Kolkata is a city of contrasts. It is shocking yet charming, decadent yet squalid, degrading yet home to Nobel Prize laureates. It is certainly not for the faint hearted. When you arrive you are met with the familiar sight of streets packed with people and not a spare inch to move in, but the city is friendlier than many of its country’s counterparts, and meeting the locals is one of the best things about a visit to Kolkata.
‘Jewel of the East’
Kolkata is India’s second largest city and the capital of West Bengal. It was formally the capital of the British Raj and was the centre of colonial trade in Asia, leading to it being given the nickname ‘The Jewel of the East’. However, that image is certainly a crumbling one, as much of it’s architecture is left to ruin and not maintained anywhere near as well as in other Indian cities. It gives it an almost perverse photographic attraction, but before long will be left as a heap of rubble and forgotten for what it once was.
That said, there are areas of the city which are thriving, not least the new town suburbs which are growing to accommodate new shopping centres for the wealthy portion of the inhabitants. This is where you will find many of the hotels in Kolkata, certainly for those looking at the higher end of the market, though there are backpacker hostels dotted around all over which offer the usual excellent Indian value. Outside of the newly developed suburbs, there is still a raft of slums though in contrast which are unlikely to disappear any time soon.
Unsurprisingly, one of Kolkata’s must do activities is eating the local cuisine. Whilst many might have to battle stomach issues throughout their time in India, it is certainly worth the pain to sample the exquisite local Bengali dishes. Take that opportunity to mix with the locals too, as interaction and discovery with them will make your stay all the more interesting. Like most places in India they are extremely friendly, perhaps even more so here.
Kolkata may not be the ‘Jewel of the East’ that it once was, but it still has plenty to offer visiting travellers. It is the kind of place that you will enjoy more by immersing yourself there any getting involved with local people and activities, rather than visiting places of interest and taking photos. If you’re the kind of backpacker that likes a recognised icon around every corner then this one might not be for you, but if you’re prepared to get your hands a little dirty and put in the time, Kolkata can be an extremely rewarding host.
5 Things Not to Miss in Kolkata
Whilst Kolkata is more about feel than sightseeing, there is still plenty to keep you busy. Below are some of our favourites…
- Take a walk along Chowringhee Road and start to discover what Kolkata is all about
- Sample some of the best Indian cuisine you’ll ever taste at local restaurants where you’ll feel like you’re in someone’s front room
- Head to BBD Bagh and explore the areas of crumbling colonial buildings and religious monuments
- Visit the Victoria Memorial for beautiful gardens and Kolkata’s version of the Taj Mahal
- Take a trip to the Keoratala burning ghat, where Kolkatan’s cremate their dead and celebrate their lives.