Lucknow has never been as glamorous as Delhi or as important as Agra. It has always been a provincial seat of government, and these were glittering Mughal capitals. But for a brief period between 1722 and 1856, it shone brighter than any other star in Hindustan. The men responsible for this came from Persia and ruled in this time for a while as vassals of the Mughal emperor, later as kings in their own right. They bequeathed a unique Indo-Persian culture to their province of Avadh, which has no equal. Ever since, Lucknow has been a byword for cultural refinement. Here the Urdu language was refined, here was created the magic of the tabla and sitar, and of Kathak, northern India’s most refined dance form. Lucknow manages to retain this reputation even today, but it’s a losing battle against the spreading stain of contemporary Uttar Pradesh politics.

Lucknow’s rise began in 1775, when Asafuddaulah, fourth Nawab of Avadh, broke free of the clutches of his formidable mother, abandoning the Avadhi capital Faizabad to set up court in Lucknow, 127km away, on the banks of the Gomti. He set about creating one of the most cosmopolitan and beautiful capitals in 18th-century India, hatching schemes to throw up the most flamboyant and innovative buildings and gardens. Never before had this average town seen anything like the imambaras that housed the replicas of martyrs’ tombs, the ornamented gates, the stately mosques. By the time Asafuddaulah died, in 1797, Lucknow was firmly the centre of the universe of Avadh.

Even before the nawabs, in medieval times, it was a thriving city, just as it has reinvented itself today. But for most Indians, Lucknow will always be associated with the splendour of the nawabi era.

The lavishly-decorated interiors of the Chota Imambara, alsso known as the Hussainabad Imambara
The lavishly-decorated interiors of the Chota Imambara, alsso known as the Hussainabad Imambara
Tribhuvan Tiwari


Wandering around the crumbling nawabi palaces can keep you occupied for days. Lucknow has none of the ambience or convenience of the Rajasthani cities. Nevertheless, it’s not without its rewards, and that they are hard-won gives the visitor greater satisfaction.

The Founder’s Flamboyance

Asafuddaulah’s Rumi Darwaza is the symbol of Lucknow. This fantastic giant gateway, heavily ornamented with stucco, was supposedly copied from an entrance in Constantinople. It formed the western side of a great courtyard in front of the Bara Imambara. Rumi Darwaza may be an older structure, forming one end of a ganj, or market place. When Asafuddaulah chose to build the Bara Imambara in 1784, he seems to have embellished the existing western gateway, turning it into the spectacular archway we see today. Around the outer edge are guldastas, stylised flower buds of local pottery. Stately processions of elephants, horses and camels carrying nawabs, the British Resident and his retinue, and pilgrims, passed through this magnificent gateway.


The imambaras, found all over Lucknow, are peculiar to the Shia faith and hold taziyas (symbolic tombs) that provide a focus during Muharram, the period of mourning that marks the deaths of Imams Hasan and Hussain, grandsons of Prophet Muhammad. Imambaras can also be burial places; the architect of the Bara Imambara, Kifayatullah, is buried here next to his nawab. This imambara is both the first and the largest of its kind in Lucknow. All are welcome in both gardens and imambara, but there are restrictions on non-Muslims entering the adjoining Asafi Mosque (also called Jama Masjid).

The great central hall of the Imambara measures 163ft – then the world’s largest vaulted hall to stand without wooden supports. Today guides point out the tombs of Asafuddaulah and his relatives, and a collection of old gilt mirrors, chan-deliers and ornate taziyas. Lose yourself in the Bhul-bhulaiya, also a structural device to distribute the enormous weight of the vaulted roof below, which provides a panoramic view of the complex.

A view of the Bara Imambara from a nearby structure
A view of the Bara Imambara from a nearby structure
Jitender Gupta

Visit the baoli, or stepwell, that leads off the eastern side of the gardens. Once, a magnificent set of rooms surrounding the deep well here, cooled during the summer by fountains. The ‘Bowlee Palace’ housed first Governor-General Warren Hastings on his visit in the 1780s. It is also the only remnant of the Macchi Bhawan Fort, which was built over the adjacent hill in medieval times, and became the first home to Asafuddaulah until he built his own palace, the Daulat Khana.

