Welcome to Mumbai! Over the years I’ve travelled to India many times for business. And enjoyed watching people going for the first time and their reactions.
For most, the initial visceral reaction can be overwhelming. The very obvious poverty is hard to accept, and then you find you stop seeing it, and then you feel bad about accepting it. Then you realise by reading and interacting that this is the way India works and has always worked, and that making a vast change overnight is just not going to happen. It’s an intricate system involving religion, societal rules and a lot of history. Remember that before you judge.
Anyway, I’ve been through the evolutionary cycle of India shock enough to have a love-hate relationship with it; I really love it, and yet it can make me want to pull my hair out. It is a wonderful kaleidoscope of humanity, culture, sights, smells; but it is also utterly maddening and can drive you totally nuts. I have worked with some very smart people and made some good friends, and been ripped off with a smile by others.
The airport has improved very much over the years, but don’t go expecting Changi. And get used to security officials and customs officials making the most of the power they have over you. Don’t argue with them, accept their rudeness calmly and carry on. I once questioned an official who was dealing with his friend’s passport (they cut the queue) and he took my passport and had me stand in front of the counter for 20 minutes. He relished every second of it.
What to expect
The city sits on an island, which is longer than it is wide. The airport is to the Northern end, at Santa Cruz.
The area of Fort, right down South, is the old city centre, where banks and commerce was centred. The constraints of space over time have meant a lot of businesses moving north, to Parel, Bandra and beyond, towards the airport.
As a tourist, you’re best situated in the Southern end of Bombay. When I first started going to Bombay, we were based in the Colaba/Fort area, but in recent years, I’ve had to be located further north. Travelling from South Bombay to North Bombay means sitting in the worst of traffic. And if you hit the wrong time, you can find yourself sitting in a car, breathing exhaust fumes for a couple of hours. Tedious. So choose your location wisely.
(To all my Mumbai friends, yes, I know there’s lots to do in Bandra too! Next time…)
When you exit the airport for the first time, Mumbai hits you right in the face. Suddenly a LOT of people, noise, smells, and yes, chaos. This is with you for the rest of your trip!
If you’re arriving from Singapore, chances are you’ll arrive late night. The advantage of this is you’ll avoid another element that will be with you for the whole of your trip – horrible traffic! (the con of this is you’re going to be sleep deprived that night). And not only can you be stuck in slow or non-moving traffic, but driving can be opportunistic, squeezing into non-existent gaps, but drivers don’t use the horn just when they need to. It’s like a form of expression to them, so they are forever tooting, sometimes for no obvious reason. Beep-beep-toot-toot. Driving is a very noisy experience. Get used to it.
Is everywhere. From people living on the streets, next to the streets, by the streets. To beggars. They come up to your car window and tap on it, which can freak you out if you’re not prepared. The trick is to not make eye contact. While this sounds mercenary, know that if you give once, you’ll invite a lot more.
Strange, in a city of huge fortunes, very pricey real estate, and some of the wealthiest people in the world. There you have the dichotomy of India. The Rolls Royce showroom in the new shopping mall around the corner from the huge slum.
There are a lot of people in Bombay. 14 million, and it is the second most populous city in the world. 60% of this population lives in slums.
It’s not straightforward. Be prepared to be duped. A yes may mean no. Survival of the fittest. Stay alert!
There are trains and buses but I don’t think you’d enjoy that. There are taxis, but they can be dubious. Some have aircon, most don’t, the metres are outside the cab, and as a tourist, they probably won’t even switch it on and ask you for a triple fare. (it’s really cheap anyway) Though once I got a brand new taxi, rigged out Bollywood style, blaring Bollywood music, airconditioning, and a young groovy English-speaking driver. We had a lot of fun!
The best way is a rental car with a driver, available through your hotel and rental companies. It isn’t cheap, but it’s a lot more reliable.
Walking is OK if you know where you’re going and you’re prepared for the opportunistic driving, lack of pedestrian crossings, potholey pavements which can be pretty unclean.
