Travel

Mumbai, India City Guide with Sheena Dabholkar

by Sabrina Smelko

cityguide-mumbai
I’ve been fascinated with India ever since I watched the 12-episode travel documentary Around The Next Bend in 2012. Unlike many travel shows which can be over-produced or edited, best friends Adrian and Dustin had no idea what they were doing or where they were going when they signed up for the show. They only had two self-operated cameras and one mission: to row over 2,500 kilometers down the Ganges River in an inflatable raft, from New Delhi to Dhaka. What I loved about the documentary was that they filmed everything; they didn’t edit parts out, they didn’t avoid areas, instead they bonded and interacted with lcoals in an attempt to fully understand and immerse themselves in the history and culture.

Much like the documentary, Sheena Dabholkar’s guide to Mumbai (or Bombay, depending on who you ask) is just as candid, expansive and enlightening. Sheena is a freelance lifestyle photographer, design journalist and art director, who also blogs about travel and design. She’s collaborated with MTV and Hermes and has been published in the Wall Street Journal and Wallpaper* to name a few. Though she was born in India, she grew up in New Zealand and moved back to her hometown in 2009. Sheena makes traveling a priority, but her home base will always be Mumbai. Click through to read Sheena’s entire city guide, divided into four regions just to make our lives easier. –Sabrina

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Called Bombay by locals (and used interchangeably), Mumbai is a bustling metropolis, India’s financial hub and the home of Bollywood, the world’s largest film industry. It’s a fast-paced and densely populated dichotomy, housing both the world’s most expensive real estate and some of its biggest slums.

Bombay is chaotic, hot and sticky all year round, but it has a pulse like nowhere else I’ve been and if it gets overwhelming, know you can seek refuge in its hip cafes, contemporary galleries and cute stores. The city is quickly gaining a contemporary voice in art and design. There’s lots to see and do if you know where to look. It houses the largest number of art deco buildings in the world after Miami, has gorgeous colonial architecture and a recent street art festival has left many beautiful murals around the city. My favorite thing about it is that it’s surrounded by sea.

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I’ve divided the city into four key areas for this guide. Note that Indian addresses often lack numbers and can be confusing, so Google Maps and asking a local in the vicinity will often be your best bet. Oh, and you can call it Mumbai if you want, but we still call it Bombay.

 

South Bombay or “Town”

Eat

Kala Ghoda Cafe is pint-sized and its tiny mezzanine is my favorite spot to snag. It has lots of natural light, free wifi and the walls are often host to interesting art. They bake their own delicious bread and the chocolate, ginger and carrot cakes are all fabulous. La Folie (16 Commerce House, Rope Walk Lane, Kala Ghoda), a fine French patisserie just opposite, makes some of the most exquisite desserts I’ve eaten in the city. Try the paan and gulkand macaron.

Special mention to The Pantry (B Bharucha Marg) and The Nutcracker (Dr VB Gandhi Marg), both adorable and also in Kala Ghoda for breakfast or coffee.

Kyani (JSS Road, Jer Mahal Estate, Marine Lines) is a century-old Irani cafe and a time capsule with beautiful tiled floors, bent wood chairs, checkered tablecloths and glass display cabinets. Stop off for snacks and tea — their chicken puffs and potato chops are scrumptious.

If you’re hungrier, Brittania and Co (Wakefield House, 11 Sprott Road, Ballard Estate) is a well loved Mumbai institution that serves up delicious Irani and Parsi delicacies for lunch. The two most popular things on the menu are the berry pulao, a flavorful chicken pilaf with tart berries and the caramel custard. The eccentric 92-year-old owner still potters about, giving recommendations that rhyme and exalting the days of British rule.

Suzette is a French creperie with two outposts, but its original spot in Nariman Point is my favorite and a great place to get dinner before or after a show at the NCPA. Tip: The salads are also particularly good and the hot chocolate is completely divine.

For fine dining, The Table is a chic spot with chevron flooring and fresh flowers, where the focus is on small plates and fresh, seasonal offerings. Their classic favourites include boneless chicken wings and zucchini “spaghetti.”

