Overview

Mumbai—or Bombay, as it was known until 1997—remains India's city of dreams. It is so dynamic that immigrants still flock there in hopes of becoming successful entrepreneurs. Despite its rich heritage and friendly citizens, Mumbai can overwhelm foreigners with its sheer headcount, smells and sounds. Pollution and poverty are also part of the cosmopolitan picture.

Built largely by the British around one of the best-protected natural harbors in the world, Mumbai is India's business center and one of the most important commercial hubs between Singapore and Europe. It generates more than a third of India's gross national product, and half of the country's foreign trade moves through this busy seaport on the Arabian Sea. Mumbai also is home to the country's prolific Bollywood film industry, which cranks out more feature films than any other place in the world.


Mumbai's expansion has been rapid—from fewer than 1 million residents in the mid-1950s to nearly 15 million today—and the city suffers from growing pains. Civic services are stretched, water is in short supply, and Mumbai's footprint reaches endlessly northward to provide housing for new arrivals.

With Mumbai's energies directed toward its burgeoning population and thriving business community, India's largest city has spent less time and money developing tourist attractions. High-rise hotels, designer boutiques and fine restaurants abound, but there hasn't been much focus on museums or historical sites. However, that's starting to change as the city's power and social elites begin channeling their earnings and clout into expanding cultural offerings.

Mumbai's main draw, however, like so much of India, is in its contradictions. Within a few miles/kilometers you can be awestruck by the palatial houses on Malabar Hill, and then depressed by the makeshift shacks and the bedraggled children in the city's poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

Geography

Mumbai sits on India's west coast on a trapezoidal peninsula that is connected to the mainland by a series of bridges. The city's most important physical feature is its harbor, where for many years the Gateway of India arch has welcomed visitors from around the world. In 1947, the last 150 British soldiers marched out from there. The city now greets visitors arriving by rail, road and air.

The harbor is separated from the open sea by an area called Colaba, at the city's southern tip. The area just north and west of the harbor is known as Fort—it's the oldest part of the city, and there you'll find tourist offices and impressive buildings from the British Raj era. Nearby is Nariman Point, the city's modern business center with luxury hotels and high-rise banks. The Bandra Kurla complex is the new official address of many multinationals. Marine Drive (officially Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Road) takes you from Nariman Point around Mumbai's inner bay, called Back Bay, past the busy waterfront area known as Chowpatty Beach to Malabar Hill, one of the city's most exclusive residential areas and its highest point (though only 180 ft/56 m above sea level). The rest of the city sprawls north up the peninsula to the mainland, and most of the recent growth has been there.

The Juhu beachfront is open to visitors, and hawkers of various kinds have been shifted to another area to leave beachgoers (relatively) free from interruption. The Marve and Aksa beaches are relatively calm areas within the city limits. Malad, in the distant suburbs, has become the headquarters of many call centers, where young people work around the clock catering to worldwide time zones.


History

Until the British arrived in the 18th century, the area around Mumbai was a marshy collection of seven islands inhabited mostly by fishing communities (known as koli). A succession of dynasties, both Hindu and Muslim, ruled the area until the Portuguese raids of the early 1500s. The Sultan of Gujarat ceded the area to Portugal in 1534. They called it Bom Bahia—meaning "good bay."

Malaria stalled Portuguese efforts to build a port there, and the area was given to the British as part of the dowry of Catharine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess who was married to King Charles II in 1662. Despite widespread protests from the Indians, the British took over and three years later made the settlement their first crown colony in India.

Bombay, as the British called it, was rented to the East India Company for a meager £10 a year, and company president Gerald Augier established the headquarters for its west-coast operations in the city. Swamps were cleared, and the islands were eventually linked by road, rail and landfill to form a single, long peninsula with a deep and secure harbor. Bombay was a prosperous and well-organized city by the mid-1800s, when its first cotton textile mill opened. (It also dealt heavily in opium, which reportedly accounted for 40% of its exports.)

The Indian National Congress met for the first time in Bombay in 1885, giving birth to the Indian independence movement. In the 1940s, a barrister-turned-activist-and-freedom-fighter named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi launched his nonviolent effort to gain the country's freedom from the British Empire. Independence finally came in 1947, though less peacefully than Gandhi had envisioned and by dividing the country into two nations. Partition created a predominantly Hindu India and a majority Muslim Pakistan. The world's largest exodus followed, with Muslims fleeing west toward Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs traveling east into India. As a point of Hindu pride, the city was renamed Mumbai in 1997, although in many parts of the world it is still known as Bombay.

In the second half of the 20th century, Mumbai grew faster than almost any other place on Earth. The flood of immigration of white-collar and labor-class workers has led to severe housing shortages and overcrowding—problems that are only beginning to be addressed. Despite the city's difficulties, its prosperity continues to be an opportunity for millions. The steep rise in realty prices and the availability of housing loans have helped millions gain affordable houses. The distant suburbs are now familiar with the growing mall culture, and people increasingly have homes with more luxuries. In Mumbai, there are more restaurants, new clubs and other avenues for entertainment in a metropolis that is alive 24/7.

