Kolkata is a city where the old and the new reside in perfect harmony; where heated discussions on literature, philosophy and politics are held over a steaming cup of tea at a roadside stall; where festivals of all communities and religions are celebrated in equal fervour and where sports and culture are regarded as supreme. There are few cities that can match the energy, enthusiasm, vibrancy and spontaneity of the ‘City of Joy’ as Kolkata is popularly known.
Kolkata, the capital of the state of West Bengal, was also the first capital of the British in India. The imperialistic ambitions and also the downfall of the British Rule are imprinted in its architectural marvels. Wander around the city especially near B.B.D Bag, and you will see the government offices housed within the colonial structures, which were constructed under the British rule. There is no denying that colonial rule has played a role in shaping Kolkata’s identity, but the city also has its own unique character.
Kolkata is a melting pot of different cultures and religions. Besides Bengalis, who are the natives of this city, Chinese, Anglo-Indians, and Parsees have made the city their homes. Christmas, Id and Diwali are celebrated with the same enthusiasm as the Chinese New Year. The multicultural influence is reflected in the cuisine and dining in Kolkata which is an experience in itself. Mughlai, Chinese, Continental, Indian, Bengali, Parsi and South Indian are just some of the cuisines that you can sample in the many restaurants and eateries.
Performing arts like dance and theatre form a major part of Kolkata’s rich cultural network. There are quite a few theatres that conduct plays regularly. Kolkata is also the centre for the Bengali film industry.
Though the city has its share of poverty and some people may find it congested, there is vibrancy and warmth about it, which endears and charms the visitors who come here to gain a slice of Indian life.
Things To See
Kolkata is synonymous with the famous Howrah Bridge. If you are arriving here by train, this is the first sight that will greet you when you exit Howrah Station, one of world’s largest railway terminals. Howrah Bridge is the lifeline of the city. To enjoy an unobtrusive view of this magnificent structure, take a ferry ride across the river, preferably early in the morning or in the late evening; the bridge all lit up is a magnificent sight. Vidyasagar Setu, also known as the second Hoogly Bridge, is another engineering marvel and the world’s third largest cable-stayed bridge. Take a drive by this splendid structure, and you will be rewarded with spectacular views of the river and the city skyline. However, this is just the beginning of what this bustling and effervescent metropolis has to offer. Here is a glimpse into some of the city’s most wonderful sights and attractions.
Victoria Memorial: Built to venerate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, this signature edifice of Kolkata throws a regal light on the city’s historic past. Made of white marble, this munificent dome structure is set amid acres of beautifully landscaped parkland. The memorial also houses an impressive museum and gallery.
Belur Math Shrine: Situated amid acres of manicured lawns, this inspiring spiritual centre on the banks of the holy River Ganga, is the international headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission. Swami Vivekananda founded the mission to honour his Guru Ramakrishna Paramhansa who preached unity of all religions. The temple’s architecture is unique and is symbolic of his teachings. View it from different angles and it will seem to resemble a mosque, temple and a church. Serenity and spiritual bliss exudes from all corners of this magnificent structure. If you are seeking a moment of meditative solitude, you can attend the evening prayer session.
Dakshineshwar Kali Temple: Situated alongside Vivekananda Bridge on the banks of the holy Ganges, this grandiose temple is dedicated to Goddess Kali and is considered a spiritual centre not only for the Hindus but also for other religious sects as well. The uniqueness of this temple lies in its architecture; 12 other temples, dedicated to Lord Shiva surround the main 12-spired Kali temple. It is believed that Guru Rama Krishna Paramahansa, who is known the world over for preaching unity of all religions, achieved his spiritual vision here. He used to stay in the temple and his rooms are now open to visitors.
Indian Museum: Spread over an area of 930 sq. mts., the Indian Museum was opened to the pubic in 1878. Featuring over 60 galleries and three floors dedicated to six disciplines including Art, anthropological, geological, zoological, archaeological and industrial sections, it is not surprising that it is regarded as one of the country’s best museums.
Botanical Gardens: Founded in 1786 by Colonel Kyd, the Botanical Gardens represent the picturesque and scenic side of this bustling city. The botanical garden is situated on the banks of River Hoogly and so you have the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely boat ride, explore a variety of plant species, or you can rest under the canopy of a 200 year old Banyan Tree. The garden’s greatest claim to fame is that it introduced the tea plant to India from China. You can also spot some of the rare species of trees and plants from Nepal, Brazil, Penang, Java, and Sumatra.
Kolkata offers a wide range of accommodation options for the budget, midrange and top-end traveler. Kolkata is a pretty reasonably priced city. Travellers can choose to stay in hotels, guesthouses and inns. Budget conscious travellers can opt for a hotel or a guesthouse in Central Kolkata around the New Market. Hotels in the mid-range category can be found in South Calcutta near Tollygunge and Gariahat or even in the north part of city near the airport. Those with a discerning taste can stay in the legendary Grand Hotel in Chowringhee or in the luxurious hotels such as Sonar Bangla or Hyatt Regency in Salt Lake in the eastern part of Kolkata. Most five star hotels quote their price in US dollars and only resident Indians can pay in rupees. Keep in mind that the charges in the five star hotels are not inclusive of the local taxes, which can be an additional 20%.
