Presented as part of the dowry to England's King Charles II when he married Princess Catherine de Braganza of Portugal in 1661, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) thrives today as the financial and entertainment hub of India. With a rich cultural heritage, bustling bazaars, and lively beaches, the "city of dreams" goes easy on budget travelers.
Even if train travel isn't in your plans, a visit to the fanciful Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly known as Victoria Terminus Station, should be. Completed in 1888, the railway station—still commonly known as VT—was designed by the British architect F.W. Stevens in the Victorian Gothic style with elements of traditional Indian palace architecture, such as a stone dome, turrets, and arches. An early example of the Bombay architectural style, the landmark was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. Slumdog Millionaire fans will recognize it as the backdrop for the closing "Jai Ho" dance number in the Oscar-winning film.
Built to commemorate the 1911 visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay, the massive arch and gathering place known as the Gateway of India overlooks Mumbai Harbor from the tip of Apollo Bunder. Once synonymous with the British raj, the monument later became its epitaph as the last of the British troops left India through its arch in 1948.
Like the Champs-Élysées in Paris or Piccadilly Circus in London, the Flora Fountain is the heart of the city. Constructed in 1864 at the intersection of five streets, the fountain is a gathering spot during the day and at night, when it's illuminated. From here, stroll up Dadabhai Naoroji Road to take in some of the neoclassical and Gothic Revival architecture along the way, such as the 19th-century domed Municipal Corporation headquarters designed by F.W. Stevens, the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art, and the regal Times of India building across from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
Adherents to Vipassana meditation come to the striking golden Global Pagoda—the world's largest stone dome without supporting pillars—to deepen their practice, but the mediation hall is open to everyone. Tours of the pagoda and meditation classes are offered to the public for free.
The vanquisher of obstacles, Ganesh has become one of the most popular symbols of Hinduism. Devotees pay homage to the deity, particularly before beginning a new project, at the grand Siddhivinayak Temple in the Prabhadevi neighborhood. Non-Hindus are welcome, but beware the throngs that come for Tuesday morning prayers.
Built on an islet in the Arabian Sea, Haji Ali Dargah appears to float on the water's surface at high tide. Pilgrims must wait until low tide to access the Islamic shrine via a narrow walkway. The Makrana white marble complex houses a mosque and the tomb of 15th-century Sufi saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, who renounced his wealth and worldly ways before making a pilgrimage to Mecca. Believers say he was buried at sea in a shroud and washed up on this spot. Non-Muslims are welcome.
The chaotic Chor Bazaar, or Thieves Market, is a Mumbai institution. Intrepid shoppers can find everything from Bollywood posters to raj-era memorabilia, and lots of knockoffs in between, in this maze of stalls and shops in the Muslim Quarter. Prepare to haggle or find a local to help you bargain.
Foreign adults get a complimentary audio guide with their five-dollar admission to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India. Opened in 1923, the imposing Indo-Saracenic building was designed by George Wittet, the architect behind the Gateway of India, in honor of the first visit to India by King George V (then Prince of Wales). The museum houses a vast collection of Indian art, as well as works from other parts of Asia and a natural history section. Standouts include a newly renovated miniature paintings wing that features works depicting life in the Mughal court.
When Mahatma Gandhi visited Mumbai during the years of 1917 to 1934, he stayed at the home of devotee Revashankar Jagjeevan Jhaveri. It was at Mani Bhavan that he developed Satyagraha, his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. Today the house serves as a small museum dedicated to Gandhi, with photographs, letters he wrote to Adolf Hitler and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and dioramas of his life. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
Opened in 1952, Jehangir Art Gallery is one of the most established galleries on the Mumbai art scene. The space focuses on paintings, installations, and other works by contemporary Indian artists. Admission is free. Lesser-known artists display their work on the sidewalk outside of the gallery.
The National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai holds thousands of works by Indian and international artists, such as Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, and Gaganendranath Tagore. Past exhibitions include the "Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy," a 20th-century Indian photographer known for his iconic images of the country's independence movement. Admission isn't free, but it's a bargain at about $2.30 for foreign adults.
Also in the not-free-but-close department, the network of ancient cave temples known as the Elephanta Caves is well worth the four-dollar admission and hour-long ferry ride to Elephanta Island, across Mumbai harbor. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the caves were carved in the fifth and sixth centuries. The masterpiece is the 22-foot Sadashiva—representing the three aspects of Shiva as creator, protector, and destroyer—surrounded by carved pillars and latticework screens.
More of a people-watching beach than a swimming spot, Chowpatty is where Mumbaikars go for a break from the city. They let their children loose on the merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels while snacking on grilled corn on the cob and bhel puri—puffed rice, vegetables, and tamarind sauce. Vendors peddle everything from palm reading and head massages to horse and camel rides. Still, there's plenty of free entertainment between the snake charmers and monkeys dancing on the beach. Come for the Ganesh Chaturthi festival (in August or September), when thousands of devotees plunge their Ganesh idols into the sea.
At less than a dollar for entry, the Nehru Science Center keeps kids entertained with science shows and exhibitions such as Spark Theater, a static electricity demonstration. A sky observation program offers a look at the night sky of Mumbai on Saturday and Sunday evenings, weather permitting. Some exhibitions cost extra.
Food and Drink
It's impossible to visit Mumbai and not be tempted by the array of snacks sold by street vendors.
Kebabs, vada pav (a potato fritter sandwich topped with chutney), dosas (crepes made from fermented rice batter and black lentils), and all manner of fried carb delights are typically priced at less than a buck. Ask a Mumbaikar for their favorite stall or head to a railway station or college campus, where the best vendors are said to set up shop. (Look for the longest line, which connoisseurs say correlates directly to the quality of the food). Germaphobes need not miss out on the fun: There are restaurants throughout the city that specialize in sanitized versions of street food. What McDonald's is to hamburgers, for instance, Jumbo King is to vada pav. The chain offers several riffs on the fried treat, including a Schezuan-flavored number.
Mumbaikars shop at the 19th-century Crawford Market, officially the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, for curry spices and produce like Alphonso mangoes and bananas. Cool off with a falooda (rose-flavored milk drink with nuts and vermicelli) from Badshah, located across the street from the market (about a dollar).
For a national park that straddles the city limits of Mumbai, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, formerly Borivali, has a surprising array of wildlife, including leopards and antelope. Birdwatchers, this is where you can check Malabar pied hornbills, jungle owlets, and peacocks off your life lists. Other highlights include a narrow-gauge train; lion and tiger "safaris," in which a handful of fenced-in cats can be viewed from a bus; the mass flowering of the Karvi shrub, which blooms every eight years (the next flowering is in 2016); and the Kanheri caves, a series of chambers and Buddha figures carved out of the volcanic rock and dating to the first century B.C.
The terraced Hanging Gardens in the Malabar Hills neighborhood is known for its animal-shaped topiaries and fantastic city views. Come to watch the sunset over the Arabian Sea or stroll along Marine Drive, a lively promenade skirting Back Bay from Nariman Point to Babulnath.
Horniman Circle Gardens is a peaceful green space in South Mumbai's Fort District. After independence in 1947, the former Bombay Green was rechristened in honor of Bombay Chronicle editor Benjamin Horniman. The garden is a venue for the annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival of Mumbai in February and hosts outdoor concerts throughout the year.