Mumbai is a city of sharp contrasts. By day - as the country’s commercial hub - it pumps vast amounts of cash into India’s booming economy. By night, its vibrant nightclubs throng with fashionistas and film stars. Yet despite having the honour of being the largest and richest city in India, more than half of Mumbai’s 12 million inhabitants live in slum conditions.
Originally a fishing colony spread over seven islands on the Konkan coastline, Bombay (as it was previously known) was controlled by a series of indigenous empires before being ceded first to the Portuguese, and eventually to the British. India achieved independence in 1947 but it was not until 1995 that the city was renamed Mumbai.
Today the cosmopolitan, multicultural city is home to striking colonial architecture, Bollywood – the globally-influential Hindi film and TV industry, and is the perfect springboard for regional Indian travel.
With 21 million people in its metropolitan area, Mumbai is a vast and sprawling city. It doesn't offer the wealth of historical attractions of Kolkata or Delhi, but there are a number of attractions which are well worth visiting.
An architectural highlight in Colaba – and usually the first place tourists head to – is the Gateway of India. The most recognisable remnant of the British Raj, the yellow basalt Gateway marked the final departure point of the British when they left in 1947. From here, take a boat to Elephanta Island, 6km offshore. The island is famous for the UNESCO World Heritage Site caves which contain rock-hewn sculptures that date back to the 5th century.
Back on dry land, visit another UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly known as Victoria Terminus Station. An outstanding example of Victorian ‘Gothic Revival’ architecture, its remarkable stone dome, turrets, pointed arches and eccentric ground plan are an example of the meeting of two cultures, as British architects worked with Indian craftsmen to create a masterpiece.
Finally, see how the other half – literally – live with a tour of Dharavi. Featured heavily in the Danny Boyle film, Slumdog Millionaire, Asia’s largest slum is an eye-opening insight to how more than six million Mumbaikers exist. Most tours are run by local students and include a trip to Mahalaxmi’s Dhobi Ghat, the world’s largest open air laundry.
If you search hard enough you’ll find food from all over the world – including China, Japan, Italy, Lebanon and Iran – in Mumbai. Decadent European-style brunches are popular in areas such as Bandra and Juhu, but to get a real flavour of the city it pays to sample Indian food. Delicacies from all over the country are widely available, plus, of course, Mumbai’s traditional coastal (Konkan) cuisine.
Restaurants can be found on virtually every street, but good areas include Matunga and Fort (for Udipi and Goan), King’s Circle (Madras) and Colaba (Mughlai and Punjabi). If you’re ravenous, consider a Thali restaurant and hope you’ve got a few extra holes left on your belt.
While out and about it’s likely you’ll be tempted by the delicious aroma of the street food; snacks such as vada pav and pani puri are perfect for a traveller on the go. But, as with elsewhere in India, be careful where you eat – hygienic versions of street food are available from take-away windows in areas such as Tardeo, Bandra and Chowpatty and provide all the flavour with none of the ill effects.
Mumbai by night is just as busy as by day. The best way to navigate the best bars, nightspots and live music venues (which tend to be centred in Bandra, Juhu and Colaba) is via a local listings magazine. Be warned, the nightclubs in the ‘city that loves to party’ close earlier than their Western counterparts.
Take a day trip to Matheran, a Hill Station around two hours from Mumbai. At 800 metres above sea level, the temperature at the plateau is pleasant year round and its lush greenery, waterfalls and lakes make for scenic viewing. Motorised vehicles are banned in Matheran, ensuring visitors enjoy some needed tranquillity after the crowds and chaos of Mumbai. Walking, hiking and horse riding are popular and relaxing activities, and a number of lookout points provide spectacular views of the surrounding hills and valley.