India’s third-largest city is a daily festival of human existence, simultaneously noble and squalid, cultured and desperate, decidedly futuristic though still in transition. By its old spelling, Calcutta readily conjures images of human suffering to most Westerners – although that's not a complete picture of this 330-year-old metropolis. Locally, Kolkata is regarded as India’s intellectual, artistic and cultural capital. Although poverty is certainly apparent, the self-made middle class drives the city's core machinery, a nascent hipster culture thrives among its millennial residents and its dapper Bengali gentry frequent grand colonial-era clubs.
As the former capital of colonial British India, Kolkata retains a lot of colonial-era architecture contrasting starkly with marginalised urban areas and dynamic new-town suburbs with their air-conditioned shopping malls. Kolkata is the ideal place to experience the mild yet complex tang of Bengali cuisine. Friendlier than India’s other metropolises, this is a city you ‘feel’ more than simply visit.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kolkata (Calcutta).
The incredible Victoria Memorial is a vast, beautifully proportioned festival of white marble: think US Capitol meets Taj Mahal. Had it been built for a beautiful Indian princess rather than a colonial queen, this domed beauty flanking the southern end of the Maidan would surely be considered one of India’s greatest buildings. Commissioned by Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, it was designed to commemorate Queen Victoria’s demise in 1901, but construction wasn’t completed until 20 years after her death.
Despite being an awkward journey by public transport, Kolkata’s lovely 109-hectare Botanical Gardens makes for a great place to escape from the city’s frazzling sounds and smells. Founded in 1786, the gardens – home to more than 12,000 plant species – played an important role in cultivating tea bushes smuggled in from China by the British, long before the drink became a household commodity. Today, there’s a cactus house, palm collection, river-overlook and a boating lake with splendid Giant Water Lily pads.
Set very attractively amid palms and manicured lawns, this large religious centre is the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission, inspired by 19th-century Indian sage Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who preached the unity of all religions. Its centrepiece is the 1938 Ramakrishna Mandir, which somehow manages to look like a cathedral, Indian palace and Istanbul’s Aya Sofya all at the same time. Several smaller shrines near the Hooghly riverbank include the Sri Sarada Devi Temple, entombing the spiritual leader's wife, Sarada.
Countless clay effigies of deities and demons immersed in the Hooghly during Kolkata’s colourful pujas (offering or prayers) are created in specialist kumar (sculptor) workshops in this enthralling district, notably along Banamali Sarkar St, the lane running west from Rabindra Sarani. Craftspeople are busiest from August to October, creating straw frames, adding clay coatings, and painting divine features on idols for Durga and Kali festivals. In November old frameworks wash up on riverbanks and are often repurposed the following year.
Built in 1835 by a raja from the prosperous Mallick family, this resplendent mansion is as grand as it is curious. Its marble-draped halls are overstuffed with dusty statues of thinkers and dancing girls, much Victoriana, ample Belgian glassware, game trophies and fine paintings, including originals by Murillo, Reynolds and Rubens. To enter, you need prior written permission from West Bengal Tourism or India Tourism. Entry is technically free, but tips (₹100 per group is fine) are expected by staff guides.
A vast expanse of green in the heart of the city's brick-and-mortar matrix, the Maidan is where Kolkata's residents congregate for walks, spirited cricket and football matches, family outings, dates, tonga (horse-drawn carriage) rides and general idling. The grounds are flanked by the Victoria Memorial and St Paul's Cathedral to the south and the Hooghly riverbanks to the west. A tram line cuts through the greens, and hopping onto one of the carriages for a slow ride is great fun.
Marked by a distinctive red-brick clocktower, this enormous warren of market halls dates to 1874, but was substantially rebuilt after a 1980s fire. By day, handicraft touts can be a minor annoyance, and the crowds can swell in the evenings, especially on weekends. It's more engrossing just after dawn, when there's a harrowing (and a wee morbid) fascination in watching the arrival of animals at the meat market, with its grizzly chopping blocks, blood-splattered floors and pillared high ceilings.
Howrah Bridge is a 705m-long abstraction of shiny steel cantilevers and rivets, which serves as a carriageway of nonstop human and motorised traffic across the Hooghly River. Built during WWII, it’s one of the world’s busiest bridges and a Kolkatan architectural icon. Photography of the bridge is prohibited, but you might sneak a discreet shot while passing through in a taxi, or from one of the various ferries that ply across the river to the vast 1906 Howrah train station.
The stately 1784 family mansion of Rabindranath Tagore has become a shrine-like museum to India’s greatest modern poet. Even if his personal effects don’t inspire you, some of the well-chosen quotations might spark an interest in Tagore’s deeply universalist and modernist philosophy. There’s a decent gallery of paintings by his family and contemporaries, and an exhibition on his literary, artistic and philosophical links with Japan. There's also a 1930 photo of Tagore with Einstein shot during a well-publicised meeting.