BEING A TOURIST IN MUMBAI, Mehmet Akay | 26.09.2015

I will try to offer a sketch for those thinking of visiting Mumbai; however, for me this is more than just a travel blog. I write as a foreigner living in Mumbai for more than 3 years. Living in Mumbai and being a tourist in Mumbai are very different things, and at times I still consider myself a tourist. My guide is the excitement and the curiosity I have been carrying around with me since the very first day I arrived, and the things I have learned over the past 3 years.

Tens of different beliefs, interesting rituals, colorful costumes, flamboyant accessories, women with henna tattoos, these are the things that make up my India. The capital of Eastern beliefs and philosophy, India is the country which best epitomizes the adjective “colorful.” Today, it is the world’s second most populated country. The richness of the mystical Indian culture comes from the different beliefs and traditions on which it is built.  Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism were born in India, while Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are also still practiced. Hence, every corner of India is bursting with interest for those curious about rich, mystical cultures, and extraordinary lifestyles.

The capital of Maharashtra state, Mumbai is probably the most dynamic, fast-paced city in the country. India’s commercial and cultural capital, Mumbai is the biggest city in India, and the third biggest in the world. The official population is 20 million; however, being the city with the most migration, there are many more undocumented people living on the streets.

These streets are teeming with evidence of India's mystical culture. What will grab your attention most is the harmony of different religions and lifestyles, more so than the physical construction of the city. 

There is one of the many myths that will disappear during your first hours in Mumbai. Yes, cows are sacred in India, and nobody consumes beef; however, the streets are not full of idle cows, and life and traffic do not stop when a cow is spotted. At least this is not the case in Mumbai!

Your first stop should be the open-air laundry, Dhobi Ghat.  This is the biggest open-air laundry in the world, where men known as Dhobi wash enormous volumes of linen. It is said that the laundry of all the hotels and hospitals of the city is done here, though this may be an exaggeration. Whether true or not, the endless meters of white sheets hung on the lines are an impressive sight.

Another symbolic attraction is the Gateway of India, located in the south of the city and possibly the most splendid colonial building. It was built to mark King George V and Queen Mary’s visit during the British colonial period (1858-1947), and still stands as one of the most important symbols of Mumbai. It is a popular spot for locals and foreign tourists alike.

Right opposite the Gateway of India, you can see the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, standing out with its magnificent architecture. It is one of the most beautiful buildings and the most high-class hotel in the city. Visiting statesmen are generally accommodated in the palace section of the hotel. The German architecture-inspired yard in the middle of the palace, the garden, and the restaurant situated on the top floor are worth seeing.

The second most important stop in southern Mumbai is the Haji Ali Dargah. A prominent Muslim merchant, Haji Ali passed away on his pilgrimage to Mecca, and this place was built in 1431 to honor him. It consists of a prayer room, a mosque, a dargah, and Haji Ali’s tomb. The most important example of Islamic architecture in Mumbai, the causeway by which the mosque is accessed becomes submerged at high tide, leaving the mosque cut off from the land.

Afterwards, you can visit Malabar Hill, one of the most luxurious regions of the city, for an aerial view. Home to Bollywood stars and Indian high society, this region is Mumbai's richest neighborhood, so to speak. Malabar Hill is full of parks (Hanging Garden, Kamala Nehru Park, and Priyadarshini Park), where you will find a wonderful view of the Mumbai skyline and the Sea of Oman. On your way up Malabar Hill, you can also stop to visit temples and sanctuaries belonging to different religions and beliefs. As a religion and a philosophy born in these lands, Jainism’s Adinath, Jain Tirthankara temples as well as Parsi Tower of Silence, a sacred place for Persians, are the most important religious buildings of the city.

You can visit Mani Bhavan, situated between Malabar Hill and the coastal area, where Mahatma Ghandi lived during his days in Mumbai. The three story building has been converted into a museum where you can see many documents and pictures related to Ghandi’s life and his humanist, peaceful ideology, which he created, believed in, and tried to spread, not only in his country but throughout the world.

As you move toward the southern part of Mumbai, you can see the architectural impact and heritage of the British colonial period. The biggest and busiest train station in the city, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly known as Victoria Terminus) is one of the most important examples of colonial architecture and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

You can see tens of old British buildings on the road between the train station and Colaba Causeway. If the weather is cool enough, I recommend taking a walk along this road to see them. This walk will end with the most important colonial building: Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India. The biggest museum in Mumbai since 1923, the building was again built to mark George V, Prince of Wales’ first visit to the city and was designed by the architect of the Gateway of India, George Wittet (1905). The museum is a showcase of statues, miniatures, portraits, historical artifacts, and ruins belonging to Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. The museum garden and groves also make for a pleasant spot to relax.

