Despite Kolkata (aka Calcutta) was once the capital city of India, the thought of visiting Kolkata always intimidated me. From other travelers I’d talked to, I got the impression it must’ve been the armpit of India~ poverty and disease ridden, old, crumbling… Hence, it took my third trip to muster the courage to make it to India’s former capital.
The moment my airport taxi hit the road, I immediately sensed I’d like this city. I wanted to see India and my travels with new eyes. I was a traveler in search of human stories, which I’d find memorable and extraordinary.
That’s certainly, what I got. If you ask me of all the cities I’ve visited, Kolkata now stands as one of my top Indian gems and a city worth spending time in.
Things to Do in Kolkata (Do, See and Eat)
Kolkata is the capital of India’s West Bengal state. and formerly the capital of India when it was under the British Raj in 1773. Today it’s a city with a traditional soul, colonial architecture, cultural festivals, lots of car honking and street food. So come along. I’m going to show you my favorite highlights of this unique city.
1. Taking the city bus
Getting around Kolkata isn’t so difficult. Aside from the standard Ambassador taxis, you can get around using the city bus, tram or metro. I always try to use the city bus when I can as it gives me a feeling I have control over my itinerary plans, as I also gain insight into the local lifestyle. While the metro has been the easiest to use to skirt around, there are places the metro can’t reach which the city bus can… Muliick Ghat Flower Market and Howrah Bridge. Read my tips on how to use a city bus in a foreign country (here and here and more tips on Indian buses)
2. Mullick Ghat Flower Market
Mullick Ghat Flower Market is Kolkata’s biggest and busiest flower market. Flowers are an essential part of life in the city and are sold for temple prayers, wedding decorations and festivals. Arrive 8am in the morning to see the flower sellers haggle, negotiate and transport their bundles. Unlike what you see in photos, there are very few female vendors. The majority of transactions occur between men.
3. Howrah Bridge
Spanning the width of the Hoogly River, you have Howrah Bridge, a steel and iron landmark bridge connecting central Kolkata (and the Mullick Ghat Flower Market) to Howrah Station. Early in the morning you can see people going to their daily worship, taking a bath in the river. A great place for people watching, you’ll see daily commuters, travelers and work porters transport goods and big bundles of goods at all times of day.
When you come to India, you will see a lot because India is truly amazing. Location: sandwiched between the Mullick Ghat Flower Market and Howrah Train Station. You can take one of the many buses enroute to Howrah Station and have them drop you near the flower market.
4. Howrah Station
Howrah Station is Kolkata’s second railway station and one of India’s largest. It’s said that an estimated two million people arrive and depart by Howrah station each day.
Note: Getting from the airport to Howrah Station should take at the least 45 minutes, but expect it to take over an hour if you’re traveling during peak traffic hours or during a festival. It’s further than Sealdah Station and you have to cross the river.
Kumortuli or the potter’s colony of Kolkata was by far one of the most fascinating highlights of the city for me. The colony is reknown for their production of clay idols of Hindu gods and goddesses. I visited before the big Kali festival, so many sculptors were busy at work sculpting Kali goddess statues.
There are hundreds of potter shops and their work supplies Kolkata and is exported throughout India.
It was helpful to be accompanied by a guide I had for a half day through Viator. While much of Kumortoli seems self-explanatory, wandering the shops alone might have felt a little awkward for me. Having a guide helped me to get closer with my camera.
6. Shared autorickshaws
A street secret I recently learned is that you can hire a shared autorickshaw. Used by locals, the shared rickshaw drops passengers along a certain route. Often you’ll notice them waiting around gathering passengers and you can ask if they’re going to your location. The driver won’t leave until he has a full vehicle and locals are typically charged a fraction of the normal cost. Travelers still might pay a tourist price but it’s worth the experience, being squished between Indian passengers as you witness how many can pile into your car.
7. Khalighat Temple
Khalighat temple is a main pilgrimage temple for devotees of Kali. Being a main site, it’s very busy. There’s street vendors and touts trying to usher you in and sell you places to park your shoes and it’s a little too nutty for me now. If you come at night, there are a lot of festivities where you’ll see a lot of people here and there are a lot of shops to go to.
8. Street Food
Of Indian cities, Kolkata is a foodie capital best known for its street food. You’ll find food hawkers line the sidewalk with samosas to chai, chinese noodles, chat and … a stroll down the streets is like a walk down a buffet line. For a few rupees (costing anywhere from 5 to 45 cents USD), you can have a mouthwatering feast. See some of the favorite foods to try . When in Kolkata, eating street food is a must. For more on foods to eat in Kolkata, post coming soon!
9. Kolkata Food Walk
If you feel timid about trying new foods, highly recommended is the Kolkata Food Walk. It’s a tour run by voluntarily by local foodies, where you get to taste the best and most mouthwatering street food in Kolkata at scandalously inexpensive prices. You’ll pay for the foods you try and you’ll get to try a lot! Come with an empty stomach. This is an exceptional food tour (and food tours can run at the least $40USD and up!) run strictly by volunteer, so a donation is suggested.
10. Colonial Architecture & City Tours
Kolkata was once ruled by a British Raj, so colonial architecture is a feature of the city. The most well-preserved architecture are in the BBD Bagh area, which houses government institutions and it’s best to hire a guide or take a city tour in order to understand what to see.
I took a half day city tour with Viator to learn about Kolkata’s history, see its colonial architecture in the impressive BBD Bagh district, visit the sculptor colony of Kumortoli and witness the madness of Burrabazaar /Kolay Market. The tour also took me into the more local pockets of the city. I got my own personal driver and having an English speaking guide to share insights into the landmarks was invaluable! Although I don’t think we were able to cover everything that was mentioned on the website’s itinerary, we covered a helluva lot in a matter of a short time and it was a solid city tour.
