With around two million inhabitants, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh’s capital, sprawls out from the eastern shores of a huge artificial lake, its packed old city surrounded by modern concrete suburbs and green hills. The nineteenth-century mosques emphasise its enduring Muslim legacy, while the hectic bazaars of the walled old city are worth a visit. Elsewhere, a couple of good archeological museums house hoards of ancient sculpture and the lakeside Bharat Bhavan ranks among India’s premier centres for performing and visual arts. Despite this, Bhopal is still known for the 1984 gas disaster, which casts a long shadow over the city.
The best travel tips for visiting BhopalBhopal has two separate centres. Spread over the hills to the south of the lakes, the partially pedestrianised New Market area is a mix of shopping arcades, internet cafés, ice cream parlours, cinemas and office blocks.
Once you’ve squeezed through the strip of land that divides the Upper and (smaller) Lower lakes, sweeping avenues, civic buildings and gardens give way to the more heavily congested old city. This area includes the Jama Masjid and the bazaar, centred on Chowk, a dense grid of streets between the Moti Masjid and Hamidia Road.
The art galleries and museums are on side roads off New Market, or along the hilly southern edge of the Upper Lake. The Museum of Man on the city’s outskirts is the country’s most comprehensive exhibition of adivasi houses, culture and technology; the nearby Tribal Museum focuses on MP's adivasi groups.
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Best things to do in BhopalFrom Bhopals’ lively Bazaar Chowk to the Museum of Man, here are the best things to do in Bhopal
#1 Explore the Bazaar ChowkBhopal’s lively bazaar provides a welcome splash of colour after the dismal, traffic filled streets around the railway station. Famous for zarda, purdah, garda and namarda (tobacco, veils, dust and eunuchs), it retains a strong Muslim ambience, with overhanging balconies intricately carved with Islamic geometric designs.
Each of the narrow streets radiating from the central square specialises in a different type of merchandise. For sale are Chanderi silk saris, bass drums and clarinets, tussar silk, silver jewellery and Bhopal’s famous beaded purses. At the heart of the market loom the rich red-sandstone walls and stumpy minarets of the Jama Masjid, built in 1837 by Kudsia Begum.
#2 Admire the Pearl Mosque on Imam SquareSouthwest of Chowk Imam Square was once the epicentre of royal Bhopal. Nowadays, it’s little more than a glorified traffic island, only worth stopping at to admire the Moti Masjid on its eastern edge.
Erected in 1860 by Kudsia’s daughter, Sikander Begum, the “Pearl Mosque” is a diminutive and much less imposing version of Shah Jahan’s Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. It’s notable more for its slender, gold-topped minarets and sandstone cupolas than its size. Lining the opposite, northern side of the square near the ceremonial archway is a more eccentric nineteenth-century pile.
A fusion of Italian, Gothic and Islamic influences, the Shaukat Mahal was originally designed by a French architect. Unfortunately, both it and the elegant Sadar Manzil (“Hall of Public Audience”) just west on Sultania Road are now government offices and closed to visitors.
#3 Bear witness to the “mother of all mosques”, Darul Uloom Tajul MasajidWith its matching pair of colossal pink minarets soaring high above the city skyline, the Darul Uloom Tajul Masajid lives up to the epithet of “mother of all mosques”, as denoted by the extra “a” in its name. Whether Bhopal’s most impressive monument also deserves to be dubbed the biggest in India, as locals claim, is less certain.
Work on the building commenced under Sultan Jehan Begum (1868–1901), the eighth ruler of Bhopal. After the death of her domineering husband, the widowed queen embarked on a spending spree that left the city with a postal system, new schools and a railway, but which all but impoverished the state – and the Tajul Masajid was never actually completed.
#4 See some of the finest stone sculptures in Madhya PradeshThe Birla Mandir Museum collection includes some of the finest stone sculptures in Madhya Pradesh, informatively displayed with explanatory panels in English in the main galleries.
The museum is in a detached mansion beside Birla Mandir, the garish modern Hindu Lakshmi Narayan temple that stands high on Arera Hill overlooking the Lower Lake. Aside from the museum itself, the temple gardens, which overlook the city, are a fine place to watch the sunset.
The exhibition is divided between Vishnu, the mother goddess, and Shiva. The Vishnu section contains some interesting representations of the god’s diverse and frequently bizarre reincarnations, while in the Devi gallery next door, a cadaverous Chamunda (the goddess Durga in her most terrifying aspect) stands incongruously amid a row of voluptuous maidens and fertility figures. The Shiva room, by contrast, is altogether more subdued.
RoughGuides tip: don't miss the replicas of the 3500-year-old Harappan artefacts encased under the stairs.
#5 Check out the artworks of Bharat Bhavan Arts CentreThe Bharat Bhavan Arts Centre is provincial India’s pre-eminent arts centre. Inside Goan architect Charles Correa’s campus of concrete domes and dour brickwork are temporary exhibitions as well as a large split-level permanent collection of modern Indian paintings and sculptures.
