The erstwhile capital of India during the colonial period, Kolkata, earlier Calcutta, is the most European of Indian cities. Scratch the layers of grime, neglect and apathy, and you will still see a facade of times gone by – of zamindars and their attendants, colonial buildings, clubs, Christmas celebrations, creative pursuits, and a riverfront teeming with life. All that is gone now, at least in spirit, even if vestiges hang on. Political crudeness and sheer population pressure today make one of India’s most populated cities also its poorest and most infrastructurally challenged.
Why should I visit? Kolkata is still a city that can surprise. For those willing to look beyond the obvious, the city still has islands of magnificence, from palaces to parks, from stadia to shops, that are still unique to the city. The average literate Bengali is quite passionate, and this reflects in the unique culture the city has built up.
What should I know about Kolkata? Kolkata was the capital of British India, right up to 1911, and then for about two more decades while the new administrative complexes in Delhi were being built.
The city was once Asia’s most glittering, fashionable and rich city – indeed anywhere outside western Europe. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, it was a city of grand mansions, wide streets, wealthy merchants in luxurious clubs, rich markets, race courses, golf clubs, and spectacular architecture – often getting the latest innovations first, not just in India, but also often anywhere outside London and other European capitals.
The decline in political patronage since the 1930s, followed by a split in the province it has capital of – Bengal, negatively impacted its fortunes. A long spell of Leftist governance gave a culture of trade unionism, but also led to flight of industry from the city, shrinking employment opportunities. However it still remains a hub for east India, the country’s least economically developed and most populous region. The city was also the centre of India’s struggle for independence, and in a sense, lived in its past glory for decades longer than in should have. The city was once a fount of learning, and has produced more Nobel laureates in India than any other place. For long a city on the decline, it has in the previous decade been showing signs of revival.
Where is it exactly? The city’s coordinates are 22.567°N 88.367°E. Though Kolkata’s pre-eminence in history comes from its position of being India’s chief port in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is actually quite distant from the sea. It is an inland port almost at the edge of India, and primarily on the eastern bank of a distributory of the Ganga, the Hugli. Its riverine port location is similar in this sense to Shanghai, another city built by the British a little after Kolkata.
What are the major landmarks? Kolkata is flat as they come, and is just a few feet above sea level. Most of the area where the city stands today was marshland, that were drained during British rule. However there still remain a lot of ponds, marshes and lakes all around in the city. The city’s oldest parts are in the north. The central regions are more commercial, and the Maidan here is a good landmark for the city. As is the river, which forms the western edge of the city.
What is the best time to visit? The weather in Kolkata does not change much throughout the year. However the winter months – December to February, are generally considered to be the most pleasant. The South West Monsoon brings heavy rainfall from June to September, and these months are generally very humid.
Summer temperature: 30°C – 40°C
Winter temperature: 30°C – 10°C
What languages are spoken in the city? The main language spoken in the city is Bangla. However, the city has residents from many parts of India, and Hindi is commonly understood in most work areas. Most literate people, and the city has a fairly high rate of literacy, can speak good to passable English. Most tourism related places will have English speaking people.
How far is the airport to the city centre? The new Kolkata airport, basically a new terminal building at the same location, opened in 2013. The Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport, located in Dum Dum, is about 16 kilometres from the city centre.
How is the airport? The Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport is an international airport, and has most facilities commensurate. However there are relatively few international airlines serving the city, though all major domestic airlines connect the city to different parts of India. It is the fifth busiest airport of India in terms of passenger traffic.
Immigration is level 1.
Only 11 nations have visa on arrival in India, rest need prior visas.
Baggage collection is after immigration. There is a lost baggage counter, in case baggage is missing.
For passengers needing assistance, there are facilities, just let your airline know.
Your bag may be security checked, especially as Indian customs is under orders to check gold smuggling. Especially for flights coming from Dubai.
There are information desks, money exchange counters, state and private cab service counters. If arriving at night, beware of anyone trying to over helpful, and do not give your luggage to anyone till you are sure of their credentials. There are extra night charges in cabs.
There are cabs available just outside the arrival hall. The airport has prepaid taxis and air-conditioned buses that connect it to the city. Do not take cabs from anyone offering as you arrive – they will tend to overcharge significantly.
Departure is on level II.
You will need a printout of your ticket to enter the terminal and an identity card (passport preferably).
It is safer to arrive at least an hour before flight time for domestic flights, maybe two hours for international flights.
