The Gateway of India
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Mumbai (Bombay) Overview
Mumbai is a massive metropolis of more than 20 million people, and it's defined by its exuberance, energy and sheer madness. Unlike other destination cities in India, it's not known for its great monuments, arts or sights. Its appeal for visitors is its friendly people, cultural diversity and vibrant markets.
Chaos does not even begin to describe Mumbai, where people do daily battle with who knows how many motor vehicles. Indeed, the cacophony of hooting horns is a constant, and just crossing the street is risky business. Bustling crowds add to the lively atmosphere and never-ending assault on the senses.
Parts of the hit film "Slumdog Millionaire" were filmed there, and, as you travel through the city, you can't help but see the squalid shacks that millions call home. These slums are often in the shadow of the high-rise homes of Mumbai's growing middle and upper classes. As you explore this sprawling city, you'll see that none of these neighborhoods is immune from the noise, air and water pollution that come with such rapid growth and widespread poverty.
Where Mumbai stands now there were once seven islands that formed part of the kingdom of the Emperor Ashoka. They passed into the hands of various Hindu and Muslim rulers and in 1534 were seized by the Portuguese, who named them Bom Baia, meaning "Good Bay." They became British in 1661, and the name morphed into Bombay. In 1668, Bombay was leased to the East India Company, the islands were joined through land reclamation projects, and the city became an important trading port under the British Raj.
The region gained independence from Britain with the rest of India in 1947. The city's name was changed to Mumbai in 1996. Some claim that was its name before the British arrived, and others say that it's derived from "Mumbadevi," the patron goddess of the Koli fishermen, who were the islands' earliest known inhabitants. Whatever the truth, you'll find many locals still call it by its British name.
The British did not waste their years there but spent it building grandiose buildings that would turn the city into a little England. Among them are the Victoria and Albert Museum, built in 1872; Crawford Market, completed in 1869; and its Victorian-styled clock tower, the Victoria Terminus, reminiscent of St. Pancras station in London. The first train in India departed from this station in 1853; these days, millions of commuters use it daily.
All these places are must-see sights for visitors, along with Mumbai's numerous ornate temples, bustling bazaars, instructive museums and, yes, even its slums. And of course you can't miss the Gateway of India, actually quite a small edifice by today's standards, but the jewel in Mumbai's sightseeing crown for many people.
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There isn't really any one souvenir that "says" Mumbai, but there are plenty of places to shop for things that will remind you of your time there and in India.
In general, items don't have price tags, and shopkeepers expect to dicker. Do some comparison shopping first to assess going prices. When you start bargaining, offer 50 to 75 percent below the asking price. You might have to walk away to pull prices down. As a rule, don't begin bargaining unless you're really interested in buying; it's bad form to waste a shopkeeper's time and effort.
Marathi is the official language of Mumbai. However, English is widely understood and used for national, political and commercial communication. Cab and rickshaw drivers will likely speak or understand only limited English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The national currency is the Indian Rupee (Rs), which is divided into 100 paise. The Rupee exchange rate has been volatile recently, dropping significantly against the euro, pound and dollar. Visit www.xe.com for up-to-date currency conversions.
Plan to use cash when shopping in the markets and bazaars. Keep small denominations of Rs 20, 50 and 100 on hand for small purchases and cab and rickshaw fares. Many drivers and merchants are unable or unwilling to change Rs500 bills. Tourist hotels are good places to get change for larger bills and do foreign exchange. Credit cards are accepted in big outlets and at good restaurants and hotels. There are ATMs in the main shopping areas, but they are not 100 percent reliable. Remember never to carry too much cash at a time.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the commercial port on the western side of the city. It looks like an easy walk to the Gateway of India, but don't be fooled. It might be easy -- it's a straight road, so you can't really get lost -- but it's a long way along a very busy road. And that's just one attraction. To really see anything, you'll need to take a ship's excursion, get a taxi or rent a car.
In a word, don't. There is absolutely no reason to hang around the port area, so head out sightseeing as quickly as possible.
There are more than 70,000 registered yellow-and-black taxis in Mumbai and another 8,000 posher taxis with air-conditioning. As you exit the port, you'll probably feel all of them are lying in wait for your business.
