Kolkata carries an almost crushing burden of history. Spawned in the sandbanks of three malarial villages by the Hooghly, Kolkata flourished. From being a minor trading outpost in the lower delta of Bengal, it mutated into the second capital of the British Raj in almost no time.

Kolkata is an enchanting city, which glittered in the sun all too briefly before the tides of history swept it back to its primeval lair. Even for a visitor to the city, there is no such thing as a first impression. The very name Kolkata carries with it a freight of associations, most of them harking back to the Age of the Empire. Many of these associations were negative, ranging from the Black Hole of Sirajuddaulah to Kipling’s “chance-erected, chance-directed” city. At the same time, Kolkata was a beacon of light in the heady days of the Bengal renaissance. Its inhabitants wrote and printed books, set up schools and colleges, went to the theatre, founded businesses, measured the heights of mountains, ate beef and drank wine, aped the British, agitated against the British and beat them at football. It is almost impossible to take a step in Kolkata without becoming aware of its wonderfully quirky history.

Vidyasagar Setu stretching across the Hoogly River
Vidyasagar Setu stretching across the Hoogly River

Things to See & Do

Nimtala Ghat

We do not know the name of the ghat where Job Charnock (an administrator of the English East India Company, who was traditionally regarded as the founder of this city) landed in 1690, but we do know it was not far from a huge neem tree and a Kali temple. Charnock would often sit under that tree, shooting the breeze with his friends and smoking his hookah. The tree burnt down in 1879–80. No trace remains of the spot which legend and facts have conspired to designate as Kolkata’s first recorded adda. But the ghat, which took its name from the gigantic neem tree, Nimtala, is very much in evidence. This is also where Rabindranath Tagore was cremated and a small garden on the riverbank commemorates this event.

The Riverside

The most enjoyable part of the waterfront is on the other end from Nimtala. To explore this riverside, the best thing to do is walk. An ideal place to start is from Prinsep Ghat, almost directly below the imposing Second Hooghly Bridge, named Vidyasagar Setu. Overlooking the river, it is a beautiful monument to Sir James Prinsep, who is most famous for deciphering the Brahmi script on the stone edicts of Emperor Ashoka in 1837. A sparkling white memorial of Palladian entrances and fluted Ionian columns, it is surrounded by a well-maintained lawn where one can relax and watch the river flow. A small path to the right leads to the Circular Railway terminal. A ride on this is also an excellent and a quicker way of seeing the riverside. Buy a ticket for a ride till Sovabazaar and you will be speeding along the various ghats with their own unique flavours. To continue with the walk, go from Prinsep Terminus to the Outram Ghat, from where the Strand, or the promenade along the river, starts. The Strand is perfect for a stroll or to indulge in a plethora of quality street food. Some of the best chaat-makers in the city congregate here.

If you are in the mood, go for a leisurely boat ride on the century-old fishing boats. Charges will be around ₹100–150 an hour, after negotiating.

Swapan Nayak
The striking façade of the Writers’ Building
The striking façade of the Writers’ Building

If you tire of the riverside, get off the ghats for an hour. Cross Strand Road and head for Eden Gardens. These, along with the Strand and the Esplanade area, together formed the main recreational area for the English during the Raj. The gardens, stretching over 50 acres, with pathways shaded by huge mahogany, mango, palm and banyan trees, are a peaceful place to sit and soothe your eyes on the greenery. These were laid by Lord Auckland in 1841, then governor-general, who named them after his two sisters Emily and Fanny Eden. There is also a large moat and, most significantly, a three-storeyed Burmese pagoda in red and matted golden yellow, which was brought in from Myanmar by Lord Dalhousie. Eden Gardens Stadium, arguably the best cricket venue in the world, shares a common boundary with the gardens, which are open from 5 in the morning to 6 in the evening.

Cross Strand Road again and you will be in front of Baboo Ghat, which was built in 1838 and named after Babu Rajchandra Das, a rich zamindar and the husband of the fiercely independent Rani Rashmoni (1793–1861). When the East India Company banned local fishermen from the waterfront, the rani leased a part of it and let the fishermen fish in it, and in retaliation blocked her part of the Hooghly with massive ropes, thus effectively stopping the Company’s ships from sailing along the river and forcing the Company to lift the ban. Baboo Ghat, with its beautiful Doric frontage and covered pavilion, used to be the place where the Bengali nobility and their families came for a dip in the Ganga. It is now one of the most important ghats for the religiously inclined and, every morning, it explodes with people and rituals.

