Like a local: Mumbai

Big and brash, exuberant and extreme, Mumbai draws you in to a world of colour, confusion and chaos, from Bollywood nights and moreish street food to colonial gems and high living.

By Neha Sumitran
Published 20 Mar 2013, 12:52 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 12:54 BST

There is little method to Mumbai's madness. Its Shanghai dreams, street-side shanties, screeching bazaars, glossy Bollywood posters and grotty third-world reality are all mashed up in one, big, ambitious, mess of a city that makes (and breaks) its own rules.

Drive through the sprawling metropolis and you'll be struck by how seemingly disorganised Mumbai is. Almost as if she was caught unawares by how popular she became, and remains, to this day, unprepared for the scores of immigrants who pour in every day.

Unlike her contemporaries, however, Mumbai doesn't survive despite its chaos — it thrives on it, constantly morphing and growing to make space for the dreams that it provides asylum to.

The heart of Mumbai is its southernmost tip — the headquarters of the British East India Company during its rule in India. The beautiful gothic and art deco structures that characterise the old town are inhabited by bustling bars, art galleries and the stock market. There's the stunning Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India) dating back to the 1920s, the sea-facing Gateway of India and, only a short walk away, an array of cutting-edge contemporary restaurants serving courgette pasta to lunching ladies.

From South Mumbai, the rest of the city extends northwards, each suburb having its own distinct identity. Mohammed Ali Road is known for its meaty street food, Dadar for its manic markets and Matunga for its classical music concerts. Bandra, once the stronghold of the Portuguese, is now hipster central, home to movie stars, gourmet food stores and Bangkok boutiques. But nestled in Bandra's narrow bylanes, village clusters that date back to the 1700s still remain.

The best way to soak in the old and new is to stroll around these neighbourhoods, spending time at the bazaars, sipping too-sweet chai at the local cafes, and sampling as much local food as possible. Mumbai might be fast-paced and terribly busy, but people always have the time to chat — about their bothersome aunts, favourite film stars, where to score a bargain deal, or simply to give you directions to your next stop.

Food glorious food

For every smart restaurant with tabs high enough to cover a month's rent in certain parts of the city, Mumbai thankfully has a modest eatery serving good, honest food at palatable prices. You'll find plenty of both in South Mumbai, where old-school institutions like Britannia and Co thrive amid artsy bistros such as the Kala Ghoda Cafe. At Britannia you can sample the cuisine of the Parsi community — Zoroastrians who migrated from Iran to India during the 10th century. The European-style cafes like Indigo Deli, Cafe Zoe and Pali Village Cafe are good for a morning cuppa (they open around 9am), to browse the internet (most have free wi-fi) and people-watch. For lunch, however, make a trek off the tourist trail.

The predominantly South Indian neighbourhood of Matunga is filled with silk stores, sweet marts, coffee houses and no-nonsense eateries such as Cafe Mysore serving strictly vegetarian fare like masala dosas (crispy, savoury crepes stuffed with spiced potatoes), idlis (steamed rice cakes) and sambar (spicy lentil curry). Soam is a mid-level restaurant near Babulnath Temple — which is itself worth a visit — offering authentic Gujarati cuisine, street-food favourites prepared in sanitary conditions, and tall glasses of chilled sugar cane juice that end a meal perfectly.

Thanks to its lengthy coastline, Mumbai has a thriving seafood tradition. Restaurants like Trishna, Mahesh Lunch Home and Jai Hind Lunch Home offer a crash course in coastal cuisine — try a shrimp curry or butter-garlic crab — while Ziya, a restaurant at the five-star Oberoi, plates up dishes displaying a clever balance between innovation and tradition. It's a peek into the future of Indian food.

The most memorable Mumbai meals, however, remain those steeped in the past. For a real, carnivorous slice of Old Bombay, spend an evening strolling along bustling Khau Galli, a lane off Mohammed Ali Road, amid the scent of hundreds of food stalls hawking grilled meat glistening with marinade. Those of a brave constitution might try the bheja fry (lamb-brain masala) or the bara handi, a thick buffalo and goat stew. Others might be content with the photos they take back home.

