Kolkata is India's second biggest city and the former capital of British India.
India’s second biggest city and the former capital of British India, Kolkata is perhaps unfairly associated with the extreme poverty and suffering that Mother Teresa sought to alleviate. Although today the city may boast crumbling Raj architecture, crazy traffic and sprawling slums, it is also considered India’s literary, cultural and spiritual centre and more sophisticated and modern than you’d expect.
That being said, on first impressions the city can appear overwhelming so make sure you consult our guide to Getting Around Kolkata before you even leave the airport. Don’t think about driving, and buses are also hopelessly overcrowded; instead, hop onto an auto-rickshaw, or one of the lumbering trams that circle the city. Taxis are also cheap and plentiful and work on a meter system.
Once you’re out and about, there are several not-to-be-missed sights. The Indian Museum, set in a building dating from 1875, offers an insight into the city during the colonial era as well as rare collections of historical importance that include art, archaeology, zoology and botany.
Another landmark you can’t help but notice is Victoria Memorial, a domed colonial-era marble building set on the edge of the Maidan, which happens to be one of the world’s largest urban parks.
The city also has a number of notable Hindu temples, a cathedral and a cemetery; for information and further inspiration see our guide on Things To See in Kolkata.
Boat tours of the Hoogly River, a distributary of the Ganges, are a great way to see the city, and usually include a stop at the Botanical Gardens and Belur Math, a complex founded by the 19th century sage, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who desired a unity of all religions. Sights here include a museum, a ghat and various temples – Ramakrishna Mandir is fittingly a fascinating fusion of Hindu, Christian and Islamic motifs.
Sustenance is easy to come by as Kolkata abounds in street food vendors offering delicious fare – try one of the Kathi rolls (Indian flatbreads served with various fillings) that the city is famous for.
You’ll also find Jewish bakeries, Chinese bazaars and international fare, but best of all is traditional Bengali cuisine, usually made from recipes passed through generations. Bengalis also love their desserts, so you’ll be spoiled for choice. We’ve selected some of the best restaurants in the city for our guide to Restaurants in Kolkata.
Kolkata is one of the best places in India to hear traditional music, so catch a performance at the Academy of Fine Arts. Those of a more hedonistic bent will find clubs catering to most tastes, from rock and dance to jazz, and a highlight of Nightlife in Kolkata has to be a visit to the Tollygunge, a private members country club with fading Raj-era décor and a bar. Temporary memberships are available; make sure you dress smartly for the occasion.
The weather in Kolkata really will impact your stay, so it’s advisable to visit during the months of October to April. In summer, temperatures are stifling, and the monsoon brings heavy rainfall from June-September.
The city is also a gateway to further delights, as covered in our section on What To Do in Kolkata. Sunderbans National Park, set 127km (79 miles) from the city, has a number of endangered species, including royal Bengal tigers, saltwater crocodiles and Ganges River dolphins.