Mumbai is an enormous, chaotic city where great wealth coincides with unbelievable poverty. The setting for the hit film “Slumdog Millionaire,” Mumbai’s slums are home to millions of people. Countless honking cars stream down Mumbai’s busy streets, and millions of people use the subways every day. With such an amazingly dense mass of humanity, there is never a dull moment in this megacity on the Arabian Sea.
The current area of Mumbai stands where once seven separate islands formed part of an ancient kingdom. These islands were transferred between various Hindu and Muslim rulers until they were seized by the Portuguese in 1534 and named “Bom Baia” meaning “Good Bay.” When the islands were transferred to the British in 1661, the name was altered to Bombay and the islands were joined through land reclamation projects after being leased to the East India Company in 1668. The region gained independence from Britain in 1947, and the name Bombay was officially changed to Mumbai in 1996.
During British rule, grandiose buildings were built, turning the city into a little slice of England. Many sites are reminiscent of old British charm: the Victoria and Albert Museum, Crawford Market, and the Victorian-styled clock tower the “Victoria Terminus” all speak to London style.
All of these sites, and many more, are must-sees for visitors. Along with Mumbai’s many ornate temples, the bustling bazaars, and the Gateway of India, there are plenty of tourist spots to explore.
Mumbai’s culture is a fascinating blend of traditional festivals, local foods, exciting music and theatres. Although infamous for its slums, this sprawling city offers a cosmopolitan environment with gourmet food, entertainment, and night lift comparable to other world capitals. Mumbai’s complex history has led to many cultural influences leaving their stamp on the city; many religions and cuisines coexist within the city. One of the most populous cities in the world, Mumbai is also the richest city in India and has one of the highest GDPs of any city in South, West or Central Asia. Prices are amazingly inexpensive, although be prepared to haggle in every bazaar or shop. The Zaveri Bazaar is a great place to purchase jewellery, and the Shopper’s Stop is one of the biggest department stores in Mumbai and offers a wide variety of products from clothing and accessories to housewares.
Make sure to purchase a lot of bottled waters when in Mumbai. If you are walking and spending a lot of time outdoors you will want to keep hydrated, and it is advised that tourists never drink the tap water while in India. Fortunately bottled water is usually quite cheap and readily available. Be prepared for aggressive street vendors, as well as beggars, who may hassle you for money—particularly around the Gateway of India and other notable tourist spots. Mumbai is generally safe for travellers, but avoid flashing large amounts of cash or wearing expensive jewellery, handbags, or other accessories that might make you an attractive target.
- Getting around
Although the cruise ship may appear to dock near Mumbai’s attractions, walking is not recommended. It is easy to get lost in Mumbai and traffic can be very difficult on pedestrians. To really see the sites, it is recommended that you book an excursion with your cruise line or take a taxi. Taxis are not allowed into the cruise terminal, so you will have to walk about 10 minutes before you start seeing them. The closest in vehicles tend to charge the most, as they like to over-charge rich cruise ship passengers. The further you walk, the cheaper the fare. You can hire a taxi for just one ride or you can rent a taxi for the entire day—be prepared to haggle over the price (and be prepared to pay more if you want a taxi with air-conditioning!).
Buses, the Mumbai Suburban Railway, auto rickshaws, and ferries are also good transportation options around the city. A variety of buses are available, including double-decker and air-conditioned options. Auto rickshaws are convenient and economical, but are only allowed to operate in the suburban areas of Mumbai. The railway system has three lines and is reasonably easy to navigate, but prepared for overcrowding! The rail system is the oldest in Asia, and was founded in 1867. These suburban trains are popularly called “Locals” and run from 4am until 1am.
- Beyond Mumbai
For a welcome retreat from congested Mumbai, consider taking the 40 minute boat ride (approximately 10km off the east coast of the city) out to Elephanta Island or Gharapuri (literally “the city of caves”). You can board a motorboat from the pier at the back of the Gateway of India—the boats leave roughly every 30 minutes. The Elephanta Caves on the island were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, and the statues are believed to have been carved between the 9th and 13th centuries. This complex features a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Shiva, and is full of large sculpted images of Hindu deities carved into hard basalt rock. The most famous statue is the 20 foot high three-headed image of Lord Shiva depicting his three facets of creator, destroyer, and protector. The caves were also originally painted, although now only traces of colour remain. Visitors must climb 120 steps to get to the entrance to the caves, but be assured the hike is worth the sweat. The island also has two Buddhist caves and a large monkey population, which keeps travellers amused.
- Local activities
Gateway of India
Usually the first stop on Mumbai tours, the Gateway to India is an ornate arch built to celebrate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. Designed to be the first landmark visitors saw when arriving by ship, this gateway is quite iconic for Mumbai. For a lovely (and air-conditioned!) view of the Gateway and the surrounding area, grab a table by the window in the Sea Lounge in the nearby Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
Jainism is one of the many religions present in Mumbai, and is related to Hinduism. The Jain Temple in Malabar, built in 1904, is often considered the prettiest temple in Mumbai. With stone elephants adorning the entrance and many ornate sculptures and paintings inside, this famous temple is a must-see. Remember to remove your shoes upon entering, and women should dress modestly.
Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum
This simple, two-story building was once the great Mahatma Gandhi’s Mumbai home. Now a museum, library, and research centre, this attraction houses over 50,000 books dedicated to Gandhi and non-violent philosophy as well as many pictures and letters from his life. Gandhi’s preserved room and an exhibition on Gandhi’s life in miniatures are also featured.
- Local cuisine and drinks
Mumbai is home to a variety of unique dishes—South Indian style in particular. Try akuri on toast; one of the great Parsi dishes, this breakfast dish is usually made from scrambling eggs with onions, tomatoes (or even mango), chilli powder, green chillies, and topped with fresh coriander. Another great Mumbai dish is baida roti—an interesting envelope of dough filled with meat, whipped eggs, and fried onions.
- Where you are docked
Mumbai has two ports—Mumbai Harbour and Jawaharlal Neheru port. The Mumbai International Cruise Terminal is in the Mumbai Harbour and is on the western side of the city at the southern edge of the Ulhas River estuary. The Harbour generally sees 25-30 international cruise ships each year with approximately 75,000 – 100,000 passengers. There is no reason to hang around the port area, so head out sightseeing as soon as you arrive.
- Regional weather
Mumbai has a rather tropical climate, humid and dry seasons broken with tropical rain showers. Mumbai experiences four distinct seasons, Winter from December to February, Summer from March to May, the monsoon season from June to September and post-monsoon season from October to December.