Where: Mumbai (a.k.a Bombay), Maharashtra, India.
When: October 2011.
Why: I visited Mumbai on my Himalaya adventure and Indian back packing trip. On this trip I visited Delhi, Dharamsala, Bir and the Himalaya, Agra, Varanasi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Mumbai, Goa and Hampi.
Mumbai is India’s largest city, with a population of over 16 million people. This sprawling conurbation sits on a spit of land curling out into the Arabian sea.
Ancient Bombay was actually made up of seven islands. The land in between the islands was reclaimed, so today the city sits on one long peninsular.
Most of the tourist sites are situated around the southern tip of the peninsular. particularly in the Colaba area – which is where you’ll find the key sites of the Gateway of India, CST station, upmarket bars and restaurants and the colonial buildings, wide boulevards and parks of the Raj era.
Before I went there, Mumbai scared me. I’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire; I’d heard the stories about this city and it’s terrible slums; the bombs and terrorist attacks. I’d seen the footage of the crazy over-crowded trains. I had no idea of what sort of a city I was going to – but I was scared. I thought Mumbai was going to be Delhi x 1,000,000… How wrong I was.
Far from being the crowded, stinking hell-hole that I was expecting, Mumbai was one of the nicest, most civilized cities that I visited in India. This is because Mumbai has money. Unlike the capital, Mumbai is rich. You can almost see the sky scrapers growing in front of you and there are nice bars, hotels, restaurants – places where the Bollywood stars and the business people can spend their new found wealth. Mumbai is the poster girl for the new, economically developing India.
The heart of Mumbai is the Colaba area. This is the old colonial centre. Here there are stately, magnificent marble buildings, including CST/Victoria station, the Taj Hotel, the Gateway to India, museums, boulevards and huge parks. This is a very pretty area of Mumbai – though it’s obviously more British Raj than Indian.
Mumbai is a cleaner city than many of the others I visited in India. The cows have been banned from the city centre – which is safer for traffic and hygiene; and the authorities are trying to stop people spitting everywhere – which again, is better for cleanliness and hygiene. I think they’ve still got a long way to go to clean up the city – but at least someone is taking responsibility and trying to make it better – something which I didn’t see so much of elsewhere in India.
Away from the centre there are huge amounts of poverty, huge slums and run down districts. Though these areas are very poor – they did not seem to be overly worse than other areas of India. Terrible as they are, after seeing the absolute poverty in Jodhpur – where people had no homes, no shelter at all – I started to see the slums of Mumbai in a different light. Yes these shacks and dwellings are awful – but at least the people have some sort of place to call their own – something the people sleeping on Jodhpur station did not. I hope the money in Mumbai starts trickling down to all of them soon.
I was only in Mumbai for a night. When I was planing the trip I knew that I couldn’t get from Udaipur to Goa without passing through Mumbai – but I was so wary that I only allowed myself one night there – a quick in and out – and I arranged to be there on a Sunday when I thought it would be less crazy. I also had a stinking cold when I was in Mumbai, so I only did one thing which was visit the Gateway to India, but I have written about this below.
I wish I had had more time in Mumbai. If I ever fly back to India, I will use Mumbai as my gateway airport, rather than Delhi. Mumbai is definitely the future of India, and though there are still huge amounts of poverty and corruption – at least they are trying to tackle the problems. Mumbai gave me hope. I actually kind of liked it.
I caught the train from Udaipur to Mumbai. The journey took seventeen hours and it cost me £18 for a second-class, air conditioned ticket – which included a reserved bunk to sleep in. I booked the ticket in advance through Cleartrip.
When you book Indian train tickets, if they do not have enough seats they will allocate you an RAC ticket or put you on a wait list. The RAC tickets means that as soon as someone cancels their booking – you can get their seat, or you can turn up at the station and just travel. The wait list is similar but you are much less likely to get a seat. This journey was the only journey that I booked an RAC ticket, all of my other bookings were fully confirmed.
A few days before I travelled I had a confirmation email to say that I could definitely travel and that I had a reserved seat, but they didn’t tell me the seat number. To find out which seat I was in, I had to look at the train list (which was on a noticeboard on the departure platform) – and this told me where I needed to go. I got to the station an hour before my train in case I had problems finding this information, but it was actually just on the platform and really easy to find.
On this train journey, I travelled nearly 1,000 km and crossed over the Tropic of Cancer – although I had a rotten cold and slept for most of the journey.
The train came into Mumbai Bandra Terminus Station (MBTS), which is a long way north of the city centre. If I’d have had the choice I would have come in to CST station which is right in the centre, but there is only one train from Udaipur to Mumbai.
Bandra station is a huge station, but with very few facilities and I didn’t see any shops (I was desperate for some tissues as I had a rotten cold). The station was not directly connected to the rest of the transport network – but Khar Road metro station was near by: about 15 minutes walk from Bandra Station or five minutes in a tuk tuk.
At Khar Road Metro Station I bought a first class ticket to Churchgate, which is a station in the Colaba area. The ticket cost me about 60p.
