City of Bollywood and of dreams
If New Delhi is the Washington DC of India, Mumbai is New York. It’s the country's commercial, fashion and cinematic capital, and a place of extremes – harbouring the world’s most extravagant house (Mukesh Ambani’s Antilia, with 27 storeys and three helipads), as well as one of its largest slums. Built across seven islands and reclaimed land, Mumbai’s coastal location provides its 18 million residents with lungfuls of sea air. There are ancient monuments out on Elephanta Island and hidden in the vast jungle-park, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, at the city’s northern edge, but this is still a young city, established as a trading hub in the 17th century. Colonial-era monuments vie with each other along the waterfront, while glass-and-concrete structures increasingly claim the skyline.
Hot right now . . .
Abigail Blasi, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest things to do and places to drink and stay this season.
Mumbai has legions of five-star and business hotels, but few characterful guesthouses. James Ferreira’s home – Ferreira House (47D Khotachiwadi; 00 91 22 6213 3333) – bucks the trend, with three antique-furnished, lace-curtained rooms in a Portuguese-era wooden house.
Asilo (St Regis Hotel, 462 Senapati Bapat Marg; 00 91 22616 28031) has had a recent makeover and is Mumbai’s highest rooftop bar, on the 40th floor, with big loungey, white sofas and endless views over the racecourse, the sea, and the spangled city lights. On the menu are high-end nibbles and cocktails that blend fresh fruits and spices.
Bollywood Tours (00 91 98208 22253) are now being offered by reliable and professional local tour company Reality Tours & Travel – some of the proceeds of their work goes back to Mumbai’s community via their NGO Reality Gives. The tour takes you to see Bollywood star’s houses before visiting the studios themselves.
48 hours in . . . Mumbai
Start your day by exploring the Colaba district – which brims with Mumbai’s spectacular Art Deco and colonial-era buildings – with either a tour run by the knowledgeable guides at Bombay Heritage Walks, or strolling around the area at your own pace. Make sure to see the magnificence of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai’s main train station, as well as the cavalcade of colour at Crawford Market (Dhobi Talao, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Area) – which sells everything from fruit and spices to songbirds – and the turrets and triangles of the Indo-Saracenic High Court.
Have lunch at the preserved-in-aspic Britannia Café (Wakefield House, Sport Road; 00 91 22 2261 5264), one of the last remaining Parsi restaurants in Mumbai, presided over by its nonagenarian owner, Boman Kohinoor. Try the sweet-yet-sour chicken berry pulao and the crème caramel.
After lunch, explore the nearby area of Kala Ghoda, which is full of galleries, both indoor and out on the pavement; you can simply wander around to get your fix in a city that’s the centre of India’s contemporary art scene. Do make sure to visit the free-to-enter Jehangir Gallery (161B Mahatma Gandhi Road), though, which always has interesting contemporary exhibitions; outside, local artists spread their work out streetside at the Kala Ghoda pavement gallery. You’ll also find cool boutiques such as Kulture Shop (115 Nagindas Master Road; 00 91 22 2267 7006), which curates the work of more than 100 Indian designers, with funky t-shirts and posters for sale.
You can then amble or hop in a taxi to the Gateway of India (Apollo Bandar, Colaba), the colonial-era arch that stands proudly at the mouth of Mumbai harbour. It was constructed in an Islamic meets neo-classical style to celebrate and emphasise British power, which only outlasted the building of the arch by a few decades. Today, a colourful ebb and flow of of tourists, wanderers, loiterers, photographers, and candy-floss and postcard sellers drift around the arch.
The best spot in the neighbourhood for dinner is the contemporary take on Parsi cuisine at coolly intimate, hip hangout Bombay Vintage.Expect dishes such as chicken farcha, Parsi fried chicken drumsticks with sweet green chutney or thread paneer (cottage cheese wrapped in filo pastry), and excellent G&Ts.
Continue your evening by supping local craft beers at Woodside Inn, which is only a few doors away. It’s a woodlined, snug, dim-lit place, and one of Mumbai's best pubs.
Starting the day at dawn may seem too much effort but it’s well worth setting the alarm to join a nine-mile bicycle tour with Reality Tours & Travel. You’ll get to see details of the city that vanish into the shadows during the day: the early morning huddles around tea stalls, temple bells ringing for prayer, shops opening their shutters – all of the slow quickening of pace as the city stretches, yawns and begins to awaken.
Next, visit the glorious Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (91 A, Rani Baug; 00 91 22 2373 1234), housed in an exquisitely restored, elaborate 19th-century building that is built in a similar style to London’s V&A, and similarly filled with a treasure trove of exhibits – though these centre on Mumbai’s fascinating history. You can’t fail to be beguiled by its collection of early maps of the nascent city or displays of traditional headwear on an array of busts from the 1930s.
For lunch, try the atmospheric garden restaurant Keiba (Royal Western India Turf Club; 00 91 74000 66610), tucked away near the racecourse. It has has seating inside and out, and serves a fashionably pan-Asian offering, including dim sum, sushi and fragrant Thai curries.
If you have the energy, hop in a rickshaw to nearby Dhobi Ghat to see Mumbai’s dirty linen being washed in public by hundreds of dhobi wallahs (laundry workers). From here it’s an easy trip via rickshaw to visit the Haji Ali Dargah (Dargah Road; 00 91 22 2352 9082) holy mosque; join the constant stream of devotees who walk over the causeway to visit the building, which seems to almost float just offshore.
