Calcutta, India (its official name is Kolkata, India), is a city that has a rich and unique history. Yet it remains perhaps best known for its extreme poverty and the work of Mother Teresa (also known as St. Teresa of Calcutta). Current day Kolkata, however, while still home to some of India’s poorest citizens, has grown into a bustling and prosperous regional capital. After all, where else can you take a hand-pulled rickshaw past a grand memorial to Queen Victoria before jumping on the metro to enjoy a round of golf at the Tollygunge Club, one of India’s most renowned courses?
Despite its size, most of Kolkata’s main sights are easy to find and can be covered in a few days. The reality, though, is that this only tells half of the story of this proud city, because it takes a true worldwide local to uncover the rest. Here is a guide to getting the most out of your time in Kolkata.
Where to Begin
Kolkata’s answer to the Taj Mahal, the mighty Victoria Monument, stands as a symbol of British rule and, in many ways, is the antithesis to the real Kolkata, which is clean, polished and peaceful. If there was any doubt as to the British influence from Kolkata’s past, a stroll through the parks of Maidan, passing the cricket grounds, to the former colonial center around Dalhousie Square (now ‘BBD Bagh’), will soon lay it to rest.
In Kolkata, time can pass quickly, so make sure to enjoy every moment. At sundown, follow the locals to Eden Gardens, through the banks of the nearby Hooghly River, to enjoy a spectacular sunset over the neighboring city of Howrah.
Worldwide Local Tip: In a city where many younger people still live in cramped family homes, it’s no wonder that the peaceful gardens surrounding the Victoria Monument have become a favorite hangout for young couples on covert dates. Pack some goodies from Flury’s Bakery on Park Street then head to the gardens for a weekend picnic. You would be forgiven if you forgot that you were even in India!
An unofficial symbol of the city, Kolkata’s ubiquitous yellow Ambassador taxis can be found on practically every street corner. These are a cheap, convenient way of getting around--if you can convince the driver to use his meter. The modern Metro system offers a cheap, reliable, and air-conditioned way of covering longer distances without falling mercy to the city’s notorious traffic. Bear in mind, currently, only one line is fully operational. Interestingly, Kolkata is also home to India’s only public tram service, and though slow and dirty, a short ride can be a great experience.
Worldwide Local Tip: Ride-sharing apps such as Ola and Uber have taken India by storm in recent years, offering a safe and reliable way of getting a ride without the risk of falling victim to a rigged meter. Premium vehicles, offering air conditioning, can provide a welcome respite from the intense heat and pollution of the city center, making it well worth a few extra rupees!
A Collision of Class
Once you have exhausted the colonial district, the areas around Park and Sudder Streets offer a glimpse into the less privileged side of the city’s history. While Park Street is now home to a number of upmarket hotels and restaurants, the laneways and bazaars that branch off in every direction are a hive of human activity. Amongst the range of stores that make up the winding streets are several tailors offering bespoke suits for bargain-basement prices.
Worldwide Local Tip: For the most vibrant time in Calcutta, visit during the annual Durga Puja celebrations, which take place in October. The city adopts a carnival-like atmosphere, with shrines popping up on almost every corner, and beautiful idols parading through the streets. It’s loud, busy, and chaotic--an experience like no other!
It is said that Kolkata is where Indians first got a taste for eating out, so it’s no surprise that the city is awash with excellent eateries serving traditional Bengali fare. Fish curry is the order of the day, although the vegetarian offerings are just as compelling, as are the famous Bengali sweets which have now found fame right across India--be sure to try the sticky Rasagolla balls! For a taste of home, head to the historic Flury’s Bakery on Park Street, where you can enjoy continental classics, such as Beans on Toast, in quaint surroundings served by turbaned waiters. As in many Indian cities, drinking and nightlife options tend to be dingy affairs, and not always tourist-friendly.
Worldwide Local Tip: For a bite on the go, head to Nizam’s in the New Market area for a delicious Kathi Roll, which consists of juicy grilled meat wrapped in a flaky paratha bread with fresh vegetables, served with tangy mint chutney.
Enjoy Your Stay!
With its chaotic traffic, intense heat and unrelenting noise, Kolkata can be an overwhelming city. Sticking to your principals as a worldwide local will lend the opportunity to witness the place where old meets new and rich meets poor, making the city a fascinating cross-section of modern Indian society.