This all-to-often overlooked metropolis is India’s cultural nucleus, a place where music, literature, art and intellectual life flourishes. The one-time capital of British India, this Bengali behemoth is awash with peeling, colonial-era constructions. Although its European-style architecture may be crumbling, it still retains a majestic – if faded – grandeur.
Buses can be unpleasantly crowded, so you’re better opting for the underground metro system (take note of the segregated seating) or the slower trams. Rickshaws – of the hand-drawn, cycle and auto varieties – all operate; agree on a fare before departing. If you want to keep your cool, driving is not recommended. Hire a driver or use metered taxis instead.
As the jewel in the British Raj’s crown, Kolkata – or Calcutta as it was then known – was endowed with many stately edifices and grand monuments. While some of these once glorious mansions have been long neglected, others, like the colossal Victoria Memorial and the imposing Marble Palace (a private-mansion-turned-art-museum), retain their regal air.
Kolkata’s cultural scene is the envy of the country. The biggest, oldest and arguably most renowned cultural establishment in the nation, the Indian Museum, is located here. So too is Tagore’s House, a superb museum housed in the old family residence of the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore.
Kolkata’s residents are famously warm and friendly. One of the best places for local encounters is in the congested labyrinth of the New Market. Here, more than 2,000 vendors sell everything from gold to freshly slaughtered meat.
For a dose of Hindu culture, head to the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, where you’ll find 13 holy structures strung along the banks of the Hooghly River. For even more respite from the commotion and clatter of this teeming city, steal away for a rare quiet moment among the Botanical Gardens.
The Mullick Ghat Flower Bazaar is as much a treat for the eyes as any man-made artwork. Reams of sunshine yellow and vivid orange marigolds are set out alongside heaped mounts of cut flowers and leaves. While you’re here, stop by the ghat (steps leading down to the river) bathing area and look out for locals tussling in the nearby wrestling cage.
Another area of the city that’s not often mentioned in guidebooks but nevertheless well-worth seeking out is the East Kolkata Wetlands. Take a walking tour with a guide to learn about how the wetlands benefit the city, helping to treat sewage and crucially, functioning as a flood defence.
Kolkata offers up a variety of choice to the hungry traveller, from Anglo-Indian hybrids to Indo-Chinese mashups. The most prevalent food style, of course, is traditional Bengali cuisine, which is characterised by rich flavours. Be sure to try a kati roll (which consists of a wholewheat flatbreads stuffed with marinated chicken or vegetables and chutney), sandesh (a sweet delicacy made with milk and sugar) and kosha mangsho (spicy mutton curry). The city’s famous Jewish bakeries are held in high esteem but are fast dwindling. One of the last-known survivors is Nahoum and Sons; if you do happen upon it, stock up on the delicious rum balls for which they are famous.