India’s greatest metropolis is a riot of experiences crammed into one of the world’s densest, most vibrant urban cores. Discover how to make the most of a threeday stay in Mumbai – and you’ll be sure to find yourself coming back for more.
Three days is not enough for Mumbai. Three years is not enough for Mumbai. Three lifetimes would not be enough for Mumbai. At least, that is, for those who understand its singular rhythm and know how to move at its relentless, breakneck pace.
For some visitors to India’s commercial capital and largest city, however, three days may seem like an eternity. Mumbai, after all, is a lot to handle: the smell of frying dough and jasmine mingling with odorous wafts from the Arabian Sea; the relentless sound of car horns and the tinny jangle of Bollywood tunes ringing out of taxis; the brilliant sun and the long amber evenings; and the constant, endless rush of people.
But with patience and a sense of humour, even the most guarded traveller can learn to love this extravagant, joyful island metropolis. The ‘Maximum City’ is also a limitless one, bursting at its tenuous seams with life and music and every experience imaginable. It stands to reason that there’s something here for everyone.
What is now the city of Mumbai began its life as a series of seven islands populated by fishermen. In the 16th century, the Portuguese built a fort on one of those islands and named it Bom Bahía, or ‘Good Bay’. A century later, the fledgling port was handed over as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza to the British, who anglicised the Portuguese name to ‘Bombay’. In 1995, Bombay became Mumbai, which means ‘mother’ in Marathi, the official language of the surrounding state of Maharashtra. Today, it goes by whatever name you choose to call it.
Though the fortress walls have long since come down and the water that once surrounded the old city of Bombay has been filled in over the centuries, you can still glimpse remnants of the old island city in the neighbourhood called Fort, a great place to begin your first day in the city.
The most evocative approach is along the grand avenue DN Road, which leads south from the UNESCO-protected Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus – Asia’s busiest railway station – to Flora Fountain. Tucked away in the small, busy lanes off DN Road, you’ll find the simple South Indian canteen Deluxe, serving one of the best vegetarian lunches in Mumbai. South of the fountain, in the pretty back lanes of Kala Ghoda, you’ll find some of the city’s most exciting shops, such as Obataimu, specialising in chic garments with architectural silhouettes, Filter for great design-forward gifts and Kala Ghoda Café for a good cup of coffee.
From Kala Ghoda, head west past the imposing gothic eaves of the High Court to Oval Maidan – one of the city’s only green spaces, lined by palm trees and always crowded with cricket players dressed impeccably in white. Oval Maidan (a nine-hectare, Grade 1 recreation ground) used to be land’s end, until the early-20th-century land reclamation that gave the city its sweeping seaside promenade, Marine Drive, and one of the world’s finest assemblages of art deco buildings, added this year to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The centre of Mumbai tourism lies on the narrow thumb of land called Colaba. Shop for trinkets on Colaba Causeway, have tea in the storied Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, and, when the time comes for dinner, choose between an elegant, tranquil meal at The Table and steaming-hot kebab from Bademiya.
Mumbai’s most hectic, exciting neighbourhoods lie north of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in the chaotic market areas that, in the colonial period, were known as the ‘native town’. Scout for textiles in colourful Mangaldas Market, costume jewellery in Zaveri Bazaar and anything else you can imagine in Bhuleshwar. There is no better place to imbibe the city’s manic, tumble-down beauty.
One of the best places for lunch in all of Mumbai is Shree Thaker Bhojanalay, a family-run restaurant specialising in thali (a meal consisting of several small dishes), from the northwestern state of Gujarat. Meals here are practically endless, a series of dals and vegetables rich with ghee and besan, or chickpea flour. Located on the second floor of an unlikely building hidden around the curve of a relatively quiet lane, Thaker’s is an institution in the truest sense of the word, a place of traditions passed down through generations, and equally beloved both within the city’s large, prosperous Gujarati community and among outsiders.
Once you’ve eaten your fill, which you will twice over, wander back out into the mayhem of Kalbadevi Road and north through a warren of vibrant commercial streets toward the Panjrapole Gaushala, a haven for animals – particularly cows – tucked in among temples and rest houses for out-of-towners.
North of Kalbadevi, the lanes get narrower, plastic knick-knacks are replaced with old car parts and metalwork, and the marigold garlands of Hindu and Jain temples are replaced by soaring minarets. In the heart of the city’s historic Muslim quarter, you’ll find Chor Bazaar, Mumbai’s treasure trove of an antiques market. The name translates literally as ‘Thieves Market’, though the vendors here no longer traffic in stolen items. Instead you’ll find antique watches, posters from Bollywood’s glory days, teak furniture and maze-like shops that seem to go on forever, their ever-narrowing walls practically built from wooden sculptures, miniature paintings and brass-work.
This is also one of the finest places in town to eat. Stick around until nightfall (or have a rest at your hotel before coming back around 9pm) to feast along Khara Tank Road, where clouds of smoke waft into the street from open pans and wood-fired ovens. Have a mutton-stuffed baida roti at Jilani Fast Food, kheeri (or liver) kebabs at BBQ Corner and bohra khichdi (spiced rice and lentils with mutton) from the stall that sometimes parks on the opposite corner. Make sure to leave room for dessert: hand-churned guava ice cream from 100-year-old Taj Ice Creams.
By now you will have a sense of Mumbai’s wild, rollicking heart. For your final day, you’ll want to sample its quieter quarters, starting with a breakfast of sweet, milky filter coffee and rasam vada (lentil fritters in sour and spicy soup) or dosa (fermented rice and lentil pancakes) at Sharda Bhavan in the leafy South Indian enclave of King’s Circle. Wander through quiet side streets and one of the city’s best produce markets, loaded with unusual fruit and vegetables from the tropical south; then pass the colourful garlands of flowers leading to King’s Circle itself and stop for tea at Koolar & Co, one of the last remaining Irani cafés, opened by Persian migrants at the turn of the 20th century.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite for lunch, either stop for a simple South Indian thali at A. Rama Nayak’s Udipi Shri Krishna Boarding or navigate the meandering metal bridges that lead over the train tracks into Matunga West, a residential district dominated by the coastal Konkani community. Stop by Malvan Katta or Sachin for semolina-coated fish fried to a golden crisp and the sweet-sour-spicy drink known as sol khadi, made from coconut milk and a mangosteen-related berry called kokum.
By early afternoon, the crowds will have thinned on the local trains (as much as they ever do on a system that carries millions of people each day), which will take you in mere minutes to Bandra, once considered a suburb, now the hub for the city’s young and hip. Wander through the old Catholic villages tucked behind the glossy new apartment buildings and stumble on hidden design stores like Kulture Shop before heading to Bandstand and Carter Road, twin seaside promenades crowded with people from all the many worlds that, together, make Mumbai.
For your last dinner, you can’t do better than The Bombay Canteen, a restaurant that reinvented Mumbai’s dining scene a few years back. Set in one of the old textile mills that drove the city’s economy for a century, The Bombay Canteen serves a giddily irreverent array of dishes adapted from cuisines across the subcontinent. Like the city itself, it’s both a microcosm of this vast unknowable nation and an experience entirely its own. With its abundance of sights, sounds, tastes and textures, Mumbai beguiles and surprises, shocks and stimulates. After three days of exploring, it’s clearly evident why this buzzing metropolis is so remarkable.