Mumbai (from Mumbadevi, patron goddess of fisherfolk, renamed from its British colonial name of Bombay) is the most exciting city in India for many Western visitors, perhaps because it seems, at first, more familiar than sprawling Delhi, tropical Madras or impoverished Calcutta. Its central city built by British Empire planners is rather Western in appearance, with a familiar scale of crowded buildings, teeming streets and neon signs of world-renowned advertising logos.
It wasn't always so modern, even though it has always been the most important city, commercially, in the subcontinent. Under the British "Raj" (colonial administration), Bombay was the Gateway to India (and there's still that monumental archway of brick and stone down at the waterfront to prove it). Through here passed the ancestors of (mostly) Englishmen who would later write about their experiences in India, Kipling included.
In many ways, India, often called the crown jewel of the British Empire, was a stone that the English couldn't quite swallow. When they left India in 1947, it was a careless leavetaking, one which caused the deaths of millions in the partition war and pillaging that followed.
Bombay has one of the most cosmopolitan outlooks in India, its population not merely Hindu in religion, but also Zoroastrian (Parsee), Muslim, Jain, Christian, and Jewish, not to mention a scant number of Buddhists gamely hanging on in the land of that religion's birth. The city has always had an air of progress, Indian-style, with money-making uppermost on the public's collective mind. From here, the rest of India is easily reached: the parched North, the jungle-like South and the relatively temperate highlands of Central India.
Bombay (or Mumbai) lies on the Arabian Sea, which is to the west of the city, the main area of interest to tourists being a kind of two-digited claw hanging down at the southern end of a small peninsula. The most important reference points are threefold: 1. The so-called Gateway to India monument, which stands proudly (or infamously) on the protected harbor, off the sea itself, and therefore facing southeast; 2. Marine Drive (now Nataji Sabhaash Drive), on the huge crescent which makes up the western edge of the same claw and which does face westward along the Arabian Sea; and 3. The Victoria Terminus (still called that, despite the city's attempt to give it a non-Imperial name—Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus-Mumbai—CST), Bombay's most important rail station. It's located in the middle of the same "claw" we've been describing. Much of what you'll want to see lies in the triangle created by these three points.
Malabar Hill, the second claw of Mumbai's topography, lies across Back Bay from the Marine Drive, and contains posh residences (including that of the state's chief minister), the Jain Temple and the Towers of Silence, sacred to the Parsees.
You should get around downtown Mumbai mainly on foot, in order to see everything better, but taxis (black and yellow) are ubiquitous. Though there are meters, they don't work properly, so use the rate card each driver carries. (Ask your hotel to negotiate the prices for you unless you're good at haggling). There are also plenty of BEST buses on dozens of routes, but they always seem to be completely full. Finally, there are auto rickshaws (powered by little motors, not by human legs), which cost just about half as much as taxis. Special "tourist taxis" are available from your hotel, with foreign cars that you can rent by the hour.
A dozen temples, museums and monuments are the chief attractions, consisting of the following:
The Gateway to India (1911), beloved of British colonials but despised by Indians as a symbol of the former Raj (British colonial presence).
Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market, formerly known as the Crawford Market, with flowers, fruits, vegetables, meat and fish all under one roof. The fountain in the middle was designed by Rudyard Kipling's father.
The Hanging Gardens of Malabar (1881, very English, though now called the Pherozeshah Mehta Gardens) and Malabar Hill (for a fine view of the city across Back Bay). On Malabar Hill is the Kamla Nehru Park, named after the first prime minister's wife and opened in 1952.
The Towers of Silence, where the Parsees leave their dead for vultures to consume (you can't see anything, happily, but the vultures overhead). Chowpatty Beach, for the circus-like atmosphere of its vendors' stalls and street entertainment, in the evening. Here you'll find snake charmers and contortionists, for example.
The Gandhi Memorial, Mani Bhavan, a house where Mahatma Gandhi lived sporadically between 1917 and 1934, and from which he was arrested in 1932 and taken away.
Prince of Wales Museum (1905), for its Indian artifacts, as well as those from Tibet.
One or more of the many different religious temples in the city: the Jain temple, the Sikh temple, Lakshmi Narayan temple or Mahalaxmi Temple (the latter dedicated to the Hindu goddess of wealth), the Buddhist temple, Jama Masjid mosque, one of the three Fire temples of the Parsees, one of the two synagogues (perhaps Mogen David), one of the two Christian cathedrals (Holy Home or St. Thomas).