Within walking distance is the Thomas Schoos designed Ellipsis which offers a creative spin on American cuisine. The menu changes daily and is a playground for chef Kelvin Cheung’s experiments. The downstairs lounge with its oversized furniture is a fun place to drink cocktails on “bar nights.”

 

Drink

Skip Cafe Leopold of Shantaram fame, unless you’re looking to be scouted as a Bollywood extra for a pitcher of beer at illustration-filled Cafe Mondegar (5A Metro House, Colaba Causeway), or head to the rooftop at Cafe Marina for a drink with pretty sea views.

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Colaba Social is a hip, co-working space that has fun cocktails and turns into Colaba’s go-to drinking hole once the sun sets.

If you’re feeling fancy, head to Dome at the InterContinental for a glimpse of the Queen’s Necklace, a nickname given to glittering Marine Drive when viewed from an elevated place at night.

 

Shop

Bungalow 8, a multistory concept store in a gorgeous old Colaba building, stocks beautifully curated home and lifestyle products and accessories on its first two floors, while its top floor is dedicated to fashion. Their in-house label — The Bungalow, designed by Matthieu Gugumus Leguillon — matches French sensibilities with gorgeous Indian textiles. Bombay Electric stocks playful, fresh wares from an eclectic lot of designers.

Innovative textiles meet bespoke tailoring (with a cool workshop visible within the store itself) at Obataimu. In addition to beautiful clothes, you’ll also find a carefully curated selection of books, cameras and cool accessories such as wooden eyewear and fish leather hip flasks.

For perfectly fitted men’s shirts, head to The Bombay Shirt Company a few doors down and an in-house stylist will help you customize the color, collar, lapel, cuff and even monogram your own made-to-order shirt.

The chandelier- and antiques-filled Sabyasachi store is a must-see. Furnished with personal items from the Indian couture and formalwear designers’ own collections, it is a beautiful space — part museum, part shop.

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Contemporary Arts and Crafts is an expansive store that stocks quite a range of furniture, lifestyle and home products. A nice place to score a cool lamp, soft furnishings or a fantastic keepsake.

A popular chain that has many branches both country- and worldwide, Fab India works with artisans across the country, sourcing everything from clothing and accessories to furniture and furnishings, plus handicrafts, dry foods and body care products. The Kala Ghoda showroom is particularly vast.

Step back in time at the marvelously antique Khadi Bhandar (286 DN Rd, Fort) which you will find in one of Fort’s many arcades. Buy raw silk ties, fabric and khadi kurtas for cheap and you’ll be billed at an original clunky cash register just like in the old days.

Bombay Paperie is a technicolor oasis in Mumbai’s financial district (it’s opposite the stock exchange). This tree-free paperie produces and sells sustainable papers made from recycled cotton rags and you can buy cards, notebooks and stacks upon stacks of beautiful, textured wrapping paper in a huge variety of hues.

Contemporary design store Filter is a great place to pick up souvenirs. In the store you’ll find zines and design publications, cute stationery, chocolate spiked with interesting Indian flavors and paperweights shaped like the tetrapods that line Mumbai’s coast. Design Temple is another one of my favorite design stores.

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Famous in India, Chor Bazaar means “thieves market” and is a great place to source antiques, art deco pieces, old clocks and Bollywood posters to frame for your home. The shrewd shopkeepers can spot a tourist, so bring your best bargaining skills. Head to Mutton St as most of the shops are clustered here. Afterwards, find the century-old Taj Ice Cream in Bhendi Bazaar nearby and treat yourself to delicious hand-churned ice cream with real pieces of fruit.

For street shopping, attempt the cluttered sidewalks of Colaba Causeway, home to everything from sparkly jewelry and high street labels to hippie dresses and healing crystals. You’ll also find a mishmash of antique reproductions, vintage cameras, leather slippers and hand-printing blocks.

