When to go, what to see, and what to eat in West Bengal’s cosmopolitan capital.
It might not look like it, with its grand, crumbling buildings, but Kolkata—in eastern India, capital of the state of West Bengal—is one of India’s younger cities. As a port city and capital of British India from 1772 to 1911, then known as Calcutta (an Anglicized rendering of Kolikata, the city’s Bengali name) it drew migrants from all over India, China, the Middle East, and Europe. With wealth and prosperity came the architecture to match, and the cultural and intellectual awakening in the second half of the 19th century known as the Bengali Renaissance. In 1911, in the twilight of the empire and facing increasing nationalist sentiment in India, the British moved the capital to New Delhi, and Kolkata’s prominence began to decline.
- Visit in winter… The weather is best during northern India’s dry winter (December-February), when temperatures are around the high 70s Fahrenheit during the day and the 50s at night (Kolkatans bundle up like it’s much colder). Bring layers for the early morning and be prepared to shed them by midday. But be warned that in winter, without the rain, and with farmers burning their fields to prepare for the next crop, the air quality (which is already pretty bad) drops considerably across northern India, Kolkata included. Bring a mask.
- …or during Durga Puja. Kolkata lights up during Durga Puja, a five-day festival honoring the patron goddess of Bengali Hindus. Bengalis refer to her as Ma Durga, Mother Durga, and families dress up, give each other gifts, and visit the many pandals (shrines) usually set up by neighborhood associations. The pandals can be elaborate affairs, and people travel across town to visit the best ones. (Just follow the crowds to find them). It’s a festive time of year for Kolkatans of all classes, and there’s now even a campaign to include transgender women and widows, two groups that have traditionally excluded from the festivities of the sindoor khela, when women apply sindoor—orange, cosmetic powder—to each other’s faces on the final day of the Durga Puja. The timing varies from year to year, but Durga Puja usually lands sometime between late September and November.
- Find a base in the center. Kolkata is a big, sprawling city. It’s best to find accommodation in the city center (in the areas just east of the Maidan, the city’s largest park) where there are many options, from the luxurious Oberoi Grand to budget hostels, as well as easy access to public transport. Sudder Street, close to the New Market shopping complex, is backpacker central, so avoid that if you want somewhere (slightly) more peaceful.
- Know your neighborhoods. Bengalis call the city’s neighborhoods paras, and in many ways they’re still the organizational unit of the city, dating back to when the British first set up a trading post in 1690 among a series of villages. Paras were sometimes rooted in caste or profession—for example, Kumartuli for potters, Muchipara for cobblers, and Darjipara for tailors. Some of the neighborhoods, such as Kumartuli, are still home to the businesses that gave them their name. Kolkata’s paras each have neighborhood associations that are responsible for setting up religious festivals on the Bengali calendar.
- See art being made in Kumartuli. This neighborhood, a network of alleys in North Kolkata, is home to many potters and sculptors who craft idols, religious and secular—everything from the goddess Durga to leaders of India’s independence movement. Many of the statues are based on armatures made of straw that are then coated in clay, or molds made out of fiberglass. It happens right out in the open for everyone to see, and you’ll see the work at every stage of the process.
- Be strategic about transport. Kolkata’s Metro system (which was the first in India and opened in 1984) is clean, reliable, and easy to use, and it’s the best way to get to North Kolkata and the business center of the city. To get to Metro stations and through crowded neighborhoods, grab a rickshaw or auto-rickshaw (Kolkata is one of the few remaining cities in the world with hand-pulled rickshaws). Kolkata’s fleet of yellow cabs is comprised of bulky Hindustan Motors’ Ambassador cars (a model first manufactured in the 1950s and source of nostalgia for Indians) and their meters don’t work, so you’ll have to negotiate a price. In much of central Kolkata, including the areas east of the Maidan, it’s often fastest to walk, and residents are happy to point you in the right direction if you get lost. Kolkata’s lumbering buses and trams are crowded at any time of day, and while buses display the start the start and final destination the route often isn’t clear—and they tend to get stuck in traffic.
- Get stuck into Bengali cuisine. The local cuisine is known for combining bitter and sweet flavors, its extensive use of mustard seed and poppy seed, and for freshwater fish and vegetable curries. It’s a far cry from creamy, meaty cuisine of North India or the Indian takeout in Western countries. Bhojohori Manna is one of the city’s most popular places for Bengali home cooking, and it makes an addictive fish-fry (a flaky, white fish fillet, deep-fried and served with a sinus-clearing mustard sauce). Their menu is large, but order a thali to try a bit of everything. Bengalis love their freshwater fish, but they come with lots of bones that you’ll have to pick apart with your hands. This can be a challenge for the novice, and if you want to start out with something more user-friendly, try Bhojohori Manna’s chingri malai curry, a rich coconut milk-based prawn dish. Oh! Calcutta, inside one of Kolkata’s major shopping malls in the Bhowanipore neighborhood, serves classic Bengali curries.
- Try the original kati roll at Nizam’s. This kebab joint is, supposedly, the inventor of the kati roll, a greasy paratha rolled up and filled with kebab- or other kinds of grilled meat. Nizam’s recently stopped serving beef—because right-wing Hindu vigilantes campaigning to end beef-eating have attacked cattle traders, leading to supply issues—but the mutton and chicken fillings are delicious. They come wrapped in paper, and are a great snack to grab while on the go.
- Cross the river. Kolkata sits on the banks of the Hooghly River, a tributary of the Ganges, just north of the Bay of Bengal. There are many points where you can cross, but the best one is north of the city, at Dakshineswar. Hop on one of the rickety boats from the Kalighat temple complex and cross over to Belur Math, a complex of parks and shrines founded by Swami Vivekananda, a 19th-century Hindu reformer. The architecture is a mix of Hindu, Islamic, and Western styles, reflecting its founder’s belief in the unity of all faiths. But the journey there is almost more interesting than the destination itself; temples and crumbling old buildings stand alongside apartment buildings and factories, and bathers and worshippers fill up the ghats as you pass. It makes for a peaceful respite.
- Know your Bengali sweets… Bengalis are known for their sweet tooth (and be warned, Bengali sweets can be very, very sweet). Sandesh is a milk-based confection that comes in various shapes, sizes, and colors; try the caramel-colored nolen gur, sweetened with jaggery. The ladikeni, made of cheese curds and flour and soaked in syrup, is a variant of the gulab jamun, allegedly named after the wife of a British viceroy, Lady Canning, who was said to love the dish. Sweet shops are everywhere in Kolkata, and which are the best is the subject of fierce debate. Try Ghosh & Co in North Kolkata, which makes a terrific gulab jamun with a bit of saffron and pistachio inside, or K.C. Das, which claims to be the inventor of the rossogulla, a cottage-cheese dumpling soaked in syrup. Ballaram Mullick, a chain with a few locations across Kolkata, serves great sandesh and mishti doi (yogurt sweetened with jaggery).