One of the great urban centres of India, Kolkata is – to its proud citizens – equal to any city in the country in charm, variety and interest. The showpiece capital of the British Raj was the greatest colonial city of the Orient. People from all over the world came seeking fortune during its trading boom in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Their descendants are still noticeable in the city's cosmopolitan mix of communities. Despite this, there has been a rise in Bengali nationalism over the last twenty years, and in 2001 the city was officially renamed Kolkata (its precolonial Bengali name).
The best travel tips for visiting Kolkata
Since Indian Independence, mass migrations of dispossessed refugees caused by twentieth-century upheavals within the Subcontinent have tested the city’s infrastructure to the limit.
The resultant suffering – and the work of Mother Teresa in drawing attention to its most helpless victims – has given Kolkata a reputation for poverty that sells the city short.
Although it undoubtedly faces huge challenges, they are no greater than in other cities of comparable size in India and around the world.
In fact, though Kolkata’s mighty Victorian buildings stand peeling and decaying, and its central avenues are choked by traffic, the city exudes a warmth and buoyancy that leaves few visitors unmoved.
Kolkata is expanding rapidly, with shopping malls, hip cafés and restaurants, and satellite towns springing up all around the city.
The downside of all this development, however, partly resulting from the huge increase in traffic, is some of the worst air pollution in the world, with one of the most chaotic road systems in the country.
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Best things to do in Kolkata
From The stately Indian Museum to the green expanse of the Maidan, here are the best things to do in Kolkata.
#1 Relax at The Maidan
One of the largest city-centre parks in the world, the Maidan – literally “field” – stretches from the Esplanade in the north to the racecourse in the south.
It is bordered by Chowringhee Road to the east, the Strand and river to the west and Raj Bhavan to the north, the former residence of the British governors-general and the viceroys of India until 1911. It's now the official home of the governor of Bengal.
This vast open area, the lungs of Kolkata, stands in utter contrast to the chaotic streets of the surrounding city.
It was created when Fort William, now home to the military headquarters of the Eastern Command, was laid out near the river in 1758; Robert Clive cleared tracts of forest to give its guns a clear line of fire.
Originally a haven for the elite, today the Maidan is a favourite spot for ordinary citizens.
#2 Wander along Esplanade and Chowringhee Road
The 46m column of Shahid Minar (Martyrs’ Memorial) towers over the busy tram and bus terminals and market stalls at the northeast corner of the Maidan, known here as Esplanade.
It was originally built in 1828 to commemorate David Ochterlony, who led the East India Company’s troops to victory in the Nepalese Wars of 1814–16.
On the east side of Esplanade, the once-elegant colonnaded front of Chowringhee Road is perpetually teeming with hawkers and shoppers.
Behind the facade the Victorian Grand Hotel (now the Oberoi Grand), its palm court inspired by the famous Raffles of Singapore, maintains a hint of colonialism.
#3 Buy some snacks at New Market
The single-storey New Market has barely changed inside since it opened in 1874 and has plenty of old-world charm.
Beneath its Gothic red-brick clock tower, the market stocks a vast array of household goods, luggage, garments, textiles, jewellery, knickknacks and books as well as meat, vegetables and fruit and a booming flower market.
Chamba Lama sells Tibetan curios, silver jewellery and bronzes while Sujata’s is known for its silk, and Nahoum & Sons is a renowned Jewish bakery and confectioner.
Further up the corridor, condiment stalls offer dried fruit, miniature rounds of salty Bandel cheese (both smoked and unsmoked) and amshat, blocks of dried mango; the produce, poultry, fish and meat market nearby is unmistakeable by its aroma.
Coolies, hoping for commission, eagerly offer assistance to any shopper who shows even a flicker of uncertainty.
#4 Be wowed by the Indian Museum
The stately Indian Museum is the oldest and largest museum in India, founded in 1814. Visitors come in their thousands, many of them referring to it as the jadu ghar or “house of magic”.
The main showpiece is a collection of sculptures obtained from sites all over India, which centres on a superb Mauryan polished-sandstone lion capital dating from the third century BC.
