Why go to Kolkata (Calcutta)?
Pro: Colonial museums explain history; Mother Teresa's home a must
Con: Pollution, traffic and poverty abound
Bottom Line: Embarkation for Ganges cruises is worth a day to explore.
Kolkata (Calcutta) Cruise Port Facilities?
The mooring spots will give you an inkling of what to expect on the rivers, particularly at the Botanic Garden dock, where you pass a shanty town on the way to the ship.
The Maidan -- which stretches from the Hooghly River on the west to the Victoria Memorial (an impressive marble building now used as a museum) to the east -- is more central and contains some spectacular statues, buildings and monuments.
The Botanical Garden (or to give it its full moniker, the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden) is a bit further out, near the Howrah Bridge. You'll likely spend little time here, as your tour directors will try to keep you from the chaos that's going on near the dock. That being said, the ghats here are a wonderful sight; you'll witness everything from morning bathing rituals to wedding preparations to funerals.
Good to Know?
Traffic: Kolkata's chaotic, noisy traffic is a sight to behold. The concept of "giving way" seems alien in India; when approaching a busy junction, it's a case of every man for himself, and whoever gains an inch of advantage over another vehicle wins the day.
Drivers use their horns constantly but not aggressively -- just to signal their presence and their intention to overtake. But, because everyone seems to know the "rules," you soon get used to the elaborate "dance" of traffic that -- like most of life in India -- somehow manages to conjure order out of chaos.
Appalling poverty: This is India, and some of the sights will -- and should -- leave you feeling very grateful for the life that you have.
Locals wanting selfies: It's very sweet, but rather odd at first. Youngsters, in particular, find Westerners quite fascinating and will ask you to pose with them.
Local vs. foreigner entrance fees: Visitors will pay more for local attractions and museums than locals do (not unreasonably, given very low rates of pay). If you're on a cruisetour, these will be included in your fare.
There are many ways to get around Kolkata -- some of them hair-raising, and only for the very experienced and adventurous traveler. If you're on a Ganges river cruise, it's likely that you'll go directly to the dock from the airport by motor coach, so there's no need to get independent transportation.
On Foot:You'll find pleasant open spaces near riverbank mooring spots, but the city streets are very busy with both people and traffic.
By Rickshaw: Motorized rickshaws weave their way along certain fixed routes and gather hop-on passengers as they go, usually sharing with three others -- two in the back and one by the driver. Fares are low -- around 10 rupees (less than ?1), maximum -- but you'd need to know where you're going and be confident about speaking to the driver, so not recommended for newbies to India.
Cycle-powered "tana rickshaws" also operate within certain areas, and you can negotiate a rate that you consider fair, while electric-powered "tuk tuks" are a more recent innovation on the city's roads and again, can be hired for a negotiated fee.
To get an idea of auto-rickshaw fares before you travel -- which helps if haggling with drivers -- look at www.meterbabu.info.
On the Water: Ferry services, which link Howrah with central Kolkata, depart every 15 to 20 minutes and cost only a few rupees, but they can be crowded at rush hour and they are pretty basic. Don't expect refinements like steps or a gangway to get onboard; you face a steep haul to get yourself on and a big jump off at the jetty.
By Metro: Kolkata's Metro system is still a work in progress and gets hellishly crowded. Again, best avoided unless you're very confident and adventurous.
By Cab: Yellow cabs are metered and charge around 25 rupees (less than ?1) for the first 2 kilometers and then 12 rupees (less than ?1) more per additional kilometer. Some cabs offer air-conditioning (look for white cabs with a blue stripe) and charge 25 percent on top of the metered fare but allow you to travel in relative comfort. You can generally flag cabs down when you need them, but may face stiff competition during rush hours. There are prepaid taxi booths at the airport and Howrah Rail Station. For an idea of up-to-date rates and fares over various distances, try www.autotaxifare.com.
Uber cabs are also available and can be hired via phone app, but fares are higher (from 60 rupees (less than ?1) minimum) and can soar at peak times.
By Hired Car and Driver: The best bet for visitors on a tight timescale would be to hire a car and driver. Several private travel agents and car rental companies in Kolkata can arrange chauffeured drives or tours with a car and driver. Ballpark cost would be around 1,000 rupees (about ?14) for eight hours, within a limit of 250 kilometers. Over this, you'd pay a further 12 rupees (less than ?1) per kilometer.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money?
The local currency is the Indian rupee, which is roughly 80 to the U.K. pound and 67 to the U.S. dollar (for current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com).
Do be aware that the currency was updated at the end of 2016, so some of the older,
high denomination notes are no longer legal tender. Also, you can't purchase rupees in advance, so will have to get them on arrival.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ATM machines at Kolkata's Netaji Subas Chandra Bose International Airport, as well as in downtown Kolkata (for a full list of ATMs with location and maps, check out www.bankatmlocator.in).
Kolkata's most-spoken languages are Bengali and Hindi. Most people -- especially those working in tourist areas -- will also speak English.
Where You're Docked?
Kolkata is the international gateway for Brahmaputra River cruises, which depart from Guwahati or Jorhat (a 90- to 120-minute flight from Kolkata), so a day or two's hotel stay in the city would be a pre- or post-cruise option for travelers on these voyages.
The part of the Ganges that flows through Kolkata is known as the Hooghly, and travelers who choose a Lower Ganges cruise will join their riverboats from riverside ghats (tiered areas along its banks, some of which offer mooring for boats, while others are used for religious ceremonies, bathing and washing).
Ganges river cruises generally depart from moorings near Kolkata's Botanic Garden or the Maidan. This means Open Field and it's a vast city center park known as the "lungs" of Kolkata, where locals gather to watch football at various stadia, cricket at Eden Gardens or horse racing at Kolkata Race Course.