Later, take a quick taxi ride over to the up-and-coming mill district to dine at the innovative Masque restaurant (Gala 3, Shakti Mills Lane; 00 91 22 2499 1010); the chef here has trained at Copenhagen’s Noma and his focus on local and foraged ingredients makes it one of the city’s most creative and of-the-moment places to dine.
There are two set tasting menus (veg or non-veg), which offer taste-awakening combinations of lobster and mustard, persimmon with sour aubergine, and salted caramel with apricot. Be sure to try some of the equally creative cocktails, such as a G&T infused with turmeric and ginger.
Where to stay . . .
The iconic Oberoi continues to live up to its reputation of being one of the world’s best hotels with its elegant and expansive suites, views over the Mumbai skyline and Arabian Sea, and excellent service. The rooms are adorned with specially commissioned paintings and lithographs, mother-of-pearl cabinetry, dark oak floors and touches of silk in the upholstery.
Doubles from INR 13,000 (£146). Nariman Point; 00 91 22 6632 5757
The Taj Mahal Palaceis a historic landmark hotel and opulent oasis of calm in the amiable chaos of Mumbai. The original building is a seven-tiered wedding cake of gothic, Greco-Roman, Islamic and Rajasthan architecture topped by a glittering Florentine dome. The extravagant interiors are adorned with Italian marble floors, Belgian chandeliers and 4,000 works of art, most of them antique.
Doubles from INR 13,380 (£150). Apollo Bandar; 00 91 80802 3406
The 20-room Abode was the city’s first and only real boutique hotel, transformed from small low-key family hotel by Australian architect and designer Sian Pascale into its current boho-chic hipster incarnation. You'll find mix of custom-designed furniture and tiles from local craftsmen with vintage furniture, and fabrics and artworks sourced from Mumbai’s second-hand markets.
Doubles from INR 10,064 (£99). 18 Lansdowne House; 00 91 80802 3406
What to bring home . . .
Pick up a vintage Bollywood poster from the huge Chor Bazaar, Mumbai’s flea market – the city is the base of Hindi cinema.
When to go . . .
The best time of year to visit Mumbai is between November and February/March, when the weather is temperate and sunny without being hot. The temperature begins to creep up in spring, and starts to soar from June to September which sees the the highest temperatures of the year. These are also the monsoon months – sticky, muggy and best to avoid.
Know before you go . . .
• Mumbai’s extremely affordable black and yellow taxis buzz like bees around the city, and usually use the meter; you pick them up at taxi ranks or hail them in the street. There are also radio cab services including Meru and Tab Cab.
• Uber, Ola and other car sharing apps are an easy way to get around the city as they remove the need to negotiate over fares. To the north and west of the city, auto-rickshaws are the most convenient way to travel (the Ola app also covers rickshaws). You can also hail rickshaws on the street, but settle on a price before you head off.
• Mumbai has good, and extremely cheap public transport but it tends to be very crowded, especially during rush hour. The busy local buses are not really worth using unless you’re travelling on an extreme shoestring or have a penchant for arduous journeys. Travellers may also make use of the metro, though it’s of limited use, aimed at bringing in workers from the suburbs than tourists breezing around the sights. It’s still a work in progress, for completion in 2020. Of more use at the moment is the crowded Mumbai Suburban Railway; the Western Line is most useful as it serves Mumbai Central, Mahalaxmi, Bandra and Borivali, as well as the stops for the domestic and international airports. Steer clear of rush hour traffic, which lasts almost all morning, around 6am to 11am.
• If a restaurant bill doesn’t include a 'service charge', then tip around 10 per cent. You may wish to tip porters at hotels around Rs 20-30 for carrying your bag. If you employ a driver, a tip of around Rs 100-200 per day, depending on how happy you are with their service.
• In 2018, the Indian Supreme Court de-criminalised homosexuality, following a ruling that had made homosexual relations illegal in 2013 (they had previously been decriminalised in 2009). LGBT+ travellers are nevertheless advised to be discreet. Women travellers should exercise caution in India, though Mumbai is more relaxed than Delhi and you’ll see more women here in Western-style dress. However, it’s still advisable to cover up and avoid skimpy outfits.
• Smoking is not permitted in public places, and littering also carries a fine (though this is rarely enforced).
Telephone code: 91 (0) 22
Time difference: GMT plus 5.5 hrs
Flight time: (from London) 9-10 hrs
British Embassy: +91-22-6650 2222; gov.uk/world/organisations/british-deputy-high-commission-mumbai, British Deputy High Commission Mumbai, Naman Chambers, C/32 G Block Bandra Kurla Complex, Bandra (East), Mumbai 400 051; 8am-4pm, Mon-Thu and to 1pm Fri.
Tourist office: 022-22074333, Western Railways Reservation Complex
Police: dial 112
Ambulance (Rettungswagen): dial 112
Tourist office: 022-22074333, Western Railways Reservation Complex
Abigail keeps close acquaintance with India’s most mind-boggling metropolis. Her favourite activities here are examining the many angles of Colaba’s Art Deco architecture and eating bhel puri on Girgaon Chowpatty beach.
Experience Mumbai with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel's best hotels, tours, cruises and holidays in Mumbai, tried, tested and recommended by our Mumbai experts.