There’s no soft introduction to Kolkata. The moment your flight to Kolkata lands at the airport, you’re flung into an exuberant world of noise, colour and excitement. The roads are a swarm of rickshaws and yellow and black ambassador taxis, and the pavements throng with people. No matter what side of the Hooghly River you're on, the lively energy of the city never dulls.
They call it The City of Joy, and it's easy to see why. Look around, and you’ll notice Kolkata’s impressive colonial architecture, from the gleaming Victoria Monument to the Raj Bhavan government residence. Many of the buildings are as grand and proud as the day they were built, and all recall a time when Kolkata was at the centre of the world’s largest empire.
The British East India Company arrived in 1690, seizing control of three villages: Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kalikata. Soon they had built Fort William on the banks of the Hooghly, and established Calcutta (as it was once known) as a base in India. The city became a vital centre for trade between Europe and Asia, but it was also the centre of the independence movement in India. By 1911 the British had relocated the capital to Delhi, and Kolkata became the capital of the state of West Bengal.
In a cosmopolitan and historically rich city like Kolkata, it’s no surprise that the food and restaurants are extremely diverse. There are the usual western chains and all kinds of international cuisines available, from Chinese to Italian. There are also lots of Indian restaurants, representing styles and cuisines from all over the country. But one cuisine has an overriding influence on Kolkata’s culinary scene: Bengali food.
With its emphasis on fish, vegetables and pulses, and bold spicy flavours, the food of Bengal is as distinctive as it is delicious.
Like everything in the city, its colonial past has left a distinct impression on its accommodation offering. Some of the best hotels in Kolkata were built during the days of the British Raj, such as the reassuringly expensive Grand Hotel (now an Oberoi hotel), with its neoclassical styling and green courtyard. But even at the other end of the luxury scale, the almost mythical Fairlawn Hotel on Sudder Street (built in 1783) is full of old-world character.
The city counts legendary film director Satyajit Ray and celebrated poet Rabindranath Tagore among its cherished sons. And there are plenty of museums, galleries, cinemas and theatres showcasing Kolkata’s many art forms, from its Kalighat paintings of Hindu deities to its growing indie music scene.