Elephanta Caves and their early sculptures (seventh century), dedicated to Shiva, across the inner harbor from the Gateway to India, a one-hour boat ride. Outside the city, Pune (Poona) is a favorite hill station of Bombay, up in cooler air, and home to several world-famous gurus and their ashrams.
Rates in every category are refreshingly low, and in keeping with India's reputation for low touring costs.
TAJ MAHAL HOTEL
Taj Mahal Hotel, Apollo Bunder, Mumbai, in the Colaba district, phone 011-91-22-2023366, fax 011-91-22-2023235. Rates for rooms in the New Wing facing sea generally cost the equivalent of $225 to $250. For rooms in the Old Wing facing city or pool, singles start at around $245, doubles $275.
Undoubtedly the single most famous hotel in India (its main building was completed in 1904), thanks to its intimate connection with the former British Raj, the Taj Mahal and its modern annex are found right at the Gateway of India monument, on Mumbai's seafront, where Britain landed its troops and colonists for over a century. Everyone who was anybody lodged here, a tradition that has extended into modern times. (The lobby is still a popular meeting place for locals and visitors alike, whether staying here or not.) There are 600 rooms, those in the old wing especially spacious for the most part. If you want the feeling of the British Raj, stay in the old wing. Hotel facilities include five restaurants, a coffee shop, three bars, discotheque, swimming pool and health club.
The Oberoi, Nariman Point, Mumbai, on the waterfront, phone 011-92-22-232-5757, fax 011-91-22-204-3282, Web: www.oberoihotels.com. Rates in the Oberoi for a room facing the sea generally start at US$330 for singles; city view singles start at US$270; pay $15 to $25 for second person in room.
The Oberoi Hotel’s 325 rooms spread out over 11 floors, and the Oberoi Towers next door have 575 rooms on 20 floors. Rooms in the smaller-but-superior hotel are more spacious (with sitting areas and dressing areas) than those in the Towers, but all have luxury-style decor, color television (with international news networks), minibar and other top amenities. Public facilities of the Oberoi include three restaurants, a bar, business center, swimming pool and health club. The Towers, with an impressive, big lobby (including fountains) has five restaurants, a bar, coffee shop, 200 shops in its arcade (the largest such complex in Bombay), a discotheque, rooftop nightclub and a swimming pool.
THE LEELA KEMPINSKI HOTEL
The Leela Kempinski Hotel, Sahar, Mumbai, one kilometer from Sahar Airport, phone 011-91-22-6911234, fax 011-91-22-6911212, Web: www.theleela.com. Rates for singles US$345, doubles US$370.
An ultra modern building of ten floors, the very posh Leela faces a large swimming pool surrounded by palm trees, a cooling oasis after a day of sightseeing. It offers 430 fairly spacious rooms and 31 suites, as well as four restaurants, two bars, a pastry shop, business center and a shopping arcade, as well as a fitness center with saunas and steam bath. Air-conditioned squash courts, swimming pool, courtesy buses to and from the airports and the city, and a coffee shop, complete the list of facilities.
Ambassador Hotel, Church Gate, Mumbai, in the heart of downtown Mumbai, phone 011-91-22-204-1131, fax 011-91-22-204-6106, e-mail: email@example.com. Rates for a single executive room are US$190, executive double $200. For a single superior room $210, double $220. All rates include breakfast, but not 16% tax.
One of Mumbai's older hotels, it is still a smart one, and with one of the most convenient locations in the city. There are 123 rooms, a manageable size, of average to small dimensions, each with fridge and television, phone and private bath. Hotel facilities include a restaurant (which revolves on the roof), a coffee shop and two bars.
President Hotel, 90 Cuffe Parade, Mumbai, in the Colaba district, phone 011-91-22-215-0808, fax 011-91-22-215-1201. Rates for rooms facing city: single US$180, doubles $200. Rooms facing sea: singles $190, doubles $210. Promotional rates offered often – ask.
A moderate-size hotel, with 310 rooms on 18 floors, each of average dimensions or better, with the usual standard amenities to be found in Indian hotels, though the hotel belongs to the famous Taj (as in Taj Mahal) group and has an imposing lobby to let you know that this is an OK place. Public facilities include four restaurants (Italian, Thai, and Indian among them), a shopping arcade, pastry shop, swimming pool and health club.
RAMADA HOTEL PALM GROVE
Ramada Hotel Palm Grove, Juhu Beach, Mumbai, right on the sands about 12 miles north of the city, phone 011-91-22-611-2323, fax 011-91-22-611-3682. Rates for single or double generally cost between $150 and $180.