Your next stop is the long street known as Colaba Causeway. This is the city's most popular tourist attraction, and could be said to be the buffer zone between the Gateway of India and the colonial district. Colaba is a long street filled with portable stands and small local shops. It is an ideal spot to shop for cashmere scarves, Indian accessories, bags, clothing, textiles, and other souvenirs. Remember to bargain, especially if you’re buying from the stands. The ideal way to do this is to begin with half of the quoted price. The Leopold Café, located on this street, is a nice place to take a break and indulge in some people watching.

At the starting point of Colaba Causeway (you can think of it as a compass), stands the historical Regal Cinema. Founded in 1930s and used as a cultural complex especially by the movie industry, the building is now home to a movie theater and stores. However, you cannot see the inside of the movie theater unless you have a ticket to see a movie; and the exterior of the building is nothing fancy.

On the topic of shopping, the Crawford Market is worth mentioning. The Crawford Market is a place where you can find almost anything you can think of; it is full of bazaars and numerous small shops. This is the most popular local shopping spot in the city with its flower market, fish market, and gold market. Located in the same region, the Chor Bazaar is a quiet, normal street, where you can see second hand goods for sale and wooden furniture studios. At night, this place turns into a cops-and-robbers movie set as stands on which stolen goods are sold are set up along the street.

On one of your days in Mumbai, you should definitely see the sunset at Chowpatty Beach.  Situated on a wide area on the coastline, the beach is also one of the favorite spots among local people. Many people spend the afternoon here with a picnic hamper. Even though the sandy beach looks tempting, it is very crowded and you should be aware that robbery is an unfortunate issue.

The Mumbai coastline should really be toured by car. Marine Drive, also known as the Queens Necklace, is a nice spot where you can view the amazing Mumbai skyline. As you hit the road from the southern part of the city, Marine Drive ends at Chowpatty Beach. After the Haji Ali district, you reach the northern part, where the Sea Link welcomes you. The bridge, opened in 2009, is a significant feat of architecture.  The Bollywood district, which sounds quite glorious, is located in the northern part of the city; but don’t be fooled by this. The northern part is quite different than the southern part; here you will find more slums and homeless people. You can visit the restaurants, cafés, and clubs in the Powai and Bandra neighborhoods, where mainly foreigners live.

Your first stop in the northern part should be the Shree Siddhivinayak Ganapati Mandir, dedicated to one of the most important Hindu gods. Built in 1801, the temple is still one of the most visited sanctuaries and it is believed that if you pray in this temple, your prayers and wishes will come true, with a little help from Ganesh.

Juhu Beach and the Bandra coastline are also places to add to your list. The Bollywood tours might disappoint you, since you cannot enter the studios; the tour is nothing more than a look around the neighborhood.

A far more interesting experience in northern Mumbai is a rickshaw tour. A three-wheeled passenger vehicle for two, rickshaws, even though they are confined to the north, are seen as symbols of the city.  Rickshaws can be a lifesaver in the busy Mumbai traffic, and are cheap.

If you have time, take a tour of Dharavi, the second biggest slum in Asia, and also the center of Mumbai’s recycling and small industry. I must warn you, however, life here is really tough and you may find the sights traumatic. To give you a clearer understanding, Dharavi was used as the setting for the movie Slumdog Millionaire. The poverty, tiny shacks, and children playing on top of garbage piles are not fictional; they represent the reality of Dharavi.

The most important things to remember while in Mumbai:

  • While making your plans, remember that this city is really populous and with a stunning volume of traffic. Public transport consists of trains and buses; and you should avoid taking them unless you are after an adventure, for your comfort and security. The best option for getting around is taking cabs from recognized cab companies. They have air conditioning and use the taximeter, and are reasonably priced. A couple of kilometers can sometimes take hours; so remember not to pack your daily schedule, and make lists of things to see and do based on the districts (the routes mentioned above will give you some idea).
  • During your trip in India, you should be mindful of hygiene; do not eat anything sold on the streets. Even though the Indian spices are intriguing, you should exercise caution because stomach and bowel problems do not only stem from hygiene issues. Some special spice and oil combinations may cause problems for those trying them the first time.

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