Alternatively, the West Bengal Tourism Department offers a Kolkata day tour for 450 rupees. The itinerary doesn’t mention the obvious places mentioned in your guidebook, but depending on your focus or budget, it’s still a viable option. I was unable to take this tour–the office was not easy to find –and it was best to book in person. But it provides additional sightseeing to your stay.
11. College Street (aka Book Market)
College Street is also known as Boi Para (aka Book Market), Asia’s largest book market, a shining testament of the reading culture of the people of Kolkata.
12. Sealdah Station
There’s two main train stations in Kolkata (Howrah Station & Sealdah Station). Sealdah Station is one of the busiest railway stations of India. It’s located centrally in the city, while Howrah is a bit further crossing the river, past Howrah Bridge.
Getting There from the airport: The station is not accessible via metro. You will need to take either, a city bus or airport taxi to Sealdah Station.
13. Kolay Market | Burabazzar
Opposite Sealdah Train Station, Kolay Market sells vegetables in wholesale bundles. Produce comes in from all parts of India and then gets auctioned off and goes back out. According to my local Viator guide, some parcels of produce can weigh up to 400 Kg and four to five persons carry this from the main road off the truck and into the market.
14. Kolay Market laborers
So if the sheer quantity of produce in Kolay Market doesn’t impress you maybe this will. .. The Kolay Market laborers that unload and transport those heaping bundles work in long shifts and sleep nearby so they can be the first to unload trucks that arrive. Some bundles might take one man, while others may require 4 or 5. They earn about 500 Rupees a day. How’s that for a day’s hard work?
15. Indian Museum
Indian Museum (aka the Magic House.) founded in 1814, it is the oldest museum in India and the most impressive one I’ve seen yet. It’s a spacious museum of artifacts, anthropology and interesting zoology exhibitions. Highly worth the 50Rs to enter. Admission: 150 ruppees for foreigners. 50 rupees if you want to take a camera inside.
16. New Market
The New Market, otherwise known as the Hogg Market, is a covered shopping area with over 2000 shops selling anything from clothing to sweets and spices. It’s interesting to see what stocks Kolkata’s kitchens and you’ll definitely get to see some of it.
Being vegetarian it’s definitely hard for me to see all these chickens (and butchers right next door, de-feathering and chopping them up). But put in this context it makes me realize that everyone has to survive in their own way. While a majority of India is vegetarian due to religious and dietary reasons, there’s still a meat loving society as well.
Useful Information for Travelers
Fairlie Place (Railway Booking Center)
If you’re booking onward travel via railway and your hotel or travel agency can’t book it for you (aka the trains you want are full), you’ll be directed to Fairlie Place. Fairlie Place is the official railway booking center and the place where you can check on and reserve foreign quota train tickets (generally, a few train seats on each train is reserved for foreign tourist travel and if your train is booked full, there’s a chance there may be a seat open if you’re a foreign traveler. Doors open around 8A or 9A. Location:Strand Rd, Fairley Place, B B D Bagh, Kolkata. Is a 15 minute walk from the Muliick Ghat flower market.
You can see schedules and book trains and VIP/long distance buses/flights on your own online, but trains aren’t easy. You’ll need to register with the IRTC and then register at Make My Trip and link the two accounts together. I can’t remember what type of credit card is accepted; just that a Visa (what I don’t have) is okay.
Culture Shock in Kolkata | Things to Know Before you Go
There’s many things which give Kolkata its charm and character. In It’s by far one of my favorite cities now and when you watch this video, hopefully you’ll see why.
Getting Around Kolkata
From the airport, you’ll go to the prepaid taxi counter and take a taxi directly outside.
Aside from the standard Ambassador-styled taxis, you can get around using the city bus, auto rickshaw, tram or metro. The metro is the easiest and an inexpensive way to get around most sightseeing parts of the city. Still, some city highlights are located a bit away. For those, it’s best to catch the city bus (ask locals or an officer to help you find one and hail it… sometimes you have to flag it down) or an auto rickshaw (maybe even a shared one! See the list above). You’ll see old blue cable car trams and these are often headed to the BBD Bagh area, which is known as the government area, where you’ll also see much colonial architecture.
As I mentioned in this list, there are two main train stations— Sealdah Train Station and Howrah Station (see the descriptions mentioned in my list for more information on their distances from the city center)
Where to stay in Kolkata
At the time of research on Agoda and countless websites and blogs, many decent budget hotels in Kolkata went around the price range of $14-30. The less central you are, the cheaper it can get. However, one thing to note is accessibility to transportation and city highlights. Hostels aren’t a term in India, but recently, a hip and boutique hostel chain opened up for modern travelers (wifi available). I’ve seen a couple of their hostels; book in advance as spaces fill up fast.
I stayed at Broadway Hotel and it was in an ideal location for me, across the street from Chandni Chowk metro station. An old Ambassador styled hotel with a lift, the rooms feel spacious, clean and comfortable. You also get the daily Kolkata newspaper delivered to your door. There’s a Art Deco styled restaurant which tends to be popular with guests and locals. Front desk receptionists are helpful. I loved it and I’d easily stay there again. Watch my video (below) and read my review.
- Service Tax On Room Tariff in Kolkata @ 8.4% for Hotels
For more hotels in Kolkata, you can search here.
Note: My half-day city of tour of Kolkata was sponsored by Viator as an effort to help make some of my Kolkata filming possible. As always, my opinions are my own