I’ve written a separate article on the Calcutta – The “real” India, so if you want to get a good overview of the city of activities, click through to that article. But if you want to just cut to the chase and get a sense of top things to here, here is a list I’ve put together after checking out a wide variety of places and activities after my 2 weeks in this beautiful crazy city:
1) Victoria Memorial and Museum
A lasting legacy of the Indian British empire, this location offers much in architecture as it does in Indian history. Founded in 1690, Kolkata has a ridiculous amount of history tied to it, and so this facility is a must see for anyone interested in knowing how the British Indian Empire came to be. After pursuing through the Kolkota history exhibit (it took me over an hour to get through it), it made think that the history of Kolkata is kind of a microcosm of the history of the British Empire itself. The museum covers the founding of the city, wars and rapid economic growth, expansion and troubles, and finally the eventual downfall of British Rule and independence.
Built in 1917, the facility itself is an absolutely stunning colonial building erected in honor of Queen Victoria: Queen during the height of the British Empire. Frankly, the building sticks out like a sore thumb among the Calcutta landmarks because of its beautiful architecture and bright white stone facades. In any case, if you’re into history then definitely check it out! Also, check online to see what latest special exhibits are being featured. When I was there, the exhibit featured 50 amazing long-lost photos of Gandhi during the 1930s. Not bad!
2) Tomb of Mother Teresa (and adjacent museum)
If you are visiting Calcutta – being the site where she launched her worldwide endeavors and worked tirelessly to help the poor and disadvantaged for over 50 years – a visit to the tomb of Mother Teresa is an absolute no-brainer. There are numerous cites across the city where her charity work still continues today, and Mother Teresa also launched her Missionaries of Charity from Calcutta – boasting 6,000 workers in 120 counties, helping the lives of many around the world.
Her tomb however is located at the same original site where she built upon her charitable efforts: a very modest one-room apartment from where she conducted her work for almost 40 years. Adjacent to the resting place is a simple but very lovely museum dedicated to the history and life of her work.
In short, this resting site and museum of someone who so selflessly dedicated her life to helping others is bound to force introspection onto anyone who visits!
3) Walk the streets of Old Calcutta and have fun with the hawkers
Old Calcutta ended up being just what I expected: beautiful old colonial structures lined against chaotic windy streets full of chaos. The streets between MG
Road Station and College St are packed with hand-pulled rickshaws, food stalls, and hawkers selling books, fake Rolexs and all sorts of other trinkets. I especially loved the food – sour mangos with masala, hand-chopped fresh coconuts, roasted nuts, sugar cane juices, salt-lemon sodas and special Kolkata rolls and sweets. College St itself runs along the University of Calcutta (founded 1857) and is full of many many bookstalls selling hundred of used books. It’s a great place to load up on some classic fiction for your travels – I picked up The Godfather and The Count of Monte Cristo for $2 a piece (make sure you bargain of course).
The “Coffee House” on College St. is a famed cafe where Calcutta revolutionaries and intellectuals would gather at the turn of the century to debate and form policies. While the cafe itself isn’t spectacular, you can grab a seat on the top floor balconies, grab a quick bite and visualize the scene at its zenith.
Starting at MG Road Metro Station, Old Calcutta is pretty accessible. Also, any of you you plan that plan on checking out (4) Vivekananda house should definitely venture a few blocks away to check out this area.
4) Vivekananda House
If you’re looking to explore your spiritual side, this is a must-see on your Kolkata list. Swami Vivekananda is a legend in the yoga and meditation communities, having written much ground breaking literature on the subject in the late 1800s. He was also one of the first gurus to travel from India to the West (London, Chicago, California etc) to preach the values of yoga and meditation, and his lasting legacy continues to inspire millions around the world!
The Vivekananda house itself is the birthplace of Vivekananda, and has been converted to a beautiful little museum on the early life of this Swami. The house has been recently reconstructed very tastefully showcasing the history of Vivekananda’s youth and upbringing in Calcutta. Coming from a wealthy family, the house itself is quite lavish and contains many different rooms showcasing influences on his early life. The house is also easily accessible by the Metro system, located at Girish Park metro. So go check it out, get your spirituality on, and get re-inspired on the concept of World Peace!
NOTE: the museum doesn’t cover much on the actual teachings of Vivekananda. So I would highly recommended brushing up before you go to fully appreciate the situation.
Also, Vivekananda House is located in Old Calcutta, so definitely check out (3) after a visit to this fantastic house.
5) The Mallick Ghat Flower Market + Crematorium
Indian market chaos at its finest! This loud, conjested, ultra competitive flower market is one of the world’s largest. Every day, literally tonnes and tonnes of fresh flowers arrive and are distributed here to thousands of Hindu temples in West Bengal (including numerous temples around Calcutta itself of course). Walking around the market was just insane. Everyone is yelling, screaming, pushing, bargaining, and fighting. Yes, I saw flower salesmen break into a slapping fight! (a little ironic? fitting? not sure what the right word is….)