The Nawab’s Palaces

Four great palace complexes were built in Lucknow during the nawabs’ short tenure. They imported teak from Burma for the roofs, bought up most of Avadh’s bamboo for the scaffolding, and brought stone from Chunar and marble from present-day Rajasthan. Today only a handful of buildings remain of the last two palace complexes. The Macchi Bhawan Fort with its mahi maratib insignia is gone, demolished piecemeal between 1858 and circa 1890. On its site is the Chattrapati Shahuji Maharaj Medical University, erected in 1912, when it was called King George’s Medical College and Hospital.

The restless Asafuddaulah also built the Daulat Khana Palace complex. In its time, the complex comprised elegant havelis cooled by fountains, with small palaces and sarais draped along the Gomti. Today, it is difficult to reconstruct what it may have looked like, but a walk around the site will still uncover things of interest, many added by later nawabs. A useful landmark is the Hussainabad Clock Tower, which boasted the largest clockface in India and one that could be illuminated at night. Designed by a British architect, it was based on the surviving minaret of the great mosque of Grenada, in Spain.

Near it stands the Hussainabad Picture Gallery in a building built by Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah, which may originally have acted as a grandstand for viewing animal fights and fireworks on the plains in front. Today it has a collection of interesting paintings of the nawabs which were based on contemporary portraits. But the most important building is the Asafi Kothi, now mutilated by encroachments that make it almost impossible to see what a fine Palladian-style house this was.

Head back towards the town and you will go past the Chattar Manzil Palace, begun by Saadat Ali Khan. This was the man responsible for building Hazratganj, connecting the inner city to the excess of monuments on the riverbank. Saadat Ali Khan lined Hazratganj with fine European-style villas for his many sons. He began creating his own palace by purchasing Claude Martin’s handsome villa on the banks of the river Gomti. This elegant building, renamed Farhat Baksh, utilised the river water to cool it in summer. It, and the adjoining Chattar Manzil, now form part of the Central Drug Research Institute.

Beautifully landscaped grounds of the Vivanta by Taj in Lucknow
Beautifully landscaped grounds of the Vivanta by Taj in Lucknow
Courtesy Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces

To the south stand the Gulistan-i-Iram (‘Rose Garden of Paradise’) and the curious Darshan Bilas, whose façades imitate those of other Lucknow buildings. The Lal Barah-dwari, once a durbar hall and later the throne room of Nawab Nasiruddin Haider, lies in a direct line with the Farhat Baksh, though the British ruined the symmetry by driving a major road between the two.

Kathak dancers practicing in the Qaserbagh grounds
Kathak dancers practicing in the Qaserbagh grounds
Jitender Gupta

Qaisarbagh – One Last Fling

The last and greatest palace, Qaisarbagh, was built between 1848 and 1852, but occupied by its builder, Wajid Ali Shah, for only four years before his deposition. It has undergone much demolition and subsequent rebuilding, but it undoubtedly was a handsome series of gardens and European design, with a number of follies where theatrical events would be staged. Wajid Ali Shah was a gifted poet who wrote his own versions of the great Hindu legends, which were performed in the Qaisarbagh, sometimes for an audience. The portly ruler cast himself as Krishna, while the ladies of the court were persuaded to become gopis! The Qaisarbagh buildings were among those demolished by the British and time has added to the general destruction. The Fairy Bridge in the north of the main garden is in a sorry state. The impressive gateways which lead into the garden are choked by traffic hurtling along the roads which now criss-cross the site.