One gallery houses the impressive remains of the second-century BC Buddhist stupa from Bharhut in Madhya Pradesh, partly reassembled to display the red-sandstone posts, capping stones, railings and gateways.
Carvings depict scenes from the Jataka tales of the Buddha’s many incarnations.
Along with a huge collection of Buddhist sculptures, dating from the first to the third centuries, you’ll also see stone sculpture from Khajuraho and Pala bronzes, and archeological finds from other sites.
#5 Take in the Victoria Memorial
The dramatic white-marble Victoria Memorial at the southern end of the Maidan, with its formal gardens and watercourses, continues to be Kolkata’s pride and joy.
Other colonial monuments and statues throughout the city have been renamed or demolished, but attempts to change the name of the “VM” have come to nothing.
This extraordinary hybrid building designed by Sir William Emerson, with Italianate statues over its entrances, Mughal domes in its corners, and elegant open colonnades along its sides, was conceived by Lord Curzon to commemorate the empire at its peak.
However, by the time it was completed in 1921, twenty years after Victoria’s death, the capital of the Raj had shifted to Delhi.
The main entrance, at the Maidan end, leads into a tall chamber beneath the dome.
The 25 galleries inside still contain mementoes of British imperialism including statues of Queen Mary, King George V and Queen Victoria.
#6 See the mights iron-trussed roof of St Paul’s Cathedral
Close to the Victoria Memorial, beyond the Birla Planetarium, stands the Gothic edifice of St Paul’s Cathedral, erected by Major W.N. Forbes in 1847.
Measuring 75m by 24m, its iron-trussed roof was then the longest span in existence.
For improved ventilation, the lancet windows inside extend to plinth level, and tall fans hang from the ceiling.
The most outstanding of the many well-preserved memorials and plaques to long-perished imperialists is the stained glass of the west window, designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones in 1880 to honour Lord Mayo, assassinated in the Andaman Islands.
The original steeple was destroyed in the 1897 earthquake; after a second earthquake in 1934 it was remodelled on the Bell Harry Tower at Canterbury Cathedral.
#7 Bask in the work at the Academy of Fine Arts
South of the cathedral, the Academy of Fine Arts is a showcase for Bengali contemporary arts.
As well as temporary exhibitions, it holds permanent displays of the work of artists such as Jamini Roy and Rabindranath Tagore.
#8 See some Indian classical music at the Cultural Centre: Rabindra Sadan, Nandan and Sisir Mancha
Immediately south of the Academy of Fine Arts, the Cultural Centre features the large auditorium of Rabindra Sadan which, occasionally and especially in winter, features programmes of Indian classical music.
Next door, Nandan, designed by Satyajit Ray, is a lively film centre and pays homage to the rich tradition of Bengal’s film-making. Also within the complex, Bengali theatre is celebrated with its own auditorium, Sisir Mancha.
#9 Peruse the gallery of art and antiquities at the Asiatic Society
Close to Chowringhee Road, the Asiatic Society, established in 1784 by Orientalists including Sir William Jones, houses a huge collection of around 150,000 books and 60,000 manuscripts, some dating back to the seventh century.
The society has a reading room open to the public as well as a gallery of art and antiquities that holds paintings by Rubens and Reynolds, a large coin collection and one of Ashoka’s stone edicts.
#10 Wander through Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata’s oldest
The disused Park Street Cemetery is one of the city’s most haunting memorials to its imperial past.
Inaugurated in 1767, it is the oldest in Kolkata, holding a wonderful concentration of pyramids, obelisks, pavilions, urns and headstones, beneath which many well-known figures from the Raj lie buried including Sir William Jones of the Asiatic Society.
The epitaphs make poignant reading.
#11 Seek out The Last Supper by Johann Zoffany inside St John’s Church
Of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British churches dotted around central Kolkata, the most interesting is St John’s, just south of the GPO.
Erected in 1787, it houses memorials to British residents, along with an impressive painting of The Last Supper by Johann Zoffany, in which prominent Calcuttans are depicted as apostles.
In the grounds, Kolkata’s oldest graveyard holds the tomb of Job Charnock, the city’s founding father, one of the few colonialists still cherished among Bengalis.