Because the city is big and there's a lot to see, your best bet is to hire a taxi driver for the day, but you'll need to haggle over the price. As a rough guide, you should be paying around Rs 600 for two hours, but how much you actually pay depends on your negotiating skills.
You'll get a better deal the closer you manage to get to the port exit; the drivers start to get desperate for business if it seems you're going to escape. You will get an even better deal still if you find a taxi out on the street or at taxi stands around hotels. They're required to have working meters and are very affordable, compared with fares charged in most major cities. However, steer clear of unregistered cabs (with no sign). They might be cheap, but they are also potential death traps on wheels, as drivers don't need to keep them serviced. Another option is to book in advance one of the excellent car and driver services for about Rs 1,500 for a full day. Most drivers speak limited English, but they know enough to get you to major attractions.
Both taxi and limo drivers appreciate a bit extra at the end as a tip, especially if they have done a good job as a guide.
Most taxi drivers and guides will want to take you to a super-clean tourist store like the Bombay Store, where goods are highly priced. (They might earn commission on anything you buy.) If you want to go, fine. If not, be firm about it. Remember: It's your sightseeing day.
Watch Out For
People hustling or begging for money are unfortunate facts of life in Mumbai, especially around the Gateway of India. Many are just selling things like postcards and giant balloons, but there also are lots of others begging for money to feed their babies or help an orphanage or other good cause. In general, steer clear of both. Often, beggars with infants in their arms will follow you for blocks. The best strategy is to ignore them in silence and walk on. For some reason, saying no only makes them more insistent.
You'll also get hassled by taxi drivers, especially if you try to walk out of the port. Usually a polite "no thank you" works, but some can be very persistent, and it can get very tedious.
Although Mumbai has many beaches, avoid getting into the water. Raw sewage and toxic waste from businesses and industries flow directly into the ocean.
Do not drink any liquid unless it's in a container with a sealed top. Also do not drink anything with ice unless you're in a first-class hotel. Stay away from street vendor food and seedy restaurants, or you'll probably end up with "Delhi belly" or diarrhea that will spoil at least a few days of your holiday.
Americans should remember that Indians drive on the left, as drivers do in the U.K. If crossing a road, be warned that drivers don't stop for pedestrians but, rather, weave around them. In most parts of Mumbai, stop signs and traffic lights seem to be invisible to drivers; however, in South Mumbai, where many tourist attractions are centered, traffic lights are taken a bit more seriously. A good tip is to look for locals crossing the road and walk with them.
The first thing everyone wants to see when they visit Mumbai is the Gateway of India, an ornate arch built to celebrate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to what was then Bombay in December 1911. It opened in 1924 and used to be the first monument visitors arriving in Bombay saw. The last British troops to leave India passed through the Gateway on February 28, 1948.
Although the arch is a big attraction, it's dwarfed by the Taj Mahal hotel across the road. It opened in 1903 and is an attraction in its own right, as everyone wants a picture taken with the bearded doorkeepers in their white uniforms and turbans. More recently, the hotel gained notoriety as the site of the terrorist attacks on the city in November 2008. The Taj is a great place to take a break from the chaos outside. It has immaculate restroom facilities, great bars and restaurants, and upscale shopping.
Your sightseeing should include a drive along Marine Drive, Mumbai's seaside promenade, past Chowpatty Beach and to Malabar Hill, which is the Beverly Hills of Mumbai. Look out for the Parsi Tower of Silence, where people of the Parsi faith who die are laid out to be eaten by birds of prey and their bones left to disintegrate so they wash into the sea.
Mani Bhavan, known as the Gandhi Museum, is on Laburnam Road in South Mumbai and is a shrine to the man who won independence for India. It's packed with books and photos from his life, along with a glassed-off reproduction of the room in which he lived (during visits from 1917 to 1934). Especially don't miss the dioramas of his life's events; the exhibit is definitely not up to contemporary standards, yet it's haunting and illustrative.
The Jain Temple in Malabar, considered the prettiest temple in Mumbai, is worth a look. (Jainism is one of the many religions in Mumbai and is related to Hinduism.) Two stone elephants adorn the entrance; inside, there's an ornate domed ceiling painted with signs of the zodiac. The last stop while in Malabar should be the Hanging Gardens, which offer great views over the city.