The Residency in Lucknow
The Residency in Lucknow
Jitender Gupta

Scars of Mutiny

The ruins of the British Residency in Lucknow are a poignant reminder of the heroism on the part of besiegers and defenders alike. For years, the museum inside gathered dust, but during the last few years, the ASI has transformed it into an exciting display of how life really was back then. The spacious lawns between the buildings now make it difficult to picture the Residency as it was. So do inspect the model of the complex at the time of the siege, complete with ballrooms, the Bailey Guard Gate and the church (now in ruins), and the sheer number of ‘native’ buildings outside that surrounded the compound, later blasted away to clear a passage around the Residency.

Excavations continue on the site of the ‘native hospital’ that was built by the British for Indian patients, as well as the barracks for the sepoys. Interesting artefacts have been found here, including a silver-plated stick, bayonets, fragments of English dinner plates, and imported wine bottles.

The Sound and Light Show at the Residency depicts the history of Lucknow, along with the siege.

Entry ₹25 Timings 7.30pm (1 Nov–14 Mar), 8.45pm (15 Mar–31 Oct) Monument entry fee ₹55 Photography free; Videography ₹25 Timings Sunrise–sunset, all days


Vivanta by Taj (Tel: 0522-6711000; Tariff: ₹13,000–29,000) offers an excellent view of the silver Gomti and La Martiniére on the opposite bank. Specially visited for its Avadhi cuisine at Falaknuma Restaurant, Clarks Avadh (Tel: 2616500-06, 2620131; Tariff: ₹9,000–15,000) on MG Road is also an important Lucknow landmark. La Place Sarovar Portico (Tel: 4004040; Tariff ₹6,000–10,000), from the Sarovar group, is on Shahnajaf Road. The 3-star Hotel Gomti (Tel: 2611463, 2612662; Tariff: ₹900–3,000) on Sapru Marg is among UP Tourism’s prized properties, offering all the necessary facilities. Hotel Arif Castles (Tel: 4098777; Tariff: ₹6,500–7,500) is on Rana Pratap Marg.

The famous Tunde ke Kabab in Chowk
The famous Tunde ke Kabab in Chowk
Jitender Gupta


The Nawabs were great connoisseurs of cuisine and to them can be credited the creation of such Avadhi delicacies as galouti kebab, kebab paranthas and not to forget an entire technique of cooking – dum pukht. Those who want to savour these joys should head to Naushijaan on Chaina Bazaar Road in Hazratganj. Tuck into majlisi and galouti kebabs. Dip into aflatooni korma with a gigantic Afghani parantha, and round off your Nawabi repast with shahi tukra. Do not miss out on Tunde ke Kebab. The original outlet is in Chowk. And the traditional Lucknow brunch of nehari and kulcha at Rahim’s, opposite Tunde, is dynamite.

On a sidestreet just off Hazratganj, amongst crowds thronging Shukla’s Chaat House, you’ll discover peas. Simple green peas, spiced, soured with lemon juice, cooked dry, and hand-pounded to a light consistency. Also try golgappas Lucknow-style in Chowk. Each puri comes with a different stuffing. You start with the zeera flavour, and move on to hing, pudina, lemon, etc, till your tastebuds can’t take any more teasing.


When to go Winter is the best time. The sweetest mangoes offer little respite from the blazing summer heat. The monsoon season is muggy

Tourist offices

UP Tourism Reception Counter, Hotel Gomti. Tel: 0522-2611463

Directorate of Tourism, Paryatan Bhavan, C-13, Vipin Khand, Gomti Nagar, Lucknow, Tel: 0522-2308993/ 017

UP Tourism, Chandralok Building, 36, Janpath, New Delhi, Tel: 011-23322251, W

STD code 0522


Air Lucknow International Airport at Amausi is connected to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Patna, and other cities across the country

Rail Lucknow Junction, connected to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and other cities

Road Lucknow is connected direct to New Delhi by NH24. The city is linked to NH2 that connects Delhi to Kolkata via Agra, Kanpur and Varanasi. Lucknow is linked to Kanpur by NH25 and to Bhopal by NH86 Bus Private and state buses connect Lucknow to other cities