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The Hitchhiker’s guide to Mumbai

Posted by Shashank Shekhar on June 12, 2013

The Mumbai Skyline

Mumbai is noise, a constant chatter. It’s a fusion of the most varied flavours not necessarily palatable; an enigma often sighed upon or at times spoken off in awe. Whatever your impression of this megacity is, a fact that cannot be denied is that Mumbai is a blast!

In Mumbai, you may have a hard time locating the quintessential tourist spots unlike Delhi with its large cache of grand Mughal monuments but the fact is that this city has always worked on a beat rather different from the rest of the country.  So, in the true Mumbaikar spirit here’s a list of ‘things to do’ while you’re in Mumbai and trust me you’ll come back for more.

1) Sunrise / Sunset at the seafront

Mumbai derives its character from the great sea shores that offer instant relief from the daily grinds of city life. Some of the most popular beaches / seafronts in Mumbai are located at Juhu, Girgaum and Bandra. The Juhu and Girgaum beaches are popularly known as ‘Chowpatty’ and the sea front to go for while in Bandra is the Bandra Bandstand where you’ll find hordes of crazy fans waiting outside Shahrukh Khan’s as well as Salman Khan’s residence. The Juhu and Girgaum chowpattys are fun places to visit in the evenings where the environment is akin to that of a carnival especially on weekends. The favourite thing to do here is to binge on the famous ‘chowpatty bhelpuris’. On the other hand the Bandra Bandstand is a quieter place fit for an evening stroll and settling down for a cup of coffee by the sea.

My pick: Go for a morning jog at the beaches. The combination of clean air with pristine beaches and hardly any crowd is stuff right out of the picture postcards. There is an ISKON temple a few minutes away from Juhu beach. I’d suggest you attend the morning aarti there if you happen to be by the beach. It’s a blissful setting with devotees singing praises of Krishna with drums and guitars et al. More than a religious experience, it’s a spiritual one!

At Bandstand, walk further towards the end of the road (Taj Land’s End) towards the Bandra fort garden. Ignore the ‘coochie cooing‘ couples and head for the top for the most spectacular view of the Bandra-Worli Sealink!

Nearest local stations: Vile Parle station for Juhu beach; Marine Lines station for Girgaum Chowpatty and Bandra station for Bandra Bandstand.

Sunset at Bandra Bandstand

2) Sunset at Haji Ali: Haji Ali is a famous dargah that houses the tomb of Sayed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. This 15th century structure is built on a tiny island connected right off the coast of Worli in Mumbai. Sitting on the rocks behind the dargah in the evenings with the sea waves splashing on them is a favourite pastime for many. It’s actually a culmination of a thousand emotions if you were to ask me. A view of the city form a distance with the waves splashing and the sweet rhythms of the qawali singers – all conspire to serenade you into an endless chain of thoughts and emotions. After spending those few well deserved moments at the dargah, you can visit the Heera-Panna shopping complex right across the road which is famous for cheap imported electronic goods following which you can end your day with a scrumptious meal at Cafe Noorani famous Mughlai cuisine. The Reshmi Tikka Biryani is a must try here.

Best time to visit the dargah is between 5 & 6:30 pm or am. Weekends at the dargah are more crowded than weekdays. Get down at the Mahalakshmi station and hop onto a cab for Haji Ali.

The Haji-Ali Dargah stands silhouetted against the setting sun

3) The ferry ride to Elephanta: A ferry ride on the Arabian Sea is a must especially for those who haven’t experienced deep waters. The sight of no land around you while you’re standing on the deck of a wobbly boat is quite an adventure in itself. The Elephanta Island is famous for the Elephanta Caves, a designated world heritage site. A deluxe ferry ticket costs Rs. 150/head for Adult & Rs. 90/head for kids. Some ferry operators also charge an additional 10 bucks or so if you wish to climb on the deck to soak in the view.  It’s totally worth it!

Colaba, the area around the Gateway of India, is a great place to hangout at anytime of the day. So after you’re back from the ferry ride and still in a mood to explore, there are a lot of thing you can do here. From unwinding over a cup of latte at Starbucks behind the Taj hotel to feasting on some great sizzlers at the Alps restaurant. The fact that Leopold’s, Mondegar and Bade Miyaan are also in the vicinity also helps your cause a lot.