Brabourne Road

Situated midway as it was, between the ‘White Town’ and the ‘native’ Kolkata, Brabourne Road was once ‘the’ place for commercial ventures. The foreign communities who came to make a living in Kolkata – Chinese, Armenians, Jews and Muslims from the Middle-East – all settled here. Many of the cuisines that are now a staple part of Kolkata’s diet were first sold here – stir-fries, kebabs, rolls, biryani, and even sandesh!

Dalhousie Square
Dalhousie Square

You can also see an extraordinary number of different religious structures which coexist within a radius of less than a hundred metres. The most conspicuous is the Portuguese Church, the first Catholic church of Kolkata. Built in 1747, the two towers of the church, with crown-shaped cupolas topped with crosses, are cinematic in their grandeur. The interiors exude old-world charm, with stained glass windows and beautiful columns framing a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Across the road stands the Maghen David Synagogue, built in 1884 amongst the ruins of the Neveh Shalom, which, built in 1826, was Kolkata’s first synagogue. Standing in the middle of a garden-compound, the synagogue is a beautiful red brick building with exquisite Venetian windows.

Some distance away is Armenian Street. The Armenians, now numbering just a few hundred, were the first foreign community to settle in Bengal in the 15th century, and were bankers and ministers in the nawab’s court. And so the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, in a mango- and jamun-tree filled compound, is the oldest church of Kolkata. It was built in 1707; though the present structure, with its unique rounded spire, dates from 1724, when the original was burnt down.

Benoy Badal Dinesh Bagh

Benoy Badal Dinesh Bagh is also known as Dalhousie Square. One of the oldest areas of the city, it was once called Dihi Kolkata. A huge water body called Lal Dighi lies at the very centre of this quartier – facing it on the northern side is the historic Writer’s Building, the seat of the West Bengal Government. Originally built in 1777 as a red brick, barrack-like structure to house the clerical staff of the East India Company, it was given a Corinthian-like Renaissance façade in 1889. This then became the seat of British power in Bengal till Independence. It was in the corridors of this building that the young freedom fighters Benoy, Badal and Dinesh fought a desperate gun-battle with a huge police contingent in their attempt to assassinate the notorious police commissioner Charles Tegart and became martyrs.

At the crossing of Netaji Subhash Road and Koilaghat Street is the awesome General Post Office, with its shiny golden, high-domed roof over a huge rotunda. White columns of combined Ionian-Corinthian style support the building. The GPO was built in 1864 — on the site of the ruins of the original Fort William, which was destroyed by Nawab Sirajuddaulah in 1756. There is also a Philatelic Museum in the same complex.

Park Street, the popular venue for many an ‘adda’ session
Park Street, the popular venue for many an ‘adda’ session

The area in and around BBD Bagh is so chock-a-block with heritage buildings that it would be impossible to list all of them here. However, mention must be made of St Andrew’s Kirk, located in the middle of a traffic intersection next to the Writer’s Building and possessing one of the tallest steeples in Kolkata.

From here, one walks down Council House Street till one reaches the tall iron gates of St John’s Church. The compound inside is a minefield of mausoleums dedicated to the history of what was once the second city of the empire. An octagonal structure with a short, domed roof is Job Charnock’s mausoleum, perhaps appropriately in a strange mixture of Neoclassical and Islamic styles.

Another stately pile in the vicinity is the Town Hall, which was financed by public subscription and completed by Lord Minto in 1819. It has been renovated with much fanfare not too long ago and is now used to felicitate Nobel Prize winners and the ‘Prince of Kolkata’, Sourav Ganguly.

The Maidan

‘Maidan’ is the name given to the extensive greensward that stretches from Esplanade to the Victoria Memorial. At any given time, you can witness dozens of cricket or football matches in progress. And towering over all of them would be the 150-ft-tall Ochterlony Monument, now known as the Shahid Minar. From here, one can walk across Curzon Park and plunge once again into the sea of humanity at Esplanade. The eastern intersection is occupied by the decaying Whiteway Laidlaw Building, once the biggest and most magnificent departmental store east of the Suez. You will pass row after row of once-splendid buildings including Hogg Market, more popularly known as New Market. This was built in 1874 by Stuart Hogg. Though much of it was burnt down in 1985, the main structure still remains.

Chowringhee Road

Back on Chowringhee once more (this, by the way, is the thoroughfare which stretches all the way from Esplanade to the Birla Planetarium), you pause for a moment before the never-closing gates of the stately Grand Hotel, rebuilt after its earlier avatar was destroyed in a fire in 1911 (if ever a city was known for its pyromania, it is this, it is this, it is this…). Giving it a run for its money in the heritage stakes is the utterly idiosyncratic Fairlawn Hotel on Sudder Street, a hotel run by a feisty Armenian. Both hotels are within striking distance of the Indian Museum containing the 2,000-year-old gateway and balustrades from the Bharhut Stupa in Madhya Pradesh, Buddhist sculptures of the Gandhar School, Kalighat pats, Tibetan thangkas, paintings from the Company school, and so on.

