India is one of the most visually and culturally stunning places on the planet. Mumbai--formerly known as Bombay--is India’s largest city and its economic center. With its tropical climate, modern amenities, and amazing history, Mumbai is the perfect starting point or stop for any trip to this incredible country. Whether you’ve only got an afternoon or are on extended holiday, here are a few of the must-sees and dos in Mumbai:
Above All, Hire A Guide
Hiring a knowledgeable guide--and driver--will be some of the best money you spend on your trip. A guide will be able to pre-purchase your tickets for many of the city’s main sights, which means you can skip the lines. Mumbai can be overwhelming. To make the most of your trip and enjoy the most local flavor, consider going the guide route, at least for the first day of your adventure.
Stroll By The Gateway Of India
Built by the British, this massive arch commemorates the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to the city in 1911. It is Mumbai’s most recognized monument, with a stunning view overlooking the Arabian Sea. The foundation stone of the imposing structure was laid in 1911, but it wasn’t completed until 1924. This is the place where, 24 years later, the last British troops marched out of Mumbai after India gained independence.
Constructed from yellow basalt, the Gateway of India was designed to reflect a blend of Hindu and Muslim styles. It stands 85 feet tall and is a central meeting place for locals and tourists alike. The Gateway is open 24 hours a day and is free to explore, but watch out for the pigeons. There are huge flocks of them here, all looking for a place to poop. Make sure it’s not on you!
Take The Ferry To Elephanta Island
This mystical spot is located about six miles east of the Gateway of India. It’s easily accessible via ferry, with the ride taking about an hour. The island is home to a network of cave temples built during the fifth and sixth centuries. The intricate, intriguing statues inside the complex are dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
Elephanta Island was named by the colonial Portuguese, who found elephant sculptures at the site. The caves were worn down by the elements and also defaced over the centuries. Today, the Archaeological Survey of India maintains the caves, helping to protect, restore, and stabilize them.
Ferries depart from the Gateway of India starting at 9 a.m. and the first return boats leave the island at noon. The cost is 200 Indian rupees. Expect a steep climb from the beach up to the caves (hello, cardio) but there is a train that will shuttle you to the site and back for 10 rupees each way. The entry fee is 500 rupees and the caves are closed on Mondays.
Check Out The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) Railway Station
The CST is a chief example of Victorian Gothic architecture. The station was constructed during the British Raj, when the crown ruled the Indian subcontinent. Today, the building, formerly named for Queen Victoria, serves as the headquarters of India’s Central Railways and is still a working train station.
Built in 1888 to mark Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, at the time, the CST was Mumbai’s most expensive structure, costing 260,000 pounds sterling. Crafted from sandstone and limestone, the entrance to this grand building is flanked by a lion and a tiger, representing both Britain and India. While it’s a fascinating place to explore, the CST is currently undergoing a lengthy renovation. Note that scaffolding will make getting a good photo difficult.
Wander Through The Mani Bhavan
This two-story mansion, now converted to a museum, was Gandhi’s home base in Mumbai from 1971 until 1934. It’s been visited by many world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mani Bhavan was owned by a close friend of Gandhi’s who opened his home to the leader of the independence movement. Gandhi initiated several strategic movements aimed at encouraging Indian separation from British rule, from this place. You can view the room where he slept, ate, and worked on his spinning wheels. You’ll leave here knowing more about the man who sacrificed everything--even his life--fighting for his country’s independence.
Admission to the museum is free, and it’s open every day from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Browse Indian Art
Spend a few hours at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya or CSMVS. This beautiful art museum, once called the Prince of Wales Museum, is built in the Western Indian style and houses a vast collection. Skip the Euro-centric second floor and spend your visit focusing on the ground and first floors, where you’ll find a dazzling array of Indian art in a variety of media.
Make sure to get an audio guide, and also wander through the gorgeous sculpture gardens around the museum. The CSMVS is open all week; tickets cost 500 rupees. There is a separate photography charge.