Rather incongruously placed amid the latter, look out for an eighteenth-century gilt-framed landscape by the Daniells – the uncle-nephew duo employed as a part of the Company school of painting during the Raj.
Bharat Bhavan has a gallery devoted exclusively to adivasi art, in search of which talent scouts spent months roaming remote regions. Among their more famous discoveries was the Gond painter Jangarh Singh Shyam. Many of his works are on display here, along with a colourful assemblage of masks, terracotta, wood carvings and ritual paraphernalia.
#6 Find out about India’s indigenous minorities at Museum of ManThe story of India’s indigenous minorities – the adivasi, literally “original inhabitants” – is all too familiar. Dispossessed of their land by large-scale development projects or exploitative moneylenders, the “tribals” have seen a gradual erosion of their traditional culture. The Museum of Man, or the Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, is an enlightened attempt to redress the balance.
Overlooking New Market on one side and the majestic sweep of Upper Lake on the other, the 200-acre hilltop site includes a reconstructed Keralan coastal village. There is also a winding trail where each tribal group from the state has contributed an interpretation of its own creation myth.
A large exhibition hall draws on all the daily and ritual elements of the adivasi lifestyle, and dotted among the forest scrub are botanical trails, a research centre and a permanent open-air display of traditional adivasi buildings.
#7 See the traditional crafts and artwork of adivasi people at Tribal MuseumBest visited in conjunction with the nearby Museum of Man, the Tribal Museum is dedicated to the millions of adivasi people who live in Madhya Pradesh.
It houses well-curated displays, traditional crafts, artworks and replica homes of the seven main tribal groups in the state. The museum also stages regular music and cultural performances.
#8 See the regal white tigers at Van Vihar Zoological ParkA trip to the Van Vihar Zoological Park ties in nicely with a visit to the Museum of Man next door – keep the same auto-rickshaw for the whole trip. The stars of the park are a couple of regal white tigers, but there are also gharial, leopards, Himalayan bears and lions. You can get a longer look at the 207 species of birds by taking a boat from the jetty, 500m northeast of the park gate.
Best areas to stay in BhopalBhopal offers a range of accommodation but shoestring options are thin on the ground. Even the dingiest dives will try to slap extra taxes and “service charges”, though if you object strongly they may waive them. Here are the best areas to stay in Bhopal.
Hamidia RdIf you’re not bothered by traffic noise and fumes, Hamidia Rd, Bhopal’s busy main thoroughfare, is the most convenient place to stay.
Shoestring options are thin on the ground and even the dingiest dives will try to slap extra taxes and “service charges”, though if you object strongly they may waive them.
Shamla HillsMost of Bhopal’s top hotels are close to Upper Lake in the Shamla Hills area
Browse the best hotels in Bhopal.
Best restaurants and barsDecent restaurants are relatively thin on the ground in Bhopal unless you know where to look. Here’s where to find the best restaurants. There isn’t much of a nightlife scene.
The larger hotels near the Shamla Hills serve uniform multi-cuisine menus. The canteens opposite the bus stand do thalis and subzi, rice and dhal for next to nothing.
How to get aroundFrom auto-rickshaw to taxi, it is easy to get around Bhopal. Here’s how to do it.
Most of Bhopal’s places of interest are so far apart that the best way of getting around is by autorickshaw. Taxis can be organised through your hotel, or MP Tourism, either at one of their offices or by phoning their transport department direct
What is the best time to visit Bhopal?The best time to visit Bhopal is during the relatively cool winter (Oct–March). However, during the coldest months (Dec–Feb) it gets a bit chilly at night and in the early morning, and you may need a sweater or light jacket, especially in the upland areas.
From April to June, daytime temperatures frequently exceed 40°C, but if you can stand the heat, this is the best time to catch glimpses of tigers in the national parks.
The increasingly meagre rains finally sweep in from the southeast in late June or early July until September making the roads even more difficult than usual, though it’s a good opportunity to see the waterfalls in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh at their impressive full flow.
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How many days do you need in Bhopal?A minimum of 2-3 days is recommended to explore the major attractions and get a glimpse of Bhopal's culture and heritage. This allows you to visit popular sites like the historic Upper Lake, the iconic Taj-ul-Masajid mosque, the fascinating Birla Museum, and the serene Van Vihar National Park. Add on an additional day for the Man and Tribal Museums.
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How to get here
By planeBhopal’s Raja Bhoj airport is 12 km north of the city. Air India has an office in the Airlines House on Bhadbhada Rd, TT Nagar. Destinations Delhi and Mumbai.
By trainThe main railway station, Bhopal Junction, is close to the centre: to reach the hotel district, leave by the exit on platforms 4 or 5 and head to the busy corner of Hamidia Rd where there’s a prepaid taxi and auto-rickshaw booth.
By busThe main state bus stand is the Inter-state Bus Terminal (ISBT), located just south of the airport, and 11 km east of the railway station. Iis used by almost all bus services within and outside the state.
However, in the mornings you can also use the more convenient Hamidia Rd bus stand which has services to/from Indore, Pachmarhi and Sanchi. It’s a 10min walk southwest of the railway station.
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