Be sure to also visit Crawford Market, which is packed with stalls selling fruits and vegetables. Spare a glance or two at the building, completed in 1869, with its beautiful Victorian carvings. Also take a peek at Victoria Terminus, another Victorian masterpiece with a strong resemblance to St. Pancras station in London. These days, it's actually called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, but luckily taxi drivers understand Victoria Terminus.
Try to time your visit around the lunch hour to watch the famous dabba-wallas stream out into the city to deliver some 200,000 cooked lunches prepared by housewives for their office-worker husbands. The meals are kept warm in identical dabbas (metal lunch containers). How the lunches end up in the right hands is quite a mystery.
Another must-see is the Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai's central laundry for more than 350 years. Some 4,500 people work there, hand-scrubbing laundry from private citizens, hotels, restaurants and even hospitals all across the city. Take a paid tour, or watch the action from the streets above the Ghat; afterward, wander the adjacent streets for free.
Been There, Done That
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum), opened in 1923, is considered one of the 20 best museums in the world and houses a huge collection of artifacts, from weapons from the Mughal Empire to Indian paintings and Greek-influenced figures.
Elephanta Caves, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, form a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Shiva and are believed to have been carved between the 9th and 13th centuries. The complex is full of huge sculpted images of Hindu deities carved in the hard rock, including a colossal 20-foot-high three-headed image of Lord Shiva, depicting his three facets -- creator, destroyer and protector. You reach the caves by motorboat from piers behind the Gateway of India. Boats leave roughly every 30 minutes; journey time is about one hour. You'll need to climb 120 steps to get to the entrance to the caves. It's not such an ordeal if you take your time and shop the souvenir stands that border the stairway. Or you can play Cleopatra and, for fee, climb aboard a litter and be carried to the top by two strong Indian men.
Dharavi Slum tour is a guided 2.5-hour walk through "India's largest slum." It's challenging and often shocking, but it's an unforgettable experience for visitors who climb to rooftops and meander through tiny, dark alleys to see the underground industries that range from plastic and metal recycling to pottery-making and leather tanning. Guides also take you through residential areas where more than a million people reside in tiny Spartan rooms with no plumbing. Visits to schools and the slum markets are included, too. No photos are allowed, and you'll have to wear close-toed shoes.
The enormous Chor Bazaar, also known as Thieves' Market, is one of the most exotic shopping experiences anywhere. Mutton Street shops specialize in antiques, wood carvings, stone sculpture jewelry, furniture and just about everything else under the sun. It's open throughout the year, with most of the shops closed on Friday when it turns into a big flea market. Although real Indian antiques are sold there, be aware that many are knockoffs made locally. As you leave, stroll one of the nearby streets that specializes in breaking down cars with hammers and chisels. It's fascinating junkyard entertainment.
Shopper's Stop is one of the biggest department stores in Mumbai and offers a wide variety of apparel, accessories and housewares. More fun is Fashion Street, in Colaba, which is lined with stalls selling export-surplus clothing. Fabindia stores around the city are a good source of traditional dress for men and women, as well as tablecloths, placemats, pillow covers and other home goods. And, just for fun, visit one of the many shops offering Bollywood-style gowns and wedding apparel glittering with gold and encrusted with jewels.
You'll find cafes, coffee shops, McDonald's (no beef) and quite a few Pizza Huts, but you've come to India, so this is the place to stop and have a really good curry or other local dish. It's also a delight for vegetarians; "veg" and "pure" veg options abound on menus. There are some lovely restaurants in the city, but they can be hard to spot.
Kyber at Fort is like stepping back in time, with its big wooden doors, oil lanterns and weathered wood. It's frequented by international celebrities, including Sir Paul McCartney, Goldie Hawn, Richard Gere and Demi Moore. There's a vast menu of soups, salads, kebabs and curries, plus seafood, chicken, lamb and plenty for vegetarians. (145 Mahatma Gandhi Road, Fort, Mumbai (Near Gateway of India); open daily from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 11:30 p.m.)
Indigo is an uber-modern eatery in a leafy residential area behind the Taj Hotel that would not look out of place in London's West End. The modern, European lunch menu is simple: soups, salads, sandwiches and main courses. All are quite mouthwatering and pricey. A new upstairs balcony offers alfresco dining and serves as a relaxing spot for cocktails. Nearby is the casual Indigo Deli with lengthy eat-in and takeout menus. (4 Mandlik Road, Apollo Bandar, Mumbai; open daily from 12:00 to 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 to 11:45 p.m.)