Note: The first ferry to Elephanta leaves from the Gateway of India leaves after 9 am and the last ferry from Elephanta leaves at 5:30 pm. There are no facilities for an overnight stay on the Elephanta Island. You can take a cab from either Churchgate or CST station to reach the Gateway of India. Please note: The ferries do not operate in the monsoon season.

View of the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gateway of India from the ferry

4) Getting silly drunk at Leopold’s, Mondegar, Janta and Totos:  These places that I’ve mentioned are some of the most popular and iconic city institutions. Depending on the area you’re in, you can hop into any of these pubs and binge on endless beer pitchers that have for so long been etched in the memories of generations of city dwellers and tourists alike. While Leopold’s and Mondegar are neighbours and are located in Colaba Causeway, Janta and Totos are based out of the Pali Hill area in Bandra. Janta is particularly a cheap no frills joint meant for large groups while Leopold’s is the most expensive of the lot. It was here at Leopold’s that terrorists opened fire at beer guzzlers during the 26/11 attacks. The bullet holes from the fated attacks have been preserved by the owners.

Leopold’s Cafe Mumbai

The bullet holes inflicted by terrorists during the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Instead of replacing the glass, the owners of Leopold’s decided to preserve it.

5) A walking tour of Fort: The old heritage buildings of Mumbai are some of the most charming structures built on Indian soil. Most of these buildings have pages of history attached to them. Like the Bombay House that has been the head office of the Tata Group since 1924. It is among these lanes that you’ll find the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) which was once India’s tallest tower. These quaint lanes dotted with famous Irani restaurants and cafes and add further to the charms of an area that has historically had the highest density of millionaires in the country! Historical buildings such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) that was formerly called the Victoria Terminus (VT) and the Asiatic Society Library draw a considerable number of tourists towards their fold.

The Asiatic Society Library building built in 1804

6) Staring at the sea at Marine Drive:  Marine drive is Mumbai’s most famous landmark along with the Gateway of India and the Taj hotel. But sitting idle and staring at the waves is something you can do endlessly. That’s the beauty of Marine drive. After sunset the famous road lights up with thousands of street lamps and it is this view of the road from the top that is referred to as ‘Queen’s necklace’. New Year’s Eve and the Diwali night are times when Marine Drive becomes a party haven and also on days when there is an IPL or an international match at the adjoining Wankhede stadium. Food should be your last worry at the Marine Drive. While spending a leisurely afternoon at Pizza By The Bay is a great but expensive idea, the cheap but awesome food at Crystal (Opp. Girgaum Chowpatty) works like a wonder for the budget traveller. And don’t forget to wind up your food experience with an exquisite malai kulfi from Kulfi Centre a few steps away from Crystal. There is a New Yorker’s, a Cream Centre and a Shiv Sagar for those who prefer not to experiment with their palates!

A view of the Marine Drive

7) Seafood at Pratap, Mahesh Lunch Home, Gajalee:  “Bambai aaya aur machchi nahi khaya.”  (You’ve come to Bombay and haven’t had fish.) These profound words were spoken to me by an old waiter in a small Malvani joint. I know of many men and women (including me) who weren’t particularly fond of seafood initially but are now committed fish eaters.

Located in a narrow lane about five minutes from Hutatma chowk in Fort, Pratap Lunch Home is a seafood lover’s delight. The awesome prawns gassi with jaada rice and surmai tawa fry or the crab tandoori are the all-time favourites here. And of course, it all goes down very well with a glass of chilled lager by the side. At Mahesh Lunch Home, you’ll never find an empty seat especially during business hours. Although this one is on the expensive side, but try the crabs and lobsters here. Oh! You’re gonna be back for more and what can I say about Gajalee. Located in Vile Parle East, a typical residential area, Gajalee’s food is pricey but way superior to any of its contemporaries when it comes to flavour. Try the delectable Bombay Duck and experience how it melts in your mouth. Avoid beer and instead flush your taste buds with the refreshing solkadi. The mutton and chicken dishes here are also well worth a try but really its seafood all the way here if you ask me.

