Kolkata (Photo:Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock)

By Maria Harding
Cruise Critic Contributor

Port of Kolkata

Chaotic, captivating, cacophonic Kolkata (the former Calcutta, for alliteration fans) is the capital of West Bengal. It's also India's second city and arguably its most fascinating.

With 350 years of outsider rule, Kolkata is rich in old colonial architecture -- a lasting, if now somewhat faded testament to its importance as the former capital of the British Raj.

But it's also India's artistic and cultural capital, home to poets, writers and film folk, and a treasure trove of the subcontinent's vast and varied culture, epitomized by the ancient religious ceremonies enacted on its colorful riverside ghats (stone steps); its thriving markets, restaurants and Millennial culture; and its modern art galleries.

Nowadays, Kolkata is becoming increasingly prominent in cruising circles. It's the international gateway to West Bengal, the beautiful tea country of Assam, and sailings take place along two of India's greatest rivers: the lower Ganges tributary of Hooghly and the Brahmaputra (which requires an extra flight). Many cruise tours begin with a trip to the Golden Triangle cities of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur first and then wing passengers to Kolkata, either for sightseeing or to board the ship.

Whatever your itinerary, make sure a day or two in Kolkata forms part of it. The desperate poverty facing many of its inhabitants will shock you and arouse your social conscience but in this city of many faces, hopeful new towns are rising amid the squalor of the slums and you'll find some beautiful parks as well as splendid old colonial buildings. And the whole thing encapsulates the vivid, kaleidoscopic, unforgettable human experience that is modern India.

About Kolkata


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.


Find a Cruise to India River

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.

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.

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).

Language

Kolkata's most-spoken languages are Bengali and Hindi. Most people -- especially those working in tourist areas -- will also speak English.

Shopping

Leave plenty of space in your suitcase when visiting Kolkata, as its vibrant shops and street markets -- selling everything from fine silks to elaborate jewelry and intriguing artifacts -- are a sight to behold.

Shopping in the city's bazaars is fascinating but can also be tiring, as you'll have to dodge persistent touts and negotiate with vendors. Most shops are open six days a week, generally between 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.; they're closed on Sundays.

Best souvenirs include Bengali silk -- produced and handwoven on traditional wooden looms in the villages that line the banks of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers -- and distinctively long-necked Bankura animal sculptures made from terracotta.

Jute is another major product of this region, so craft items and bags are also a good buy. And although India isn't as cheap as it once was, you can still pick up big bargains.

Best Cocktail

The best sundowner if you're in old colonial mood is, of course, a classic gin and tonic (featuring Bombay Sapphire gin, naturally). But in the land of heat and dust, a large and refreshingly chilled bottle of Kingfisher beer is a better choice for washing down Indian food.