Where The Washing Happens
Dhobi Ghat is an open-air laundromat located near Mumbai’s hotel district. Founded in 1890, this is where innkeepers sent their linens to the washers--or dhobis--to be scrubbed. The business still thrives today. The complex consists of outdoor concrete wash troughs, each with its own flogging stone.
Here, linens, uniforms, and saris and are scrubbed by hand, then air-dried, folded, and delivered back to owners all across the city. It is one of Mumbai’s top tourist spots, and gives the idea of an upper body workout an entirely new definition. Wear closed-toed shoes when visiting, as there are puddles and muck along the perimeter. The best time to visit is in the morning, when the dhobis begin their work.
Before fast food, there were dabbawalas who delivered home-cooked lunch boxes--or tiffins--by bicycle. This 100-year old tradition still persists today. Through a complex, coordinated effort, lunchboxes across Mumbai are picked up from homes, then hand-sorted and delivered to an individual dabbawala.
A dabbawala will collect 20 to 30 tiffins, then deliver each one on their route. The empty tiffin boxes are then rounded up, returned to the owners and the process repeats the next day. It’s a fun to see the dabbawalas load up and head out. 5,000 of them hit the streets just before lunch each day, and you can usually catch them queued up outside Mumbai’s rail stations.
Make Time For Souvenirs
Mumbai is a shopper’s paradise, with every sort of store imaginable, from luxury Western brands to open-air bazaars. Top things to bring home include gemstone and gold jewelry, woven shawls and linens, silk saris, painted paper-mache trinket boxes, and vintage Bollywood posters.
To finds many of these items, you’ll want to hit one of Mumbai’s many historic bazaars. The Chor Bazaar--or Thieves’ Market--dates back 150 years. Legend has it that stolen items eventually find their way to this spot to be resold. Today, it is a bustling place with equal amounts of trash and treasure. The Colaba Causeway is a series of shops and stalls geared toward tourists. Here, you’ll find bags, fabrics, silver jewelry, and plenty of designer knockoffs. And don’t miss the Crawford Market to see and (perhaps sample) a dizzying array of spices, check out flower stalls, and browse a special section devoted to pets of all shapes and sorts.
Above all, bargain! When a shopkeeper or stall owner quotes you a price, come back with an offer that's 30 to 40 percent less. Be prepared for a bit of back and forth, but it’s all part of the fun.
Eating In Mumbai
Culinary offerings in Mumbai range from street food to five-star dining. No matter which you opt for, there are a few caveats to keep in mind to prevent stomach meltdown. Only drink bottled water, no ice. Avoid raw vegetables and fruit. Stick to cooked foods, as the heating process will likely kill off any tummy invaders. Also, enquire about spiciness before chowing down.
Safety announcements aside, Indian cuisine features a wide variety of food including curried vegetables, lentil stews, paneer (Indian cheese), and meats including chicken, lamb, and even fish--but rarely beef. These delicacies will be served with naan (flatbread), rice, roti (unleavened bread) and sometimes raita (a cucumber yogurt sauce). A favorite dessert is gulab jamun, donuts soaked in cardamom syrup.
You’ll see vendors hawking their wares. If you’re adventurous, try fried samosas filled with cooked vegetables. There’s also the famed vada pav, deep-fried potato patty sandwiches served with spicy chutney. Only choose carts serving lots of people, and where the food is freshly prepared.
For luxe dining, check out Ziya. Located in the Oberoi Hotel at Nariman Point, this spot offers incredible Indian Ocean views and serves contemporary Indian cuisine. A Michelin-starred chef designed Ziya’s menu.
Keep in Mind: Traffic in this city of 17 million is interesting to say the least. It’s congested, drivers rarely stick to their lanes, and no one drives the speed limit. If you opt for a taxi or auto rickshaw, know it will be an adventure.
Make sure you are up to date on your travel vaccinations; emergency antibiotics might be a good idea in case of stomach distress.
Keep an eye on air quality and bring a mask. Winters can be difficult when it comes to smog levels in Mumbai.
Photo Credit: Husain Patrawala / Unsplash