Situated on the banks of the Gomti River, Lucknow is the capital of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It is, in equal parts, calm and chaotic. Quiet riverbanks flanked by salmon-hued sandstone memorials neighbour bustling bazaars and crumbling edifices.
Lucknow’s chequered history has left a strong imprint on its architecture, cuisine, and art. The city was a part of the Mughal Empire, then ruled by the Nawabs of Awadh, and subsequently, it was an important administrative centre during the British Raj.
Explore the grand mosques and monuments that preserve the city’s Islamic heritage. Colonial-style buildings and the bullethole-riddled walls of the Residency complex serve as reminders of the Raj-era and the battles fought here for India’s freedom.
From 1775, Lucknow was the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Awadh. The Nawabs were culture-conscious, and under their patronage, art, craft, dance, and cuisine flourished. What emerged is the sophisticated culture defined by tameez (grace), which persists to this day.
A comfortable bed
As Lucknow's tallest hotel, the 16-storey Renaissance Hotel offers grand views of the Gomti River and the elaborate sandstone sculptures of the Ambedkar Memorial Park. Sunsets over this vista are best experienced from the small but beautiful rooftop infinity pool. Barely a year old, the contemporary hotel offers a high standard of service and comfortable rooms. There's an excellent buffet at the glass-walled L-14 restaurant, with an array of Indian and international cuisines. Doubles from 7,500 rupees (Dh404).
Next door, the Vivanta by Taj has a more heritage feel. Set in a domed, low-rise structure amid acres of green, rooms are plush and feature traditional Indian accents. Doubles from 12,320 rupees (Dh664).
Find your feet
To get a sense of Lucknow’s history, make the Bara Imambara your first port of call. The sprawling sepia structure fuses Indo-Persian architectural styles, with cupolas, minarets, and projecting balconies. In the 18th century, the fourth Nawab of Lucknow, Asaf-ud-Daula, constructed the imambara as a place of congregation. On the upper level, a web of dark, narrow passages runs through the walls, forming a multi-levelled maze called the bhool bhulaiyaa, best explored with the help of a guide. The corridors lead on to the rooftop, from where there’s a panoramic view of the surrounding cityscape.
Meet the locals
At the heart of the Old City lies an area called Chowk, the former city centre, where traders came to sell their wares. Not much has changed, as the area remains a tightly packed, open-air bazaar, where locals gather to buy and sell everything under the sun. The warren of alleyways is crammed with street food vendors, dispensing the famed tundey kebabs and biryani, creamy lassi and thandai (milk mixed with almonds and spices).
Lanes are labelled according to the wares they sell. You’ll find vials of ittar (perfumes), intricately carved silver jewellery, heaps of roses and marigold, chikankari garments, traditional clothing and brassware. The area heaves with humanity and traffic, sounds and smells. Navigate the lanes with the Gol Darwaza (literally meaning “round gate”) as a reference point, to avoid losing your bearings.
Book a table
Awadhi and Mughlai influences have mingled to create a rich local cuisine, known for its kebabs, biryani, korma, sheermal (a sweetish bread), and meat dishes. The most atmospheric places to sample these eats are at street vendors and hole-in-the-wall outlets at Chowk. Tundey kebab is the speciality kebab of Lucknow, a melt-in-the-mouth creation of tender minced lamb and spices, available in abundance at various outlets.
For a slightly more upmarket experience, The Mughal’s Dastarkhwan in Lalbagh is great for Awadhi cuisine. The birianis are flavourful, while the galauti kebab lives up to its name (galauti literally translates to “melting”).
Chikan remains Lucknow’s biggest contribution to the crafts industry. The age-old embroidery technique was traditionally done with white thread on fine white muslin or cotton cloth. Modern designs allow for a variety of fabrics and colours, and the resultant designs are fashioned into a range of garments and home linens. Chikankari designs are easily found at the shops at Chowk.
What to avoid
Visit the monuments, especially the imambaras, early in the day or the late afternoon, as you have to leave your shoes outside and the hot stone surfaces can get uncomfortable to walk on.
Barely a few months old, the Museum of Socialism is a state-of-the-art structure that employs shapes and clean lines to create interesting silhouettes. The interactive exhibits trace the life of Jai Prakash Narayan, a prominent figure in India’s freedom struggle.
A direct return flight from Abu Dhabi to Lucknow with Etihad, in partnership with Jet Airways, costs from Dh1,100 return including taxes.