Insider View: Kolkata
Kolkata is a feast for every sense. A throbbing 350-year old metropolis on India’s western coast, the West Bengal capital thrives on contradictions and grand spectacle, nothing is allowed to be commonplace or quiet here. Visitors who get under Kolkata’s skin will quickly understand why it has been called 'the city of joy - and tears'. From the mighty Hooghly River to the monumental Victoria Memorial, Kolkata is large in scale and spirit (and crowds). India's second biggest city is a deeply rewarding place to discover.
Formerly the flagship of British India before the government moved to New Delhi in 1912, Kolkata has a distinct whiff of its regal past lingering in the decaying buildings and quaint street names. A gentler landscape than its imperial successor, and more courtesan than colonial official, the humid and highly scented Kolkata retains an air of swashbuckling sensuality. The golden mansions may be peeling and swathed in vines, but they have housed some of the greatest minds, nobles and villains in Indian history. A sense of aristocratic pride, however battered, remains, only adding to the unique charm.
Kolkata is also a city very much in the present with a burgeoning contemporary arts culture. It pays homage to its intellectual and artistic heritage but also celebrates modern advances and embraces new ideas with aplomb. Activism and boundary pushing is ingrained into the city’s DNA – from the revered freedom fighters of pre-independence to the 21st century poets weaving tales of gender-fluid love affairs. This is a place that dances to the beat of its own drum.
Explore museums filled with treasures, sprawling urban slums, colourful design boutiques and the most romantic cemetery on the subcontinent - Kolkata has it all. We have handpicked some of our favourite insider places to experience ‘Cal’ like a true local.
Gloriously illustrated placemats, fragrant Bengali puddings served in terracotta cups along with steaming chai, the air of an old-fashioned home, Kewpies is just heavenly. Come here for local cuisine by a very talented chef and equally authentic people watching. Our favourite place in town!
2 Elgin Lane, Off Heysham Road, Kolkata, 700020 Tel: 033 2486 1600
6 Ballygunge Place
A traditional Bengali house from the British Raj converted into a beautiful restaurant, 6 Ballygunge Place is a destination in itself for the best food in 'Cal'.
31 A DD Block, Salt Lake, Kolkata 700019 Tel: 085700 21369
Started in 1969, this was Kolkata's first restaurant dedicated to Bengali fare. Run by the All Bengal Women's Union - which was set up to rehabilitate women affected by the Partition—it is still staffed entirely by women. Only open for lunch, plump for the wonderful thalis or local delicacies such as Mochar Ghanto and Begun Basanti.
89 Elliot Road, Kolkata 700016 Tel: 033 2229 1763
One of the oldest and finest restaurants in Kolkata, Mocambo is known for its continental (i.e. western) food. Enjoy the friendly buzz while tucking into the iconic devilled crab and a very good Bloody Mary. The North Indian fare is also delicious here. Courteous service at a stately pace!
25B Park Street, Kolkata, 700014, India Tel: 033 2229 0095
The Bengal Club
Do get brought here as a guest for dinner if you can – a true bastion of old ‘Calcutta’. The Bengal Club is adorned with florid 18th-century art of dubious lineage and an unmatchable atmosphere. Good plain Anglo-Indian fare is the order of the day, delicious roast chicken and crisp wines by the glass. Tweedy colonels and their lively wives in shimmering saris and jewels sit at white linen bedecked tables and gossip with gusto.
1/1 Russell Street, Kolkata, 700 071 www.thebengalclub.com
Owner Dolly is a character, a Kolkata dowager and lady tea master of great elegance and joie de vivre. She set up this charming tiny teahouse as a social hub and it has become a landmark in the city. Housed in Dakshinapan shopping complex, come here for first flush Darjeeling, genteel sandwiches and a well-earned retreat from the cacophony outside. A great find.
