Although Kolkata has been inhabited for two thousand years, its documented history only begins with the arrival of the British East India Company in 1690. The company was consolidating its trading in Bengal, and three villages, Kalikata, Gobindapur and Sutanuti, were chosen as the optimal location. The population increased rapidly and the village boundaries soon overlapped and became collectively known as Kolkata.
In 1757, after frequent skirmishes, the British East India Company embarked upon the Battle of Plassey with the Nawab of Bengal and his French Allies. The Nawab was defeated and the British began rebuilding the war-torn city. In 1772 the city – now Anglicised to ‘Calcutta’ – was completed and became the capital of British India.
By the 1850s the British government had built railways and installed telegraphs to encourage further expansion in the city’s booming textile industry. However, the city was becoming the heart of the Indian independence movement, and this reason, in conjunction with Calcutta’s administratively remote location, prompted British India to move the capital to Delhi in 1911.
In 1947 India gained independence and Calcutta became the capital city of the state of West Bengal. In 2001 the city’s official English name reverted to Kolkata, and remains one of India’s largest cities.
Colonial architecture is abundant in Kolkata as the city was the capital of British India for almost 140 years.
Start your tour at the city’s oldest building, Fort William. First built by the British in 1698, it was rebuilt in 1758 after being severely damaged during the Battle of Plassey. Fort William is surrounded by Maidan – a vast park, known as the ‘lungs of Kolkata’ for its endless greenery amidst the polluted metropolis.
Maidan’s sights include the Victoria Memorial, said to be the British attempt at building a second Taj Mahal. It opened in 1921 and houses a fantastic collection of rare memorabilia from colonial days. Nearby is St Paul’s Cathedral, a neo-Gothic building which was completed in 1847. At the northern end is the Old British Government house, now called Raj Bhavan. Built in 1803, it was modelled on Keddleston Hall in Derbyshire and is the official residence of the Governor of Bengal. Finally, cricket devotees will be drawn to Eden Gardens, the second biggest cricket stadium in the world after Australia’s Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Further afield in Vivekananda Setu, on the banks of the Ganges, is a wonderful example of a Hindu temple. The Dakshineswar Temple was built between 1847 and 1855 in the traditional 'Nava-ratna', or nine spires style, and is a colourful introduction to Bengali architecture.
Kolkata features thousands of restaurants serving cuisines from North India, South India, Bengal, Bangladesh and Tibet. But Kolkata is not all about Indian food – the city’s international dining scene features some highly-recommended French, Italian, Mexican, Chinese and Thai restaurants.
For authentic Indian food visit Park Street in central Kolkata. Its upmarket Indian restaurants are renowned for their Biryani and Mughlai dishes, while further south in Ballygunge you’ll find North Indian restaurants serving delicacies such as chicken tikka Tandoor style.
The city’s Tibetan restaurants are concentrated around Lee Road and Elgin Road, and specialise in Nepalese Momos, or steamed dumplings. Finally, Tangra is home to the city’s Chinatown and serves traditional Hakka Chinese cuisine which has adapted the Bengali palate. It is not the most ‘authentic’ Chinese you’ll ever try, it is delicious nonetheless.
Entertainment is excellent in Kolkata and the city’s nightclubs and late night cocktail bars tend to be found in five-star hotels. Consult Kolkata’s entertainment guides for the best suggestions.
Darjeeling is a popular getaway destination and can be reached by a short flight or a 12-hour scenic railway journey from Kolkata. The city is famed for its Darjeeling tea, but the region’s natural beauty is its star attraction. The charming Victoria style town sits in the foothills of the Himalayas and the best way to enjoy it is with trip on the Darjeeling-Himalayan Railway; running since 1881 it is now a Unesco World Heritage site.