Trishna is the place to see and be seen in Mumbai. Inside, the decor is nothing special, but the food is. Seafood is a specialty, with king crab, lobster, jumbo prawns and various types of seafood tandoori on the menu, but there are plenty of meat and vegetarian choices, too. Reservations are highly recommended. (7 Sai Baba Marg, Kala Ghoda, Fort, Mumbai; open daily from 11:30 a.m. to midnight)
Table has been a big hit since it opened in 2011. This sophisticated South Mumbai establishment serves up supper club atmosphere and French-American dishes that range from sliders to risottos and quesadillas. Sunday brunch, high tea, daily happy hours and a highly rated wine list add to its appeal for Mumbai elite and tourists alike. (ground floor of the Kalapesi Building, below Hotel Suba Palace, Apollo Bunder Marg, Mumbai; lunch from noon to 4 p.m., dinner from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.)
Swati Snacks is about as close as a Westerner can get to authentic Indian dining without risking "Delhi belly." The decor is fast-food cafe, but don't be put off. Reservations aren't accepted, so just add your name when you arrive, and join the inevitable queue for a table. There are traditional curry specialties and snacks like pizza, falafel and patties. (248 Karai Estate, Opp. Bhatia Hospital, Javji Dadaji Marg, Tardeo; open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.)
Although there are plenty of hotels in Mumbai, there are not many top-class properties in the city center. Many have gravitated to the airport, which is not a great location for tourists.
Best Location: Overlooking the Gateway of India, it has to be the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel. It's a sumptuous place, a blend of historic and contemporary that attracts royalty, heads of state and jetsetters. The hotel has a yacht that's available to rent for trips to the Elephanta Caves or for harbor cruises. Don't be frightened by the extreme, airport-like security process (along with bomb-sniffing dogs) required to enter the hotel; this place was a target in the famed 2008 terrorist attack.
The Taj President also wins out when it comes to location, as it's within easy walking distance of the Gateway. It's on the western side of the Colaba peninsula, which also puts it near some of the best restaurants and shops.
The Trident is on Marine Drive, close to Colaba, and it's a comfortable, upmarket hotel with plenty of restaurants and bars, as well as a spa and fitness center. It's managed by the neighboring Oberoi.
Staying in Touch
There are plenty of Internet cafes in Mumbai. Expect to pay around Rs 15 per hour.
As sightseeing can be very slow in India due to the traffic, ships' tours tend to be split between religious and the nonreligious attractions. Whichever you choose, it's bound to include a stop at the Gateway of India. Average excursion time is four hours.
Best for Temples: By the end of a tour of Mumbai and its temples, you'll be an expert on all things religious in the city. The tour takes you to the Jain Temple, the Mahalakshmi Temple and the Shree Siddhivinayak Temple. You'll see Malabar Hill and Marine Drive, and there's a photo stop at the Gateway of India.
Best for Ticking All the Boxes: A "highlights" or "best of" tour is the best way to see all the top sights without the hassle of finding/haggling for a taxi. You'll stop at the Gateway of India, drive along Marine Drive and to Malabar Hill, see the Victoria Terminus and visit Mani Bhavan (the Gandhi Museum), Jain Temple and the Prince of Wales Museum.
Best Outside the City: A tour to Elephanta Caves is a great escape from the noise and traffic of Mumbai, and you'll get to see one of the most amazing Hindu temples. Transfers to the boat pier, tickets for the trip to the island and a guide to explain about the massive carvings are all part of the package.
Best for Shopaholics: This is perfect for anyone with rupees to burn in the bazaars but who's a little wary of going it alone. Top stop is Bhuleshwar, where you can buy just about anything your heart desires. There's Zaveri Bazaar for gold, Mirchi Galli for spices, Mangaldas Market for silk and cloth, and Chor Market for antiques and furniture. Crawford Market, for fruit and veggies, is close by.
For More Information
On the Web: Indian Ministry of Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Asia
Independent Traveler Message Boards: Asia Travel Guide
--By Jane Archer, Cruise Critic Contributor; updated by Ron and Mary James, Cruise Critic contributors
All images (except for main photo) are courtesy of Carolyn Spencer Brown.