Mumbai is not really what I would describe as a ‘holiday’ destination where people stick around for very long. 48 hours is usually just enough time to get a taste of the city before moving on to the tourist trail of the Golden Triangle, ‘God’s Own Country’ Kerala, beachy Goa or the crisp, fresh air of the Himalayas. If you are stopping off in Mumbai before a 'grand tour', or if indeed you live here as I do and are entertaining guests in the city for a couple of days, the following is a compact guide on what to do and where to go.
I will show you how to see the beautiful and not so beautiful sights of the city, where to go for an introduction to Indian street food and where to go shopping for good souvenirs. My guide assumes that you have access to a car and driver. If you don't have your own driver, it is possible to hire one quite cheaply and will mean you can pack an awful lot more in than if you got the train or bus. (I am also not ‘at one’ with the Mumbai public transport system!) It also assumes that you will do a bit of pre-planning with a street map.
(This is all tried and tested by BombayJules by the way!)
I will usually try and make an early start before commuter traffic peaks at 10am, aiming to get to Banganga Tank at the bottom of Malabar Hill by 9am. Banganga tank is the oldest and most sacred Hindu site in the city where Lord Rama is said to have brought forth water from the Ganges by firing an arrow into the ground. It is a place of rare serenity and there are usually photogenic pilgrims and worshippers to be seen ‘purifying’ themselves in the waters. You might even see some of the many ducks that reside there floating around. Surrounding the tank are a few Hindu and Jain temples – take your pick at which one to look at, remembering to take off you shoes before you go in. Hop back in the car and take the five minute drive to The Hanging Gardens of Malabar Hill from which you can get your friends to line up at the in front of the wonderful view of Marine Drive. Passing back via the giant boot (if you’ve got kids, let them go up to the top) and crossing the road, you will enter Kamala Nehru Park with its perfectly manicured hedges and topiary animals, green benches and colourful flowerbeds. This is a rare haven in Mumbai – verdant, well kempt and rubbish free.
By now you are probably feeling a little peckish - so get back in your car and drive past the almost completely hidden Towers of Silence - you can just get a glimpse through the trees on your left. The Towers of Silence are where the Parsis (Zoroastrians) place their dead. I suggest you look up the reason for this on Wikipedia so you can amaze yourself/your friends with the information! Keep going straight until you are back on Babhulnath Marg. If you want to, hop out here and take a look at Babhulnath Temple (another one of the city’s holiest Hindu sites) – the steps leading up to it are lined with traditional Gujarati houses for temple workers. Having done that, get your driver to park up whilst you cross back over the main road for a nice, reasonably priced lunch at Soam. Soam is my favourite place in Mumbai to experience street food in a safe, clean and quality environment. If you’re new to Bombay street food yourself, get the friendly restaurant owner to show you and your guests how to eat Pani Puri. You should also try to sample the amazing masala dosas, sev puri, and farsans. Yum.
After lunch, you are now ready for a quick/optional diversion to nearby Anokhi off Hughes Road – especially if there are women in the group, (well women like me that can’t resist a quick shop!) At Anokhi, you will find irresistible hand block printed items from Jaipur, all at very agreeable prices. Cotton tops, long skirts, fabulous table cloths and printed notebooks.
Now, get your driver to drop you at the start of Marine Drive so that you can take a 20 minute stroll along Girgaum Chowpatty. Chowpatty means ‘beach’ in Marathi. If you go right down to the sea, you will unfortunately witness the rubbish that is so prevalent in and around Mumbai. But don’t worry, you'll soon get used to it! Oh, and I don’t need to tell you not to go anywhere near the water.
Next, pick up your car again and come away from the beach by heading east - asking your driver to go towards Crawford Market. Get out here and go through the front entrance where you will be immediately greeted by the hustle, bustle, sights, sounds and smells of Mumbai’s most famous shopping bazaar. Try not to veer into the caged animal section where birds, cats and dogs are for sale, Kept in small cages without visible evidence of water, it can be very upsetting to see. After mooching around for a bit in the market you will find that it’s almost time for a cup of tea. Get back in the car and head down DN Road so that Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in new money) is on your left hand side. No need to get out of the car, just enjoy the ‘Victorian Italianate Gothic Revival’ architecture of Mumbai’s main transport hub, built in 1808. There is plenty of similar Raj-era architecture to admire in the vicinity, such as the Bombay High Court and the University of Mumbai and The Prince of Wales Museum. Carry on going straight towards the sea, getting off at the next stop – The Gateway of India.
Get out here and proceed through the (defunct) security gate. Take a few photos with your clan in front of the Gate, have a look out to sea, do your best to avoid the photo-touts and giant balloon sellers (I still haven’t fathomed why on earth one would need a balloon the size of a small car) then turn around, go back and cross the road. You will now be right in front of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel on Apollo Bunder. Admire the grandeur of the building, pass through the lobby and go up to the SeaLounge on the first floor. Here you must sample a very expensive cup of the divine Silver Grove White Tips Darjeeling tea whilst looking out to sea - as smooth as a silk sari. Whilst chatting, you can think about the 2008 Terrorist Attack centred around the hotel where 200 hostages were rescued but 31 guests were unfortunately killed.