The Metro trains are crazy! I was there on a Sunday so it wasn’t tooooo bad and the ladies carriages and the first class carriages weren’t too crowded (I actually got a seat for most of my journey). However, the trains only stopped at the station for ten seconds, so I missed a few trains. I had to run to find a carriage with space and to get on the train. I’m sure the locals know where to position themselves to be by the doors, but with my backpack it was tricky trying to get into position.
I’ve been told the best thing to do if you are a girl is to hang out with the ladies, as they know where the ladies carriages will stop and you can hop on with them, and the ladies carriages are much less crowded.
When I got to Churchgate, I caught a cute taxi (an iconic Premier Padmini) to my hotel. This cost me 100 rupees.
Mumbai transport is nuts. The train system in Mumbai is the busiest in the world. This comprehensive network of trains carries 6.1 million people every day! They describe sixteen people per square meter as ‘crowded’ (how could you even fit sixteen people in one square meter!) It is normal for commuters to hang out of the carriages, out of the open doors and apparently seventeen people die on the Mumbai railways each day.
My only experience of the crazy train network was my trip from Khar Road to Churchgate. The train journey wasn’t too bad – once I was able to board the train. The trains really only stopped for ten seconds and that just wasn’t time for me to find the door and jump on. And this was on a relatively quiet day; it must be a dangerous nightmare on a busy day with hundreds of people trying to jump on and off the train in such a short space of time.
My guidebook says that you should avoid using the rail network at all times, except on Sundays (no wonder I was scared of this city).
For myself, once I was in the Colaba area, the only place that I travelled to was to The Gateway to India and the Taj Hotel, and I caught a taxi to these places (about 100 – 150 rupees from CST). I walked to CST station from my hotel in the evening and I didn’t feel too unsafe, but I did get a taxi there at 5 a.m.
What I did on my stop-over
The Gateway to India
Like I say, I hardly did anything in Mumbai. I had a rotten cold and I was only there for an evening, so the only touristy thing that I did was to visit the Gateway to India.
I helped arrange a film shoot in India in 2006 and I remember my colleagues telling me the problems they’d had filming at the Gateway to India – and at the time I remember thinking that I had no idea what this was or why it was such a key site.
The Gateway to India is a huge ceremonial archway, built on the harbour front, to commemorate the visit of George V and Queen Mary in 1911. It’s a very nice archway, and it’s a nice place to watch the sunset. It’s very busy with tourists and people having fun and is a nice thing to visit.
The Taj Hotel (which was tragically attacked in the 2008 terrorist attacks) overlooks the Gateway of India.
I walked back towards my hotel down Shahid Baghad, where there were many nice restaurants and shops. It was the least Indian place that I went to in India. I found a very nice café where I ate luxury sandwiches and read the Times of India for a good hour.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) station (formerly Victoria Terminus) (UNESCO)
CST station is gorgeous (on the outside). This is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most famous buildings in Mumbai. It is also in a key location which makes it feel as if this is the heart of the city (the Times of India offices are opposite the station).
Opened in 1887, the Victoria Terminus was built by the British Empire. It’s a beautiful building of domes, statues, gates, windows etc. It is stately and gorgeous and a beautiful remnant of the lost empire.
Inside, it’s grotty and horrible (I saw a few rats), but it is also busy and bustling and a great station for facilities. If you are looking for cash points or a pharmacy, newsagent or information – head to CST Terminus. I travelled out of there at 5 a.m. and I was able to get a good supply of newspapers, foods and medicines for the huge journey down to Goa.
Tragically, the station was attacked in the 2008 terrorist attacks, but I saw no evidence of the attacks, no tribute or memorial. There was security, but it was quite lax.
Around CST station, in the Colaba area of the city, you will find the old imperial heart of the city – parks and cricket pitches, stately buildings and fountains. It was very pretty and I liked it.
What I didn’t do
I hardly spent any time in Mumbai, but from what friends have told me and from my research for this page, it looks like there’s loads of things to see and do here; and if you can bear the craziness, the crowds and the heat, then you could potentially spend a good week here and not be bored.
Below are some of the key things that I missed but there are many. many more. For more information on other things you can do in the city, check out some of the useful links at the bottom of this page.
For all intents and purposes, Colaba is the main focal point of the city for tourists. Located at the tip of the peninsular, Colaba is the district in which you will find the old colonial, Raj era architecture, including the Taj Hotel, the Court House, Victoria and Albert Museum and CST station. I only drove through this area, but I was very tempted to linger here. There were wonderful, inviting, shady, cool parks, where people were relaxing and playing cricket; wide boulevards; upmarket shops and restaurants; palm trees and gardens. It was all very yum.
The Fort district is named after Fort George; the British (East India Company) fort, which used to be located here. This used to be the heart of the cty and is now the central business district. Though most of the fort complex was knocked down in the mid-nineteenth century, you can still see some of the walls of the old fort.
