Over the years, the city of Kolkata has seen many avatars – be it as British India’s first capital, the hub of Indian renaissance, a hotbed of art and culture and Marxist ideas, or as the city of joy. This guide will help you peel back the many layers of Kolkata’s history – with markets, mansions and museums – in just 24 hours.
Morning by the ghats
Start your day at the colonial ghats situated along the Hooghly, the river that the British used to string together the three villages of Kalikata, Sutanuti and Gobindapur to create the bustling metropolis of Kolkata. The best maintained among these is Prinsep Ghat built in 1843 in the memory of James Prinsep, an English scholar and officer of the East India Company. Look out for the beautiful Greek inlays, Gothic white columns and the majestic Vidyasagar Setu towering over it all. Take a boat ride on the Hooghly passing barges, boats, and old warehouses towards the magnificent Howrah Bridge.
Revisit the time during the Raj
Head to Flury’s on Park Street for a traditional British morning revisit. This Kolkata institution has been serving iconic breakfasts and high teas since 1927 when it was owned by a Swedish family (the menu mentions a “Mr and Mrs Flurys”). The smell of fresh bread and pastries, Darjeeling tea, and an unhurried approach characterise Flury’s.
After answering your hunger pangs, visit Victoria Memorial next. A Raj version of the Taj Mahal, this marble structure was opened in 1921 to commemorate Queen Victoria. The memorial hall has one of the largest collections of Indian landscapes in oils and aquatints and some rare titles from 19th century. A short walk away is St Paul’s Cathedral with beautiful stained glass windows and Gothic Revival style architecture.
A bit of Bengali flavour
To transition smoothly from a British theme to a Bengali one here’s what you should do next. Walk to Nandan, a cultural complex, to soak in Bengali ‘aatel’ (intellectual) atmosphere. Have cha and jhal muri and join in a typical Bengali adda – the raison d’etre of Kolkata. Addas are free-floating and open to all.
Another Kolkata must-do is a tram ride. The vast green stretch of the Maidan is right next door, populated with trees and cricket clubs. Every so often, you will see a tram chugging along its outer boundary (the one facing Fort William). Hop on for a memorable ride on one of the oldest surviving tramways in the world. (For a longer ride, check routes on calcuttatramways.com).
After a short stretch till the end of Red Road, get down and take a taxi to Writer’s Building, which till recently used to be the secretariat of the West Bengal government. Walk around the Dalhousie Square, taking in the Royal Exchange, the GPO (General Post Office), and St John’s Church. Consider stopping for a small snack – this area is known for food stalls that serve Chinese food, cutlets and chops, dosas and idlis, beetroot stews and biryani, tall glasses of lassi or juice, and Bihari litti-chokha (baked chickpea flour cakes served with vegetables).
Idols and mansions in old Kolkata
Spend the afternoon in Pathuriaghata. Once home to the Bengali rich, it is replete with colonnaded mansions in various states of decay. Take in Shobhabazar Rajbari, and the surreal Mallikbari (Marble Palace). The latter’s assortment of urns, busts, chandeliers and paintings will make your head reel. After over-the-top Mallikbari, visit Jorasanko Thakurbari, Rabindranath Tagore’s ancestral house. A short walk away is Kumartulli, home to generations of idolmakers who sculpt idols for the city’s festivals.
Kathi rolls and Jewish samosas at New Market
After this dose of culture, walk to Shobha bazaar metro station and take a subway ride from Girish Park to Esplanade. Keep an eye out for the incredible artworks in and around metro stations. Near Esplanade, visit the Gothic-style New Market which was built in 1874 for the British haute monde. Pick up a Jewish cheese samosa at the 1902 bakery, Nahoum and Sons established by Iraqi-Jew Nahoum Israel from Baghdad. Pick up roundels of smoked Bandel cheese and Kalimpong cheddar at J Johnsons. In adjoining Free School Street, you can buy old LPs and gramophone players, and Hungarian sausages from Kalman, a cold storage established by a Hungarian trapeze artist before WW II. The kathi rolls of Kolkata are famous. Try the ones at Nizam’s, situated behind New Market. If you are in the mood for proper lunch, try sumptuous Bengali food at the Bhoj Company (30A, Sudder St, opposite the Fire Brigade head quarter; phone: 033-2252 4241). The bhetki paturi – fish steamed in mustard sauce – is highly recommended.
A day in the life of south Kolkata
Next take a taxi to Deshopriyo Park. Walk along Rashbehari Avenue to catch a glimpse of life in a south Kolkata neighbourhood – kids playing cricket, people chatting over tea at roadside shacks, poring over newspapers and reading books. At Ananda, (190/2, Rash Behari Avenue; phone: 33-24646212), buy a comic on Feluda, Ray’s legendary sleuth. So what if you cannot read a word of Bengali. The best place for gifts is Dakhinapan, the state emporia complex at the end of Dhakuria bridge. You can buy handpicked Darjeeling tea at Dolly’s café. At the Manjusha emporium and khadi outlets, pick up Bengal sarees, Shantiniketan goods, kasundi (fiery Bengali mustard) and jars of golden honey from the Sunderbans.
Going retro at Park Street
Wrap up your day back at Park Street, which was the center of Kolkata’s nightlife in the swinging ’60s. Browse the shelves at Oxford Bookstore – started in 1902 – for Kolkata memorabilia like illustrated postcard sets and DVDs of Satyajit Ray’s films. Relax with a drink at Someplace Else, the pub at the Park Hotel that plays live music from some of Kolkata’s best bands. And dine at the retro Mocambo, which was a nightclub in the ’60s. Sink into red vinyl seats with matching lampshades in silk hanging low. Ask a liveried waiter to help you choose from crabcakes, devils on horseback, and baked Alaskas.