Get collected again and go around the back left hand corner of the Taj Palace Hotel and find the small Good Earth Shop on BEST Marg. Delight in the Indian themed cushion covers and crockery etc...but beware of the western prices.
After the thrill of Good Earth, you’ll need to come back down with a cocktail. Drive back to Marine Drive and find the Intercontinental Hotel about a third of the way up on the right hand side. Clear security and take the lift up to the magnificent (and trendy) DomeBar on the top floor. I actually like to ask for a white wine spritzer (you have to explain to the waiter - white wine with soda with ice) which is a perfectly refreshing accompaniment to what I consider to be one of the best views in Mumbai. You can while away a few hours watching the stunning sunset and chatting before going to a restaurant of your choice to sample some more Indian food – or perhaps just stay at the in-house restaurant Kebab Corner where you’ll find some of the tenderest Chicken Malai to be had in the city.
So that’s the end of Day 1.
And now for something a bit different. Do you think I am going to show you the street markets of Mumbai (Colaba, Fashion Street, Linking Road etc) or an art gallery or museum? Wrong! Day 2 of my itinerary is an optional alternative to the usual tourist trail.
Today starts in the “Queen of Suburbs” - Bandra - at 10am. If you are coming from South Mumbai, come via the Sealink – the city’s best and most scenic feat of engineering. Find your way to Carter Road (starting at Otter’s Club), hop out of the car and walk along the sea promenade. Get some of that sea air into your lungs! After 20 minutes or so, drive back towards Pali Market, going up and down some of the streets in order to admire the Art Deco bungalows of a bygone era. Some are decrepit, but some have been restored to stunning effect.
Heading back in the direction of Carter Road along Hill Road, find Ben Hur Chemist opposite pretty St Andrew’s Church. Get out of the car here and walk down Waroda Road which is off at an angle just before the chemist’s. Waroda Road and its offshoot Chapel Road, are part of Ranwar Village - a charming bohemian enclave, with colonial bungalows, narrow streets and artistically graffitied walls. Ranwar (now favoured by French hipsters) is one of the original 24 pakhadis (hamlets) that made up Bandra since the earliest documented history in early 1700s, and has managed to retain its village character even as present-day development has hemmed it in on all sides. The street art is fun to look at – some of it is slightly naïve, some of it highly artistic.
Get your driver to pick you all up again from Hill Road and then drive 30 minutes (max) to Matunga, south of Mahim (and not via the Sealink). You will probably go past Dadar Flower Market on the way. Matunga is famous for its South Indian restaurants, very much favoured by the local vegetarian Gujurati community. Head for the most famous of these restaurants - Café Madras (Bhaudaji Road, Kings Circle) for brunch. At weekends it can get very busy and you may have to queue. Café Madras is an excellent place to sample a traditional Indian breakfast – food items such as idlis, dosas, wadas and rassam. Perhaps stay away from the coconut chutney accompaniments in case of fragile stomachs! But it should all be perfectly safe.
After your brunch/lunch, you can browse some of the pavement bookstalls or take a look around the local vegetable market to give your guests a true flavour of local life. If you want, take a peek at the King’s Circle nearby, another rare area of greenery.
You then need to get yourselves to Mahim station by 2.30pm where you will meet one of the tour guides of Reality Gives Tours & Travel (www.realitytoursandtravel.com). You are going on a tour of Dharavi which you have prearranged. It is hard to ignore the shanty towns of Mumbai so why not educate yourself and your companions about the amazing enterprise that goes on in Asia’s biggest and most profitable slum? It’s not half as scary as you might think and the tour seeks to break down negative or misinformed attitudes towards less developed communities. You will be led around a pre-organised route where you are encouraged not to gawp and you will come out with a completely different view of the ‘Heart of Mumbai’. No photos are allowed and you will have to try and be subtle about unfavourable smells. I have taken several people on this tour and they have all appreciated the experience and been enlightened by it. The cost is only 600 Rs per person or 3,000 Rs for a private tour for up to five persons. 80% of profits made by Reality Gives are ploughed back into the community.
Two and half hours later, the Reality Tours tour guide will speak to your driver and tell him to collect you from their office on the other side of Dharavi - where you can also by some mementos of the tour. Now you can relax! Gather yourselves up, get in the car and drive to Phoenix Mills shopping mall in Lower Parel (around 30 minutes depending on traffic). This is partly to show the immediate contrasts between rich and poor and partly for them to pick up some more souvenirs. Plus it’s nice and cool in there.
Admire the Gucci, Burberry and Jimmy Choo outlets in Palladium and then go down to the ubiquitous FabIndia and Bombay Stores where you can pick up some more quality souvenirs. For dinner, there is a multitude of safe bets here – I would particularly recommend Rajdhani for an excellent and never-ending Gujurati thali experience (if you are sticking with Indian food) or Serafina, the Italian Pizzeria if you want a change of scenery.
Your BombayJules tour is now finished!
Your BombayJules tour is now finished!
Left to right, top to bottom
1. Banganga tank 2. Topiary of Kamala Nehru Park 3. Anokhi prints 4. Pani Puri at Soam 5. Bustling Crawford Market 6. Gateway of India 7. Dome Bar 8. Colonial bungalow of Bandra 9. Graffiti of Waroda Road 10. Matunga Vegetable Market 11. Dharavi 12. Phoenix Mills Mall.