The Gateway of India
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Mumbai may have been rocked by a terrorist attack in 2008, but the tragedy has done nothing to diminish the exuberance, energy and sheer madness of this city of 16 million people.
Chaos does not even begin to describe Mumbai, where people do daily battle with goodness knows how many cars for their own bit of space.
Indeed, Mumbai is a place where crossing the road is something of an art form, where your ears are constantly assaulted by the hooting of horns, where you'll find knife grinders or food sellers plying their trade on the crowded pavements. It's lively, fun, exciting and hard not to fall in love with in an instant.
In this city, there is great wealth in some areas and unbelievable poverty in others. This is where the slumdog in the hit film "Slumdog Millionaire" came from -- and as your taxi takes you through the city, you can't help but see the squalid shacks, cheek by jowl, that millions call home.
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, when they were given to Charles II of England in 1661 as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal, and the name was corrupted to 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, others 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 here, but spent it building grandiose buildings that would turn the city into a little England. There's the Victoria and Albert Museum, built in 1872; Crawford Market, completed in 1869; and its Victorian-styled clock tower, the Victoria Terminus, so reminiscent of St. Pancras station in London. The first train in India departed from this station in 1853; these days half a million commuters use it each day.
All these places are must-see sights for visitors, along with Mumbai's numerous ornate temples, its bustling bazaars, its instructive museums and, yes, even its slums. And of course you cannot miss the Gateway of India, actually a quite small edifice by today's standards but the jewel in Mumbai's sightseeing crown for many people.
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Bangkok (Laem Chabang) • Beijing • Cochin • Da Nang • Hanoi • Hiroshima • Ho Chi Minh City • Hong Kong • Koh Samui • Kuala Lumpur • Langkawi • Mumbai • Nagasaki • Osaka • Penang • Saipan • Seoul (Incheon) • Shanghai • Sihanoukville • Singapore • Yangon (Rangoon)
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 day in town.
If you are interested in jewelry, visit the Zaveri Bazaar. Just remember all that glitters probably isn't gold and you must bargain before buying. Chor Bazaar, also known as Thieves' Market, specializes in antiques -- wood carvings, jewelry and furniture. Again, you'll need to haggle, and bear in mind you need to get anything you buy home!
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, a street lined with stalls selling export-surplus clothing. Time for more haggling.
Marathi is the official language of Mumbai. However, English is widely understood and used for national, political and commercial communication.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The national currency is the Indian Rupee (Rs), which is divided into 100 paise. There are about Rs48 to the dollar and about Rs80 to the pound sterling. Visit www.xe.com for up to date currency conversions.
Plan to use cash for small items when out shopping in the markets and bazaars. Credit cards are accepted in big outlets and at good restaurants and hotels. There are ATM machines 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 an easy walk to the Gateway of India, but don't be fooled. It might be easy -- as in it is 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 or get a taxi.
In a word, don't. There is absolutely no reason to hang around the port area so head on out on your sightseeing trip as quickly as possible.
There are 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.
As the city is big and there is a lot to see, your best bet is to hire a taxi driver for the day, but you will 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 the port exit -- the drivers start to get desperate for business if it seems you are going to escape! You will get an even better deal still if you find a taxi out on the street. 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.
Obviously you need to be prepared to adjust your prices accordingly if you want longer in the city. It's always nice to add on a bit extra at the end anyway as a tip, especially if they have done a good job as a guide.
Most taxi drivers will want to take you to a super-clean tourist store where goods are highly priced as they 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 hassling for money is an unfortunate fact of life in Mumbai, especially around the Gateway of India. Many are just selling things so it's up to you if you decide to buy, but there are also a lot of beggars and others who will ask for money for a good cause -- an orphanage or elderly people, for instance. It all looks kosher, but it is just a more upmarket begging scam, so steer clear.
You'll also get a lot of hassle from taxi drivers, especially if you do try to walk out of the port. Usually a polite no thank you works, but some can be very persistent and it can just get very tedious.
I felt perfectly safe in Mumbai, but as with all big cities, don't carry around huge amounts of cash. Always keep it strapped to you so it's out of the reach of pickpockets. Be discreet when getting out any money, and try not to flash the cash.
You should avoid wearing expensive jewelry and watches, and also steer clear of food from street vendors, as you'll probably end up with "Delhi belly," which is really only diarrhea but will spoil the rest of your holiday.
Americans should remember that in India, they drive on the left, as in the U.K. If crossing a road, be warned that these drivers do not stop for pedestrians but rather weave around you. It can be quite scary if you are stuck between weaving cars. A good tip is to look for a local person crossing the road and walk with him! I don't know if it's safer, but it certainly made me feel more confident.