Kolkata is a gourmet delight and a haven for those who are adventurous enough to experiment with different cuisines. Kolkata’s local meal consists of rice, lentils, and fish curry popularly known as macher jhol, followed by traditional sweets such as rasgolla, sandesh, payesh, jilpi and pantua. The must try snacks include Singara, Jilpi, Kachuri and Alur Chop.
Park Street – multi cuisine: Though the city is peppered with thousands of well-known restaurants and eateries, the dining hub of Kolkata is without doubt the famous Park Street. This broad strip from Chowringhee to Park Circus is lined with an eclectic array of restaurants on both sides of the road. Home to quite a few popular restaurants, a visit to Park Street is a must especially in the evenings when the entire stretch is lit up and has a cheerful ambience. During Christmas and New Year celebrations, the street is all decked and lit up and is more like a fairytale setting. You can literally feel the festive spirit in the air, as everyone is out to have a good time. Coming back to dining, Flury’s, the legendary confectionary is known for its famous breakfast menu, where in pure English style you can enjoy baked beans on toast and sumptuous chicken sandwiches. To sample all kinds of international cuisine, head to One Step Up or Mocambo, while Kwality, a multi-cuisine restaurant lets you savour both Indian and continental delights.
Bengali cuisine and sweets: When in Calcutta you cannot give a miss to authentic Bengali cuisine. You can enjoy some special Bengali delights at Oh! Calcutta and Bhojohori Manna. Both these restaurants specialize in Bengali cuisine. You can try out an array of delicious delights such as spicy prawn curry, fish curry cooked in mustard, mutton cutlets and various different vegetables cooked in authentic Bengali spices. However, no Bengali meal is complete without traditional Bengali sweets and the must tries include sweet curd, Bengali sandesh and rosogolla. Some other places where you can feast on typical Bengali sweets are K.C. Das, Bhim Nag, Ganguram and Mochak.
China Town: The ethnic Chinese people, who had migrated to Kolkata over the years, had setup tanneries in Tangra, in the eastern part of the city. Given the high density of the Chinese population here, this part of Kolkata is known as China Town. Most of the families have now closed down their tanneries and have set up restaurants serving authentic Chinese cuisine. Beijing, Kim Ling, and Golden Joy are just some of the well known restaurants. Stop here to try out a plethora of delicious Chinese dishes at extremely reasonable prices.
Kolkata is truly a shopper’s paradise and shopping here can be an exciting experience especially if you are an expert in bargaining. From classy, chic boutiques and chic malls to roadside flea markets and street bazaars, Kolkata literally has it all.
New Market in Central Calcutta: One of the biggest shopping destinations in Kolkata is The New Market, a charming heritage site, which is considered to be the lifeline of Kolkata. The market sells anything and everything you can think of under the sun. While the exteriors have been spruced up to give it a typical British gothic look, the interiors pale in comparison, however this should not dampen your spirit as the rows of fresh flower arrangement stalls more or less make up for the lack of color. At every hour, the clock on the bell tower chimes to remind you just how fast the time seems to fly here. This market should specially be visited during major festivals such as Durga Puja, Christmas and New Year Celebrations, when it turns from a shopping paradise to a socialising centre. If you have friends or acquaintances in Kolkata, chances are high you will bump into them.
Gariahat: Gariahat is a mecca for those who just love bargaining. This is one place where you can find an eclectic assortment ranging from clothes, jewellery to household items, arts and crafts, old prized books, etc. Every day is a new day at this place and all you need to be armed with is patience and the eagerness to bargain for as low a price as you can get.
College Street: If you are an avid collector of rare books, then a visit to College Street is a must. The all-familiar scents of old second-hand books waft from the street lined bookstores, which are filled with all kinds of rare and prized books. Also known as Boi para, meaning a neighbourhood for books in Bengali, this open-air market happens to be the world’s second largest market of second hand books. The stores here are home to a large selection of books ranging from classics, textbooks and manuscripts to comics. All sold at unbelievably low prices.
Popular Shopping Malls: Shopping in Kolkata is however not all about bazaars. Kolkata has its share of glitzy shopping malls and chic boutiques too. Westside & Pantaloons complex houses quite a number of international brands and you can find practically everything under one roof. For a complete shopping experience, this is the place to head to, for here you can not only shop for clothes, jewellery, cosmetics, but also for foods, drinks, music CDs, DVDs and all kinds of other knickknacks. Emami Landmark is an ideal shopping destination, if you are trying to find a particular high-end brand or a boutique store. The best part of this mall is the huge bookstore, which has a very large collection. The Oxford Book Store at Park Street is another must visit for book lovers. The store has a wide range of books from different genres. The café, also known as Cha Bar, within the bookstore allows you to relax and enjoy a good read while you sip a hot cup of tea or lemonade.
