You'd be forgiven for having somewhat mixed feelings about hitting one of the world’s most populated metropolises. But dive right in – it might just be one of the best decisions you ever made.
I arrived into Victoria Terminus train station before 6am, too early to appreciate its magnificent architecture. Admittedly, it didn’t start well. Despite my tired protestations, the first taxi driver insisted upon taking me to a travel agency around the corner. When I demanded he take me to my hotel just seconds down the road for less than 100 rupees, he refused and drove me back to the station. There's no commission in taking someone where they want to go. Ah, India. At what I might have viewed at a more reasonable hour as a brotherly spirit, the rest of the drivers then also refused to take me for anywhere near a decent price, so I walked the dark, quiet streets, free and in peace, to Hotel Traveller’s Inn. If you're not on a budget like I was, then things would be a little easier.
After catching up on a bit of sleep, I walked to Ideal Corner – a Parsi cafe where I ate akira (deliciously spicy scrambled egg) and roti for breakfast. There are 60,000 Parsi people living in Mumbai. Their presence and business acumen has shaped both the city’s food and its fortunes. I spent the day exploring the central districts of Fort, Colaba and Churchgate. Mumbai was stunningly different to the more congested, crazier version of Delhi I had expected. But in reality, it was a world apart, for reasons I can’t quite explain. These central areas of the city are dotted with elegant green spaces – maidans – where, endearingly, cricket is played every day of the week in full whites. Edging these parks, the many colonial buildings hold their own against more modern constructions and at certain angles, the repainted double decker buses made glimpses of Mumbai look incredibly familiar and much closer to home.
Unlike other cities I have visited in India, Mumbai was a delightfully rickshaw-free zone. Instead, black and yellow taxis – most of them with more reasonable drivers than the villainous ones I met at the train station – fill the roads. Quite uniquely for this higgledy-piggedly country, there are also pedestrian crossings, well-tended gardens and pavemented avenues lined with trees. To the south of the peninsula, Colaba Causeway leads the way down to the peaceful harbour and India Gate – an imposing archway made to welcome King George to India. Here, many foreign and Indian tourists congregate to eat kulfi (coconut-based ice-cream) and gaze longingly at the grand Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Despite my scruffiness, the door attendants let me in to shiver in the air-conditioning and marvel at the expensively-decorated interior. Without doubt, a sight worth seeing.
On my second day, I walked north back past Victoria Terminus (now technically renamed after the same bloke everything else has been), and up to Crawford Market. After stopping for a lunch of pav bhaji (fluffy Goan roll and coconut curry dip), I carried on through the bazaars and backstreets leading to Chowpatty Beach. On this route, the streets were busier, smellier and noisier than in the city centre and closer to what I'd come to expect from Mumbai.
I reached Chowpatty Beach exhausted and cooled off in a cafe before visiting the modest house on Laburnum Road where Gandhi stayed during his visits to the city. It was a fascinating place and its upper rooms showcase photographs and letters Gandhi had written to world leaders, including one to Hitler begging him not to wage war on Europe. Taking my first cab up to Malabar Hill – the Notting Hill of Mumbai – I stopped for a wander through the manicured gardens that look down upon the curve of Mumbai’s coastal skyline. It was a breathtaking view.
Back on the beach at the end of the day, a carnival atmosphere was in full swing, with balloon sellers, hoopla games and miniature cars for hire. From there, I walked all the way back to my hotel via Marine Drive – the long road that hugs the man-made coastline – stopping awhile to sit on the sea wall as the sun went down and the lights came up. Eating my well-earned eggplant masala in a local food joint that night, I felt I’d walked off most of the curry I’d eaten over the past two months in one day.
The next day, having sussed out the realities of visiting Asia’s biggest slum with a tour operator first, I decided to make my own way to Dharavi and caught the highly efficient train up to Mahim Station some 45 minutes north of the centre.
On the way, I stopped to take in the sight of Dhobi Ghat (outside Mahalaxmi Station). If you put your clothes into a laundry here, this is probably where they'll end up. With thousands of outdoor stone baths full of cool, soapy water and populated by hundreds of washer women, dressed in full saris, this is one sight that you won't see elsewhere. Go early in the morning and watch from the bridge.
Where kids play cricket on the tracks is where the Dharavi slum starts - made famous (much to middle-class India’s chagrin) by the film Slumdog Millionaire. During my time in India, several people insisted to me that this area does not deserve its reputation, and certainly what I saw of it could not really be qualified as a shanty town. Many of the people here are now white collar workers and although I only walked around the outskirts, I saw roofs laden with satellite dishes and streets lined with shops, cars and modern housing blocks.
Rather optimistically, I decided to end another sweaty day with a drink in the swanky rooftop bar of the Four Seasons Hotel. After a long walk and a wait in the lobby, I realised my outfit simply wasn't going to cut it with Mumbai’s glitterati, so I glumly gave up and dragged myself and my dirty attire back to the hotel. Instead, I had a Parsi classic – dhansak – for dinner followed by cakes at a lovely little patisserie to wrap up my Indian adventure.
I stayed at Hotel Traveller's Inn - a centrally-placed, great budget option. Double room with air-conditioning and breakfast: 1400 rupees.
There are plenty of smart, mid-range hotels around. I would recommend The Ambassador Hotel for its great views out over the ocean. Rooms from 6000 rupees.
If you really have cash to splash, you can't go wrong at the stunning Taj Mahal Palace. Extravagantly decorated, but with a refined air, this is truly luxury at its finest. Rooms available from 12,000 rupees per night.
(See my Hotel Recommendations for further details)
Mumbai is the best place to sample traditional Parsi food such as dhansak and marghi. Don't forget to try Bombay duck although be aware it's fish, not fowl! I recommend Ideal Corner (12/F/G, Hornby View, Gunbow St; 022 2262 1930) but check opening times as they can be erratic.
I treated myself to the world-famous butter crab at Trishna (Birla Mansion, Sai Baba Marg; 022 2270 3213) - an upmarket eatery recommended by locals and tourists alike.
Nothing can be more delightful than a cake or brownie from the gorgeous patisserie Theobroma (Shop 24, Colaba Causeway; 022 2287 3778). Open late, they also serve up delicious sandwiches and a lunch time menu.
A place popular with locals for the top-notch Indian fare, Modern Lunch Home (Lamington Road; 022 2361 9515)is always packed with groups of men sharing a bottle of whisky and indulging in uproarious behaviour.
Cafe Universal (299, Sahid Bhagat Singh Road; 022 2261 3985)
Sup in style at the Four Seasons' Aer - the city's highest rooftop bar (114 Dr. E. Moses Road; 022 2481 8000). Just check on the dress code first!
Leopold Cafe (Colaba Causeway; 022 2282 8185) is probably the most famous place in the city for a cold beer. They also serve good lunchtime food, both Indian and Western, although it's not cheap by Indian standards.
Clubs in Mumbai are almost exclusively for the glitterati and can be expensive by worldwide standards. I danced the night away at stylishly minimal Athena (41/44 Minoo Desai Marg; 022 2202 8699).