From slum tours to luxury high tea, Bhanu Bhatnagar offers an insider's guide to India's fascinating metropolis.
Twenty-two million people crammed into a peninsula smaller than New York City. Welcome to mad and magical Mumbai, the most populous city in the world's second-most populous country.
This is where dreams are made and realised, where everyone from the beggar to the Bollywood star is trying to make it. Some succeed. Others don't. The result is a city full of contradictions with all the best and worst of humanity rolled into one. You could spend a lifetime discovering this place. But here are my top five things to do if you find yourself in India's commercial capital.
1. Walking tour of Dharavi slum
You will come face to face with poverty, poor working conditions and an unimaginable amount of garbage and open sewage. If you're okay with that, a tour of the Dharavi slum is one of the most eye-opening things you could experience, not just in Mumbai, but anywhere on Earth. Dharavi is home to about a million people crammed into just one square mile. It is Asia's second-largest slum and has been the subject of many books and films. There appears to be a real sense of community amidst the squalor. The industries that operate here (recycling, textiles, laundry) generate around $839 million every year and employ tens of thousands of people. But because the goods produced in the slum add minimal value to the supply chain, people earn very little. Several tour companies offer walking trips through, giving insight in to how this city within a city operates.
Recycling workers in the Dharavi slum. Photo / Getty Images
2. Colaba and Churchgate
Located towards the very southern tip of Mumbai, this upmarket part of town is full of old-world charm. Take a stroll through the leafy streets and check out the colonial and gothic architecture of Churchgate, the High Court, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (aka Victoria Terminus) and Bombay University. Also check out the impressive and extensive collection of Indian artefacts in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum (Prince of Wales Museum).
Walk down Colaba Causeway and stop for a cold beer and some chicken lollipops at Cafe Mondegar. Then keep walking down the street to find Leopold Cafe, a Mumbai institution since 1871 and one of the sites of the 2008 terrorist attacks. You can still see the bullet holes in the walls and mirrors, preserved for posterity.
3. High tea at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel
This lavish hotel first opened its doors back in 1903. Over the past century it's become a Mumbai icon, helped along more recently by the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which left parts of the hotel damaged by fire and heavy gunfighting. The likes of The Beatles, Jacqueline Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Joan Collins, Barack and Michelle Obama, Mick Jagger, and Oprah Winfrey have all stayed here. Inside, check out its famous central floating staircase and stop off at the Sea Lounge in the Palace Wing for a distinctly Indian take on that quintessentially British colonial pastime: high tea. Afterwards, take a stroll to the Gateway of India, which was built to commemorate the 1911 royal visit of King George V.
4. Marine Drive and Chowpatty Beach
Built on reclaimed land in the 1920s, Marine Drive arcs its way around the southern end of Mumbai, facing the Arabian Sea. At its northern end is Chowpatty Beach, the most popular public beach in the city. It's one of the few places Mumbaikers (as they are known) can come to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It's a great place to sample Mumbai's famous street food, with all kinds of treats on offer both savoury and sweet. If you're feeling brave you could take a dip in the sea, too; but beware, it isn't the cleanest of beaches. Chowpatty is also the site of one of Mumbai's biggest festivals - Ganesh Chaturthi - when thousands of Hindus descend on the beach to immerse idols of Lord Ganesha (the elephant god) into the Arabian Sea. This normally happens in August or September.
5. Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum
Head to 19 Laburnum Rd in downtown Mumbai to find this charming museum, library and research centre dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi. This is where the Indian independence leader lived from 1917 to 1934 and formulated much of his political doctrine of non-violence. The room where Gandhi stayed has been preserved. It holds two of his spinning wheels, a book and a floor bed he used to sleep on. There's also an extensive photo gallery of his life, from childhood to assassination. The museum provides insight into the life of a great man but also the struggle for Indian independence from British rule. Before or after visiting the museum, take a stroll down Laburnum Rd. It's a rare thing in Mumbai to find a leafy and quiet street to enjoy.
Getting around: Mumbai isn't a very big city in terms of geographical area. But the high population density means it is notorious for traffic jams. You can generally always find a taxi and Mumbai taxi drivers are, on the whole, quite friendly, unlike taxi drivers in other major Indian cities. There are two types of taxis. The "kaali bilees" or "black cats" are the black and yellow cars you will see criss-crossing through the city. They don't have air conditioners. Then there are the "cool cabs", which are generally blue and white and have air conditioners. Understandably, these taxis cost more. Auto rickshaws are also an option for travel, but these three-wheeled taxis aren't permitted into South Mumbai and can only be taken in the suburbs of the city. Mumbai also has a rail network that stretches north to south along the peninsula. This is almost always a much faster way to get around if you have large distances to cover. And travelling on the Mumbai trains is an experience by itself.
Getting a visa: New visa regulations mean it's easier than ever before for Kiwis to visit India.
Getting there: Singapore Airlines has flights to all Indian gateway cities, including Mumbai.