The chaotic mix of people, colonial buildings and honking vehicles can be daunting to those unfamiliar with the Indian city of Mumbai. Coupled with the heat and humidity of this south western region, it can be an exhausting pursuit just looking for breakfast – knowing what to order is a whole other kettle of fish. The best way to get comfortable in Mumbai is to introduce yourself to the city at a local level, so here are five things to do in Mumbai that I discovered on my recent mother-daughter adventure:
What better way to learn about local life than to live with a couple of Mumbai natives? We found an excellent homestay in the residential area of Churchgate on Airbnb, and while I was cautious about the safety of living with locals in an Indian city, the reviews on owner Mahesh’s page made it sound too good to miss out on. At sixty-something and retired from the financial sector, he was a spritely and animated man, unusually tall with a constant beaming smile.
Our room was simple but his hospitality was great. Mahesh gave us recommendations on where to eat, shared tea with us each day and on our final morning insisted we join him for a sunrise walk along Marine Drive.
Expecting a leisurely stroll – considering his age – we stumbled out of bed and into our sandals at 6.30am. Little did I realise that Marine Drive is actually a Mumbai-dweller’s cardio workout route, and we struggled to keep up with Mahesh and his long legs as we power-walked along Chowpatty Beach. While chatting about Indian politics, religion and lifestyle, we weaved in and out of oncoming human traffic – accidentally stumbling across a personal training session with Mukesh Ambani, one of India’s richest men – and I learned more about Indian life than any museum could possibly tell me.
One of the best ways to experience Mumbai is on foot, providing you’ve got a bottle of cold water and enough mettle to walk out into moving traffic – you’ll never get across the road without a good dose of either the courage or recklessness that Indians retain so well.
Walking from the Gateway of India on the seafront (Mumbai’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe), our local Mumbai Magic tour guide Pranali proved the perfect roadblock as we nervously scurried across roundabouts and through five lanes of traffic. We were on our way to the Oval – a giant public cricket ground where on weekends hundreds of impromptu games are played all at once – and Pranali let us see the city through her eyes, shedding light on some of the local landmarks in Mumbai.
We explored Esplanade Mansion, India’s oldest remaining (and only just standing) cast iron building, where a few apartments are still inhabited despite having been classified as endangered – in other words, falling down. Apparently, some tenants are loath to let go of their family legacy in this magnificent but decaying building.
We darted down alleyways that opened into huge fruit and veg markets and studied shops with impressive displays of Indian sweets piled high. Here we enjoyed bartering for curry leaves and striking up conversation about the volatile price of a pineapple with the vendors.
Many travellers are wary of the dangers that come with eating street food in India; terrible tales of stomach bugs and nasty bouts of Delhi belly put most of us off. But Pranali showed us to the safest way of tasting local flavours: enter Swati Snacks. This restaurant is popular with both Indians and tourists, as it serves up some of the best street snacks in a clean, open kitchen. The only problem you’ll come across in this place is figuring out what you want.
Seeing as the menu offered no explanation of each dish, we let Pranali choose her favourites and dived blindly into an array of colourful treats. The most fun by far was a tray of pani puri (Rs110), a DIY snack consisting of crispy hollow balls which you fill with spiced lentils, diced potato, a barbeque sauce and coriander water.
Pav bhaji was like a delightfully greasy, spiced chip butty with a grated potato patty between two slices of slightly sweetened bread (Rs130), and the guava and orange juice were the perfect soothers to calm my taste buds after all of those intense flavours (Rs80).
While walking is great for exploring in depth, you can’t dismiss the buses and trains. Mumbai trains often conjure up images like this:
But in fact, out of rush hour they’re pretty civilized – the surprisingly spacious carriages allow ample room for manoeuvre, unlike my daily commute on the London Underground, and you’ll even see women chopping their veg for lunch in the ladies-only compartment (after all, why wait?). With the carriage doors wide open, I could hang out of the side and feel the refreshing wind in my hair as we sped through the city and at each station I observed everyone, from school girls to businessmen, getting on and off the train in a hurry (the trains only stop for thirty seconds, which makes for an interesting challenge if it’s busy).
Buses are an even better way to see the city at work as traffic moves pretty slowly thanks to the nearly two million cars on the roads. From the Oval, we jumped – quite literally, because buses don’t stop for more than ten seconds anywhere – on the number 25 to the Gamdevi area. We passed workshops where men made ornate wooden furniture and caught whiffs of the city’s tempting street food stalls, and as we picked up speed along Marine Drive, I felt a welcome and refreshing sea breeze from more of that “natural air-con” we’d discovered on the train.
While 54% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums, the city is also home to a number of the country’s wealthiest people. With the ever-growing Bollywood industry at the heart of Mumbai’s economy, there’s a huge community of actors, producers and directors indulging in the city’s finest hotels, bars, clubs and restaurants, leading a whole different kind of local life.
The Taj Mahal Palace is possibly the most famous hotel in India (not just for being the centre of the 2008 terror attacks) and it often plays host to the world’s top dogs – including Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama.
It’s safe to say I felt nothing short of fraudulent; walking through the crisp air-conditioned hotel lobby, up the red-carpeted double staircase and into the Sea Lounge where the most impressive spread of high tea I’ve ever seen is served to the Taj’s well-heeled guests.
We could have spent hours pouring over the tea and coffee menu (with over 50 blends from India to Costa Rica), and admiring the spectacular view over the Gateway of India, but the buffet of Indian snacks and mini desserts was too tempting. Filling my plate to an uncouth capacity, I gorged on mini lamb burgers, spring rolls, pav bhaji, pani puri and Asian dumplings until our waiter brought a three-tiered cake stand with crustless sandwiches and scones and jam – we hadn’t even started on the dessert buffet.
By the end of the afternoon I’d tried everything, from chocolate mousse served in a mini glass jar, to Indian milk sweets and pistachio cake. I was uncomfortably full and as I settled into my cushioned wicker chair, I wondered which of the people around me were up-and-coming directors, schmoozing some Bollywood producer for their next big movie.
Featured image by Lottie Gross © 2014. Explore more of this colourful country with the Rough Guide to India.