Goes without saying, right? But don’t eat street food, or drink tap water. You can choose to carry wet wipes with you all the time, but it gets pointless after a while. If you don’t like curries, well, you’re in the wrong country!
Stuff to do
Sights to see
General architecture of South Mumbai
Some of the best Victorian architecture still exists in South Bombay. Colossal, gothic buildings, still serving, with rich stories behind them. Stunning.
In the colonial days, enormous edifices were erected, and stand to this day. They don’t make them like this anymore.
The Gateway of India
Built to commemorate the visit of King George and Queen Mary in 1911. Right on the water’s edge, across the road from the Taj. Beware the men selling the giant balloons!
Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel
One of my most beloved hotels in the world. The Taj Mahal Hotel, the grande dame of Bombay, has been standing since 1903.
A tower wing was added to it, but the Old Wing (as it was known, now “Heritage” or “Palace” wing) is an example of delicious lush architecture and interiors. Hearkening back to Old World luxury with Moorish, Florentine and Oriental influences and stylish indulgence. Long corridors, staircases to float down in your diamonds; colonnades and arches to add a flourish. Belgian chandeliers, a large art collection, hand-woven silk carpets. After a renovation, the rooms were updated to the luxury and style of modern colonial décor.
Sadly, the Old Wing has yet to reopen since the Mumbai Terror Attacks in 2007. It was the site of the last stake out by the terrorists, and a lot of the interiors were totally destroyed by grenades, bullets and fires. It was awful to watch the siege and damage, especially as the staff, many of whom have been there for decades, are another reason I love the hotel so much. Heartbreaking.
I hope it reopens soon, and I am sure it will be lovingly restored to its former glory.
Some of the public areas on the ground floor have reopened, so it’s worth a visit.
This is another place that’s been around forever. A café as well as an institution, it opened in 1871. A tourist hangout, and heavily featured in the book Shantaram, it was also a terrorist target. It reopened quickly, and the owner has left the bullet holes in place to demonstrate the resilience of Bombay.
A dhobi specialises in laundry. Mumbaikar dhobis do their work in the Mahalaxmi area. It’s a centre of great industry. No washing machines here! Manual labour, and cheap, and quite a spectacle. (yes, that’s where our dhoby ghaut came from. Originally the site of Indian dhobis)
A ‘typical’ market, housed in a lovely colonial building. Great for a peek.
Lucky I checked because…
…upgradation is happening!
I confess, I used to pack an extra bag in my suitcase on my Bombay trips. After a few trips of having to buy cheap bags to stuff the shopping into, I surrendered, and arrived prepared. If you have a home to decorate, want to add to your jewellery collection, and have a spare couple of hours, I can help you!
Just around the corner from the Taj, this is a street market, with stalls on the side of the road. Selling all sorts of things – brass horns, beads, belts, bags, (unintentional alliteration), chappals (so cheap!), hippie clothing, antiques… It’s chaotic, squishy, noisy. Don’t forget to bring your best haggling or you’ll overpay for sure!
Along here you’ll find Café Leopold, McDonalds and some great shoe shops that sell fantastic sparkly, beaded slippers.
I LOVE FabIndia! Started in 1960 by American John Bissell, it sources handloom, handblock, handwoven textiles made by local craftsmen and sells clothing, furnishings, soft interiors at really reasonable prices.
The selection is huge, and if you go to the large store in Colaba (there are FabIndias everywhere), you can be in there for hours. Short sleeve tops, long sleeve, kurtas, blouses, dupattas, saris, cushion covers, curtains, tablecloths, men’s clothes, kids’ clothes, dhurries, and even organic products. It’s like a cheaper, lower-grade British India, with A LOT MORE STUFF!!
A short-sleeve cotton top will set you back about S$15-20. A silk dupatta about $30- 40.
This outlet also has a great café that does fantastic salads and fresh breads.
