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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.