Once the capital of British India, the city is full of oddities and wonders for a first-time visitor or a veteran traveller
A picnic at the Botanic Garden, or the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, is childhood memory for most ‘Calcutta’ residents. The biggest attraction is the Great Banyan tree, which is more than 250 years old, and is among the most spread-out trees in the world. You can navigate the park in electric cars, but we recommend a walk through the woods. There are beautiful paved paths and if you’re visiting in winter, they are shrouded in mist with gigantic trunks occasionally visible, making it a very magical moment. If you want to really savour the beauty and nature of Howrah, plan at least a week”s stay. Book into any of the good Howrah Hotels that fall well into your budget and enjoy new attractions each day.
It’s the oldest and largest museum in the country, all housed in a beautiful Victorian building. It was built in 1814 and since then houses some of the world’s most intriguing artefacts. There’s Buddha’s ashes, an imprint of his foot, fossil skeletons of various prehistoric animals, and meteorites from outer space. But the big draw is the 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy. Children will love roaming through the rooms – don’t miss the Mohenjo-daro and Harappa room full of antiquities from 2500-1500 BC, the lower jaw of a 84-foot whale, and a fossilised 200-million-year-old tree trunk. The museum also has a rare collection of old Indian coins and gems – you can ask the information desk for permission to see it.
Kalighat is said to be the spot chosen by early settlers in the region. Today, the place has religious significance for Hindus in the city, with a slightly gory past. Mythologists say this is the spot where Sati’s big toe fell when her corpse was carried around by her distraught husband Shiva. The goddess Kali is worshipped here in the temple (just 200 years old in its current form), but its age also gains brownie points since the holy spot itself is mentioned in the 15th and 17th century histories. The riverbanks have moved over the centuries, but the site itself is still hugely crowded with devotees. Plan a spiritual visit to Kalighat. Book into any of the Hotels in Kalighat Southern Avenue and rest for the night before heading to explore the places in the morning.
It’s a maze of small lanes with looming buildings many of which are more than a 100 years old and peopled with the descendants of the original occupants. North Calcutta is one of the city’s oldest areas, where the original zamindars and babus first settled. The result is a spread of truly spectacular architecture, most of which is now crumbling, but still awe-inspiring. There are intricate, winding wrought-iron staircases leading to massive balconies with shuttered windows, and impossibly high ceilings, all done up in red brick. Each lane will host at least a minimum of 8-10 shops selling Kolkata’s famous sweets.
Bengalis worship Rabindranath Tagore to the extent where his pictures are framed on walls with reverence reserved for gods. His ancestral home, therefore, is a mecca of sorts, located in the heart of North Kolkata. You will enjoy the walk through the sprawling mansion, which has now been converted into a museum and is also the site of Rabindra Bharati University. The 1784 mansion also houses galleries that display works by some of India’s best renowned artists, including several by Tagore and several of his family members. The perfectly preserved rooms also give you an insight into the life of the wealthy zamindars of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Built between 1906 and 1921, this majestic white marble structure was a tribute to Queen Victoria. It houses 25 galleries, which display portraiture, sculptures, arms and armoury and even a visual history of the city. For locals, the action is outside, on the cycle stalls, where a range of street food is on offer. The star here is the phuchka, the Bengali version of gol gappas or pani puri. The sweeping swathe of green opposite the Victoria Memorial is a great place for a picnic. Surf the list of domestic flights to Kolkata, check their rates and timings online and then make your booking.
The kathi roll was invented in Kolkata, possibly in Nizam, one of the oldest running restaurants in the city. A fried paratha is stuffed with a variety of combinations— mostly non-vegetarian—and is sold at literally every corner in the city. It’s super versatile and serves as a snack, a meal, date food, family dinners, lunch on the go, etc. The stuffing varies from combinations of just chicken or mutton, to a range of omlettes. Green chillies and onions are the usual accompaniments. Newbie entrants include paneer and szechwan varieties including noodles.
Bengalis have long suffered the moniker of ‘rosogolla’ saddled on them by the rest of the country. But it’s not without a reason. Bengalis are known for their sweet tooth, and the confectionery industry is massive in Kolkata. Sweet shops spill over into the city and they’re bigger landmarks than street names or even historical buildings. The most popular one beyond the rosogolla is the sandesh. These milk-and-sugar concoctions are usually made with chenna or paneer, with added flavours that are then moulded into various shapes. Winter brings around the production of the dark gur that produces a whole new ranger of winter sweets, the queen among being the nolen gur sandesh. Most restaurants nowadays have adapted to global trends and now serve nolen gur ice-cream.
The textile and handloom industry produces some of the richest weaves in the country. Byloom is the store that highlights the best of the handloom industry, while adapting it to contemporary demands. The two-storey store is housed in a heritage building and recreates the ambience of a beautiful colonial mansion. It also has a café whose teatime chicken sandwiches have become cult favourites. The main attraction is of course the textiles – saris, stoles and a range of ready to wear kurtas and tops for men and women, and home linen. Jamdani, shibori silks, tussar, cotton and linen fill the corners in intricate and modern patterns and explosions of colour. Their collections aim to create a self-sustaining artisan industry and they plan to include products from beyond Bengal.
If you’re in search of silver jewellery, head to New Market, a covered space full of independent shops that was once the place for retail therapy. It still holds strong, with iconic shops like Chamba Lamba attracting loyal and new customers. The store started off selling Tibetan curios and now specialises in excellent quality Tibetan silver jewellery. Two generations have curated some beautiful pieces, which range from ethnic Indian designs to subtle filigree and stone sets. They still specialise in curios, so if you want a Tibetan prayer wheel, you might just find it at Chamba. Surf the list of Hotels in Esplanade New Market , compare the rates , availability and other factors before making booking.
You can customise your shopping tour of Kolkata with the help of Husna Tara Prakash. She arranges the way you wander through the city depending on what you want – jewellery, antique furniture, traditional arts and crafts and even haute couture.