The name may have changed, but Kolkata, formerly known by its British imperialist name Calcutta, remains India’s most inviting city. The former capital of the British Raj does a nice line in colonial grandeur with showstopper monuments such as the Victoria Memorial, but Kolkata’s true charm lies in its low-slung neighbourhoods. There you will find elegantly decaying mansions rubbing shoulders with Hindu temples, mosques and churches. Throw in a lively cultural scene and delicious food and there are plenty of reasons to fall in love with the City of Joy.
Kolkata’s most famous eatery has no tablecloths and no fine china, and you will be expected to drink your soft drink from the bottle. Still, a meal at Nizam’s will be a highlight of your stay, especially if you order the egg and chicken kathi roll. This no-frills eatery in New Market has been serving up this street food favourite for almost a hundred years and remains the city’s don’t-miss dining experience.
We don’t blame the good folk at 6 Ballygunge Placefor using their street address as the name of the restaurant; they couldn’t have foreseen that their take on Bengali classics would become so popular that they would have to open more branches across town, causing just a little locational confusion. Keep it simple and head to the original at 6 Ballygunge Place at 6 Ballygunge Place to enjoy traditional Bengali dishes. The luchi fritters with eggplant and chickpea are incredibly more-ish.
Whoever said Indian sweets are an acquired taste has never tried sandesh. This fudge-like sweet is a Bengali classic and the best place to try it is at one of the city’s oldest sweet shops. There is always a queue at Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Chandra Nandy; while you wait, watch them make the sweets on the premises. I recommend the pistachio and chocolate flavours.
They like a touch of tradition in Kolkata, which is why afternoon tea is often a more popular option than knocking back cocktails. The place to go is Flury’s, where they have been dishing up coffee and cakes for more than 90 years. The eclectic menu includes everything from classics such as chocolatey Sacher-Torte to plainer fare including beans on toast.
Urban hipsters will feel right at home at Café 4/1, which ticks all the boxes from quirky interiors to tea infusions and cold drinks served in mason jars. The meat-free menu includes a range of treats from Indian classics to wood-fired pizzas.
Tropical nights are made for rooftop soirees, which is why cities like Bangkok have developed a lively high-rise scene. Kolkata hasn’t yet embraced the art of rooftop drinking but it does have one fabulous al fresco option, the lovely Blue & Beyond, with its potted palms and its views over bustling New Market.
Kolkata’s most unmissable sight is its sprawling flower market, tucked beneath the Howrah Bridge. Hindu gods look particularly favourably on offerings of flowers, and the market buzzes from early morning until late at night with wholesalers auctioning off huge consignments of roses and lotuses, as well as resellers threading wreaths of marigolds or jasmine at astonishing speeds.
You will find something eye-catching in every room of the Marble Palace, the city’s grandest, and most eccentric, mansion. There are intricately laid mosaic floors and Rubens canvases, chandeliers hung in neat rows and lashings of marble – more than 100 different types. The slightly ramshackle air just adds to the experience.
Finally, don’t miss the modern counterpart to the Taj Mahal: an elegantly proportioned monument made of white marble that dominates the skyline. Commissioned by Lord Curzon to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria, the extraordinary Victoria Memorial pays tribute to India’s diverse culture, featuring both Islamic and Hindu design elements. Don’t just admire it from the outside; if anything, the interiors are even more dazzling.
India’s most impressive collection of colonial architecture is found in the streets surrounding Dalhousie Square, where you will find glorious buildings including the General Post Office and the remarkable Writers Building. Keep an eye out for the street food stalls dishing up cheap meals and the clerks setting up shop outside the courthouse, preparing documents for petitioners on their vintage typewriters.
Architecture fans will want to take a stroll through the streets of South Kolkata, home to a surprising number of art deco buildings. Almost every house has at least one eye-catching element, from porthole-style windows and semi-circular balconies to picturesque grilles and gates. When you have had your fill of browsing the buildings, refresh yourself in one of the hip cafes springing up across the neighbourhood.
Elsewhere in India, religious statues are carved of stone. In Kolkata, which is built on marshlands, they have developed a unique alternative: building frames of straw that are covered with clay. A stroll through the potters’ colony of Kumartuli in North Kolkata gives an insight not just into this unusual technique, but also introduces you to some of the many colourful Hindu deities worshipped by locals.
Love beautiful handicrafts? Then head to one of the Biswa Bengaloutlets scattered across town. An initiative of the Bengal government, these shops stock the work of Bengali master craftsmen, including gorgeous fabrics made with traditional Kantha embroidery. Hours of work go into every piece; expect them to be priced accordingly.
Books, books, and more books is what you’ll find at College Street. This is the largest second-hand book market in the world, and haggling is encouraged. Some of Kolkata’s oldest bookstores and publishing houses are found in the same neighbourhood.
Merchants don’t get any more old-school than the venerable Mahabodhi Tea House. Wooden chests are filled with tea sourced from carefully-chosen tea gardens across Darjeeling and Assam, including delicate first flush tea. Fancy a custom brew? The in-house tea blenders are masters of their art.
Tucked discreetly into the top floors of an office building, the nine-room Glenburn Penthouseis a sophisticated haven with one of the best locations in town. Breakfast and afternoon tea are served on the terrace overlooking the Victoria Memorial, while the rooftop pool is an absolute stunner. The hotel’s walking tours are also highly recommended.
The Oberoi Grand has been welcoming visitors for more than 130 years and it remains one of the city’s most opulent hotels, with its marble floors and polished brass fittings. Expect superior service and an impressive range of restaurants and bars.