Unique among Indian states in stretching all the way from the Himalayas to the sea, West Bengal is nonetheless explored in depth by few foreign travellers. That may have something to do with the exaggerated reputation of its capital, Kolkata (Calcutta), an enthralling, sophisticated and friendly city that belies its popular image as poverty-stricken and chaotic. The rest of Bengal holds an extraordinary assortment of landscapes and cultures, ranging from the dramatic hill station of Darjeeling, within sight of the highest mountains in the world, to the vast mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans, prowled by elusive Royal Bengal tigers.
Explore the Vibrant Legacy of West Bengal
At the height of British rule, Bengal flourished both culturally and materially, nurturing a uniquely creative blend of West and East. The Bengali Renaissance produced thinkers, writers and artists such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore, whose collective influence still permeates Bengali society.
Not all of Bengal is Bengali, though; the Nepalese-led separatist movement for the creation of an autonomous “Gurkhaland” in the Darjeeling area has focused on sharp differences in culture. Here, the Hindu Nepalese migration eastward from the nineteenth century onwards has largely displaced the indigenous tribal groups of the north, though Lamaist Tibetan Buddhism continues to flourish.
In the southwest, tribal groups such as the Santhals and the Mundas still maintain a presence, and itinerant Baul musicians continue the region’s traditions of song and dance, most often heard around Tagore’s university at Shantiniketan; Tagore’s own musical form, Rabindra Sangeet, is a popular amalgam of influences including folk and classical.
Other historical specialities of Bengal include its ornate terracotta temples, as seen at Bishnupur, its silk production, concentrated around Murshidabad, the state’s last independent capital, and temple at Tarapith dedicated to Tara, which is perhaps the greatest centre of Tantrism in the entire country.
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Best things to do in West Bengal
From Eden Gardens, Kolkata’s legendary cricket ground, to riding the Victorian Toy Train railway past the tea gardens that carpet the steep hillsides around Darjeeling, these are the best things to do in West Bengal.
#1 Be dazzled by the Victoria Memorial
A dizzying blend of Mughal and Italian architecture, the Victoria Memorial is one of the most striking buildings in India. Located at the southern end of the Maidan in Kolkata, the dramatic white-marble monument to the British Empire has formal gardens and watercourses, which continue to be Kolkata’s pride and joy.
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, though 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.
#2 Enjoy the spectacle of a cricket match at Kolkata’s 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 at Eden Gardens 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.
#3 Visit the artisans of Kumartuli in Kolkata
A short walk north of Shobabazaar Ghat, lies the warren of Kumartuli, where a community of kumars or “potters” hand-craft lavish statues of voluptuous goddesses used for the city’s religious festivals.
In the days leading up to the great pujas, especially that of Durga Puja, Kumartuli is a fascinating hive of activity. Statues take form from straw and river clay before being spray-painted and then clothed in all their finery.
Although pith (banana tree marrow) is still used to decorate the statues, modern materials have made an impact. The community is also accessible from Shobabazaar Metro Station – emerge from the west exit and walk west along a lane to Rabindra Sarani and an entrance to Kumartuli.
#4 Float through the endless mangrove forests of the Sundarbans
South of Kolkata down to the coast, the Hooghly fringes one of the world’s largest estuarine deltas, the Sundarbans, a 10,000-square-kilometre expanse of mangrove swamp and forested islets formed by silt swept down from the Himalayas and home to the world’s largest population of tigers.
Closer to the city, the former colonial port of Diamond Harbour is a popular weekend break and lies en route to Sagardwip, a sacred island where the Ganges reaches the sea. The expansive beaches of the delta provide quiet respite and are within easy reach of Kolkata.
#5 Explore the tranquil university town of Shantiniketan
Founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1921 on the site of his father’s ashram, both the settlement and its liberal arts university Visva-Bharati were designed to promote the best of Bengali culture.
Towards the end of the Bengali Renaissance, Tagore’s vision and immense talent inspired a whole way of life and art; the university and school still operate under this momentum.
Centred around the Uttarayan complex of buildings, designed by Tagore, the university is very much in harmony with its surroundings, despite its recent growth as Kolkatans have settled or built holiday homes nearby.
Well-known graduates include Indira Gandhi and Satyajit Ray, and departments such as Kala Bhavan (art) and Sangeet Bhavan (music) still attract students from all over the world.
#6 Visit Darjeeling, a charming hill station with Raj-era relics and fine tea
Part Victorian holiday resort, part major tea-growing centre, Darjeeling (from Dorje Ling, “the place of the thunderbolt”) straddles a ridge 2200m up in the Himalayas, almost 600km north of Kolkata.
Over seventy years since the British departed, the town remains as popular as ever with holiday-makers from the plains, and promenades such as the Mall and the Chowrasta still burst with life.
The greatest appeal for visitors has to be its stupendous mountain vistas – with Kanchenjunga (the third-highest mountain in the world) and a vast cohort of ice-capped peaks dominating the northern horizon.
Darjeeling is a colourful and lively, cosmopolitan place, with good shopping and dining, plenty of walks in the surrounding hills, and attractions such as the Toy Train and colourful Buddhist monasteries.
