Ever since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Mumbai has been the principal gateway to the Indian Subcontinent. A city famously described by Aldous Huxley as “the most appalling of either hemisphere”, travellers tend to regard time spent here as a rite of passage to be survived rather than savoured. But as the powerhouse of Indian industry and trade, and the source of its most memorable media images, the Maharashtrian capital can be a compelling place. Plan your trip to Mumbai with our guide to Mumbai - based on The Rough Guide to India, your travel guide for India.
The best travel tips for visiting Mumbai
Mumbai's first impressions are defined by its space scarcity. Nestled on a narrow land strip stretching from the swampy coast into the Arabian Sea, it functions as an island connected to the mainland by bridges and causeways.
In just a few centuries, Mumbai has transformed from a fishing village into a bustling metropolis with over sixteen million residents, making it India's largest city and one of the world's largest urban centers. The city seems on the verge of bursting at its seams as commuters flood the boulevards and bustling bazaars are filled with cart-pullers.
Ironically, Mumbai's enduring ability to generate wealth is the root cause of its population woes and pervasive poverty. The city alone contributes one-third of India's tax income, operates the nation's busiest port, and boasts the most prolific film industry globally.
Signs of prosperity are abundant, from the towering office buildings in Nariman Point (known as Maharashtra's Manhattan) to the fashionably attired youth in Colaba's trendy nightlife spots. However, Mumbai's success story has a darker side, with a well-documented wealth gap. Hundreds of economic refugees arrive daily from the Maharashtra countryside, with some finding employment and housing while others add to the already overcrowded streets or reside in Asia's largest slums.
Although Mumbai presents challenges, it is not the arduous experience some travelers portray it to be. Once you overcome the initial obstacle of finding accommodation, you can embrace the city's vibrant pace and cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Best things to do in Mumbai
There is no shortage of things to do in Mumbai and you can easily spend a week in this city without feeling bored. To make your choice easier, we have listed the best things to do in Mumbai.
1. See the Gateway of India
Commemorating the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, Colaba’s principal monument is the Gateway of India, India’s own honey-coloured Arc de Triomphe.
Featured in countless Bollywood movies, it was built in 1924 by George Wittet. His brief was to combine the grandeur of a Roman triumphal arch with motifs from Hindu and Muslim architecture.
The resulting structure, every bit a symbol of “power and majesty”, was originally intended to be a ceremonial disembarkation point for passengers alighting from P&O steamers.
Ironically, it's more closely associated with a pivotal moment in August 1947. Amid much ceremony, the last British soldiers on Indian soil marched to their ship as the Union Jack was lowered to cheers from a vast crowd.
The best time to visit is the hour around sunset. At this time, thousands of visitors mill about the archway and plaza.
2. Take in the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower
Local pride in the face of colonial oppression is the subtext of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower complex. It's located directly behind the Gateway.
Its patron, the Parsi industrialist J.N. Tata, is said to have built the old Taj as an act of revenge after he was refused entry to what was then the best hotel in town — the “whites only” Watson’s. The ban proved to be its undoing. Watson’s disappeared long ago, but the Taj still presides imperiously over the seafront.
Though the preserve of Mumbai’s jet set, visiting cricket teams and heads of state, lesser mortals can experience the tea lounge, shopping arcades and air-conditioned lobby. There’s also a fabulously luxurious loo off the corridor to the left of the main desk.
3. Explore Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya is among Mumbai's most distinctive Raj-era constructions. Standing grandly in its own gardens, the building is crowned by a massive white Mughal-style dome. Beneath this, one of India’s finest collections of paintings and sculpture is spread across three floors.
The building was designed by George Wittet, of Gateway of India fame, and stands as the epitome of the hybrid Indo-Saracenic style. In its day, it was regarded as an “educated” interpretation of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Gujarati architecture, mixing Islamic touches with typically English municipal brickwork.
The foreigners’ ticket price includes an audio tour, which you collect at the admissions kiosk inside. Be aware that the heat and humidity inside the building can be a trial, so best to visit early in the day.
4. Uncover culture and cricket in Kala Ghoda
North of Colaba, Kala Ghoda (“Black Horse”) district is named after the large equestrian statue of King Edward VII that once stood on the intersection of MG Road and Subhash Chowk.
Flanked by Mumbai’s principal museum and art galleries, in recent years the neighbourhood has been rebranded as a cultural enclave. This came as a result of the visual arts that have thrived here since the 1950s, and also from a desire to preserve its historic buildings.
On Sundays in December and January, the Kala Ghoda Fair sees portrait artists, potters and mehendi painters plying their trade in the car park fronting the Jehangir Art Gallery.
Northeast of Kala Ghoda, you'll find the expanse of Oval Maidan. Here impromptu cricket matches are held almost every day, against a backdrop of giant palms and even taller Raj-era buildings.
Green during the monsoons and parched yellow for the rest of year, its eastern side is flanked by some of Mumbai’s finest Victorian piles. These date from the pinnacle of British power.
5. Discover the Fort district
East of Oval Maidan stretches the spectacular Fort district, site of Mumbai’s original British settlement and the first East India Company fort.
