Frenetic, filthy, unspeakably poor – Calcutta has a bad image. But, finds Martin Symington, there’s much to like about this thriving Bengali metropolis, if you just know where to look
Where: West Bengal, north-east India
Why: For an unparalleled kaleidoscope of Indian life, from temples to relics of empire
When: Oct-Feb – pleasantly warm, dry
Although justifiably infamous for its poverty, Calcutta (as it’s still more usually known, or Kolkata to give its official title) is immeasurably rich in terms of experience. Founded by the fortune-seekers of the British East India Company, the city is now indelibly Indian – a chaotic mass of humanity and a celebration of Bengali exuberance.
Eastern and Western styles collide to dramatic effect. Colonial bigwigs built grandiose monuments and avenues of Palladian mansions here, in what was the capital of British India, before the Raj upped sticks for Delhi in 1911. These testaments to colonial power meld with Mughal arches and gaudy temples.
Streets swirl with dazzling saris, loaded handcarts, market stalls and the scents of sandalwood, spices and holy cow dung. There are unspeakable slums and swish air-conditioned shopping malls.
Calcutta is the last bastion of the hand-pulled rickshaw, while taxis smell of incense and have Ganesh and Hanuman idols on the dashboard. It also has hundreds of bookshops: look out for works by local Nobel prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore.
Netaji Subhash Bose International Airport is 17km north of the city centre. Immigration is conducted at a leisurely pace so long queues can build, especially if multiple international flights have just arrived; make sure you fill in your landing card correctly, to avoid further delay. There are basic, but clean, toilets here.
After you clear customs there are several travel agents and bureaux de change where you can change money at the standard rate, using cash or debit card, hassle-free. Cross the barrier and you’re in the throng of taxi-wallahs.
The easiest option for plane-fried passengers – it’s 9 hours from the UK – to transfer to the city is make is to go to the taxi stall in Arrivals and buy a pre-paid voucher for a taxi ride; prices vary according to your destination but expect to pay Rs400 (£5) to a city centre hotel, plus tip. Simply present your voucher to the hundreds-strong file of yellow taxis. If you’re hell-bent on haggling, you may save a bit by eschewing the voucher method and dealing directly with a driver.
Journey time to the centre is upwards of 40 minutes, depending on traffic. It’s quite a ride: a demented phalanx of fume-belching buses, hooting taxis and victimised cycle-rickshaws on a highway slicing through fetid slums.
Calcutta’s three main stations for long-distance trains are Howrah and Sealdah, both close to the city centre and served mainly by trains from the west and south, and Chitpur (sometimes known simply as Calcutta Station) a little further north.
The main long-distance bus stations are Esplanade, near the city centre, and Babughat, near Eden Gardens cricket ground.
After a visit to the Kalighat Temple, beware the ‘guides’ who take you to the water tank next-door, recite ‘prayers’ on your behalf and smilingly suggest extravagant ‘donations’ in return.
Ride a cycle-rickshaw, pay your respects to Queen Vic and eat tasty Bengali cuisine
Rise at dawn to witness devotees immersing themselves and making offerings at the Hooghly River bathing ghats. Then drink in the riotous colour of the Mullik Ghat Flower Market near Howrah Bridge, one of the world’s busiest river crossings. While in the area, visit the 19th-century Marble Palace and Tagore’s House, now a museum to the revered Indian poet.
Next, head south, to saunter through the alleys of Barabazar and stroll along colonial BBD Bagh. See the imperious Fort William of ‘black hole’ renown, then head to the central Chowringhee district to absorb the outrageous opulence of the dazzling Victoria Memorial, which lords above a lakeside lawn.
Sizzle your senses at Kalighat Temple, where faithful throngs fight to adorn the terrifying Goddess Kali with garlands of red hibiscus, and where goats meet a bloody end. Finish with a cold bottle of Kingfisher at sunset, before a banquet of Bengali cuisine.
Most of the hotels and guesthouses where foreigners stay, apart from those in the new Salt Lake City IT business district, are in the central area around Park and Sudder Streets.
Top end: The Oberoi Grand Five-star tourists mix with India’s business elite here; expect grand rooms, gracious service and palms shading the pool. Doubles from Rs20,500 (£250).
Mid-range: Fairlawn Hotel Eccentric, family-run, Raj-era townhouse, that attracts arty and literary types. Great value. Doubles from Rs3,000 (£37).
Budget: Ashreen Guest House Well-above basic standard: spotlessly clean rooms, air-con and helpful staff. Doubles from Rs840 (£11).
Stay, for a few days at least, sampling the range of transport – hand-pulled and cycle rickshaws, bumblebee-like auto rickshaws, jam-packed buses, ancient Ambassador taxis; the latter will cost about Rs150 (£1.80) for an average ride after minimal haggling.
Get a sense of the legacies of the Raj: tour Eden Gardens, the world’s most capacious cricket stadium, and play a round at beautiful Tollygunge Golf Club. Or escape the city bustle amid the bird-filled groves and ponds of the Botanical Gardens, west of Calcutta.
Visit Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity; it’s possible to volunteer in one of the order centres for a half-day or more.
South of the city, the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans, home to Bengal tigers, are doable on a day trip. For beach life, try Bakkali (132km away); Digha, 50km further on, is popular with Calcutta’s middle class.
Population: 15 million
Language: Bengali, English
Time zone: GMT+5.5
International dialling code: +61 (city code: 33)
Visas: Required in advance by UK nationals. Apply online at
in.vfsglobal.co.uk, then either post documentation to an Indian consulate or visit in person.
Currency: Indian rupee (Rs)
Highest viewpoint: The city’s tallest structures are the 150m-high towers of the South City complex, but the only way to view the city is from a plane.
Health issues: Upset stomachs are the most common ailment; avoid uncooked food, drink only bottled water. Ensure diphtheria, tetanus, polio, typhoid and hepatitis A vaccinations are up to date.
Recommended guidebooks: Kolkata Footprint Focus Guide (2011); Lonely Planet Kolkata: Chapter from India Travel Guide (Lonely Planet, 2012)
Web resources: www.kolkata.org.uk, for up-to-date info on sites and attractions;
www.incredibleindia.org, for India Tourism’s official Calcutta listings; Calcutta Metro app (free), for navigation help.
Climate: October to February is pleasantly warm – and, subsequently, peak tourist season. Temperatures climb steadily from March to the searing heat of May-June, when the monsoons break at the start of the hot, sticky summer, lasting until September.
Bengali cuisine – dine sumptuously and for a song on delectable dishes such as butterfish seasoned with cardamom and fenugreek seeds, at world-class eateries such as Oh! Calcutta and Kewpie’s Kitchen.
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