The Fried Fish Thali at Gajalee (c) Jeffery

8) The longest bus ride across Mumbai: This one is a crazy idea but I urge you to give it a shot. The Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) runs an AC Express bus service from Colaba to Borivali. The bus ride (A-76 Express) literally gives you a true flavour of what Mumbai is all about. Traffic jams, Mukesh Ambani’s $2 billion castle in the air – Antilla, the Bandra-Worli Sea link, the Bandra reclamation, the jam-packed Western Express Highway, the airport’s fancy Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower (second highest in India) etc.  A convenient point to hop on the bus is from Churchgate station. Cost of bus ticket is Rs. 120. (Timings of A-76 from Colaba: 9.45 10.15 10.55 17.40 18.00 18.20)

Another bus route is 44km long bus journey from Borivali to Vashi in Navi Mumbai. The ticket here costs just Rs. 22 (non ac) and the ride takes about two hours. The frequency of buses on this route from Borivali station is about every 15 minutes.

The Bandra-Worli Sealink

9) Hangout at the Prithvi Café: Of the three ‘C’s that define us as Indians, the third ‘C’ stands for ‘Cinema’, the others being ‘Cricket’ & ‘Curry’. And Mumbai is home to Cinema. Prithvi theatre is that fertile ground where you’ll often bump into the likes of Naseeruddin Shah and Shashi Kapoor apart from the plethora of actors who come here to either perform in plays or just hang out at the Prithvi Café. The air is relaxed and you’ll find most of the patrons sipping casually from a cup of ‘cutting chai’. I’d strongly recommend that you watch a play here too and especially the one with Naseeruddin Shah in it, if it’s on.

Tip: The Juhu branch of Mahesh Lunch Home is a very close to Prithvi theatre and so it will be a good idea to club the two for those fond of seafood.

Prithvi Cafe @ Prithvi Theatre

10) The 1AM dinner at Bade Miyan: In description, Bade Miyan is a food stall located in a Colaba gully. But the legend of Bade Miyan precedes its physical manifestation. Known for its sumptuous seekh kebabs and bhuna ghost, you will never find an empty seat at Bade Miyan even at 12 midnight. The narrow lane housing the stall is forever crowded with car owners waiting impatiently for the goodies. It’s an ideal dinner joint after a night of heavy binging especially if you’ve just stepped out of Leopold’s or Mondegar which are just a few blocks away.

At Bade Miyan…way past midnight

11) Become a punter at the racecourse: Ever imagined yourself betting on horses like they used to do in those old Hollywood movies. In Mumbai you can! Walk into the Mahalaxmi Race Course on race days and you’ll be admitted into the non-members stand after paying nominal entry fees of Rs. 40. After then, you can approach any of the counters there and indulge in some serious betting! The minimum betting amount is Rs. 10 and I’d suggest that you stick to lesser denominations! Racing season in Mumbai falls between November & April and the first Sunday of every February, the racecourse comes alive with the annual derby race – the mother of all page 3 parties!!

Gallops, Neel & Olive Bar & Kitchen are well known restaurants within the vicinity of the racecourse and are excellent options to while away lazy afternoons or a romantic dinner date. Although on the expensive side, Gallops, with its very English fine-dining setting and succulent kebabs is a must try.

A typical race in progress at the racecourse

12) Khotachi Wadi: Khotachi Wadi is a tiny heritage precinct located right in the heart of Mumbai. Most of the houses over here are about 100-200  years old and still have their original inhabitants as their residents – the East Indian Christians. The narrow lanes of Khotachi Wadi with its old Portuguese-style houses comes across as a whiff of fresh air for city dwellers and for a moment it does feel like you’re in Goa! Khotachi Wadi is a piece of living history which connects the old with the new. The narrow cobbled lanes and the art deco style architecture has stood the test of time and offers an entirely different perspective on the way Mumbai once was. And for the visitor, it’s a great escape from Mumbai but within Mumbai!

A narrow lane at Khotachi Wadi.

13) The Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) a.k.a Borivali National Park: The Borivali National Park is one of the most unique wildlife sanctuaries in the world. That’s because this beautiful preserve which is spread across a region of over 104 sq. kms falls right in the heart of Mumbai’s northern suburbs. SGNP is visited by millions of tourists every year and the most popular attractions here are the centuries old Kanheri Caves, the lion and tiger safari, boating at the lake and the toy train ride at the park. While the park is a designated picnic spot for families, it is also a favourite haunt of nature lovers. Regular treks and nature walks are organised by various clubs and societies which have gained quite a bit of popularity here. It’s the perfect getaway from the city!

On a nature trail at the The Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP)

 

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