Busy Kolkata (still commonly known as Calcutta, its official name until 2001) has the air of a city that was once very important. Indeed, the British built the city from a collection of villages in the late 17th century: the newly formed metropolis was the capital of British India until 1911.
Much of Kolkata still reflects this British colonial past. But it's also a proudly Indian city that's often considered the nation's cultural capital. Some of its former grandeur has faded, though some say that fact only adds to the city's appeal. Kolkata still exudes diversity and sophistication, and it's deserving of a dedicated visit. Conveniently, it's also the jumping-off point for further travel from the Sundarbans mangrove forest to the Bay of Bengal and the Himalaya of Eastern India.
Practical Tips for a Perfect Day in Kolkata
When to go, where to stay, and how to get around once you're there? Considering these practical matters lays the groundwork for a great visit to any city.
First, a word on climate: while it's generally a good idea to avoid North India during the monsoon due to the very heavy rains and high temperatures, this advice is particularly relevant to Kolkata. The city regularly floods during the monsoon, making getting around difficult, and the general atmosphere can be uncomfortable. For more on the best seasons to visit India's main regions, check out this article.
Second, a few guidelines for accommodations: in Kolkata, backpacker-style hostels are located on and around Sudder Street, a short walk from central Park Street. Many mid-range hotels and guesthouses are spread out around the city. Recommended options include The Calcutta Bungalow, a newly renovated property in Shyambazar, The Elgin Fairlawn, an 18th-century building on happening Sudder Street, and the Corner Courtyard, a restaurant and hotel near the middle-class residential area of Ballygunge.
On the hunt for unique lodging options in India? Look no further than this round-up of the most memorable accommodations in the country.
Wherever you stay, you'll be moving around in the city: Kolkata is huge, and tourist attractions are located in a variety of neighborhoods. Luckily, the Kolkata Metro is easy to use. The system is cheap, efficient, and clean, with designated ladies' seats in each carriage. It's not overly extensive, however: to make sure you're covered for all sightseeing needs, use the metro in combination with Kolkata's distinctive yellow Ambassador taxis. Drivers rarely use their meters, and tourists are usually overcharged, but it's still an affordable means of transport. In fact, hiring a driver for the entire day isn't a bad idea, especially if you have just 24 hours in Kolkata.
8 am: Early Wake-Up for Fresh Flowers
After breakfast at your hotel, head to the Mullik Ghat Flower Market for a fragrant start to your day. Try to go as early as possible, as this is when wholesale flower sellers offload their goods. Flowers and garlands are an essential part of Hindu religious life, so this market is a big deal. It's located beneath the iron Howrah Bridge, a Kolkata icon, so some of the best views of the market can be had from the pedestrian walkway over the bridge.
You're not technically allowed to take photos of the Howrah Bridge due to Indian laws against photographing sites of military importance. But in reality, you're unlikely to encounter anyone who will try to stop you. Just respect any police presence when snapping pictures, and enjoy the flowers.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
10 am: A Colorful Display of Hindu Goddesses
Next, hop in a taxi and make the short drive to Kumartuli. This area is where many of the city's potters and craftspeople live and where the life-sized clay idols of the Hindu Goddess Durga (as well as other gods and goddesses) are constructed for use in the annual Durga Puja festival.
Kumartuli is at its most vibrant in the lead-up to the festival (usually in September or October), when the idols are being painted. But the area is well worth visiting at any time of year. The street-side workshops, combined with crumbling colonial-era bungalows and sprawling banyan trees, set the stage for this beautiful and fascinating neighborhood. It's a lovely place to explore for a couple of hours.
For more on what it's like to be in India at different times of the year, read these travel tips.
12 pm: Kolkata-Style Street Food for Lunch
For lunch, sample a "katti roll," one of Kolkata's favorite street food dishes. Basically, it's a piece of roti (flatbread) stuffed with egg, onions, and meat then rolled up and fried. It's a cheap and filling snack. They're sold everywhere, but your best bet is to look for a busy vendor with a high turnover. When in doubt, just ask your taxi driver for recommendations of where to stop before continuing on your afternoon itinerary.
2 pm: Hooghly River Boat Ride & Hindu Temples
After lunch, make a six-mile journey north along the Hooghly River. The trip takes between half an hour and an hour, depending on traffic.
Your destination is the spectacular Dakshineswar Kali Temple. The city of Kolkata is named after the Hindu goddess Kali (also known as Kalikata), so the deity is very important to the city. Dakshineswar Kali Temple, built in 1855 in a style unique to Bengal, is very distinctive and beautiful, featuring lovely elongated spires. Take some time here to explore the central temple and surrounding buildings. It's located on the banks of the river, and locals come down to the water to bathe and wash their clothes. In other words, don't forget your camera.
From here, you can also catch a passenger boat across the river to Belur Math, a temple built by spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda in 1938. It's a worthwhile trip if you're making good time. If not, save the boat trip for another day.
7 pm: Have a Bengali Feast
For dinner, head back to central Kolkata and seek out some traditional Bengali cuisine. It's a great opportunity: Kolkata is the capital of the state of West Bengal, and the cuisine here is different from what you'll have elsewhere in India.
In short, Bengalis love seafood. Here, fresh fish and shellfish are often cooked with coconut and raw sugar, then served with a side of rice. Well-regarded restaurants that serve authentic Bengali food include Kewpies, a family-run place, and Oh! Calcutta, located inside the Forum Mall on Elgin Road. Both restaurants are located in a similar area in central Kolkata, and are convenient for an after-dinner drive-by of the magnificent Victoria Memorial building, lit up at night, on the way back to your hotel.
Inspired to travel onward? Check out these suggestions for how to spend two weeks in India.