Mysore, an ideal starting point for visiting the beaches and mountains of the Western Ghats, pulls off perfectly the marriage of old and new. Read on to make the most of your visit…
Not far from the cosmopolitan hub of Bangalore, Mysore is not only smart and uncharacteristically laid back, but has kept its true Indian character intact. Modern hotels and ancient markets overlook the Maharaja’s Palace – the town’s crowning glory. Surrounded by hills and lakes, it makes for an exciting, accessible Indian tourist destination.
What to do
The Mysore Palace (Sayyaji Rao Road; +91 0821 243 4425; www.mysorepalace.tv) is the obvious attraction, and one well worth seeing, although the town itself is simply pleasant to stroll around and soak up the atmosphere.
One can easily spend a couple of hours in Mysore’s Devaraja Market (Dhanwanthri Road) – one of the most intoxicating I’ve been to in India. Bursting to the edges with fresh produce, flower garlands and coloured paints, it’s also a fantastic spot for keen photographers. You might find yourself doodled on by a paint seller or be followed around by a curious little boy.
The Chamundi Hills overlook the town and a short trip on a bus (20 rupees) can take you up there to see the Mahabaleshwara temple and a fantastic view. If you’re feeling fit, try walking back down the 1000-plus steps, built in the 17th century, although you might want a fresh coconut as refreshment when you finish!
Another highlight, just outside town, is the quaint railway museum (KRS Road, admission cost: 25 rupees), an endearing little place on the edge of town where old trains come to die. It doesn't have an address but a tuk-tuk driver will get you there easily enough, although it's closed on a Monday. The steam trains on display here aren’t just interesting for buffs, the place has a serene air about it and you don’t need to be an engineer to appreciate the crumbling elegance of the Maharani’s royal carriage.
When to go
Undeniably, the best time to visit Mysore is during the festival of Dasara (or Dussehra, depending on whether you happen to be speaking Hindi or Kannada) – a huge event for the town. At this time of year, Mysore is one big carnival and the town’s magnificent centrepiece – the Mysore Palace – is lit up with a whopping 96,000 light bulbs. On my first evening, I went to check it out up close, along with, seemingly, everyone else in India. Party clothes on, families were out and about snacking on street food, buying horns, whistles and balloons and in a raucous frame of mind, taking pictures of everything with their mobile phones.
On the final day of the festival, everything really kicks off for the street parade. Waking early and buying some snacks to see me through, I settled down on an empty spot on the pavement. The main street was lined with extended families, happily cross-legged on the ground but my mollycoddled British limbs weren’t really up to the three hour wait for the parade to begin. My sweaty white face must have stood out like a sore thumb as I attracted an undue amount of pointing and smiling, culminating in stares of amazement and hilarity when I applied sun lotion.
Headed up by four beautifully-decorated elephants, the parade was a seemingly endless stream of dancers, musicians, gods and goddesses, papier-mache floats and acrobats. The crowds went wild as the Maharaja brought up the rear on his horse.
In the evening, the crowds move to the Bannimantap Parade Ground where the procession culminates. I’d secured a last-minute ticket to the evening ‘torchlight parade’. Settling on the concrete steps for another few hours, I watched military gun salutes, motorbike stunts, laser shows, men parachuting into the stadium, African acrobats, men parading in perfect step with flares and some great fireworks.
Eating and drinking
Perhaps more accessible than in other areas of India, the street food here is tasty, cheap and clean, given as it’s cooked from scratch right before you. A simple bowl of fried rice from a street side stall is reliably delicious and you’ll be treated like royalty by the vendor to boot. If you’re willing to try other unidentifiable treats, you might be lucky to find some deep-fried fritters or other such culinary gems. The locally-named ‘chat street’ is one of the best places to begin (off Radhakrishna Avenue, behind Marimallappa School). You can’t leave Mysore without indulging in some classic South Indian fare. Although spicy, the dosas here are among the best on the subcontinent and a good range with some great samples can be found at Indra Café’s Paras in the centre of town (1740 Sayyaji Rao Rd). Eternally popular with tourists and locals alike, Hotel RRR (Gandhi Sq) overlooking a statue of Gandhi, serves up reliable thalis and a selection of other dishes. You won’t find any meat on the menu here, though.
After a morning walk around the palace, why not exit out of the main gate and stop for lunch at Café Aramane just opposite (Moti Khana Building, Sayyaji Rao Road)? A pleasant mid-range option, there are some tables on a terrace outside where you can relax and enjoy your food. The cashew nut curry here is one of the best I sampled in India. For a more upmarket evening meal, sit beneath the stars on the atmospheric balcony of the Parklane Hotel (2720 Sri Harsha Rd) and eat with cutlery and white tablecloths for a change. While the curries are perhaps lacking spice, the tandoori specialties are among the best you’ll get anywhere on the subcontinent.
Places to stay
Mysore has plenty of hotels to suit all budgets, although be sure to book well in advance if you’re visiting during Dasara, a time when all the hotels really do end up fully booked weeks before.
For budget travellers, Hotel Dasprakash (Gandhi Square) is a hard one to beat. With a great location in the centre of town, you can bed down here for as little as 300 rupees. The rooms are very simple but large and clean. Located just outside the town centre, a great mid-range option is Sunlarge Home Stay (1 D Viharmarga Siddarthanagar), with a room costing from 1500 rupees. The in-house cook will happily rustle you up some of her best Indian fare during your stay.
If your budget stretches to it, try the Royal Orchid Metropole (5 Jhansi Lakshmibai Road). Equipped with everything you might want and more, this luxury pad oozes timeless elegance and charm from every exquisite furnishing. Rooms here start from 4000 rupees a night.