Anyways, it was a fun chaotic experience, perusing the hundreds of vendors selling brightly yellow and orange strings of flowers, roses, etc. I managed to buy a string of 20 flowers for myself for 5 rupees! Just dont be suprised if you get pushed around a lot within the cramped quarters by the armies of men carrying heavy heavy sacks of flowers above their heads and plowing through the crowds like they’re on a mission. I didn’t know the business of flowers could be so aggressive.
Very close to the Flower Market is the Crematorium, located next to a riverside ghat (stoop). Hindus are traditionally cremated after death, with Varanasi (Banares) being probably the best-know place in India for these types of spectacles. I’ve never been to Varanasi (it’s a little too over-the-top for me), but witnessing this in person even once in Calcutta is just an eye-opening and humbling experience.
6) Cafes and Bars
Calcutta is home to a small but elite group of “hipsters”, partygoers, and the like. As such, the city hosts a wide variety of great bars, restaurants, and cafes. Zomato.com is always a great is a great guide to let you know about the latest and greatest of each genre in the city.
I personally stayed in the “Gariahat” area of Calcutta, being a classy but relaxed part of the city. Here, I got to know the cafes and bars pretty well. My favorites in the area included Sienna Cafe, and bars included Xrong Place. But feel free to do your own research and check reviews on Zomato.com. Calcutta bars are notorious for advertising one thing, but offering something completely different. It was pretty common for a bar to not even offer 50% of the options on the menu (including the beers, which was comically frustrating at times)
The best-known and most posh place in the city is at the Park Hotel, which boasts a rock bar (Someplace Else), a club (Tantra), a lounge (Roxy), and a rooftop patio bar (Aqua) all under the same roof. But aside from this there are lots and lots of bars and cafes peppered around the city. But keep in mind that dress codes are in effect and to the weary backpacker with only t-shirts and shorts maybe have some trouble getting in. I only did so after some locals gave some much aggressive arguing with the guards on my behalf!
7) Street sweets!
Bengalis are well-known for their delicious variety of sweets, available throughout India and the world! There’s even a Bengali sweet store in Toronto that’s always jam packed with customers. But in Calcutta, of course, the sweets are available pretty much everywhere and are just super super cheap. I would just walk from sweet store to sweet store (there’s one on every block) and grab one random sweet for 5 rupees. My personal favorites are the cashew-based cajusweets like caju rolls and caju berfy. Just be friendly with the shop keepers and they’ll let you try some samples of the huge variety (100+) of sweets available. Some of the sweets are an acquired taste of course, but that’s part of the trial and error process.
Calcutta, being a huge city, is home to a wide variety of shopping: from street trinkets, high-end clothing brands and accessories, fashion boutiques, and affordable Indian brands of Western style clothing for cheap.
Note that the pricing of shopping brands in India varies greatly. Most upper-class western brands are actually more expensive in India than at home (since only a small rich-elite can afford them). So don’t count on getting a pair of Pumas for $20. However, there are a handful of exceptions of brands that are actually made in India (and hence dont pay stiff import duties). The best exmple of this is Benetton, which features its clothes in India at about 1/3 of the price as home. So if you’re looking for good deals on high-end clothing in India, Benetton is usually your best bet.
There are also some cost-effective are Indian brands, including Indian Terrain, Mufti, and more. Pantaloons and Shoppers Stop are two great department stores that offer a huge variety of good quality western-style clothing and accessories for pretty cheap. Or you can wander around a few of the malls in Calcutta such as South City Mall and Quest Mall. Park Street is also a great place for high-end clothing.
If you want good Indian fusion clothing: Byloom and Sienna Cafe are small boutiques that offer great styles for ladies and very reasonable prices.
9) Indian Museum
Founded over 200 years ago, the Indian Museum in Calcutta is a beautiful colonial building displaying a mix of geological, zoological and anthropological exhibits within India. While I didn’t care much for the geology and zoology, the massive collection of ancient Buddha statues (there are over 100 sculptures dating back to 200AD) and ancient Bengali paintings was absolutely stunning! They specifically had a huge collection of Buddha statues dedicated to the various reincarnations of Buddha (I think there are 13 of them?), even and so it was very enlightening. It’s also close to a metro stop and next to the touristy district of Suddar St, so it’s also very accessible and you can grab some lunch after!
10) A day trip to the Sunderbans
I put this at the end of the list only because I would recommend doing a proper 1-night or 2-night tour of the Sunderbans instead of a crammed day-trip (as the Sunderbans are a 3 hour journey away from Kolkata). But if you cant spare that much time, at least go for the day. It will be a VERY long day, but totally well worth it. Tour De Sunderbans is a highly-recommended tour company to book through…I loved them.
For more information on the Sunderbans, I will have a blog post up soon about my 3-night stay there.