After leaving the Philippines at the beginning of February 2017, Ollie and I flew to Kolkata via Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. We spent three months in India and then three weeks in Nepal. We are now living and working in Thailand again; over the next few weeks I will write about the main highlights from our time in India and Nepal. This first blog will tell you all about Kolkata, India’s cultural and intellectual capital.
Ollie and I were incredibly excited to explore Kolkata; it was a new city for us and one we’d heard so much about. We landed in India at around 4am on 8th February and took one of the city’s ubiquitous yellow taxis through the deserted streets to our hotel. Once again, India smacked us in the face; even at this silent time of day we knew that we were unmistakably back in India.
We stayed in Central Kolkata at Hotel Galaxy, a small family-run hotel just off Sudder Street. It lies in the heart of the action. The main sights are all within walking distance, the surrounding streets are a feast for the senses and every convenience is at your fingertips.
Eating in Kolkata
Kolkata is India’s most affordable metropolis, for transport, accommodation and food. It also has the biggest street food culture of anywhere we’ve been in the country. At every street corner, vendors tempt you with dal and chapatti, puri and sabji, chaat and lassi.
In fact, the best lassis we’ve ever tried can be found in Kolkata. For just Rs 10 or Rs 20 it’s possible to find the traditional yoghurt drink on the side of the road, the thickest, creamiest, tastiest lassis you’re likely to taste. We made sure to make the most of them whilst we were in the city!
Kolkata’s amazing food isn’t limited to the streets either. Every Indian state has its own unique foods and we were very excited for our taste buds to become acquainted with Bengali cuisine. We enjoyed aubergine or potato bharta and the kothi rolls that Kolkata is so famous for. Eating in Kolkata is fun; there are so many new dishes to try that are cheap and tasty!
We spent four whole days in Kolkata, two before our time in Odisha and two after. We took a lot of night transport on this last trip so as not to waste days travelling.
What to See in Kolkata
There is so much to see and do in Kolkata and the best part is that most of the main sights are within walking distance from the central part of the city. I won’t list all the sights here, just a few of the highlights that stand out.
The Victoria Memorial
An icon of Kolkata and definitely not to be missed. We only paid Rs 10 each to go into the beautiful and extensive gardens surrounding the white marble memorial. It’s quite expensive to actually go into the memorial itself; the real spectacle is, however, outside. The memorial was designed to commemorate Queen Victoria’s 1901 diamond jubilee but construction wasn’t completed until nearly 20 years after her death.
Just round the corner from where we were staying, New Market is a warren of market halls made instantly recognisable by the red-brick clock tower standing tall outside. Things are fairly quiet in the mornings but by the afternoon the area all around the market is a bustling jumble of shoppers and stalls.
The festive atmosphere lingers into the evening when food vendors line the surrounding streets and evening shopping continues both inside and out. There are also big name shops in this area too, allowing the old and the new to mingle nicely.
Mother Teresa’s Motherhouse
It is possible to visit the house where Mother Teresa lived from 1953-1997. In the small complex, visitors can see her tiny bedroom where she worked and slept, preserved in all its simplicity, as well as a museum that displays her worn sandals and battered dinner bowl. Pilgrims can also pay homage at her large tomb.
It’s a strange, sombre place. Many Christian pilgrims visit and even volunteer at one of several Missionaries of Charity locations around the city. For us, we were just interested to learn a little more about one of history’s greatest icons.
A walk around BBD Bagh
BBD Bagh is Kolkata’s financial and administrative district and is full of colonial-era buildings. We followed the map in our guidebook and simply wandered around the area, soaking up the busy atmosphere and photographing all the magnificent old buildings. Of special mention are the Writers Building, the Eastern Railway Building, St John’s Church and the High Court.
Howrah Bridge and Mullik Ghat Flower Market
The best way to really see and explore Kolkata is on foot. Start early and you can cover a lot in one day! From BBD Bagh we continued to explore the streets and alleyways, right the way up to Howrah Bridge. The bridge is another icon of Kolkata, stretching for 705m across the Hooghly River. It was built during WWII and is one of the world’s busiest bridges.
One of the best vantage points to snap a discreet photo of the bridge (photography of the bridge is technically not allowed) is from the Mullik Ghat Flower Market, from where you can look up and see the bridge right in front of you. The market itself is a fascinating and colourful experience.
Other sights of special interest include Tagore’s House, the Kumartuli Idol Makers, Belur Math, Dakshineswar and the Kalighat Temple.
We found Kolkata to be a very friendly, walkable city that doesn’t exude the sense of danger that some of India’s other cities perhaps do, Delhi for instance. We felt very safe in Kolkata; people were chatty and hassle was minimal. We also didn’t feel like we had to constantly be on our guard against scams, like we are in Delhi.
As the former capital of British India, the architectural gems on offer are stunning and contrast starkly with the urban slums and new modern suburbs. Kolkata is a city for every sense, a city to be felt, seen, tasted and heard. It is a city that we will certainly take pleasure in returning to again and again as we explore more of West Bengal and other nearby states.