Be prepared to be jostled, hurried and incessantly chatted to as you soak in the trendy yet traditional vibe of Mumbai. 24 hours isn’t nearly enough time to explore all the highlights of this intoxicating city, but this whistlestop tour will help you catch the flavour of Mumbai: serene mornings by the sea, alternative cafes, crispy local snacks, the rush of great bargains and memorable nightlife. To make the most of a single day, it’s best to hire a cab and zoom between experiences.
Spend the morning in Bandra
The aroma of freshly baked bread starts wafting from the A One Bakery on Hill Rd well before daylight, helping you kick-start the day as early as you want. Get a goody bag of cinnamon rolls and blueberry muffins to accompany you into the narrow lanes of Ranwar, which sprawls behind the bakery and into graffitied Chapel Street.
Mornings are the best time to explore. You’ll see the area’s 200-year history gradually unfolding as you pass balconies hanging from colonial homes and huge Christian crosses. Neck-stretching urban art in psychedelic colours drapes the walls of traditional dwellings in a charmingly incongruous way.
For a tea break, loop back onto the corner of Hill Rd to Yoga House where you can enjoy a mud pot chai on the low floor tables or relax on the outdoor benches. Alternatively, head towards Lilavati Hospital Junction to reach Salt Water Cafe for a plate loaded with bacon, omelettes, pancakes and more. If you haven’t worked up an appetite yet, walk further along Carter Rd by the sea, manoeuvring past morning joggers to reach the Bagel Shop for breakfast.
Delve into Bombay’s belly in the daytime
A mention of Dharavi usually conjures up the image of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and a colossal jumble of homes and businesses. Some travellers might be intrigued to see one of the largest slums in the world. An alternative is to explore Dharavi’s workshops and tanneries – ask a cab to drop you at the Sion Bandra Link road for some leather shopping. Bags, jackets and belts are all produced inside Dharavi’s narrow streets and one-roomed workshops. If you are interested to see the process, get in touch with Mr Fayaz Mir of High Design (tel 09322282721). This is also a way to experience the inside of the slums with a reliable guide.
Your late-morning snack should be none other than the quintessential vada pao at Dadar. Squirm through flailing arms at the shop outside Kirti College for a gigantic bun with potato cutlet filling. Vada pao is an essential rite of passage in Mumbai – but be warned, the topping here is extremely spicy.
Next on the list is the Washermen’s Colony along the Mahalakshmi train station. Ask the cab to drop you at the station and follow the swell of people taking a narrow staircase down the adjoining flyover. On your left is a world of white sheets, crispy dry shirts and the harsh smell of detergent. Saunter inside to see the voracity with which the clothes are thrashed on the washing stones, dried, packed and chartered off to hotels, hostels and others. You might spot your own hotel bedclothes right here. If you are hovering about in the area at about 11am, you may catch a glimpse of the famous ‘dabbawalas’ – the fleet of lunchbox men who deliver food to thousands of office workers in an astonishingly precise system of colour-coded boxes.
Next, make a stop at the white marble Haji Ali Shrine. Venture through the passage to the left of the monumental Haji Ali Juice Centre, along rows of shops selling offerings (incense, a spread and flowers), and past fattened goats and beggars. Inside, women and men part to enter the shrine separately and are blessed by a stack of peacock feathers. High-tide days are special: the walkway gets completely submerged and the shrine looks like it’s floating mid-water.
Whet your bargaining skills (and keep your wallet safely tucked away) in the streets of Chor Bazaar (Thief’s Market) and Mutton Bazaar. Bargain-hunters arrive in droves to sift through old Bollywood posters, rusty sewing machines, spare vehicle parts, and even period furniture. Prices are reasonable, but bargain unapologetically. Stolen goods are thought to circulate early on Friday mornings from 4.30am, but the usual market opens from 10.30am and 7.30pm every day. Worthwhile stops include Oriental Arts and Crafts (tel 09819489585) for antiques and A 1 Corner (tel 09223439284) for Bollywood collectibles.
Spend an afternoon in the Fort area
Pull yourself away from the enticing vintage curios at Chor Bazaar if you want to make it in time for some authentic Parsi and Iranian fare at Britannia (Sprott Road), almost a century old. On your way there, ask the cab to take you around the Azaad Maidan (sports grounds), where you can watch cricket whites get muddy brown as youngsters pursue the common dream of being ‘Sachin’ one day. At Britannia, let the four generations of the Kohinoor family make you feel at home while you sink into the imported Polish furniture. Wash down the sali boti (meat), berry pulao (rice dish), patra ni macchi (steamed fish) and dhansak (curry) with a fizzy pallonjis raspberry drink. Or opt for another atmospheric Parsi joint, Cafe Ideal.
The Fort area comprises colonial-style buildings that are now converted to office complexes. You can walk from Ideal, stopping at the bookshop Kitab Khana to replenish stock for your travels. Walk further along the Flora Fountain area to reach the Kala Ghoda enclave in time to visit the Jehangir Art Gallery and grab a home-brewed organic coffee at Kala Ghoda Cafe to put the zing back into your step.
See in evening by the sea
Zip away by cab to the chic Colaba area, starting at Theobroma Bakery for a bite of the sinful ‘chocolate overload’ brownie. Burn it up as you dodge hectic shoppers along the fashionable Colaba Shopping St. If you need a beer, march onwards to Leopold’s Cafe or Cafe Mondegar. Being featured heavily in best-selling novel Shantaram isn’t the only reason Leo’s is popular with Mumbaikars. This place is resilient – the 1871 cafe showcases bullet marks from the 2008 terrorist attack. At Cafe Mondegar (Mondy’s), the main hooks are beer towers, chili cheese toast, a jukebox and walls decorated by well-known cartoonist Mario Miranda. If you can tear yourself away, walk down to the Gateway of India, a monument built during the British rule that is now synonymous with Mumbai’s identity.
Next, head to the moon-shaped Marine Drive. The breezy boardwalk is a favourite with gossiping friends, couples sneaking kisses, tea vendors – as well as packs of stray dogs. To get a glimpse of the entire stretch, catch a drink at Intercontinental Hotel’s rooftop restaurant Dome. No matter how late you descend from there, you can still catch the maalish walas (foot and head massagers) who click their palm-sized bottles of oils with a stone to lure weary travellers and regulars. Getting your head or feet kneaded silly may not be on your to-do list, but it’s a great way to listen to a labyrinth of stories from the masseurs. End the night with ice cream at Bachelorr’s. The unique ice creams have a confounding and irresistible blend of tastes and temperatures, much like Mumbai itself.