#7 Take the Toy Train
Completed in 1881, the small-gauge (610mm) Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (commonly known as the Toy Train) was designed as an extension of the North Bengal State Railway, climbing from New Jalpaiguri, via Siliguri, for a tortuous 88km up to Darjeeling.
Given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999, the Toy Train follows the Hill Cart Road, crossing it at regular intervals and even sharing it with traffic.
Although no longer an essential mode of transport, the train is certainly a tourist attraction, and currently runs daily from New Jalpaiguri at 8.30am, reaching Darjeeling at 3.35pm. Diesel engines are now de rigueur on the long route.
Weather permitting, coaches with large viewing windows provide magnificent vistas as the journey progresses and the scenery gradually unfolds; second class can be fun but crowded.
#8 Complete the Singalila trek
This trek, close to Darjeeling, features unforgettable mountain vistas, especially beautiful in April and May, when the rhododendrons are in bloom.
The single ridge of the Singalila Range rises near Darjeeling and extends all the way to the summit of Kanchenjunga.
Easily accessible from Darjeeling, the later stages of the Maneybhanjang–Phalut trail provide magnificent views of the higher ranges; lightweight expeditions are possible as there are trekking huts and lodges and simple food stalls along the way.
The walking is demanding and you should bring your own sleeping bag and warm clothes as the weather can be unpredictable
Best places to stay
When it comes to finding accommodation in West Bengal, you'll discover a diverse range of options that cater to different preferences and budgets. From idyllic tea plantations to luxurious spa resorts, and historic mansions to budget-friendly backpacker hostels, the region offers something for every type of traveller.
Darjeeling, nestled in the Himalayas, offers a wide array of accommodation options, with scores of hotels to choose from. For budget-conscious travellers, the main backpacker enclave along Dr Zakir Hussain Road has affordable options, though be prepared for an uphill climb to reach the best budget places offering panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
Decent accommodation in Kolkata can be a bit pricey. Midrange hotels often offer better value. The Salt Lake area is home to many "business" hotels, although it's not well-connected. The bustling Sudder Street hosts a plethora of backpacker-oriented services, with guesthouses and hotels occupying nearly every other building. Keep in mind that accommodation fills up quickly during the vibrant Durga Puja festival.
The most desirable places to stay in Shantiniketan are found in the leafy suburbs on the north side.
How to get around
Exploring West Bengal requires navigating its extensive transportation network. Whether travelling by train, bus, taxi, or other modes of transportation, here's how to get around.
As a well-connected state, West Bengal boasts an extensive railway network that allows you to travel conveniently between cities and towns.
The major railway hubs in West Bengal include Kolkata, Siliguri, and New Jalpaiguri, from where you can easily reach various destinations within the state.
For an economical and efficient way to explore West Bengal, the state-run buses and private bus services are a popular choice.
The buses connect major cities, towns, and tourist destinations, offering a reliable mode of transport. Kolkata, in particular, has an extensive bus network that covers both intra-city and inter-city routes.
Kolkata boasts one of the oldest metro systems in India, making it a convenient mode of transport within the city.
When it comes to navigating within cities, taxis are readily available and offer a convenient means of transportation. In Kolkata, you'll find yellow taxis that run on meters, ensuring fair fares for your journey.
Auto-rickshaws, known as "autos," are three-wheeled vehicles that can be found in cities and towns throughout West Bengal. Negotiate the fare before starting your ride, as autos usually don't have meters.
How many days do you need in West Bengal?
To get a comprehensive experience of West Bengal, you’ll need a minimum of 10 to 12 days. However, if you are short on time, a well-planned itinerary of seven to eight days can still provide a taste of the region's highlights.
Start at Kolkata, India's cultural capital, and allocate at least three to four days. This will allow you to delve into the city's colonial past, visit its best museums, sample some local street food, and immerse yourself in its cultural offerings.
From here, visit the hill stations of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Plan to spend a minimum of three to four days in this region to savour the beauty of the misty mountains, visit tea estates, take scenic walks, and indulge in local experiences. Longer if you want to complete the Singalila trek.
Next head south to explore the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. Allocate around two to three days. This will allow you to embark on a thrilling boat safari, navigate the winding creeks, and witness the diverse wildlife that inhabits this unique ecosystem.
What is the best time to visit West Bengal?
The climate of Kolkata – and much of west and lowland north Bengal – 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. The best seasons to visit Darjeeling and the mountainous areas of north Bengal are after the monsoons and before winter (late Sept to late Nov), and spring (mid-Feb to May).
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How to get here
Whether you prefer flying, taking a train, or embarking on a scenic road trip, this are the best ways to get to West Bengal.
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.
Flights Kolkata has excellent domestic services to cities across the country on AirAsia, IndiGo, SpiceJet and other companies. Check Graphiti, The Telegraph’s Sunday supplement, for current flight (and train) information.
Kolkata has three main railway stations: Howrah, Kolkata and Sealdah, with two others, Santragachi and Shalimar, as subsidiary hubs.
Unfortunately, none of the stations is currently linked to the Metro system, though the east–west line, under construction at the time of writing, will have stations at Howrah and Sealdah.
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