Last Updated on May 30, 2021 by Christine Kaaloa
Kolkata is a large and bustling city. There’s much to take in on your first trip. So I’m sharing 10 things to know about Kolkata.
10 Things to Know Before You Go to Kolkata
1. Kolkata’s vibrant street life
My first impression is that Kolkata awakens you and you kind of feel alive. There’s just so much going on.
You can pretty much stand in one spot and there’s honking going on constantly 24/ 7. There’s people and activity everywhere. Stories are everywhere you look, from workers transporting mountains of goods on their heads, to a motorbike weaving and dodging traffic while talking on his mobile to rickshaws and four wheeled wagons. You don’t really have to do anything because they just cross paths with you. Every street you go down is like a visual feast.
2. Street Hawkers and the sidewalk walking bazaar
One of the interesting things to know about Kolkata is that sidewalks can be a walking bazaar of fast food and products. Vendors like doing business on the streets, because they don’t have to pay rent or taxes.
Barbers with open-air shops with salon chairs on the streets, a letter writer sitting with his typewriter on the sidewalk, servicing customers needing a form filled out or a letter written or a street seamstress.Street food hawker stalls line the streets during the day; while at night sleeping in their stalls. In the morning, you might see men bathing on the streets from an open fire hydrant. For poorer working class, it’s easier to sleep outside or on the rooftop of their workplace (now this, you’ll see common in India in places like Paharganj in Delhi; after curfew, the bed cots come out on the sidewalks!). They save money and send it home to their families.
3. Kolkata street traffic noise
I was at a hotel near the street and when I checked in, the hotel reception advised me that I might want a room in the back. Stubborn and wanting a window view to the streets, I didn’t not listen to them. Within an hour, I was back to the back room they recommended. From the furthest end of the hotel I still heard honking at all times of the night and morning (I think you’ll hear it in my Kolkata hotel video).
Although everything and everyone converges on the streets, surprisingly there’s order out of the chaos. But there’s also honking. Lots of honking. I asked whether or not Kolkatian drivers are kinda crazy cause of the honking and weaving. I was told that the drivers at least have a license or permit to be on the road. Pedestrians and everyone else don’t have permits to be on the road. Everyone kinda goes where they see openings in the traffic, so the honking is to warn other vehicles and people.
4. Crossing the street in Kolkata
Crossing the street in Kolkata can be intimidating for solo travelers. Everyone and everything converges on the streets and not every street corner bears traffic signals, so some Kolkatans weave or find breaks in the traffic. In this situation, when Kolkatans cross the streets, it’s helpful to cross with the crowd.
If trying it on your own, wait for traffic to subside, and find the pockets of open space to scurry into. That’s how you cross the street in Kolkata.
5. Street food in Kolkata is king
The city of Joy is street food heaven for foodies. Jhal muri, kathi roll, puschka, momos, chai, hakka chow mein, puri chat, samosas, curry,… are best street foods in Kolkata, which make this city phenomenal when it comes to popular Indian street food. If you’re a Kolkata street food fan, visit Decker Lane, Ganesh Chandra Avenue, Territi Bazaar to feed your drool. Want to experience a little Bollywood fame, visit Mohan Bhandar, the small sweet shop made famous with the film Piku.
6. Expect taxes on your food and hotel
Kolkata dons a surcharge taxes for all from hotels to restaurant food and it adds up to around 8%. That’s not cheap.
7. The Best time to Visit is Durga Puja Festival
Durga Puja Festival is an annual Hindu festival celebrating the female goddess warrior Durga. The festival celebrated big-time by Bengali, Assamese, Odia and Maithals. Thus, it is a huge festival in Kolkata, where Durga Puja artists bring the festival to life through their craft of creating Durga floats, statues and adorning the goddess with lights, so there are many puja tours around town, celebrating highly decorated Durga pandals (aka temporary structures).
8. Is Kolkata a dirty city?
I get occasional comments from Indians on my videos expressing disgust with Kolkata, claiming it filthy. I suspect it has to do with past stereotypes of it being dirty or poverty stricken during Mother Teresa times. Some references are aimed at immigration and lower castes. But I did not find Kolkata dirtier or cleaner.
Kolkata has an old face and a new. Some buildings very aged with chipping paint, while governmental buildings very stately. Often the colonial or Victorian architecture gave age or upkeep, both, a sense of cultural preservation. The age adds to its character, distinction and history and you’ll find this demeanor in its people. Unlike Delhi or Mumbai, Kolkata is a mellow city. When I arrived, I knew I should’ve booked at least a week there.
Esplanade is the commercial bustle of downtown Kolkata and a beautiful colonial architecture in the government area of BBD Bagh. I suspect a more modern lifestyle exists in the suburbs and the extended parts of Kolkata, but I wanted to be in the “heart of Kolkata” where all the fun, car honking and sightseeing landmarks were.
9. Kolkata is a large city with interesting neighborhoods
Exploring different neighborhoods is like uncovering different parts of Kolkata’s cultural history. From visiting the childhood home of Rabindranath Tagore to the Marble Palace of Bowbazaar (aka The Black Town of Northern Calcutta), the heart of Bengal community has its hidden residential villas and palaces of high status babus. its colonial architecture in the impressive BBD Bagh district, visit the sculptor colony of Kumortoli, Esplanadeis the commercial bustle of downtown Kolkata and witness the madness of Burrabazaar /Kolay Market. Take a trolley ride trh
10. Kolkatans are friendly and gentlemanly
Kolkata is actually known as the “City of Joy”. I’m not sure but I think it has to do with what I experienced as Kolkatans having a light inside them that burns through the darkness. People are open, friendly, helpful and of a gentlemanly nature, such that you can relax your guard as a traveler. I collected many smiles along the way. In fact, I once asked an Indian to define the stereotypes of the biggest Indian cities; according to him, Delhi was a city of scammers and Kolkata was known for its friendly people.
You also wont find hawkers or touts as aggressive as you will in other urban Indian cities. You get the vibe that Indians here aren’t only out to make a buck on you as a tourist. It’s somehow mellower here and while the traffic is incessant, life feels a tad slower here and a bit more innocent. I felt very safe in Kolkata, even walking around at night. People didn’t stare at me as much (… okay, they stared when I brought out my mirrorless selfie camera, but they were only curious).