The sloping ramparts, moats and fortified gateways were pulled down in the mid-nineteenth century following the demise of the French threat to British supremacy in India. That said, this is still the commercial hub of southern Mumbai.
It's a great area for aimless wandering, with plenty of cafés, department stores and street stalls crammed between imposing Victorian buildings.
6. See Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Terminus)
Inspired by St Pancras Station in London, F.W. Stevens designed Victoria Terminus — perhaps the barmiest of Mumbai’s buildings — as a paean to “progress”. Built in 1887 as the largest British edifice in India, it’s an extraordinary amalgam of domes, spires, Corinthian columns and minarets.
In keeping with the re-Indianisition of the city’s roads and buildings, this icon of imperial architecture has been renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in honour of the Maratha warlord. Note that locals mostly still refer to it as VT (pronounced “vitee”).
A “British” lion and Indian tiger stand guard at the entrance, and the exterior is festooned with sculptures executed at Bombay Art School by Indian students of John Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard’s father. Among them are mythical beasts, monkeys, plants and medallions of important personages.
To minimise the sun’s impact, stained glass was employed, decorated with locomotives and elephant images. Above it all, the statue of “Progress” stands atop the massive central dome.
7. Explore Central Bazaar District
Lining the jumble of streets beyond Lokmanya Tilak Road hosts Mumbai’s bustling Central Bazaar District. This serves a fascinating counterpoint to the wide and Westernised streets of downtown Mumbai. In keeping with traditional divisions of guild, caste and religion, most streets specialise in one or two types of merchandise.
If you lose your bearings, the best way out is to ask someone to wave you in the direction of Mohammed Ali Road, the busy road through the heart of the district. From here you can hail a cab.
8. Head to Haji Ali’s Tomb
Occupying a small islet in the bay just north of the Mahalakshmi Temple is the mausoleum of the Muslim saint, Afghan mystic Haji Ali Bukhari. The site is a great place to head on Thursday and Friday evenings. At this time, large crowds gather around the promontory to watch the sunset and listen to live qawwali music.
The tomb is connected to the mainland by a narrow concrete causeway, only passable at low tide. When not immersed in water, its entire length is lined with beggars supplicating passers-by and chanting verses from the Koran. Non-Muslims are welcome, but all visitors need to keep well covered, and a headscarf should be worn by women.
9. Board a boat to Elephanta island
An hour’s ride northeast across Mumbai harbour from Colaba, the island of Elephanta offers the best escape from the seething claustrophobia of the city. That said, you'll want to time your visit to avoid the weekend deluge of day-trippers.
Populated by a small fishing community, the island was originally known as Gherapura, the “city of Ghara priests”. In the sixteenth century it was renamed by the Portuguese after the carved elephant they found at the port. This is now on display outside the Dr Bhau Dadji Lad Museum in Byculla. Its chief attraction is its unique cave temple. Its massive Trimurti (three-faced) Shiva sculpture is as fine an example of Hindu architecture as you’ll find anywhere.
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Best areas to stay in Mumbai
Finding accommodation at the right price when you arrive in Mumbai can be a real problem. Budget travellers, in particular, can expect a hard time finding decent but affordable accommodation. The best low-cost places tend to fill up days or weeks in advance, so you should book well ahead to avoid a stressful, sweaty room hunt. Tariffs in mid-range and upmarket places are also especially high for India. State-imposed luxury tax (currently ten percent), and service charges levied by the hotel itself further bump up bills.
Colaba and Kala Ghoda
A short ride from the railway stations, Colaba makes a handy base. It's also where the majority of foreign visitors head first. Accommodation types in Colaba are pretty varied. Here you can take your pick from several small boutique joints and guesthouses, alongside international business hotels.
In the market for luxury? Bed down in the opulent Taj Mahal Palace and Tower. Travelling on a budget? Backpacker Panda India's newest chain of cool backpacker hostels has its flagship in Colaba. With its bounty of galleries and cafes, Kala Ghoda is another great base to consider.
Browse places to stay in Colaba.
Gateway of India
The streets around the Gateway of India are chock-full of accommodation. In addition, the area also offers more in the way of food and entertainment than neighbouring districts.
Browse places to stay around the Gateway of India.
At the western edge of the downtown area, swanky Marine Drive (officially Netaji Subhash Chandra Marg) is lined with four- and five-star hotels. Most of these take advantage of the panoramic views over Back Bay, and the easy access to the city’s commercial heart.
Browse places to stay in Marine Drive.
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Best restaurants and bars
Mumbai is crammed with interesting places to eat, from glamorous rooftop lounge bars to hole-in-the-wall kebab shops. The cafés, bars and restaurants of Colaba encompass just about the full gamut of possibilities.
The city is renowned for distinctive street foods, especially bhel puri. This quintessentially Mumbai masala comprises puffed rice, deep-fried vermicelli, potato, puri pieces, chilli paste, tamarind water, chopped onions and coriander.
