Note: I’m writing a separate article on the Top 10 Things to do in Calcutta, so if you want to cut to the chase just click through to that article.
But this is Calcutta, and so naturally there are quite a few eye-popping attractions to see and experience aside from the “proper” colonial and historical sights
Calcutta – it’s the self-proclaimed “City of Joy”, and I couldn’t agree more. This bulging metropolis of 15 million people instantly lit me up during my taxi ride from the airport into downtown, as we weaved in an out of traffic, dodging hand-pulled rickshaws, motorbikes, transport trucks and yes, cows. Whatever you do in this lovely city – visiting on of its famed historical attractions, experiencing the street-side food and shopping, or just observing the stark contrasts and chaos of luxury SUVs jockeying for position with hand-pulled rickshaws, this city will make you feel very alive. And yet, it’s still somehow a unobtrusive place. People here leave you alone and go about their ways. Unlike many of the touristy spots of India (Agra, Goa, etc etc) no one here is constantly yelling at if you need a taxi or a hotel room or drugs or whatever (exception: there are a handful of touts in the very touristy “Suddar St” district. Just avoid it). In Calcutta, you are free to enjoy as you please. And with an endless amount of attractions and entertainment to explore, you certainly wont be disappointed or bored in your visit here.
Founded in 1690 by the British East India Company, Calcutta rapidly became the centre and subsequent capital of the British Indian empire – with numerous colonial landmarks and institutions still functioning today such as the excellent Queen Victoria Memorial and museum, a beautiful 300 year old British cemetery, and various cathedrals. As such, Calcutta has preserved its colonial roots rather well while vaulting into modern India. Fixed against its historical roots, luxurious shopping plazas, fusion restaurants, and western cafes and bars have popped up satisfying the demand of the burgeoning middle class.
But Calcutta’s history isn’t just tied to colonialism. It’s also home to powerful individuals such as Mother Theresa, philosophical gurus Sri Ramakrishnan and Sri Vivekananda, famous authors like Tagore, Ghosh, and of course music genius himself Ravi Shankar. Some of these individuals have destinations in the city dedicated to their work and legacy, and are all well worth visiting. The tomb of Mother Teresa – and adjacent museum – is especially moving. For those wishing to explore the roots of Meditation and Yoga, the Ramakrishana Mission and Vivekananda exhibit grounds are very insightful and calming. There is also the Indian Museum, a 6 story structure dedicated to the history of India, and well worth an afternoon visit.
But this is Calcutta, and so naturally there are quite a few eye-popping attractions to see and experience aside from the “proper” colonial and historical sights. I decided to explore this “real” Calcutta in style, by hopping onto the back of a 1953 Royal Enfield motorbike with a GoPro strapped on my head, my 22-year old punk-rock driver weaving in and out of traffic as we honked and bombed through the windy narrow streets as fast as possible to cram in as many attractions as we could. In this wildly intense and draining 10 hours, we checked out a variety of authentic Calcutta sights including: the Flower Market (the largest flower market in the world and absolute CHAOS), the Kali Temple (goat sacrifices?!!), the Crematorium (bodies being cremated along the river, Varanasi-style), Chinatown (one of the world’s oldest!), and the notorious Red Light district (apparently the largest in Asia). So for all you travelers that aren’t wooed by history or meditation, the “real” India still awaits you in this crazy city.
And the food….the food!! Bengalis are especially known for their seafood dishes and their sweets! You cant walk a block here without passing some sort of sweet shop. I’m especially a sucker for the cashew-based Caju Berfy sweets, and would usually would grab a small one every few blocks for about 5 cents a piece. Sweets-aside, the streets are just lined with street-food vendors selling classic Indian street food for CHEAP, like roti noodle wraps, masala bread omelets, deep fried potato pakoras, and the like. But there also there are lots of modern fusion restaurants that have mastered the art of western food (and western prices). As I sit in the Sienna Cafe, I am eating a pesto-and-feta cheese spread on fresh rye bread. The spicy Bok Choy soup is simmering next to my laptop. Love it.
And I have to say, the locals I met here have been quite nice. As Calcutta has deep roots in the arts, there are many hipster-type cafes and bars peppering the posh areas of the city. I visited many of these cafes to get some writing in and beat the heat, and was lucky enough to befriend some very cool locals who were ncie enough to show me around various parts of the city, including late nights at bars. Especially fun was Beer Republic: Calcutta’s first micro brew pub!
With an impressive list of tourist sites, a unique India-meets-west Colonial vibe, and a great selection of food, shopping, and entertainment, you wont be disappointed in this amazing city. I certainly wasn’t.