, take the ferry out to Elephanta, home to UNESCO-listed Hindu cave temple complex.
Mumbai’s biggest art district, Kala Ghoda – the site of such venerable institutions as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya and Jehangir Arts Gallery – should be high on any visitor’s tick list no matter when they visit. But, should you happen to be in town during the annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, make it a top priority. Starting on the first Saturday on Februarys, the event sees the galleries and the theatres in the area host special exhibitions and performances, while new street art installations are set up outside.
Another cultural highlight for Mumbai explorers is the Prithvi Theatre is the leafy Juhu district. This intimate 200-seat theatre hosts plays in English featuring local talent.
With its myriad cultural influences, Mumbai’s food scene may just be the best on the subcontinent. It’s eclectic and democratic, with foods to satisfy every palette no matter what your budget. For breakfast, try akuri, a Parsi jazzed-up scrambled eggs dish with onions, tomatoes, red and green chillies. Snack your way through the city’s omnipresent street stalls, which dole out all kinds of on-the-go bites, from bhelpuri (puffed rice, vegetables and chutney) to pav bhaji (vegetable curry served with a bread roll) to the misleadingly named Bombay duck (also known as Bombil fry), which is not a duck at all but fried fish. Braver diners can opt for bheja fry (sautéed goat brain and vegetables).