Home to the glittering Bollywood film industry, Mumbai, aka India’s City of Dreams, is a place where everything – the crowds, the noise, the traffic, the smells – is dialed up to 110… then bumped up another notch, just for the hell of it. It’s a chaotic, intoxicating and often confronting corner of the globe crammed with over 20 million people (and that’s just the official count), where the extremes of wealth and poverty are more intense than almost anywhere else on earth. There’s no hiding from these extremes, which lie at the heart of life in Mumbai and are your key to understanding the city. Especially once the sun has dropped below the Arabian Sea and the cricket games have been packed up, when the city’s hundreds of thousands of homeless settle onto the pavements to sleep, just as the moneyed step out for a night on the town. So throw on your best pair of chappal (Indian sandals), practise your namaskar (a greeting in Hindi) and prepare for a night of wonderful calamity in India’s ‘maximum city’.
Colaba, the old British quarter at the southern tip of the city, is where most of Mumbai’s night-time action happens. And because it can take up to two hours to cross town in a black and yellow taxi to other hip areas like Bandra or Lower Parel, it’s probably best to stick to SoBo (South Bombay) tonight. Wander along bougainvillea-lined Strand Promenade to the Gateway of India, Mumbai’s most iconic monument, built to commemorate King George V and Queen Mary’s first visit to India in 1911. Beneath this monolithic stone archway on the edge of Mumbai Harbour you’ll meet chai sellers, women wrapped in glittering saris and a monkey or two, and you’ll probably be asked for a selfie with a group of local teens. This is a sign that it’s time to head a couple of blocks back, past the famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, to Colaba Causeway. Officially known as Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, this strip is lined with a rumpus of street vendors selling everything from bongos and crystals to incense, vegetables and leather sandals. It’s the spot to flex your haggling muscles before ducking into Leopold Café. Yes, this is the bar that features heavily in the novel Shantaram. And yes, it is clichéd. But it also dates back to 1871 and is a great spot to meet other travelers.
Cnr Colaba Causeway and Nawroji F Rd, Colaba
When the sun starts to drop, you’ll want to plonk yourself up above the chaos in one of Mumbai’s many rooftop bars. Dome, the swanky all-white affair at the InterContinental Hotel, is one of the city’s coolest rooftop establishments, and it’s just a quick taxi ride away. Here you’ll find shut-the-front-door views of the sea and cocktails guaranteed to make your head wobble (their cucumber gimlet is particularly tasty). Once the glittering lights of the crescent-shaped Marine Drive boardwalk below have flickered on, it’ll be time to wander down to Chowpatty beach. Come sunset it becomes a bit of a seaside carnival. You’ll find fairy floss, giant balloon and glow stick sellers and food stalls churning out everything from fresh fruit juices to pani puri – deep-fried pockets of pastry stuffed with chutney, potato, herbs and spices. Wade into the shallows with giggling locals, then find a rubbish-free spot on the sand to watch the chaos pass by as your pants dry out.
135 Marine Drive, Churchgate
The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) has been dishing up plays and recitals to Mumbai’s culture hungry since the late 60s. Grab a drink at the alfresco cafe, then head inside to see an Indian classical dance or music show. If you’re after something more chilled, head to Regal Cinema to catch the latest Bollywood flick. Mumbai has one of the largest concentrations of Art Deco buildings in the world, and this edifice, dating back to 1933, is no exception. Even if the flick is in Hindi, chinta mat karo (that’s ‘don’t worry’ in Hindi). They’re really more about the bling-laden singing and dancing – and escaping the city’s intense heat – anyway. Just be prepared to stand and attempt to sing the national anthem, which happens in every Indian cinema before a movie is screened.
National Centre for the Performing Arts
NCPA Marg, Nariman Point
By now you’ll need to refuel. The sexy, string light-draped upstairs terrace of Indigo, a restaurant housed inside a renovated turn-of-the-century bungalow just around the corner from the Gateway of India, is one of the hottest spots in town. Settle in with some za’atar-spiced grilled king prawns, or maybe a black pepper crusted rare yellowfin tuna, with a whiskey from their single malt list or their Mount Makalu cocktail – basically a coffee version of a frozen margarita. And keep an eye out for the Bollywood stars who supposedly hit Indigo up on the regular.