137, M.G. Road, Kala Ghoda, Colaba,
Mumbai – 400001
Ph: +91-22-22626539, 40
Originally from Jaipur, home of handblock print textiles, Soma has several outlets throughout India. It’s slightly higher-end than FabIndia, and focuses on handblock only. Fantastic cotton quilts, curtains, soft furnishings, and a small selection of clothes. With some gorgeous prints.
This picture doesn’t do the stuff justice, I promise you!
There are several outlets in Mumbai.
A2, Amarchand Mansion, # 16, Madame Cama Road, Colaba
022 2282 6050
(It’s quite hard to find, so call ahead for directions)
The Good Earth is an upmarket interiors/furnishings store. The flagship store in Lower Parel is lovely and worth a visit just to look at!
It’s not cheap but there are pretty soft furnishings, china, furniture and homewares. Really hard to resist…
GOOD EARTH & GOOD EARTH VERANDAH
Raghuvanshi Mansions, Raghuvanshi Mills,
Senapati Bapat Marg, Lower Parel
Tel#: +91-22-24951954 / 24953840 / 65720342
I feel wrong sharing this, as it’s one of my best discoveries ever and I’d like to keep it a secret forever… this tiny little store is an Aladdin’s cave of semi-precious jewellery. It may not look like much, but investing an hour to go through the drawers of jewellery can yield some fabulous pieces. They make a few pieces of each design, so you’re unlikely to see anyone else wearing the same. There are statement pieces, contemporary designs, traditional designs, silver, silver-plate, gold; necklaces, rings, earrings, bracelets. It seems that everyone who works in there is called Santosh…well there are 3 of them…
Prices are reasonable, silver statement necklaces with semi-precious stones range $40 – 100.
There are 2 stores in the same street called “Popli” so make sure you get the right one.
D Popli & Sons
Readymoney Building, Battery Street, Apollo Bunder, Colaba
022 2204 2055
So you have an hour, and you need to get some good quality, little nick-nacky gifts, and don’t want to have the hassle of haggling – then you need The Bombay Store!
There are several outlets but this is the main one:
Western India House,
Tel: +91 22 4066 9999
Time: 10:30am to 7:30pm
(Sun- 10:30am to 6:30pm)
Carpets, Shawls, Jewellery
Shops selling carpets and shawls are everywhere, and you enter at your peril. The carpet salesmen are really excellent storytellers and persuaders and you will be stuck there for ages. It starts with ‘don’t worry, just look’ then ‘how about a cup of tea’ and then you are well and truly trapped! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Some shawls are really not of great quality, so make sure you ask for the best and worst quality shawls and compare them yourself. And of course, haggle.
The shopping mall at The Oberoi has lots of options for jewellery and shawls.
Don’t let fear and paranoia get in the way of eating! Most restaurants are ok, and restaurants at good hotels practice good hygiene.
Shamiana/Courtyard at The Taj Palace
I was really happy to hear that the staff at the courtyard were OK. I’ve spent a lot of time here. The pool is actually on the right of the picture. Sitting here, eating chilli cheese toast, drinking lime soda (plain) or a good pot of tea. Served by the same guys who’ve been there for years, and always with a good memory for faces and ready smile. I met an old gentleman here, whose father had been GM of the hotel 70 years ago, and he had some great stories to tell.
Picture from http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/paroon?page=4
Chilli cheese toast is something I’ve only come across in India. It’s cheese, bread, chillis, peppers. A soft, melty, cheesy texture on crunchy toast with a little chilli bite. Comforting, delicious.
You can order your lime soda in a variety of ways – sweet, plain or salt, so remember to say which.
Just inside the courtyard is another staple, Shamiana, the coffee house: it does a delicious Biriyani.
A stylish modern fusion restaurant housed in an old building and decorated really nicely.
There’s a bar on the ground floor that’s a bit of a scene, and the restaurant is upstairs. There’s a rooftop alfresco option too. The food’s pretty good, especially if you’ve had your fill of curries.