You're far from the city center at the Ramada Hotel Palm Grove (not a member of the Ramada Inn chain), but taxis can take you back and forth with ease and at only moderate expense. You can, in particular, enjoy looking at the waters of the Arabian Sea, along with thousands of Indians come to refresh themselves during the hot days the subcontinent is famous for. (Since the sea is usually quite polluted, you may wish to use the beach simply for sunning and the hotel’s pool for actual swimming). The hotel's 114 rooms are smallish, but adequate. Public rooms include a glass-walled restaurant, bar, swimming pool, health club and beauty salon.
Fariyas Hotel, 25 off Arthur Bunder Road, Mumbai, in the Colaba district, phone 011-91-22-204-2911, fax 011-91-22-283-4992, Web: www.fariyas.com. Rates for singles are US$135 to $150, doubles are $150 to $160. Executive rooms from $170; suites start at $270. Extra bed in room $20.
There are only 87 average-sized rooms here, but the location is quite pleasant and the ambiance good-natured. Moreover, the rather extensive public facilities include a multi-cuisine restaurant, a poolside coffee shop, and a combined pub/tavern/coffee shop, all making for a interesting and varied experience just in getting something to eat.
Sun-n-Sand Hotel, 39 Juhu Beach, Mumbai, right on the water about 12 miles north of the city, phone 011-91-22-620-1811, fax 011-91-22-620-2170. Year-round rates for singles or doubles range from $85 to $200.
The 120 modern-decor rooms here are fairly spacious for hotels in this price category, and it is the most popular hotel on the beach, with foreign visitors as well as Indian guests. Dining options include three types of cuisine, as well as a coffee shop. Guests can also take advantage of the swimming pool, health club, and beauty parlor on-site. As the sea is usually polluted, you might decide to use the beach only for sunning and the hotel pool for actually getting into the water.
Grand Hotel, 17 Shri S.R. Marg, Mumbai 400038, in the Ballard Estate area, phone 011-91-22-261-3558, fax 011-91-22-262-6581. Rates for doubles are generally the equivalent of $40 to $45. Note: there are no single rooms here.
This is a small spot, with fairly Spartan ambiance and amenities. The 73 rooms are only average in size, but each has private bath, phone and television. Some rooms have balconies. Public facilities include a restaurant serving Indian, continental, and Chinese cuisine, and a bar.
Bentley’s Hotel, 17, Oliver Road, Mumbai 400001, corner of Netaji Subhaash and Watcha roads, phone 011-91-22-2841474, fax 011-91-22-2871846, Web: www.bentleyshotel.com. Rates from Rs 850 ($17) and up for double rooms. Air-conditioning is optional, at Rs 200 ($4) extra.
Some 37 double rooms here, most with bath and air-conditioning, in clean but simple surroundings. No frills at all, but you might get even lower rates if you take a non-air-conditioned room or one without private bath.
SEA GREEN HOTEL
Sea Green Hotel, 145 Netaji Subhaash Road, Mumbai, formerly Marine Drive, phone 011-91-22-282-2294, fax 011-91-22-283-6158, Web: www.seagreenhotel.com. Rates from the equivalent of $33 for a single, $40 for a double, plus 16% tax.
Sea Green has been here for ages, a refuge for cost-conscious travelers since the 1950s, at least. Though cheap, the rooms are air-conditioned and have refrigerators, in-room safes, and television. And where else can you pay so little and still have grand views of the Arabian Sea?
YMCA INTERNATIONAL HOUSE
YMCA International House, 18 YMCA Road, Mumbai, in Mumbai Central district, phone 011-91-22-307-0601, fax 011-91-22-309-1101. Rates for room with bath from $18 single, $26 double. Price includes morning tea, breakfast, and dinner. Add 10% service charge and a small membership fee.
Pretty basic is this one, but clean and respectable. Some rooms are air-conditioned and cost a bit more than the rates above, but rooms without private bath can be had for even less.
YWCA INTERNATIONAL CENTRE GUEST HOUSE
YWCA International Centre Guest House, Madame Cama Road, Mumbai, in the Cooperage district, phone 011-91-22-202-5053, fax 011-91-22-202-0445. For women and married couples with children only. Rates for singles $18, doubles $34. Extra bed $17. Family Room with four beds $43, including morning tea, breakfast, dinner, and service charge, but not a membership fee of $1.
You can't get much cheaper than this and still have a clean and pleasant place to sleep. All rooms have attached bathrooms and balconies.