Indian Museum Entry Indians ₹20; Foreigners ₹500 Timings 10.00am–5.00pm, Closed Mondays

Victoria Memorial, an iconic landmark of Kolkata
Victoria Memorial, an iconic landmark of Kolkata

By now, you will have almost reached Park Street. Notice the stern façade of the Asiatic Society, founded in 1784 by the great Orientalist William Jones. This depressing building contains invaluable manuscripts, print holdings and antiques.

Timings 10.00am–6.15pm Library Closed Sundays Museum Closed Weekends Tel 033-22290779

You can spend a restful half-hour walking among the dead in the Park Street Cemetery. This opened in 1767 and those who have done their homework can look out for the tombs of firebrand poet Henry Derozio, the legendary beauty Rose Aylmer, William Jones and Major General Charles ‘Hindoo’ Stuart — a man who ‘went native’ with a vengeance. It’s no wonder then that Park Street was originally known as ‘The Great Burial Ground’.

Walk down Chowringhee and sooner or later you will spot the marbled dome of the Victoria Memorial. The memorial was conceived in 1905 by Lord Curzon, who seems to have fancied himself as a sort of latter-day White Mughal, building splendid monuments. This sprawling Baroque building, built entirely with white marble, along the lines of the Taj Mahal, was completed in 1921 and still remains a showcase of imperial grandeur. Inside the building are several exhibitions of relics from the colonial past — paintings, uniforms, arms, photographs, and even a piano used by Queen Victoria.

Entry Gardens ₹10; Gallery ₹20 Timings 10.00am–4.30pm Closed Mondays Tel 22231890

Tip Sound and Light Show is currently discontinued

Adjacent to the Victoria Memorial is the average Kolkatan’s favourite church – St Paul’s Cathedral, consecrated in 1839. This is where the city congregates to witness the Midnight Mass before Christmas Day. An excellent choir performs here on Easter and Christmas. A high vaulted roof, majestic arches and stained glass behind the altar characterise the inside of the cathedral.

St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral

North Kolkata

The north-south divide in Kolkata is not just geographical. It extends to food, habit and even pronunciation. However, as far as heritage goes, the north wins hands down. The most remarkable building here is the early 19th century Marble Palace, located off Central Avenue. For some strange reason, you are required to seek permission from the Board of Tourism to go in, but a tip to the gatekeeper usually works. The palace is still owned by the descendants of the original patriarch, Nilmoni Mullick. As a result, sections of the palace are out of bounds, but whatever you are allowed to see leaves you truly gobsmacked. It is practically dripping with Venetian chandeliers, Belgian mirrors, sundry statuary paintings (including a Gainsborough and three Rubens, we are told) — the standard of which, however, is far from even.

Marble Palace timings 10.00am–4.00pm Closed Mondays & Thursdays Tel 22693310

Tip Entry permit is available from the tourist office in BBD Bagh (Open 10.30am–4.30pm)

Moving northwards along Central Avenue, we soldier on to Jorasanko, a piquant locality where fish-markets rub shoulders with some of the most outrè palacesin Kolkata. Pride of place is taken by the bizarre Tagore Castle, built in 1867 by Darpanarayan Tagore and modelled on the Neuchwanstein in Bavaria. One really has to be quite intrepid to find these places and most tourists seem to prefer the more serene environs of the Jorasanko Thakurbari, the family mansion of the Tagore family. The house is now part museum, part Rabindra Bharati University.

Other attractions in this area include two Jain Temples, Parasnath on Belgachia Road and Sitalnath near Dinendra Street-Manicktolla Main Road. Nakhoda Masjid on Chitpur Road is modelled on Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra. The ancient Feringhee Kali Temple on Bowbazar is so called because it was refurbished in the 18th century using a bequest from the Portuguese balladeer Antonio Cabral, who wrote much Bengali verse in praise of Kali. And the Sea Ip Chinese Church, up Rabindra Sarani, has the typical peaked roof and curling eaves of Chinese architecture.

Where to Stay

Among the top end hotels in Kolkata, The Oberoi Grand (Tel: 033-22492323; Tariff: ₹9,750–1,25,000), on JL Nehru Road, wins with its location and old-world charm though many prefer the Taj Bengal (Tel: 66123939; Tariff: ₹10,250–40,000) on Belvedere Road.