 

Do

Walks

Fort and Horniman Circle

Begin your walk at the impressive Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, a fine example of gothic revival architecture, and stroll down DN Road in the direction of Colaba under its cool arcades and marvel at the buildings. Turn left at Flora Fountain and detour to Horniman Circle, home to the luxury retail showrooms of Hermes and Christian Loboutin as well as India’s first Starbucks and the glorious Asiatic library. Make your way back down and turn left into MG Road where you can stop and buy a book at one of the street sellers. If you manage to return it, you’ll get most of your money back!

 

Art Deco

Mumbai’s art deco buildings are mostly clustered around the Churchgate area, though there are also a number in Fort, Colaba and other areas. To see some fine examples of art deco or deco-saracenic buildings with their gorgeous detailing and typography, walk the leafy street along the sprawling green Oval Maidan behind the Eros theater. (Also check out Victorian-style High Court and Rajabai clock tower in the campus of the University of Mumbai across the other side of the park), then turn right and make your way to Marine Drive, the palm-fringed waterfront promenade..

If time permits, you can also catch a film at one of the city’s art deco theaters such as Regal, Metro and Eros. Liberty, my favorite, is a jewel box and warrants a special mention but plays only Bollywood films (without subtitles).

 

Arts and Culture

Jehangir art gallery is a landmark and generally underrated (by locals) but is more often than not worth a visit. Its cafe Samovar is very popular. Nearby, the beautiful domed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (or the Prince of Wales museum) warrants a visit if you have a few extra days. Across, the exhibitions at the National Gallery of Modern Art can be a bit hit or miss but when they’re good, they’re really good. Find out what’s on at each before you go.

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Mumbai also boasts several fantastic galleries such as Project 88, Gallery Maskara, Gallery Mirchandani and Steinrucke that represent some of India’s finest contemporary artists. To get a better idea of what’s on, pick up an Art Map for free at any of the locations listed here and take yourself on a little art trail.

For arts of the performance variety, check the NCPA site for what’s on. You can catch anything from English theater, stand-up comedy, a dance recital or a philharmonic concert at this performing arts complex.

 

Stay

Abode Boutique Hotel

Housed in a heritage building with art deco furniture, Bharat tiles, framed art, fresh local blooms and rooms that range from cute and basic with shared toilets all the way to large and luxurious (think clawfoot bathtubs), Mumbai’s first boutique hotel is very charming indeed. Breakfasts are hearty and delicious and the library is well stocked. Plus the knowledgeable staff will ensure your stay is comfortable.

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The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

If money is no object, do luxury right and stay in the old wing with sea views at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Old world opulence and amazing hospitality, domed staircases, gorgeous chandeliers and great restaurants. The High tea at Sea Lounge includes finger sized sandwiches and cakes, but also pretty, petite versions of popular street foods.

 

Central Mumbai

Eat

If you like delis and drawings, you will love Smoke House Deli located in the Phoenix Mills compound. It’s covered top-to-bottom, walls-to-furnishings in cute sketches and stories, and the sandwiches are delicious. Another pretty outlet can be found in Bandra.

If Bombay is your only Indian pitstop, head to Kings Circle in Matunga East, for it’s just the place to get your fill of South Indian food. There are over a dozen restaurants to choose from but crowd favorites are Cafe Madras or Mani’s Lunch Home for piping hot dosas and pillow-soft idlis with heady cups of caramel-toned filter coffee that you cool down by pouring between the two containers.

Neel at Tote on the Turf (Mahalaxmi Race Course) is an Indian fine dining restaurant that’s exactly the place to try decadent Nawabi cuisine from regions such as Hyderabad, Kashmir and Lucknow. A lovely bonus: The contemporary interiors by Serie Architects is as fabulous as the food.

A converted mill with exposed brick and beams with lots of beautiful light, the lovely lofty Cafe Zoe is as anywhere else as Mumbai gets. The perfect place to spend the afternoon, order sangria and a plate of the scrumptious pulled pork brioche and leech off the free wifi. It’s popular as a drinking spot, too.

 

Drink

Perched atop the Four Seasons, Aer is where Mumbai’s well-heeled come for drinks and mezze. If you’re tempted by glorious views, the spectacular sunset also coincides with happy hour.