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 such a big attraction, it is dwarfed by the Taj Mahal hotel across the road. It opened in 1903 and is an attraction in its own right as everyone wants their picture taken with the bearded doorkeepers in their white uniforms and turbans. More recently it has gained notoriety as the site of the terrorist attacks on the city in November 2008.
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. A two-bed apartment here would set you back $2 million. 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 and is a shrine to the man who won independence for India. It is 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; that exhibit is definitely not up to contemporary standards and yet is haunting and illustrative. (www.ghandi-manibhavan.org)
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. I never did find out how they got their name, but they 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 Maharaj Vaastu Sanghralaya, but luckily taxi drivers understand Victoria Terminus.
Other highlights include the Mahalakshmi Temple, dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty, and Shree Siddhivinayak Temple, dedicated to Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed god (one of Hinduism's most popular gods). (www.siddhivinayak.org
You definitely must also visit the Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai's central laundry. Some 4,500 people work here, washing laundry from all over the city, whether from private residents, hotels or restaurants. The laundry has been here 350 years and I can promise you that their whites, which have been scrubbed and beaten by hand, are whiter than anything my washing machine can achieve.
Been There, Done That
No matter how interesting a museum might be, I always think it's a shame to spend time in one on a first visit to a city like Mumbai. It's so different from what Westerners are used to that you need to spend time on the streets soaking up its atmosphere and excitement. However, if you're back in Mumbai for a second or third time, a little historical digging would not go amiss. In particular, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Sastu 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.
The Elephanta Caves, 10km off the east coast of the city, are definitely worth a visit. The 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 can reach the caves by motorboat from the pier at the rear of the Gateway of India. Round-trip tickets cost Rs120. 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.
There are cafes, coffee shops, plenty of McDonalds 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. There are some lovely fantastic restaurants in the city but they can be hard to spot.
Visiting Khyber (00 91 22 2267 3227; www.khyberrestaurant.com) is like stepping back in time, with its big wooden doors, oil lanterns and weathered wood. There's a vast menu of soups, salads and kebabs, and then you get on to curry dishes. There's seafood, chicken, lamb and plenty for vegetarians. Curry main courses start at Rs290.
Indigo (00 91 22 6636 8999; www.foodindigo.com) is an uber-modern eatery in a leafy residential area that would not look out of place in London's West End. The lunch menu is simple, with soups, salads, sandwiches and main courses. All are quite mouth-watering, but this is not the place to come if you fancy a curry. Prices range from Rs245 for soups to Rs545 for main dishes.
Trishna (00 91 22 2270 3213) 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 or jumbo prawns and various types of seafood tandoori on the menu, but there are plenty of meat and vegetarian choices as well. Prices range from Rs200 for a starter to Rs490 for the Pomfret or King Prawns. Reservations are highly recommended.
Swati Snacks (00 91 22 6580 8405) is about as close as a Western can get to authentic Indian dining without risking Delhi belly. The decor is fast-food cafe, but don't let that put you off. You can't make reservations, so just put your name down when you arrive and join the queue -- there is always one -- for a table. There are traditional curry specialties and snacks -- pizza, falafel, patties. Prices from Rs60 to Rs120. (248 Karai Estate, Tardeo Rd.)
Although there are plenty of hotels in Mumbai, there are not that many top-class properties in the city center, many have gravitated to the airport, which is not a great location for tourists.
For the best location: Overlooking the Gateway of India -- it has to be the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel (00 91 22 6665 3366; www.tajhotels.com). It's a sumptuous place, a blend of historic and contemporary, that's dripping with history -- and it's where royalty, heads of state and jet-setters stay. The hotel has a yacht for hire for trips to the Elephanta Caves or a harbor cruise. Don't be frightened by the extreme, airport-like security process (along with bomb-sniffing dogs) required to enter the hotel; this is the place that was a target for terrorists in the famed attack in 2008.
The Taj President (00 91 22 6665 0808; www.tajhotels.com) 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 (00 91 22 6632 4343; www.tridenthotels.com) is on Marine Drive, close to Colaba, and is a comfortable upmarket hotel with plenty of restaurants and bars, and also 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 Rs15 per hour.
As sightseeing can be very slow in India due to the traffic, ships' tours tend to be split between religious and the non-religious attractions, but whichever you choose it's bound to include a stop at the Gateway of India. Average excursion time is four hours.
Best for Mumbai 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 for escaping the city: A tour to Elephanta Island is a great escape from the noise and traffic of Mumbai, and you'll get to see one of the most amazing Hindu temples into the bargain. 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 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 veg, is close by.
For More Information
On the Web: There are lots of Web sites about Mumbai. www.mumbai.org.uk provides a good outline of the key places you should see. Read it in conjunction with http://mumbai.clickindia.com for a good overall picture. The official tourist board Web site is at www.incredibleindia.org.
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--by Jane Archer, Cruise Critic Contributor
All images (except for main photo) are courtesy of Carolyn Spencer Brown