Elephant Caves (UNESCO)
The Elephant Caves are seven caves on Elephant Island. Also known as ‘the City of Caves’ these rock cut caves are carved with beautiful statues and reliefs of Shiva. The caves date from the 5th to the 8th centuries, though at the moment they are not sure who created and carved them. There are five Hindu caves and two Buddhist Caves.
Apparently the Portuguese found the caves in 1570, then used them for target practice.
This is the one thing that I really regret not doing in Mumbai as the Elephant Caves sound magical.
Elephant Island is located 10km from Mumbai and you can catch a ferry there from the Gateway of India. The boat ride takes about an hour. Apparently the caves are closed on Mondays.
Wikipedia has an interesting page with lots of information on the history of the caves; Wikivoyage has comprehensive information about making a visit to the caves and I’d recommend reading this before heading to the island as it has really useful information. Apparently the boat usually costs about 180 rupees (£2 ish), there’s a fee of 5 rupees (6p) to go onto the hill that the caves are on and then entrance to the caves costs 500 rupees for foreigners (£6).
Two ladies that I know both ended up being extras in Bollywood movies when they went to Mumbai. The way both of them tell it, they were just approached in a bar or on the street to see if they fancied being in a movie, and they both ended up having a fun day, wearing expensive gowns, pretending to be in a casino or a Western night-club.
The Bollywood (Hindi) movie industry is based in Mumbai and they produce over 1,000 movies per year, often running at over three hours long – that is a lot of production!
Martina Sheehan on Orbitz has a good blog which tells you where casting agents hang out in Mumbai and some good advice about how to ensure they are legit and to stay safe (basically, ask for ID and go in a group).
If you’d like to see a movie being made but don’t want to be an extra then you can book a Bollywood Tour.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (King Shivaji object collection) (a.k.a. CSMVS) is a key museum in India that houses over 50,000 exhibits. This Gothic building is located in Jijamata Udyaan (formerly known as Victoria Gardens), close to the Gateway of India.
Tickets for a foreign adult cost 500 rupees (£6) and it costs 100 rupees to take photos (£1.20). www.csmvs.in
If you are in Mumbai for a couple of days, you might wish to visit some of the other museums and galleries in town. The Culture Trip lists some of the other museum and galleries in Mumbai.
One that I would be fascinated to visit is The Asiatic Society Library. This library, located in the old Town Hall, has an original Italian copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as many important texts and relics from across Asia and beyond. asiaticsociety.org.in.
Marine Drive is a coastal road with a pretty promenade that runs along the bay in south Mumbai. Apparently it is a nice place to hang out and walk along the sea-front. Apparently it has lots of nice restaurants, art-deco buildings and a beach at the north end.
You can, if you so wish, take a tour of Dharavi slum to learn a little bit more about the Indian slums, how they work and the people who live there.
If you are going to do a tour of the slums, it would be great if you could go with a company who put the money back into the area. Reality Tours and Travel are an NGO who put 80% of their profits back into Dharavi, via their educational charity, Reality Gives. realitytoursandtravel.com/slum-tour.php
Antilia: The world’s most expensive home
In contrast, you can, if you so wish, go and have a look at the world’s most expensive home: the $2 billion skyscraper build by the world’s 9th richest man, Mukesh Ambani.
Antilia is a 27 floor tower, located on Mumbai’s richest street, Altamount Road. Each floor is architecturally different and the tower block has three hanging gardens and tree helicopter pads. It sounds like a James Bond baddie lair. Personally, I don’t think it looks that pretty. To me it looks like a modern concrete office-block, better suited to somewhere like Coventry.
Many have criticised Ambani for his lack of empathy, building such a home so close to the slums. There’s also, as with most major projects in India, corruption allegations over the building of the property.
Tower of Silence: Zoroastrian funeral tower
Another Mumbai tower that you may wish to know about but that you cannot visit is the Tower of Silence, the Zoroastrian funeral tower. Zoroastrianism is the fire religion, which originated around the Caspian Sea. It is one of the oldest world religions.
Followers of Zoroaster place their deceased out in the open, on top of circular funerary towers (dakhma), for scavenger birds such as vultures. These birds quickly ‘process’ the bodies, in an ecologically sound way.
On Malabar Hill in Mumbai, located in a forest, there is a 300 year old Zoroastrian funerary tower. Sadly, because of a decline in the local vulture population, this funeral process is now under threat. This Guardian article explains more.
Where I stayed
Hotel New Bengal
Hotel New Bengal is a transit hotel, which I booked for it’s location and it’s relatively cheap price.
I’ve heard horror stories about the accommodation in Mumbai – stories of bedbugs and thieves and terrible facilities – so I was happy to pay a little bit more for an okay place to stay for the one night.
What my £28 got me was a room without windows, a teeny creaky single bed and a TV. But the room was clean (by Indian standards), I had a good shower (by Indian standards) and I was as close to CST station as I could be for my 5 a.m. departure. If it hadn’t have been for that early departure I wouldn’t have stayed here, though for one night it wasn’t too bad.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny, unless otherwise stated. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.