4 Mandlik Road, Colaba
Kebabs and Kurries
In the ITC Grand, this is really good North Indian food. (Others will send you to Khyber, but I think this is better) It’s as close as you can get to Delhi’s fabulous Bukhara in Mumbai. (they are related restaurants, being part of the same hotel chain) Great traditional North Indian dishes like dhal bukhara, butter chicken, paneeer makhani…fabulous naans, rotis and kulchas.
Everyone will also send you to Trishna. This unassuming little diner is an institution. It’s nothing much to look at, and the ambience won’t make you want to linger. But the food is pretty good., even though I’m not mad about it. Specialising in seafood, dry-fries like butter pepper garlic king crab, pomfret.
Birla Mansion, Sai Baba Marg (next to Commerce House), Kala Ghoda, Fort, Colaba
This restaurant is not posh, but the food is fabulous. I used to pop in here for a comforting and cheap butter naan and yellow dhal soup. Delicious! North Indian food, and also “Chinese”. (Here’s a good tip, Chinese food in India is actually “Chindian”. You probably won’t recognise it, it’s a mish-mash and I think an entire style in its own right. Rice is sticky rice.)
Near Regal Cinema, Colaba
Tel (022) 22025656 / 22020235
Bombay street food, clean! Much-beloved and I can’t believe I haven’t tried it. Have heard much about it, especially the Bhel Puri and can’t wait to try! Be prepared for the long wait to get in. Great video here: http://www.geobeats.com/videoclips/india/mumbai/swati-snacks
Where To Stay
Hotels in Bombay are not cheap. And over the years, as it’s gotten busier, some places have been doubling their prices, so be prepared for a shock. Sometimes when it’s busy it can be US$500 for a decent room.
Your hotel room will be your sanctuary where you can escape from the chaos outside, and regain your sanity before you head out into it again. So it’s a worthwhile investment.
The Grande Dame. An Institution. An architectural treasure. A view of the Arabian sea.
It’s all those things. But it’s also a great hotel, with excellent staff. It is one of the best hotels in the world. All sorts of luminaries have stayed here, from John Lennon to Bill Clinton.
The Old/Palace/Heritage Wing at the Taj Mahal Palace is one of my favourite hotels in the world. Unfortunately it is currently still being repaired, and scheduled to reopen on the 1st of May (I haven’t heard anything though). Rooms there are pricey (US$300, but I’m sure much more when they reopen) but totally worth it. The suites are OUT OF THIS WORLD! Huge rooms, leading to other huge beautiful rooms. A whole room just for a claw-foot bathtub.
If all those adjectives bore you, than how about this one?
This is the ONLY hotel in India I’ve stayed in where I have not found curly hairs in the bed or in the bathtub.
The rooms in the Tower wing are cheaper, and you still get all the hotel amenities. They just don’t have the charm or the personality of the Old Wing, so don’t make the mistake of staying in the Old Wing then trying the Tower. Do it the other way round.
If you want to be located centrally, the ITC is a good bet. The hotel is nice enough, and the rooms are decent, in traffic it’s 40 minutes to Colaba and 40 minutes to Bandra. You’re right by the mills area of Lower Parel. The rooftop club lounge is really nice. They even have a floor just for ladies.
Situated in Santa Cruz, 10 minutes from the airport, this is a good bet if you want to be in North Bombay. It’s pretty new, contemporary design and furnishings; it has a great gym, really nice public areas, a good café to hang out in, and an excellent Italian restaurant. The rooms are a bit bare, as if there’s a piece of furniture missing…but nice enough.
Looking for a boutique hotel? I think this is the only one…there are 2 locations for The Gordon House. In Colaba, and by the airport. You’ll see from the site, they describe themselves as “a charming little hotel big on style”
Ryan has stayed here and he said it’s pretty nice.
Happily for a culture rich in history and stories, some of the best literature is written in or about India. Here are some books on Bombay to help you get started:
The bookstore in the lobby of the Taj tower wing is one of the best for Indian literature. I’ve found some gems that aren’t available anywhere else.
Thanks to Karthikeyan and Jay for their great photos.