Shop No. G-62, Ground Floor, Dakshinapan Shopping Complex, Kolkata 700068. Tel: 033 2423 7838
They have a client following that stretches from Paris to Tokyo, but the duo behind Maku Textiles are not courting fame. The brand is dedicated to preserving the dying craft of cotton weaving in Bengal and providing long-term incomes for the weavers. Come to the studio to find ready-made garments (in blue and white) and place custom orders. Fiona Caulfield, of the renowned Love Travel guides, hales Maku Textiles as her favourite place to buy clothes in Kolkata.
68 Bondel Road, Ballygunje Phari, Kolkata 700019 Tel: 033 40063782
Housed in 75 year-old Bengali baari (mansion), this 5000 sq ft concept store was restored to its former glory in 2006. Discover established and emerging Indian designers including Sabyasachi and Ranna Gill among the many fashion names stocked.
85 Sarat Bose Rd, Dover Terrace, Kalighat, Kolkata,700026 www.85lansdowne.com
An ode to Indian craftsmanship, Byloom is the creation of dynamic husband and wife, Bappaditya and Rumi, a store and café in a charming house devoted to artisan goods. Eponymous saris and textiles sit next to accessories, garments and homewares from ethical brands and NGOs. Linger with a drink and local snack and soak up the atmosphere.
58B Hindustan Park, Kolkata www.byloom.co.in
The scion of a long line of jewellers, Raj Mahtani takes his design inspiration from architecture, art and even cutlery. Emerald, rubies and other precious stones tumble into breathtaking pieces at this atelier on Kolkata’s smart Park Street. Make like a Bollywood diva and order something that deserves its own vault.
12-J Park Street, Kolkata-700071 www.rajmahtani.com
Working in one of the largest red light districts in Asia, NGO Sari Bari was founded by two Americans in 2006. Providing an industry for over 120 vulnerable women, the charity is committed to a ‘freedom business’ model. The women produce high quality embroidered pieces including throws, bedcovers and lots of lovely bags.
By appointment only. Tours Monday and Thursday. www.saribari.com
Tia Pakhi Boutique
The lovechild of French fashion designer Anaïs, who lives in the city and is married to a Bengali, this diminutive boutique’s name means green parrot. Contemporary kantha homewares and fashion draw on age-old aesthetics and come from artisans in nearby villages. A heart-warming antidote to consumer culture and committed to upholding the value of human dignity – we are great fans.
49/13 Hindustan Park, Kolkata 700 029 www.tiapakhi.com
South Park Street Cemetery
Step back into the grandiose British legacy in Kolkata at this cemetery established in 1767. Discover fascinating obelisks, temples and general gothic splendour, all refusing to be upstaged by vines and monkeys. Read the idiosyncratic and moving memorial tablets including one for poor Rose Aylmer, who died aged 20 from 'eating a surfeit of pineapples' and the eccentric Major General 'Hindoo' Stuart who controversially embraced Hinduism.
184, Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road, Park Street area, Kolkata, 700017 Open: 10am-4.30pm
A whimsical creation built by passionate art collector Raja Rajendra Mullick in 1835. The marble place is a private residence, still inhabited by the same family. Entry is free, but you have to get a special permit 24 hours in advance from the West Bengal Tourism Information Bureau at BBD Bag. Besides the astonishing interiors and antiques, there is also a zoo, the first of its kind opened in India.
46, Muktaram Babu Street, Chorbagan, Kolkata
Dhakshineshwar Kali temple
Dhakshineshwar Kali temple is situated on the banks of Hooghly River and one of the most sacred temples in west Bengal. Built by landowner Rani Rasmoni, the chief deity is Bhavatarini, who is said to liberate devotees from the ocean of existence. According to lore, Rani Rasmoni had a dream where the goddess Kali instructed her to build a temple, which was finally completed in 1855. Tuesdays and Saturdays see large crowds as it is considered an auspicious day for worshipping Kali. The best time to visit the temple is in the morning or the evening arti ceremony.
May Dibas Pally, Dakshineswar, Kolkata 700076 www.dakshineswarkalitemple.org
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