What to see
Sure, Mumbai has all the regular tourist spots (the Gateway of India and the Elephanta Caves should be top of your list), but one lesser-known tip is to take a stroll through Khotachiwadi. This small heritage village in Girgaon is two centuries old, and still rich with remnants of its unique history. With its narrow lanes lined with colourful Portuguese-style architecture, Khotachiwadi stands apart from the rest of South Mumbai.
The Prince of Wales Museum (now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) is another of my favourite spots in the city. It was designed by George Wittet and completed in 1914, built in grand Indo-Saracenic style from locally quarried yellow and blue basalt, and set in beautiful gardens.
Something a bit off-kilter is a visit to one of the city’s vintage movie theatres. Mumbai is home to several historic cinema houses that are among the oldest surviving ones in the country. For film buffs, there are few experiences that can be more memorable than catching a screening at one of them. Head to the famous Maratha Mandir to see the blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (which has been screened here daily since its release in 1995), or watch the latest Bollywood release at the 80-year-old Eros Cinema.
Oh, and I’m a huge architecture fan, so if you are too, you should also check out Victoria Terminus – now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and, for me, the best building in the city by a mile. This solid Gothic structure was designed in 1878 by FW Stevens. It looks like something straight out of London – it’s such a majestic site in Mumbai.
Where to eat
The good news is that you don’t have to look far to find some of the best cuisine in the country. And alongside the Bombay cafés that the city is famous for, there’s also some experimental and cutting-edge fine dining.
From the varying messages on the church board at its entrance, to the breezy interiors, informal Bombay Canteen restaurant is a combination of a carefully curated menu steeped in nostalgia and a buzzing bar scene. Classic dishes and cocktails are given an Indian twist at this laid-back midtown restaurant.
Tucked away in a side alley in Kala Ghoda, Trishna is renowned for its South Indian coastal cuisine. Popular dishes include Hyderabadi dal, prawns koliwada, butter-garlic crab, Bombay duck and tandoori fish – best enjoyed with a group of friends and a chilled beer at the end of the day.
If it’s something a bit fancier you’re after, The Table frequently tops lists of the best restaurants in Mumbai. The menu comprises small and large plates made from the freshest ingredients, and dishes are inspired by recipes from all around the globe, complemented by an extensive wine list and an elegant clientele.
Where to drink
Refuel after a long day at Toto’s Garage. It’s a casual neighbourhood pub populated by young Bandra residents and college students. The design theme is inspired by car garages (there’s even an old VW Beetle hanging overhead), and the friendly staff don’t seem to tire of the 1980s hits that play on a loop.
Then there’s Koko. The drinks menu at this stylish Asian gastropub is worth going out of your way for. Quirkily named cocktails such as Mushtaq Pass, Jamun Club and Oaxaca Sour are teamed with sushi and California rolls in an elbowroom-only bar submerged in DJ mixes.
My advice for a first-timer…
Mumbai is the home of Bollywood, so you should definitely visit Film City. It’s an integrated film studio complex situated near Sanjay Gandhi National Park at Goregaon East. It has several recording rooms, gardens, lakes, theatres and grounds that are the filming locations for almost all Bollywood films and you can take a tour around the various lots and even see a live shoot.
I’d advise anyone to take the one-hour boat ride departing from the grand arch of the Gateway of India to Elephanta Island, where you can visit the Elephanta Caves with rock art, reliefs and sculpture dating back to the 5th century. Mumbai isn’t thought of as a city with islands, and there are only a couple, but a boat trip is the best way to see the city from a different perspective.
My dream day out
I’d spend the morning leisurely wandering the Kala Ghoda district. This cultural precinct is crammed with hip cafés, bars, restaurants, trendy shops, boutiques and galleries including the National Gallery of Modern Art, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum and Jehangir Art Gallery.
Then in the afternoon I’d make a trip to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Kanheri Caves. This vast forest – more than 103 square kilometres in the heart of Mumbai – is the city’s green lung and a place to escape the smog. It’s also home to an astounding number of plant, mammal and butterfly species, and if you’re lucky you can glimpse a leopard (the density of leopards is the highest for a wilderness of this kind), four-horned antelope and the elusive Blue Mormon butterfly. Then explore the sprawling 2,000-year-old Kanheri Cave complex. There are not many other cities where you can spot leopards in the morning and go to designer boutiques in the afternoon.
Where to shop
Mumbai is definitely the most stylish city in India, and it’s gaining a reputation for boutiques by cool and up-and-coming Indian designers. Like Nicobar in Bandra West, which sells men’s and womenswear (plus they have an ace travel section). Think stylish casuals and homeware you’ll need an extra suitcase to take them home in.
Begin your market day at the covered Crawford Market, where you can procure everything from fruits and vegetables to spices and pets. Then take a short taxi ride to Chor Bazaar, or “thieves market”, where you can scour through the dusty shops for vintage treasures including antique sculptures, second-hand watches, chandeliers and Bollywood film posters. Bargaining is a must.
When it gets dark…
A reservation is recommended for a sundowner at the charming rooftop Dome bar of the InterContinental Marine Drive hotel. Soak in the views of Mumbai’s skyline and the twinkling Queen’s Necklace lights skirting the Marine Drive promenade while sipping on a tall, cool drink.
You’ve got to get tickets in advance for the Royal Opera House. Built in the early 1900s, the baroque-style performance venue was restored and reopened after 23 years in 2016 – these days it’s India’s only surviving opera house and the most glamorous way to rub shoulders with Mumbai’s elite.