Security is right after the airline counters, not as you are entering the flight.
Money exchange counters are before security gates – they are not permitted inside.
Airline counters are generally modern, but ensure your documents (printout of ticket, passport) are in place.
Check hand luggage content and size rules. Some airlines check for size.
The driving time from the city centre to the airport is usually an hour, but can easily get extended at rush hours. Also, the city often witnesses street protests, which could additional time to reach the airport. Check with your hotel.
Where should I stay? The city has its range of hotels, from budget guest houses to luxury hotels and resorts.
4 and 5 star hotels abound.
Towards the centre and south:
Fortune Select Loudon
Towards the east and north:
ITC Sonar Bangla
Best Western Vedic Village
Fortune Park Panchwati
How do I move about in the city? Kolkata is notorious for its traffic jams. Even though the situation has eased somewhat, please do budget enough time to get from one place to another, especially towards office opening and closing hours. During monsoon, estimate double time to reach your destination as most roads are water logged and traffic jams can extend for miles. The city has a diverse range of public transport, none of which are efficient!
Buses are the most commonly used mode of transport, and are run by government agencies and private operators. They are definitely not advisable for any tourist.
Another common means of transport are auto rickshaws, Indian equivalent of tuktuks. However, unlike in other Indian cities, they ply specific routes. and yellow metered taxis. The city is famous for its yellow taxis portrayed in a lot of books and films. However the romance dies soon. Rude drivers, terrible traffic, smelly, peeling off interiors combine to make it a one time experience for most. On the plus side, they are much cheaper here than in most other Indian cities. Almost all of Kolkata’s taxis are Hindustan Ambassadors. However there are now an emerging fleet of air-conditioned radio taxis.
A unique experience in the city are hand-pulled rickshaws, now seen only in the older parts of the city. Considered inhuman, and banned by law, they are often these ramshackle flimsy contraptions only source of income for their owners. Again tourists often ride them for the experience. Pedal rickshaws, only a shade better, are also common in the city.
Kolkata was the first city in India to get the metro. Unfortunately further progress has been tardy, and now new lines are being built. The current line is a 25 kilometre north-south line.
Kolkata is the only Indian city with a tram network. However today they present only the older parts of the city, are very slow moving, and ramshackle. Try one for atmosphere, but do not even think close to standards in Hongkong or Melbourne.
Kolkata has two major long-distance railway stations, located at Howrah, just across the Hugli, and for long India’s busiest railway station and Sealdah, towards the centre of the city. Howrah Station is also the headquarters of a zone of Indian railways, and still remains a gatehead to eastern India.
Which 5 things do I have to do?
Visit Victoria Memorial
Spend Durga Puja time in the city
Attend a cricket match at Eden Gardens
Stroll in the Maidan and eat jhalmuri and fuchka, followed by rasgulla and sandesh
Take a ferry ride up the Hugli
What should I do if I have more time?
As the birthplace of modern Indian paradigms, Kolkata is known for its literary, artistic, and revolutionary heritage. Also every individual above a certain income level is engaged in some creative pursuit, and most neighbourhoods have cultural clubs that act as learning and showcasing platforms.
Your journey to explore the city could start from its geographic centre. The Maidan is a sprawling open ground that has seen many a historic moment. It is also the place where many come just to relax. Elderly walkers, young couples, football players, joggers, fuchka wallas and their customers, families – all come here. The Maidan is next to Fort William, but unfortunately, that can no longer be seen as it is under the control of the ministry of defence.
Nearby is the Victoria Memorial, a tribute to Queen Victoria. Built to rival the Taj Mahal, this white marble monument now houses a collection of rare memorabilia from colonial days. There is a light and sound show history every evening.
Also close by are the Race Course, a highlight of the city’s winter season, and the Birla Planetarium, one of the largest in the world.
There are any number of old Raj-era buildings that could convince you about the city’s European antecedents. Down the road is one of India’s largest museums – the Indian Museum, built in 1877 in Italian style of architecture. Badly maintained for long, it has recently been restored. Another landmark nearby is the Ochterlony Monument, now known as Shahid Minar.