Colaba Causeway is the focus of the travellers’ and local students’ social scene. To sample the cutting edge of the city’s nightlife, you’ll have to venture to the suburbs. Here the trendiest places have turned the city’s draconian licensing laws to their advantage by serving gourmet food to complement imported beers, wines and cocktails.
Despite a 1.30am curfew (only clubs within hotels are allowed to carry on later), Mumbai’s clubbing scene remains the most full-on in India. Door policies and dress codes tend to be strict — “no ballcaps, no shorts, no sandals”.
- All Stir Fry, Gordon House Hotel: a cool restaurant specialising in build-your-own meals from fresh veg, meat, fish, noodles and sauces.
- Bademiya, behind the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower: a legendary Colaba kebab-wala serving flame-grilled chicken, mutton and fish steaks, plus veggie alternatives.
- Havana, Gordon House Hotel: a Cuban-style café and bar with wooden railway sleepers and hand-painted signs of Che and Castro.
Best restaurants and bars in Colaba
- Khyber: a romantic Mughlai restaurant offering creamy curries with sublime blends of spices.
- The Pantry: a great option for a heat-beating light bite or gourmet brunch.
Best restaurants in Kala Ghoda
- Joshi Club: this eccentric thali canteen serves what many aficionados regard as Mumbai’s tastiest Gujarati-Marwari meals.
- Badshah Juice and Snack Bar: delicious kulfi, and freshly squeezed fruit juices.
Best places to eat and drink in Crawford Market and the Central bazaars
How to get around
During peak hours in Mumbai gridlock is the norm. With that in mind, brace yourself for long waits at junctions if you take to the roads by taxi or bus. Local trains are faster, but can be a real endurance test, even outside rush hours.
Mumbai’s local trains carry an estimated 7.5 million commuters each day between downtown and the sprawling suburbs in the north. Carriages are packed for most of the day, with passengers dangling precariously out of open doors to escape the crush. Peak hours (approximately 8.30–10am & 4–10pm) are worst of all. So, you'll want to make your way to the exit at least three stops before your destination.
Women are marginally better off in the “ladies carriages". Travel during non-peak hours (11am–3.30pm) can be comparatively easier.
One line begins at CST (VT), running up the east side of the city. The other leaves Churchgate, travelling via Mumbai Central and Dadar to Santa Cruz and beyond. Services depart every few minutes from 5am until midnight, stopping at dozens of small stations.
The Mumbai Metro connects Versova in the west to Ghatkopar in the east, a 12km elevated network that stops at twelve stations en route. The key stations are Andheri, Western Express Highway and Airport Road, close to the international airport and the clutch of hotels around it.
BEST operates a bus network of labyrinthine complexity, covering every part of the city. Recognising bus numbers in the street can be more problematic — numerals are written in Marathi, although in English on the sides.
Avoid rush hours at all costs and aim, wherever possible, for the ”Limited” (“Ltd”) services, which stop less frequently. Buses hardly come to a standstill at stops, so it's not uncommon to run alongside and jump on. Tickets are bought from the conductor on the bus.
How many days do you need in Mumbai?
Given its overwhelming busyness, its fair to say that you might only need a day or two in Mumbai. That will allow you enough time to explore its top attractions, among them the Gateway of India, Haji Ali’s Tomb and Elephanta Island's cave temple.
After doing that, consider taking a few days to explore the wider Maharashtra region. Known for its cave temples and monasteries. Nasik also comes recommended for its ancient culture and fine wine. You could also visit Gandhi’s former ashram in Sevagram.
What is the best time to visit Mumbai?
As a coastal city, the temperature in Mumbai hovers around 30ºC for much of the year. All things considered, the best time to visit Mumbai is between October and March, when it’s not too humid.
If possible, avoid visiting the city during April and May when it’s particularly hot and humid. Also avoid the monsoon (June–Sept). This often causes flooding in the low-lying areas and disruptions to public transport.
Festivals in Mumbai
You could consider timing your visit to Mumbai to coincide with one of the city's big festivals.
- Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (Feb)
- Elephanta Festival (Feb/March)
- Ganesh Chaturthi (Aug/Sept)
- Krishna Janmashtami (Aug)
For more on when to visit, read our full guide to when to go to India.
How to get here
There ore dozens of ways to get to Mumbai. These are your best bets.
Mumbai’s busy international airport, Chhatrapati Shivaji, was impressively revamped in 2015. Its iconic T2 (Terminal 2) is (surprisingly) home to India’s largest public art programme. Check-in is located in the departure area (Level 4), and all airlines have offices outside the main entrance.
While many of the more upmarket hotels send out courtesy coaches or chauffeur-driven cars to pick up and drop off their guests, most people use the prepaid taxi desk in the arrivals hall.
Confusingly, internal flights also land at both terminals in Mumbai’s international airport, 26km to the north of downtown. Vistara and Air India are the only airlines that use T2 for domestic routes. All others use Terminal 1.
If you’re transferring directly from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 for an international flight, take the free “fly-bus”. This shuttles every 30min between the two terminals — look for the transfer counter in your transit lounge. Note you may be required to collect and re-check your baggage.
Three main rail networks service Mumbai: