If India is a land of comfortable contradictions, then Kolkata is the ultimate example. Old and new, tasteful and tacky, opulence and poverty all live side by side. Many of its glorious buildings are derelict, with vegetation springing out of the walls. Drivers honk their horns incessantly, the traffic is awful and the streets dirty. But it has a pull like nowhere else. Nearly everyone who has ever worked or lived here feels the need to return.
A comfortable bed
The grande dame of Kolkata hotels is The Grand (www.oberoihotels.com; 0091 33 2249 2323). Originally built in the 1880s, it was the first hotel to be bought by Oberoi. Right beside the bustling New Market bazaar, it's a hub for visitors streaming in and out. Rooms cost from about 14,000 rupees (Dh828) per night, including taxes.
For a calmer, classier five-star experience, go to the Taj Bengal (www.tajhotels.com; 0091 33 6612 3939). It's only a 10-minute drive from Chowringhee across the Maidan (the central park) and is the greenest, cleanest precinct in the city. The views from the roof terrace in the evening are superb and the hotel has several great restaurants. It's difficult to book during wedding season, which runs from November to March. Rooms cost from 14,000 rupees (Dh828).
If you don't want to pay five-star prices, stay at the Tollygunge Club (www.tollygungeclub.org; 0091 33 2417 6022). It's an old colonial country club, set on 110 acres. The food isn't great and the hotel is about 30 minutes' drive from the city centre, but quicker if you take the excellent, clean, fast metro. Rooms cost from 5,000 rupees (Dh295), including taxes, while the cottages start from 7,500 rupees (Dh444). For an additional 2,500 rupees (Dh148), you can also get a tennis lesson, horse ride, manicure, pedicure and blow dry.
Find your feet
Most hotels will arrange walking tours or they can be booked independently with www.calcuttawalks.com. Tours, which start at 7am and take three hours, cost 1,500 rupees (Dh89) per person.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful, but if you want a personal guide, Husna Tara Prakash (www.glenburnteaestate.com) offers one-, two- and three-day tours, with prices starting from 29,600 rupees (Dh1,751). The package includes a guide, an air-conditioned car, all entry fees and lunches for two people.
To get a sense of the city at work, go to the flower market on the banks of the River Hooghly in the early morning. About five times the size of London’s Covent Garden, this is the supply engine for the hotels, parties, weddings and daily religious celebrations. It’s not on the tourist trail and no one will take any notice of you.
Other musts to visit are the South Park Street Cemetery, the Mother House and the Victoria Memorial (much more interesting in terms of Kolkata’s history than the Indian Museum), all of which are pretty central. There are several architecturally impressive buildings to the north of the city, the most bizarre of which is the Marble Palace.
Meet the locals
While Mumbai has the celebrities and Delhi the politicians, Kolkata is the intellectual and cultural heart of India. This is where the famous writers, poets and philosophers were born and lived, the most famous of whom is the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The house where he was born, and a focal point for the Bengali Renaissance and freedom struggle, is now a museum showcasing Bengali life, located in the Bengali quarter to the north of the city.
Book a table
There are numerous high-end restaurants, many in the hotels, as well as local Bengali restaurants.
Afternoon tea at the legendary Flurys (www.flurysindia.com; 0091 33 4064 6053) on the fashionable Park Street is an old-Calcutta institution. A homemade cake or meringue and cream will set you back less than 300 rupees (Dh18). Also on Park Street is Trincas, which is famous for its evening jazz band. The food is good and reasonably priced; fish jalfrezi, one of the most expensive dishes, is only 340 rupees (Dh20). At the top end, the Chinoiserie at the Taj Bengal is considered one of the best in the country to boast a starred Chinese chef.
If you want to avoid tourist shops and prices, go to July, a small clothes shop on the corner of Gurusaday Road, which sells a range of beautiful silk dresses from about 300 rupees (Dh18). Good Companions is a charitable cooperative in the centre of town that's been selling intricately embroidered clothes, tablecloths, pashminas and nightgowns for the past 80 years, with profits going to the villagers who make them. Prices range from about 800 rupees (Dh47) for an embroidered child's dress to 8,000 rupees (Dh473) for an intricate tablecloth. The Oxford Bookstore (www.oxfordbookstore.com) on Park Street is one of Kolkata's oldest bookshops and perfect for hours of browsing. The main bazaar, New Market, also has to be visited, offering food, jewellery, fabrics, silver, clothes and more. Visitors should be prepared to be followed everywhere by locals wanting you to visit their stalls, however.
What to avoid
Park street at 1pm. The system of one-way traffic reverses, to flow in the opposite direction.
A lime and soda with masala peanuts under the Shamiana (a traditional open-air restaurant) at Tollygunge, priced at about 300 rupees (Dh18).
Etihad (www.etihad.com; 02 599 0000) now flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Kolkata, with a flight time of about four hours, starting from Dh780.
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