Courtesy Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces
Taj Bengal, one of the city’s best hotels
Taj Bengal, one of the city’s best hotels

The other usual suspects in this exclusive class are The Park (Tel: 40049000; Tariff: ₹14,000–20,000) and ITC Sonar (Tel: 23454545; Tariff: ₹16,500–1,25,000). Hotel Hindustan International (Tel: 22802323, 22830505, 40018000/ 80; Tariff: Rs 13,000–22,000) and Peerless Inn (Tel: 33016124, 44003900; Tariff: ₹14,000–20,000) are evergreen favourites despite the stiff competition from new kids on the block.

Two less expensive options, The Astor (Tel: 22829950/ 57/ 59; Tariff: ₹5,000–13,500) and the Golden Parkk (Tel: 22883939; Tariff: ₹9,000–11,000), are both conveniently located in the heart of the town.

Good bets too are the more pocket-friendly Fairlawn Hotel (Tel: 22521510/ 8767/ 0125; Tariff: ₹3,500–4,000), which claims to be more like a club than a hotel, and Hotel Royal Garden (Tel: 33132147, Cell: 09836940037; Tariff: ₹3,000–4,500) on Park Street. Roland Hotel (Tel: 24757780; Tariff: ₹3,600–4,300) on Roland Road, 1km from the Esplanade Bus Stand, has well-appointed rooms and suites. The service is friendly and cuisine on offer is not bad. Panasia Continental (Tel: 66122099, 24851528, 65110217; Tariff: ₹4,700–7,000), close to Minto Park and the Laxminarayan Temple, is popular with both leisure and business travellers. Hotel Heritage (Tel: 25706925, Cell: 09830388810; Tariff: ₹2,000–3,000), just 2.5km from the airport, has 44 rooms. They arrange car rentals, rail and air bookings and guided city tours.

Where to Eat

Whatever your budget and tastes, eating out in Kolkata is not a problem. The city is a melting pot of various communities and food is usually cheap. But stick to mineral water, as even filtered Kolkata water often has a high arsenic content.

For good Bengali food, try Kewpie’s Kitchen on Elgin Road and Suruchi on Elliot Road. Aaheli at the Peerless Inn, is also very good.

Nizam’s, behind New Market, is where the kathi roll was invented. It is known for reasonably priced Mughlai food. Mughlai cuisine in Kolkata includes the Irani style of cooking with its ‘chaamps’, kormas and biryanis. Shiraz on the Park Street-Mullick Bazaar Crossing is among the better Irani joints here. Others in that same bracket are Kwality’s, Peter Cat and Mocambo. Badshah’s, across from New Market on Lindsay Street, also maintains high standards.

Sandipan Chaterjee
Kathi rolls at Nizam’s
Kathi rolls at Nizam’s

For an authentic Bengali meal at reasonable prices, nothing beats the Bhojohori Manna chain of restaurants, which has several branches in Kolkata. Oh! Calcutta is a famous chain now, serving excellent Bengali dishes.

Old Chinatown in Central Kolkata, is great for an atmospheric Chinese breakfast sold off barrows. Do arrive by 7.30 am. Try Jimmy’s Kitchen on JC Bose Road and Eau Chew on Ganesh Chandra Avenue.

Fire and Ice in Kanak Building on JN Road serve authentic Italian food in a cozy atmosphere.

Pop into Nahoum’s of New Market for Jewish sambusak and baklava, or Kookie Jar (at Rowdon Street, Salt Lake and Alipore) for excellent savouries and confectioneries. Decrepit as it is, Indian Coffee House near College Street is where Calcutta’s adda culture finds its pinnacle; decades of debate still fills the atmosphere! And then, there’s always singara and dalpuri (kochuri in winter) at the nearest sweetshop. Be sure not to miss the delicious puchka or churmur made by street vendors.

For best sandesh in town, Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Chandra Nandy is the place.

Fast Facts

When to go The cooler months are best (October to March). Avoid the waterlogged monsoon and humid summers, but autumn is a good bet with all the pujas, especially Durga Puja

Tourist offices

Tourism Centre, 3/2, BBD Bagh (East) Kolkata, Tel: 033-22436440, 22488271, Cell: 09836621200, 09051496258, 08334870300

Tourism Centre, 18-19, Muktadhara, Gole Market, New Delhi, Tel: 011-23342334, wbtourism.gov.in, wbtdc.gov.in

STD code 033

Getting There

Air Kolkata’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport (14km from city centre) has daily flights to New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Bhubaneswar, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Patna, Pune, Varanasi, Ahmedabad, Agartala, Nagpur, Port Blair and many more

Rail Kolkata is served by Howrah and Sealdah stations, both well connected to several cities in India

Road NH2 links Kolkata to Delhi via Varanasi, Kanpur and Agra. NH6 traverses the breadth of the sub-continent, linking it to the port of Hazira on the western coast via Kharagpur, Sambalpur, Raipur, Nagpur, Dhule and Surat