Things To Do
There is plenty to do and see in Kolkata to suit all tastes. You can opt for a leisurely tour of the city in the heritage tram, which gently chugs along the narrow roads and bylanes or you can enjoy a royal tour of the famous Maidan and Victoria Memorial on a horse drawn carriage, popularly known as ‘tumtum’. You can also indulge in a host of other interesting activities such as golfing and boating. Enjoy a game of soccer at the Maidan or simply soak in the effervescent spirit of the city through a walking tour.
Golf: If you consider your vacation to be incomplete without a challenging game of golf, head to the Royal Calcutta Golf Club or Tollygung Club. The Royal Calcutta Golf Club is the oldest golf club outside of the British Isles. The other notable golf course is The Tollygunge Club, an 18 hole championship golf course designed by internationally reputed golf architects. Both these golf clubs are within easy reach of most major hotels.
Boating: Breathe in the fresh air and soak up the picturesque views as you gently row your boat through a scenic lake at the Nalban Boating complex. Fringed by lush green groves and plantations, this place gives you the perfect excuse to have a great picnic or enjoy a few hours of fun and frolic amid natural surroundings. You can opt for a paddleboat, hovercraft or a deluxe sikara to sail through these beautiful environs.
Amusement Parks: Bring out the child in you and indulge in some adventure rides at the Nicco Amusement Park. The park is a must visit for a fun-filled family outing. The exquisite Rose Garden within the park is sure to please the nature lovers and those who simply can’t resist the sight of beautiful flowers. Wet-O-Wild or the Water Park is yet another attraction of the Nicco Park and is popular for its varied water based rides, a gigantic 40 feet waterfall, and an artificially created beach. With so much to look forward to in this amusement park, it is little wonder why it is called the Disneyland of Kolkata.
Excursions From Kolkata
Kolkata forms a convenient base to explore the nearby tourist attractions. You can go for day trips and return to your hotel in the evenings or late nights. The beach resorts of Diamond Harbour and Digha are a couple of hours away and are ideal to spend a weekend amid tranquil surroundings. Other interesting spots include:
Shantiniketan: For connoisseurs of art and literature, a visit to Shantiniketan is a must. Shantiniketan, which was founded by the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, houses the Vishva Bharti University and a number of other important buildings such as the Uttarayan where the poet lived. By founding this university, Rabindranath Tagore proved that the East and West can definitely meet; the university incorporates the best of all cultures and is a unique symbol of harmony and peaceful co-existence. Some other attractions in this area include Kala Bhavan, Rabindra Bhavan, Uttarayan Gardens and the Deer Park.
Sunderbans: Sunderbans, another renowned place near Kolkata was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the year 1997. The Sunderbans enjoy the unique distinction of housing the world’s largest delta and also the largest mangrove forest. This marshland is also a natural habitat for a number of exotic birds and the royal Bengal Tiger.
Kolkata, situated in the eastern part of Indian subcontinent and close to the Bay of Bengal, has a tropical climate most of the year. The summers are usually hot and humid followed by the monsoon season, when the downpour is really heavy. Winters are nice and pleasant. The best time to visit Kolkata is between October and March.
By air: Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport, situated 15 km northeast of central Kolkata, is the main airport for both domestic and international flights. Most of the major airlines servicing India fly to Kolkata. Facilities at the airport include banks and bureaux de change in the terminals, restaurants, cafes, snack bars, and duty free shops. Metered taxis are also available for your convenience. Luggage trolleys are available free of charge and there is also provision for child-care and first aid medical service.
By Train: Kolkata is served by two major stations, Howrah Station and Sealdah Station. Howrah Station in itself is a landmark, as it happens to be one of the world’s largest railway terminals.
By Road: Kolkata is well connected with most parts of North Eastern states through road. State buses also ply daily to/from Puri and Bhubaneswar in Orissa.
Commuting within Kolkata is not much of a problem as public transport is easily available. It is advisable to commute either through taxis, autorickshaws or the metro as the buses can become quite crowded. You can also lose your way if you are not familiar with the route of the bus.
Taxis: Taxis and auto rickshaws are easy to find. Most taxis run on meter and carry a chart with them and so you can calculate the exact fare.
Autos and hand-pulled rickshaws: Autos (open-sided, motorized tricycles) are another way of commuting around the city. They are reasonable and an effective way to weave through the congested roads. For short distance commuting, you can hop onto one of the hand-pulled rickshaws that mainly operate in the market areas in Central Kolkata.
Trams and metro: If you have time in your hands then do take a ride on the tram, which runs mostly through Central Kolkata and is a great way of exploring the city. Otherwise the metro is a good way to get around. To avoid heavy traffic you can also choose to commute through the underground metro, which covers quite a few zones.