Most of these buildings are in the area spreading out from Dalhousie Square, now BBD Bagh. The Raj Bhavan, the official residence of the Governor of Bengal, was built in 1803, is modelled on Lord Curzon’s home, Keddleston Hall, Derbyshire, England. Yes, it looks like the White House. The Town Hall, built in 1813, is now the City Magistrate’s Office. Nearby is the Gothic Calcutta High Court, completed in 1872. Another Gothic structure is the Writers’ Building, is still the seat of the state government. On another side is the Edwardian General Post Office, built on the site of the original Fort William.
North Calcutta was once ‘black town’ – and housed magnificent palaces and mansions. The area is a typical old run part of any old Indian city, except for the occasional ‘rajbari’ or palaces, usually town houses of major Bengal zamindars. Among the most notable is Tagore House or Thakurbari, at Jorasanko, which was the birth place of Rabindranath Tagore. It now houses the Rabindra Bharati University. The Marble Palace at Chorbagan was built in 1840 by Raja Rajendra Mullick, and is now a museum.
The south has some notable mansions too. Among the biggest are the National Library, formerly Belvedere House, now India’s largest library, with over a million books.
The city has turned its back on the river, though it was once oriented towards it. You can make out from the way the palatial structures face the river. Outram Ghat, Princep Ghat and many others ghats still line the river. Many are in bad shape now, though the city has cleaned up marginally.
The city’s most recognised landmarks are over the river. The Howrah Bridge and the newer Vidyasagar Setu to its south are icons of the city. Do travel across both for unique experiences.
The city is full of lakes. Among the most well maintained is the Rabindra Sarovar. Also popular are the large flower markets.
The city has a lot of famous religious shrines. Among the most popular is Kalighat to the south, St Paul’s Cathedral, St John’s Church, Nakhoda Mosque, Armenian Church, Jain temples. For the spiritually inclined, there’s the Aurobindo Ashram and Ramakrishna Mission. Many visitors also visit Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s hospice.
Two shrines by the Hugli north of the city are Belur Math (10 kms) is where the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math & Ramakrishna Mission are located at a syncretic complex that symbolises the unity of religions and Dakshineshwar (12 kms) a temple to Kali which is among the most revered temples for Bengalis.
The city has a famous Botanical Garden, founded in 1786. A local favourite is the Alipur zoo, among the best in India.
Two unique cultural neighbourhoods to visit would be Kumartuli – famous for its Durga images and Chinatown – which exported Indian Chinese cuisine to the rest of India.
What should I eat? Kolkata is famous for its traditional cuisine. This includes a mix of Bengali and European dishes. The Bengali cuisine is also unique for not being easily available commercially, and even now quality outlets serving the cuisine are fairly rare. For Bengali cuisine, try Kewpies, Aaheli, Suruchi, Oh Calcutta, Bhojohori Manna, 6 Ballygunge Place. More are emerging. Kasturi and Radhuni offer more Bangladeshi style food.
Flury’s on Park Street is an old time bakery. Nearby are Peter Cat and Mocambo, also famous restaurants.
All major hotels have fair to excellent eateries, though the cuisine range may be a little limited.
Bengal is also known for the quality of its mishti, or sweets, so much so that sweet shops across the country are often called Bengali Sweets, even when they have no connection with the region or serve hardly any sweets from Bengal!
The city is as famous for its inexpensive street food. Definitely try jhalmuri – a spicy mix based on puffed rice. Another must try is fuchka, a cousin of the north Indian golgappa, but local loyalists swear by the Kolkata version.
What should I buy? Kolkata’s unique retail attractions, like the best of the rest of the city, are also cultural.
The city is famous for leather goods, from footwear to purses and pen stands. Buy Bankura horses, saris – tangail, Dhakai, Baluchari, in cotton and silk. Kantha embroidery is popular, be it on saris or cushion covers or curtains. There are a lot of handcrafted items on offer – of wood, shola (lotus stem), cane, batik, Dokra metal casting, terracotta tiles, Kalighat Pats – a type of ethnic paintings,. The city is known for its distinctive gold jewellery.
If you are so inclined, buy tins of rasgullas. The more delicate Bengali sweets must be eaten fresh.
The older markets such as New Market and Barabazar are towards the centre. However newer malls have emerged in the south and north east as well.
Where should I party? Unlike most cities, Kolkata is a fairly liberal city and has an active nightlife.
There are many pubs. The best known are Aqua, Tantra, Someplace Else, Big Ben. Underground, Shisha, Venom, The Basement.
What should I be wary of? The usual precautions taken in other parts of India
Who can I contact in an emergency?