Charnock earned eternal notoriety for marrying a Hindu girl he saved from the funeral pyre of her first husband.
#12 Visit Eden Gardens in Kolkata
Eden Gardens, the imposing site of the world-famous cricket ground (officially known as the Ranji Stadium), lies near the river close to Chandpal Ghat and has been described as the “Coliseum of Cricket”.
Watching a test match here is an unforgettable experience as the 66,000-seat stadium resounds to the roar of the crowd.
Next to the stadium, towards the river, the pleasant palm-fringed gardens are a picture of tranquillity with a Burmese pagoda set against a little lake.
#13 Stumble across the synagogues of BethEl and Magen David
Now protected monuments, the synagogues of BethEl and Magen David are reminders of the once flourishing community that played such an important role in the commercial life of the city.
While the Jewish community has all but disappeared from Kolkata, the two synagogues remain lovingly preserved.
Buried in the heart of a busy electrical goods market, BethEl’s exterior, emblazoned with the Star of David, hides an immaculate, lofty hall with aisles awaiting a lost congregation.
A short distance away, Magen David’s church-like appearance is similar. Both feature striking stained glass, common throughout the synagogues of India.
#14 Be wowed by a lavish collection of statues at the Marble Palace
The ornate Marble Palace holds a lavish collection of statues, European antiques, Ming vases, and paintings by Rubens and Gainsborough.
To join one of the free guided tours of this extraordinary pile, get a pass from the tourist offices at BBD Bagh or Shakespeare Sarani.
To the north of Marble Palace, Sonagachi’s warren of lanes is one of Kolkata’s red-light districts.
#15 Cross Howrah Bridge
One of Kolkata’s most famous landmarks (officially called Rabindra Setu, though few people use this new name), Howrah Bridge is 97m high and 705m long.
It span the river in a single leap to make it the world’s third longest cantilever bridge.
Erected with a maze of girders during World War II in 1943 to give Allied troops access to the Burmese front, it was the first bridge to be built using rivets.
Joining the streams of pedestrians who walk across it each day is a memorable experience.
Vidyasagar Setu, the second Hooghly bridge, built 3km south to relieve the strain, was 22 years in the making.
It’s a vast toll bridge with Spaghetti Junction-style approaches high enough to let ships pass below.
Best areas to stay in Kolkata
As soon as you arrive in Kolkata, taxi drivers are likely to assume that you’ll be heading for Sudder St, near New Market, where you’ll find a heady mix of travellers, businessmen and Bangladeshis in transit.
As the main travellers’ hub in Kolkata and close to all amenities, the area is a sociable place to stay, with numerous hotels, though if you’re after more luxury, you may have to look further afield.
Note that budget hotels in Kolkata are generally pretty poor quality: it is well worth spending a bit more here to avoid the grottiest rooms.
This is a backpacker centre for travellers. There are lots of hotels and budget guesthouses to pick from, including some real rotters.
Home to the more luxury address in Kolkata and big brand hotels, but not very close to any of the city's main points of interest.
Near the Airport
There is a choice of hotels on Jessore and VIP Roads, including some business hotels. Handy for catching flights, not so good for seeing sights.
Browse the best hotels in Kolkata.
Best restaurants and bars
Although locals love to dine out, traditional Bengali cooking was, until relatively recently, restricted to the home.
However, some excellent restaurants now offer the chance to taste this wonderful fish- and seafood-based cuisine.
You’ll also find several good south Indian restaurants, numerous joints offering varying standards of Western cuisine, as well as rich Muslim cooking and the not-to-be-missed kati roll (parathas stuffed with chicken, mutton, paneer, egg or spiced potato, spiked with chilli and lime, and rolled in a sheaf of paper).
Renamed as Mother Teresa Sarani – though few locals use this name – Park Street is packed with restaurants, cafés and bars, and has long been the hub of cosmopolitan and even hedonistic Calcutta.
Restaurants and cafés around Sudder St cater for Western travellers.
Roadside chai shops and street food stalls around BBD Bagh are extremely popular for lunch.
