Of India’s big cities, Kolkata offers the greatest journey for the senses. Known as the City of Joy – it’s vivid, hectic, brimming with street life, creativity and the most incredible markets.
Upon arrival things can feel quite intense but once you settle into the rhythm here you’ll fall quickly for its quirky backstreets, friendly locals and mouth-watering cuisine. And if it all gets a bit overwhelming – there’s never a chai stall or lassi maker too far away.
While you can capture the essence of Kolkata within a few days, it’s one of those places you feel it’d take a lifetime to fully explore and understand. But to get you started on your discovery, here are a few things you really can’t miss…
1. Set your alarm for the Malik Ghat flower market
Found on the banks of the Hooghly River, the Malik Ghat flower market is a huge wholesale market that runs from the early hours of the morning. Most of the flowers here are bought in bulk and go onto be sold at smaller market stalls outside temples. But it’s here you can capture a glimpse of local Indian life in the most colourful way. Eye-catching yellow and orange marigolds are the main draw, and you’ll see men wearing them over their bodies like giant orange jackets. To admire the full scale of the market, head up onto the Howrah Bridge, where you can gaze down at bags brimming with flowers and enjoy the chaos of vendors bargaining among themselves.
2. Marvel at the grandeur of the Victoria Memorial
In the days of colonialism, Kolkata (or Calcutta as it was then known) was the capital of India. The British influence on the city is evident throughout. You’ll frequently walk passed incredibly grand British-style buildings, often now a little worse for wear yet still perfectly blending into Kolkata’s façade. One building which has kept its splendour, even after all these years, is the stunning Victoria Memorial – a marble mansion built during British rule to commemorate Queen Victoria. As well as an art gallery and museum, the gardens are now used as a huge park for Indian families, who stare up at their colonial past while sharing cups of chai and samosas.
3. Feast on Bengali culinary delights
Wherever you go in India, the food is incredible. Sampling all the different dishes is a real highlight of travelling here, and it’s an equally as important aspect of daily life for locals. Bengali food is best tasted in Kolkata, where mustard and fenugreek flavours play an important role. Bengali cuisine balances sweet and spicy, and you’ll often find some dishes are not what you’d traditionally expect of Indian cooking. To try authentic Bengali cooking, head to one of the cities many famous restaurants or check out the street food scene around New Market.
4. Witness the making of gods in the Kumartuli district
It’s happened numerous times during my travels in India that I’ve accidentally found myself at a festival. At each one, giant deities are paraded down the streets or along the River Ganges. When I visited Kolkata, I heard of the place where these statues come from and so caught a cab to the Kumartuli district to see them. In these narrow alleyways of old Kolkata, almost every house is a workshop for idol makers. Some used papier-mâché to create the base, others covered them with clay or painted bright colours onto their faces. Walking through these backstreets, it’s hard not to be absorbed in the process and energetic smiles of the men who spend their days crafting here.
5. Ride around town in a classic yellow cab
Kolkata is an incredibly colourful city and one of the main flashes of colour you’ll see is yellow – from the classic yellow taxi cabs which still roam the streets. Sitting inside the old Ambassador cars and driving around town is a must-do experience here, as well as capturing an iconic image of them against the city’s backdrop.
6. Walk across the misty Hooghly River and watch locals bathe and pray
Kolkata is framed by the Hooghly River – a distributary of the Ganges River and therefore an important spiritual place amongst the Hindus living here. It’s possible to walk alongside the river, passing markets, ghats, seeing local life and stopping for a chai and some street food as you go. The Howrah Bridge is another spot where you can watch bathers as they wash on the ghats, worship and even do their dishes in the Hooghly.
7. Meet the locals
The name City of Joy is almost certainly down to the amazing local people who populate it. Kolkata’s residents are undeniably proud of their city, a place which has a unique energy and atmosphere quite unlike anywhere else in India. As you walk around the markets, through the Kumartuli district, or hop into the back of a yellow cab be sure to talk to the locals. Ask them what parts of their city they love, and I guarantee you’ll find some new and wonderful places to explore or delicious new street food to seek out. One of my favourite experiences was taking part in a Bengali cooking class. Here I learned about home cooking, as well as bonding with a local lady and hearing her views on the city she calls home.