Sightseeing

Though Mumbai lacks the historical attractions of New Delhi and Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta, which was the capital of British India), it is such a fast-paced city that visitors may not even notice. The contemporary sights, sounds and smells of almost 15 million people converging on a relatively small area (237 sq mi/614 sq km) can be entertaining enough. Welcome to a city that feasts, fasts and retains its festive spirit.

There are some intriguing places that shouldn't be missed. Because the city is sprawling and congested, the best way to see them is with an organized tour, but do plan to walk about on your own. Mumbai's fascinating street life is an attraction in itself. Although there is a ban on animal begging, in some areas (especially near temples) snakes and elephants are used to beg for money.

First on everyone's list is the Gateway of India arch, which is where British dignitaries arriving by sea were welcomed to India. It's popular with both visitors and locals, who stroll there in the afternoons. Just behind the arch is The Taj Mahal Palace hotel, actually the oldest building on Bombay's skyline, that once served as the first sighting for ships entering Bombay Harbor. Built in 1903, the original palace section of the hotel suffered extensive damage in the infamous November 2008 terror attacks, during which terrorists targeted the hotel and nine other locations around the city. A tree of life in the hotel lobby commemorates the lives lost in the attacks.

Boats leave from the arch to Elephanta Island—another must-see whose caves date from seventh- and eighth-century Hindu dynasties. The caves provide a haunting backdrop for a cultural festival of classical dance and music held each December.

Chowpatty Beach draws walkers in the early morning and evening, as well as scores of merchants, touts and peddlers, but no beggars. It's one of the city's best people-watching spots, but don't expect to see anyone in bikinis—the culture doesn't permit it. The Juhu beach, to the north, can be unusually crowded on holidays and weekends, but equally entertaining.

In the heart of the financial district are Flora Fountain, Town Hall and other fine examples of Victorian architecture built during the British Raj. Also take a tour to see the grand Mumbai High Court, Old Secretariat building, University building and Mumbai stock exchange. We also recommend a stop at St. Thomas Cathedral and the Haji Ali Mosque.

Religious devotees at temples perform a ceremony called the aarti, usually at morning and dusk. Hindu priests chant hymns as devotees worship with flowers and candle lamps, and sing with cymbals. It can be a stirring sight. With temples spread throughout the city, visitors are likely to see the ceremony without having to seek it out. And if a visitor then makes a wish, it may come true.

Nightlife

Disco isn't dead—at least not in Mumbai. At night, dozens of nightspots become packed with dancers moving to the beat of Western music. Mumbai's glitteratti prefer theme clubs. These places are best visited for the experience they offer rather than the food and drink. They come and go very quickly, but a few seem to have some staying power. Generally speaking, however, a casual attitude dominates in most bars and clubs. The best neighborhoods for nightlife are Colaba, Lower Parel and Bandra. Hotel concierges and the city's newspapers can help visitors find the appropriate place to unwind. Most pubs and discos close by 1:30 am, but a few stay open until 3 am.

A number of rules have been instituted in recent years, including a 3-ft/1-m boundary wall between bar dancers and patrons, plus a requirement that drinkers must be older than 21 and carry ID. The official minimum drinking age was also raised to 21 years for beer and 25 years for spirits, giving Mumbai one of the highest drinking ages in the world, along with Delhi. However, the implementation of these rules can be inconsistent.

Dining

Mumbaikars love food. Combine this gastronomic passion with the city's immigration history, and you have the most varied cuisine offered anywhere in India. Thus, dining out is a good way to explore the culture of the city and the country.

Though you'll find Western fast-food restaurants, in Mumbai fast food generally means bhelpuri, pav bhaji, panipuri or sandwiches. Bhelpuri is a sweet-and-spicy combination of puffed rice, onions, boiled potatoes, coriander, mint, chilies and chutney. Pav bhaji is a melange of spicy cooked vegetables such as peas, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and onions accompanied by a bread bun. Panipuri are light, puffed semolina cakes, eaten with a filling of boiled lentils, spices, tamarind chutney and spiced water. Though these distinctly Mumbai delicacies are available from street vendors at every corner, we recommend trying them in good-quality restaurants.

Restaurants are scattered throughout the city. The more upscale eateries have traditionally been located near the city centers of Colaba, Nariman Point and Marine Drive (officially Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Road) or in Bandra, Andheri and Juhu. But now, areas such as Lower Parel, Malad, Borivili and Marve also provide aromatic food. Intense competition keeps prices in check. The commercial area of Fort mainly offers sustenance for office workers who need to eat and run; the humble vada pav beats any burgers in price and taste for these workers.

For breakfast, if you're fine going local, it may be possible to find a place (especially South Indian restaurants) serving food in the early morning. If not, prepare to wait until 10 am or later when this late to sleep, late to rise culture finally gets up. Even Mumbai's latest craze of international coffee shops don't get started until 8:30 or 9 am. Fine-dining restaurants serve lunch (a la carte and buffets) and dinner. Themes are becoming popular, and restaurants have their own festivals to attract lovers of diverse foods. The menus may be experimental, as the young crowd loves new tastes.

Not all restaurants serve alcohol; if you want it with your meal, it's best to check availability and charges before you go.


Here is a sampling of restaurants in town. Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 200 Rs; $$ = 201 Rs-500 Rs; $$$ = 501 Rs-1000 Rs; and $$$$ = more than 1000 Rs.


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