Once famous for its live music, including a renowned jazz club now sadly gone, the western end of the Mother Teresa Sarani strip, near Maidan, continues to support some of the liveliest nightlife in the city.
Chinatown at Tangra
Chinese, spiced and cooked to local tastes, is also popular: the city has a rich tradition including its own Chinatown at Tangra on the road to the airport.
How to get around
From the Metro system to human-drawn rickshaws, it is easy to get around Kolkata . Here’s how to do it.
India’s first and Kolkata’s pride and joy, provides a fast, clean and efficient way to get around.
The river is also used for transport, with the ghats near Eden Gardens at the hub of a ferry system.
You can beat the traffic by jumping on one of the frequent ferries from Chandpal Ghat to Howrah station, though they’re crowded at rush hour.
By metered taxi
Metered taxis remain the most convenient mode of transport and radio cabs (private taxis) provide more comfort at a price.
Kolkata supports a vast and complicated bus network. The a/c Volvo buses run on several useful routes including from Esplanade to the airport and between Tollygunge (via Gariahat) and the airport.
These are commuter buses, so getting on with luggage mid-route can be a problem when the buses are full.
By private minibus
There are private brown and yellow minibuses which travel at inordinate speeds.
Their destinations are painted boldly in Bengali and English on their sides and route numbers are occasionally visible.
Kolkata’s cumbersome trams, barely changed save for a lick of paint since they started operating in 1873, have been largely phased out.
Certain routes linger on and a “new” model has been introduced with high glass windows.
Female travellers can take advantage of the rush-hour women-only coaches.
Despite efforts to ban them, Kolkata still has human-drawn rickshaws, though they’re only available in the central areas of the city, especially around New Market.
Most of the rickshaw-pullers are Bihari pavement-dwellers, who live short and very hard lives.
Some pullers supplement their meagre income by acting as touts and pimps. Haggle for a realistic price but feel free to give a handful of baksheesh too.
The ferry system provides a pleasant alternative to the city’s manic roads. The most useful ferry terminal is Chandpal Ghat near Eden Gardens.
A short taxi ride from Sudder St, from where, along with Howrah station, you can get ferries downriver to Shibpur for the Botanical Gardens and upriver to Shobabazaar, useful for visiting Kumartuli.
What is the best time to visit Kolkata?
The climate of Kolkata is at its best during the short winter (Nov–Feb), when the daily maximum temperature hovers around 27°C, and the markets are filled with fresh vegetables and flowers.
Before the monsoons, however, the heat hangs unbearably heavily; the arrival of the rains in late June brings relief, but usually also floods that turn the streets into a quagmire.
After a brief period of post-monsoon high temperatures, October and November are quite pleasant; this is the time of the city’s biggest festival, Durga Puja.
Find out more about the best time to visit India.
How many days do you need in Kolkata?
To get a good sense of the city's rich heritage, visitors typically need at least 3 to 4 days in Kolkata.
This gives them enough time to visit sites such as Victoria Memorial, Indian Museum, Howrah Bridge, and exploring vibrant neighbourhoods like Park Street and South Kolkata.
Additionally, it provides ample time to indulge in the city's renowned street food, experience the bustling markets, and soak in the cultural ambiance that Kolkata has to offer.
Rough Guides tip: Planning a trip to India? Perhaps our local experts in India can help you!
How to get here
Kolkata is one of India's most visited cities, so there is no shortage of ways to get here. The easiest, depending on where you come from of course, is by plane.
Netaji Subhash Bose International Airport Kolkata’s airport 20 km north of the city centre, is officially called Netaji Subhash Bose International Airport, but is still universally known by its old name of Dum Dum.
Prepaid taxis, Express Volvo a/c coach services and the Metro all connect with the city centre.
Kolkata has three main railway stations: Howrah, Kolkata and Sealdah, with two others, Santragachi and Shalimar, as subsidiary hubs.
Howrah Howrah – the point of arrival for most major trains from the south and west – stands on the far bank of the Hooghly, 2 km west of the centre.
To reach the central downtown area, traffic has to negotiate Howrah Bridge – the definitive introduction to the chaos of the city.
Find out how to get to India.