Police Control Room 100
Medical, Police and Fire ☎ 108
Child Line Facility ☎ 1098
The city has a full range of medical facilities, from major hospitals offering specialty treatment to local neighbourhood physicians.
However, take a few precautions. Avoid drinking water outside. Carry your own water, if possible. Drink only mineral water. Carry medicines for common ailments. Do not eat uncooked food.
Desun Hospital (EM Bypass), AMRI Main (Gariahat Road), CMRI Hospital (Diamond Harbour Road), Medica Superspecialty Hospital ( Mukundapur), Fortis Hospitals (Rash Behari Avenue), Ruby General Hospital (EM Bypass), Peerless Hospital & B.K.Roy Research Center (Panchasayar), Flemming Hospital (Tangra), Apollo Gleneagles Hospital (Kankurgachi).
How do I call Kolkata from outside? The country code for India is +91 and the city code for Kolkata is 33. To call a landline in Kolkata from within India, call 033-xxxx xxxx. To call a landline in Hyderabad from outside India, call 91-33-xxxx xxxx or 91-xx-xxxx xxxx for a mobile number.
How can I access the internet? The easiest would be to access it on your phone. The local number you take offers data services too – check the prices. In any case, they are a fraction of the international roaming charge.
The city also has internet cafes in some area that charge nominally – up to a dollar an hour usually, though top end hotels can be more expensive. For laptop, get a data plan from a service provider – usually the same as cellphone. There are limited free wi-fi areas.
Where can I change money? Money changers are available in most commercial parts of the city – especially in tourist areas and major markets. The airport has them too, though the rates are not as good.
There are many small forex shops that will offer better rates, even if they do not give a receipt.
Dollars are most easily accepted. Euros and British Pounds are also accepted occasionally. Count your money after the transaction.
Which are the main media? The leading newspapers of the city are Telegraph, Statesman and Times of India in English and Amrita Bazaar Patrika, Aajkal and Bartaman in Bengali.
The state has a number of Bengali television channels as well.
On which days is movement restricted?
National holidays –
January 26: Republic Day
August 15: Independence Day
October 2: Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary
February 4: Sri Panchami
April 7: Ram Navami
April 13: Mahavir Jayanti
April 14: Dr Ambedkar Jayanti
April 18: Good Friday
May 1: May Day
May 14: Buddha Purnima
July 29: Ramazan / Idu’l Fitr
October 1: Durga Puja – Saptami
October 4: Durga Puja – Dashami
October 6: Bakri Id / Idu’l Zuha
October 24: Diwali
November 6: Guru Nanak Jayanti
December 25: Christmas
*major areas likely to be closed. Government establishments are closed on all
What is nearby?
Sajnekhali (130 kms) is part of the Sundarbans, the largest delta in the world formed by Ganga and Brahmaputra. This is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger and lot of other fauna and flora.
Raichak (50 kms) A popular weekend getaway, it has an 18th century Fort and offers spectacular views of the Ganga.
Shantiniketan (180 kms) is famous for Visva-Bharati University, established by
Rabindranath Tagore as a non-denominational centre. A UNESCO World Heritage site now, it is a functional university as well.
Digha (187 kms) West Bengal’s most popular beach resort, Digha, is a scenic resort by the Bay of Bengal. The sea at Digha is shallow for about a mile and is usually calm, making it safe for swimming.
Tarakeshwar (58 kms) is a renowned place of pilgrimage for the Shiva sect. The Taraknath Temple, built by Raja Bharamalla in 1729 AD, attracts lots of devotees.
Tarapith (225 kms) a village in Birbhum district is known for its tantric temple dedicated to Goddess Tara.
Mandarmoni (165 kms) is a coastal getaway. It has one of the longest driveable beaches in India.
Bishnupur (150 kms) in Bankura district is famous for its terracotta temples and baluchari saris.
Krishnanagar (100 kms) is known for its culture, art and literature. There is a tradition of clay art from the area.
Bakkhali (125 kms) is a seaside resort.
Murshidabad (236 kms) is the old capital of Bengal. A lot of historic monuments and culture await the visitor. The Nizamat Kila the Hazaarduari Palace (Palace of a Thousand Doors), built in 1837, in Italianate style, Moti Jhil (Pearl Lake) just to the south of the palace, Muradbagh Palace and the Khushbagh Cemetery, where the remains of Ali Vardi Khan and Siraj ud Daulah are buried are oft visited.