4 Mandlik Rd, Colaba
By Day Colaba Social is a clever co-working space where, for a monthly membership fee of about AU$100 – which can be redeemed against food and drink – freelancers and creatives get a workspace, wi-fi, a locker, mail service and use of a conference room. But come 6pm, it morphs into an excellent bar, open until 1am. Bottles of spirits hang from the ceilings alongside bare bulbs, there’s eclectic upcycled furniture scattered around and the walls are bare brick, giving it a rugged warehouse feel that’s perfect for downing a couple of Kingfisher beers.
24 BK Boman Behram Marg
Apollo Bunder, Colaba
Slide in behind one of the narrow tables inside Cannon Bar, a dingy late-night haunt on Colaba Causeway, order a Kingfisher and watch a key feature of Mumbai’s underbelly unfold before you. Women in saris will be lip-syncing Bollywood tunes, occasionally shooting smouldering looks at the men in the room until one of them holds up a chunky wad of rupees. The woman will then saunter over, pulling the notes out of the man’s fist one by one and holding his gaze until he draws the remaining notes away. For this – surely the most disappointing strip show on the planet – these women can apparently earn twice as much as a high-class stripper in a New York bar, just for looking at a man in a way that makes him feel like he’s the only one in the world. Afterwards take a wander down Colaba’s laneways, following a nightly wedding parade or one of the chintzy, psychedelically-lit horse-drawn carriages that cart tourists around town.
Donald House, Shahid Bhagat Singh Road
Mumbai’s real culinary magic happens in the hole-in-the-wall dhabas (roadside restaurants) like Bademiya. One of the most famous street stall eateries in India, Bademiya has been operating since 1946 and buzzes with the city’s frenetic energy until 3am every night of the week. In a grotty laneway just around the corner from Colaba Social you’ll find office workers and millionaires in their Bentleys lined up alongside street kids and stray dogs, all waiting for the charcoal-grilled seekh kebabs, which many say are the best in Mumbai. Grab a spicy veg, butter chicken or mutton kebab for the equivalent of about AU$3, pop a squat on the gutter – or on the closest car bonnet – and get chatting with the Mumbaikers.
Tulloch Rd, Apollo Bunder, Colaba
Head to Dr DN Road in nearby Fort precinct to see dozens of newspaper vendors gathered outside the printing factory, near the Empire Royale Hotel. Under milky yellow streetlights you can watch the men stack their trucks, bicycles and motorbikes full of newspapers in 18 languages to deliver to hotels, restaurants, hospitals and shops around the city. If you can summon a final burst of energy, jump in a black and yellow taxi and head 20 minutes to Dadar, where you’ll find Mumbai’s biggest flower market. As the sky starts to brighten you’ll weave through the already heaving alleyways of the market, filled with over 700 kaleidoscopically coloured stalls. Each is stocked with woven baskets overflowing with bright orange and yellow marigolds, roses, jasmine, hibiscus and pink lotus flowers, which the temples and hotels buy for their shrines and decorations and locals use for ceremonies, rituals and protection. The stall owners will no doubt point and laugh at you, the firange or foreigner, and offer flowers to tuck behind your ears and poke into your pockets: a keepsake of this unforgettable night spent in India’s City of Dreams.
Senapati Bapat Marg, Dadar West
Singapore Airlines flies to Mumbai from Sydney and Melbourne via Singapore. Return fares from about AU$1000 return. singaporeair.com
Abode Bombay, Mumbai’s first boutique hotel, sits in the heart of Colaba in a 110-year-old heritage building. From the biscuits that guests can take and give to the street children, to the blind masseuses and female taxi drivers they employ, Abode is a great combination of style with substance. Floors are laid with locally handcrafted tiles and salvaged teak wood, signs are painted by local truck painters, and soft furnishings are crafted from block-printed fabrics. Rooms from AU$90 a night. abodeboutiquehotels.com
NEED TO KNOW
For inspiration on how to maximise your daylight hours in Mumbai, visit Maharashtra state’s tourism board website. maharashtratourism.gov.in