Welcome to Mumbai. A city where everything – the crowds, the traffic, the noise, the smells – is dialed up to 11… then bumped up another notch just for the heck of it. A chaotic, colourful, often confronting corner of the globe crammed with 20 million people; the home of Bollywood and India’s City of Dreams.
It’s a place where you can lose yourself amongst the lumbering cows, bright saris, wafts of incense, and black and yellow taxis. It’s also a place where you can find yourself so exhausted and overwhelmed you start praying to lord Shiva for a helping hand…
And so, here one is: the best of what Mumbai has to offer for those short on time, gathered throughout my eight months living in the city.
6AM: Sunrise stroll
Mumbai is at her best in the mornings, so get out and explore as she wakes. Walk along Strand Promenade in Colaba (the vibrant, slightly posh heart of the city where you’ll most likely be staying) past the city’s impressive art deco architecture to its most iconic monument, the Gateway of India. Built in 1911 on the spot where King George V and Queen Mary first landed on Indian soil, it’s the perfect place to watch the sun pop up over the Indian Ocean.
7AM: To market, to market
Head to Dadar flower market (Senapati Bapat Road), where 720 kaleidoscopically-coloured stalls overflow with baskets of marigolds, roses, jasmine, hibiscus and lotus flowers, that locals use for ceremonies, rituals and protection. You can use them to adorn yourself: you’ll come out looking like it’s Mardi Gras and make the locals laugh.
8AM: Breakfast, South India-style
You might be more of a muesli person, but mark my head wobble: you MUST experience a typical South Indian breakfast. Café Madras (Bhaudaji Road, Kings Circle, Matunga) might not look fancy, but it’s legendary for its idlis, upmas and dosas, and you’ll exit with change from $5.
9AM: Slum tour
Have your mind blown as you tour Dharavi, the world’s biggest slum of one million people where parts of Slumdog Millionaire were filmed, with Reality Tours. 800 rupees (about $17) per person.
1PM: Chaat time
‘Chaat’ is India’s version of tapas, and about a bazillion times better than dal and rice. The best place for it is Swati Snacks, a simple diner-style joint where well-heeled Indians head for power lunches. Their panipuri (hollow semolina balls filled with chutneys, tomato, spices and herbs) is the best in town.
2PM: Retail therapy in Colaba
If you’re packing a fat wad of rupees, then head to Bombay Electric for funky fashion from India’s hottest new designers, Bungalow Eight for kaftans, home furnishings and bejeweled bags, and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel for its high-end boutiques and Harbour Bar for a cheeky afternoon champagne.
If you’re on more of a backpacker’s budget, then Colaba Causeway is where it’s at: a strip lined with hawkers selling trinkets, leather sandals, crystals, incense and scarves, that’s also home to Leopold Café, from Shantaram fame.
4.30PM: Head massage*
For the love of Vishnu, you need a lie down! Treat yourself to a 90-minute head massage at Touch of Joy (Ground Floor, Ethna House, JA Allana Marg). For $18, your head, shoulders, arms and back will be kneaded and pummeled til you melt into a puddle. Ladies, add on a blow dry and come out looking like Bollywood star.
*Fellas, if you want to skip this one, catch a Bollywood flick at the art deco Regal Cinema instead.
7PM: Sunset snifter
The Dome rooftop bar on the eighth floor of the InterContinental is hands down the best spot to watch the sun sink into the Arabian Sea, cocktail in hand.
8.30PM: Indigo dining
Settle in under the fairy lights on the upstairs terrace and treat yourself to dinner at one of Mumbai’s fanciest restaurants, Indigo. Keep an eye out for Bollywood stars, and see where the night takes you.
READ MY GUIDE TO INDIA FOR BEGINNERS HERE
READ ABOUT MUMBAI’S INGENIOUS SLUM CLASSROOMS HERE
STAY: Abode Bombay, Mumbai’s first boutique hotel, located in the centre of Colaba in a 110-year-old heritage building. Floors are laid with locally handcrafted tiles and teak wood salvaged from demolished houses, signs are painted by local truck painters, and soft furnishings are crafted from vintage saris and block-printed fabrics. Rooms from 2000 rupees a night (about $40).
WEEKEND AWAY: If you have a couple of days to spare after Mumbai, hire a driver and head to Matheran hill station, two hours away. It’s a place to escape the crowds and the heat, where you can trek through the dusty red hills, ride horses and stay in historic colonial mansions.