Must see attractions in Kolkata (Calcutta)

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Victoria Memorial

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Botanical Gardens

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Belur Math

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Kumartuli Idol-makers

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Marble Palace

    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.

  • Sights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Maidan

    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.

  • Sights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    New Market

    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.

  • Sights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Howrah Bridge

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Tagore’s House

    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.

  • Sights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    St John’s Church

    This stone-spired 1787 church is ringed by columns and contains a small, portrait-draped room once used as an office by Warren Hastings, India’s first British governor-general. It's on the right as you enter (entry to the main church is via the rear portico). The tree-shaded grounds have several interesting monuments, including the mausoleum of Job Charnock and the relocated Black Hole Memorial. The church is home to an exquisite painting depicting the Last Supper, by 18th-century German artist Johann Zoffany.

  • Sights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Rabindra Sarovar

    The lakes here prettily reflect hazy sunrises, while middle-class Kolkatans jog, row and meditate around the tree-shaded parkland that was once the site of an Allied Forces medical camp during WWII. Some form circles to do group yoga routines culminating in forced, raucous laugh-ins, engagingly described by Tony Hawks as Laughing Clubs in The Weekenders: Adventures in Calcutta. Young lovebirds match the park's avian residents in numbers, and street musicians enthral listeners with soulful tunes, mostly on weekends.

  • Sights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    St Paul’s Cathedral

    Arguably Kolkata's most iconic Gothic superstructure, decorated with a central crenellated tower, St Paul’s would look quite at home in Cambridgeshire but cuts an equally impressive profile against Kolkata's skyline. Built between 1839 and 1847, it has a remarkably wide nave and features a stained-glass west window by Pre-Raphaelite maestro Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Reputedly the first cathedral built outside of the UK, St Paul's takes centre stage on Christmas Eve, when hundreds of people flock in to attend midnight Mass.

  • Sights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    South Park Street Cemetery

    Active from 1767 to about 1840, this historic cemetery remains a wonderful oasis of calm, featuring surreal mossy Raj-era graves from rotundas to soaring pyramids, all jostling for space in an unkempt jungle. Some of the beautiful (though crumbling) graves house mortal remains of eminent citizens from Kolkata's colonial era, including academic Henry Derozio, scholar William Jones and eminent botanist Robert Kyd. Entry is from the north gate on Park St. Photography is not allowed (but mobile-phone snaps are fine).

  • Sights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Horticultural Gardens

    A hidden island of tranquillity in the heart of Kolkata, this delightful garden complex offers visitors an opportunity to acquaint themselves with tropical plant species, even while feasting their eyes on its placid green surroundings. Hundreds of tropical shrubs and flowering plants blossom around the central lawn, as well as in the themed Japanese Garden and around a cute stony waterfall. There's also an orchard with fruit trees (no picking!), and separate gardens for cacti and orchids.

  • Sights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Mullik Ghat Flower Market

    Near the southeast end of Howrah Bridge, this flower market is fascinatingly colourful virtually 24 hours a day. However, if you visit at daybreak, you'll see wholesalers arrive with huge consignments of flowers that are then auctioned to retailers. Many workers live in makeshift shacks, bathing in the river behind from a ghat with sunset views of Howrah Bridge. At around 7am, local wrestlers practise their art on a small caged area of sand set slightly back from the river.

  • Sights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Ramakrishna Mandir

    The centrepiece of the Ramakrishna Mission complex at Belur Math is the huge 1938 Ramakrishna Mandir, which somehow manages to look like a cathedral, Indian palace and Istanbul's Aya Sofya all at the same time. That's deliberate and perfectly in keeping with the message of 19th-century Indian sage Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who preached the unity of all religions.

  • Sights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Kalighat Temple

    This ancient Kali temple is Kolkata’s holiest spot for Hindus, and possibly the source of the city’s name. Today’s version is the 1809 rebuild, with floral- and peacock-motif tiles that look more Victorian than Indian. More interesting than the architecture are the jostling pilgrim queues that snake into the main hall to fling hibiscus flowers at a crowned, three-eyed Kali image with a gold-plated tongue. Behind the bell pavilion, goats are ritually beheaded on auspicious days to honour the goddess.

  • Sights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Birla Planetarium

    Loosely styled on Sanchi’s iconic Buddhist stupa, this 1962 planetarium presents slow-moving, half-hour audiovisual programs on the wonders of the universe and mysteries of deep space. It's quite convenient as an air-conditioned rest stop in between your day's explorations of nearby sights, and the shows are quite fine in their execution and presentation (the baritone voice-over is particularly dramatic). Recommended for those travelling with children.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    Indian Museum

    India's biggest and oldest major museum celebrated its bicentenary in February 2014. It's mostly a lovably old-fashioned place that fills a large colonnaded palace ranged around a central lawn. Extensive exhibits in various galleries include fabulous sculptures dating back two millennia (notably the lavishly carved 2nd-century-BC Bharhut Gateway), Egyptian mummies, relics from the ancient Indus Valley civilisation of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, pickled human embryos, dangling whale skeletons and some 37 types of opium in the library-like commercial botany gallery.

  • Sights in Kolkata (Calcutta)

    BethEl Synagogue

    Literally meaning 'House of God', this atmospheric synagogue's front facade looks a little like a 1930s cinema. Within the building (dating back to 1856), there's an impressive colonnaded interior and some fascinating stained glass. Service in this synagogue is no longer held, but the chequered marble floors and sundry precious paraphernalia are all impeccably maintained. Bring your passport as proof of identity, and sign on a register at the entrance. Photography is allowed inside.