Check out the roster and head to Blue Frog, Mumbai’s most iconic music venue. With its hip pod seating and excellent sound system, it’s probably your best bet for catching a live gig.

 

Shop

Reserve an hour or two of browsing time and shop for beautiful, whimsical wares at the flagship Good Earth store at Raghuvanshi mills. The vast selection of home decor and lifestyle goods includes everything from designer sofas and glittering chandeliers, to kitschy cushions and delicate, hand-painted china.

The Farmers’ Market runs between October and March. Set inside the leafy Maharashtra Nature Park, the stalls offer organic fruit and veg directly from farmers, natural products and cosmetics, as well as freshly prepared food.

Everyday Project is a lovely stationery shop that stocks framed prints, funky furniture and lamps, and Rubberband notebooks (India’s brightly colored answer to the classic Moleskine), as well as small goods from international design studios.

 

Bandra and Khar

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Eat

Beautiful light, peeling walls and black-and-white films projected silently on its big windows, Pali Village Cafe (602 Ambedkar Road, Pali Naka) is all vibe and its balcony is my happy place. They make fantastic risotto and the panna cotta is the best I’ve ever eaten.

You’ll find folks lingering for hours on end at The Bagel Shop (30 Pali Mala Road), a home away from home for many of the city’s freelancers, expats and locals. A pretty little place with free wifi and friendly faces. If you can take a little heat, the chorizo bagel is fabulous.

Like the German kiosks it’s named after, Imbiss (Ben-O-Lil Haven, Waroda Road) picked the tagline “meating joint” for good reason. Head here if you’re craving sausages, a wholesome bowl of goulash or finger-licking spare ribs. Imbiss is cramped but cute and definite value for money.

An antithesis to Imbiss are Bombay Salad Co, one of the neighborhood’s newest establishments where the salads are fresh and fantastic, and the relaxing cafe at Yoga House, which sprawls across a kooky villa and has a range of healthy offerings — quinoa tabbouleh, gluten-free cookies and, oh yes, yoga.

Another favorite with creatives, Birdsong Cafe on Waroda Road is charming and hip (think hanging lights, exposed brick and concrete, blackboard art) and offers allergy-friendly food and fresh juices.

Like everywhere else, India too went cupcake crazy a few years ago and for a cupcake and choux date, you can’t beat Le 15 Patisserie.

 

Drink

The mainstays of the Bandra bar scene draw a young, creative crowd looking to unwind and let loose. The Daily (Surburbia, SV Rd), which spotlights good news everyday as part of its charm and decor, is a bit more of a local spot, while Bonobo (Kenilworth Mall, 33rd Road) is a bit more events focused.

For a more sophisticated spot to drink, head to Pali Bhavan (10 Adarsh Nagar, Pali Naka), a fine dining spot that doubles as a very sexy bar or Olive where you’ll find Mumbai’s glitterati sipping vodka sodas.

While not technically a place, the best party is Grime Riot Disco, most recently held at H2O in Khar. The city’s grimiest underground party. Unpretentious venue, fun vibe, cheap bar and always good music. Join the Facebook group for updates.

 

Shop

Scandinavia meets India at Freedom Tree, a wonderful store that stocks printed soft furnishings and a huge selection of quirky, patterned ceramics in every color imaginable.

Drop into the Kulture Shop showroom and pick up high quality prints and T-shirts designed by Indian graphic artists from all over the world.

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If you want to see the latest collections of Mumbai’s fashion week stars, multi-designer boutique Atosa (Aman Villa, 20th Road) is the place to go.

Set in a bungalow, The Shop is an underrated treasure trove of great clothing and trinkets, plus ceramics, soft furnishings and a cool collection of kidswear and toys.

A very pretty store, Ahilaya (Plot No 7, Perry Cross Road) is known for its feminine silk- and cotton-based kaftans and kurtas that the rest of the world considers resort wear in a huge range of gorgeous pastels and brights with skillful and delicate chikan handiwork.

Anokhi is famous for its block printed textiles. Choose from clothing and accessories in addition to affordable bed linens, table spreads and soft furnishings.

Street shopping can be found on the stretch from National College to the KFC on Linking Road and you’ll find shoes, shoes and more shoes. Save your sneakers from Mumbai streets and choose from cheap slides, leather sandals and embroidered slippers in every possible hue.

Also, in the small stretch of street shopping halfway down Hill Road, you’ll find maxi dresses, preloved sweaters, junk jewelry, cheap basics and even branded footwear (seconds) at a fraction of their retail price.

 

See

Street art in Mumbai

Though hand-painted signs and advertisements have been visible on India streets for decades, the street art movement began only much more recently. The largest concentration of works can be found in Bandra, (courtesy the Bollywood Art Project by artist Ranjit Dahiya and the recent St.Art India festival) with both hand and spray painted pieces by both local and visiting artists adorning walls in unlikely alleyways on and off Chapel and Waroda road, and in Pali village. The neighborhoods are worth a wander, too — quaint cottages, plenty of grottos, lovely typography and charming older ladies in matching skirt suits.

 

The bungalows of Bandra

Bandra was originally accessed by boat and is where Bombay’s glam bought holiday homes. Walk down Turner Road and ogle the beautiful bungalows, like Peace Haven and Shirazi Bungalow. At one end, the Carter Road promenade is a good place to relax and sip on fresh coconut water or eat corn roasted over coals and rubbed down with salt and chili.

 

Stay

Executive Enclave

This no-frills corporate Bandra hotel is well located and well priced, an extremely rare thing in Mumbai. What it lacks in design details it makes up for in convenience, cleanliness and customer service. And the rooftop bar is a nice spot for a drink on sultry nights.

 

Juhu, Andheri and the suburbs

Eat

Jam Jar Diner (7A JP Road, Versova), a cute, all-day cafe at the entrance of Aram Nagar, serves delectable Mexican food and the fresh juices in jars are excellent. The cool decor features slanting shelves and cabinets piled with curiosities and the Gaudi-inspired mosaic-laden terrace is a great spot to work from (if the weather isn’t sweltering).

Nobody ever comes to Gajalee for the decor. The only reason to come is the seafood, which is just superlative. Order the lip-smackingly good tandoori crab and prepare to be there all afternoon.

If you love graphic novels and are hankering for a bite, head to Leaping Windows, a relaxed cafe with a comic (lending and browsing) library — the first of its kind in the city!

 

Drink

With outdoor seating and great bar food, it’s no wonder the bewilderingly named WTF!?! (J P Road, 7 Bungalows) is a local favorite for catching up with friends. Pretty much everybody there works in advertising, television or Bollywood.

 

Shop

Find your way to cottage no. 18 in the maze of villas that is Aram Nagar (Trivia: It’s where tons of independent ad and film companies have their studios) and find Tribal Route for unique handmade jewelry, furnishings and lovely wooden knick-knacks for the kitchen.

If kitsch and modern is your thing, Bliss has a great selection of home accessories and furniture, as well as a very lovely selection of apparel.

Though it’s further out, Oshiwara market (Ramjanak Singh Compound, Oshiwara Bridge, SV Road, Jogeshwari West) is more simply laid out and less exhausting than Chor Bazaar. Also, less tourists! You’ll find it a nice place to pick up antiques and old prints, and if you’re in the market for a beautiful (salvaged) carved door to turn into a table, here’s where you’ll find it.

 

Do

Mumbai has fantastic English (and regional language) theatre, and Juhu’s Prithvi Theatre has provided a platform for it for many decades, both literally and metaphorically. The outdoor cafe has a great atmosphere and excellent piping hot chai.

The Sanjay Gandhi National Park (Borivali East) is within city limits and it is perhaps the most under-hyped place in all of Mumbai. For great views, fresh air and an ancient Buddhist temple complex, head to Kanheri Caves within the park limits. If you go in the monsoon, you can splash in the icy waterfalls!

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