Places mentioned
Cafe Mysore: King's Circle, Matunga East. T: 00 91 22 2402 1230.
Cafe Zoe: Senapati Bapat Marg, Lower Parel. T: 00 91 22 2490 2066.
Britannia and Co: Ballard Estate, Fort. T: 00 91 22 2261 5264.
Indigo Deli: Apollo Bunder, Colaba. T: 00 91 22 6655 1010.
Jai Hind Lunch Home: Bandra West. T: 00 91 22 2648 3381.
Kala Ghoda Cafe: Kala Ghoda, Fort. T: 00 91 22 2263 3866.
Khau Galli: Minara Masjid, Mohammed Ali Road.
Mahesh Lunch Home: Fort. T: 00 91 22 2287 0938.
Pali Village Cafe: Bandra West. T: 00 91 22 2605 0401.
Soam: Babulnath. T: 00 91 22 2369 8080.
Trishna: Kala Ghoda, Fort. T: 00 91 22 2270 3213.
Ziya: Nariman Point. T: 00 91 22 6632 5757.

Party people

Mumbai's drinking culture is more about pubs than nightclubs — a consequence of closing time being 1am. But that doesn't stop the city's spirited crowds from letting their hair down every weekend. The soundtrack at most budget bars abounds with pop music, which the punters love, as the enthusiastic crooners at the likes of Cafe Mondegar testify — Mumbai has an unabashed, infectious love for Michael Jackson, Madonna and Vanilla Ice; one that only gets louder as the night progresses.

Over the past five years, the decibel level on the electronic music scene has also been rising. India has its own DJ magazine, numerous music festivals (Sunburn, in Goa, is especially popular) and regularly hosts big international acts like David Guetta. In Mumbai, you can feel the bass ripple your drink at venues like Bonobo, Wink and Aer.

For an updated night out, start at Woodside Inn in Colaba, or Cafe Zoe, a one-time textile mill converted into a fashionable cafe and hipster magnet. Like the crowd filling the place, Zoe is both posh and very casual — a vibe that more upmarket bars are attempting to recreate. When the martinis have hit home, scoot over to blueFrog a few blocks away. The city's best club and live music venue has stellar (but pricey) cocktails and an excellent sound system, and showcases the best of local and international talent.

Conversation-friendly bars are few and far between. For a laid-back evening with a sweeping view of the city, splurge on a cocktail or two at Aer, Gadda Da Vida or Dome around dusk (they have happy hours from about 5pm to 8pm). Aer is perched on the 34th floor while Dome, a terrace bar in South Mumbai on the Marine Drive promenade, offers a stunning view of the Arabian Sea and Mumbai's cluttered skyline. It's the sort of experience that's as spectacular the 20th time as the first.

Places mentioned
blueFROG: Senapati Bapat Marg, Lower Parel. T: 00 91 22 6158 6158.
Woodside Inn: Colaba. T: 00 91 22 2287 5752.
Wink: Vivanta by Taj, Cuffe Parade. T: 00 91 22 6665 0808.
Bonobo: Off Linking Road, Bandra West. T: 00 91 22 2605 5050.
Dome: InterContinental Hotel, Marine Drive. T: 00 91 22 3987 9999.
Aer: Four Seasons Hotel, Worli. T: 00 91 22 2481 8000.
Gadda da Vida: Novotel, Juhu. T: 00 91 22 6693 4444.
Cafe Zoe: Senapati Bapat Marg, Lower Parel. T: 00 91 22 2490 2066.

Piles of style

Mumbai is a bargain hunter's dream, filled with stalls hawking everything from vintage taxi horns and old vinyl records to faux-silk stoles and cheap clothing imported from Southeast Asia. The streets of Colaba Causeway and Bandra's Hill Road offer rich pickings for lovers of fashion while Mutton Street, a far more crowded and chaotic part of town, is a goldmine of peculiar finds. Also known as Chor Bazaar (thieves' market), it's lined with matchbox-sized stores selling antique furniture, traditional kitchen equipment, kinky Kamasutra tiles, and kitsch Bollywood posters. Trawling through the neighbourhood — it's closed on Fridays — requires the better part of a day and plenty of patience but is always rewarding. Remember to bargain hard (rule of thumb: if you're not paying less than half the starting price, you're getting ripped off) and carry cash as they don't accept cards.

For more organised forms of retail therapy visit the Contemporary Arts and Crafts store, Fabindia (for traditional clothing) and the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, a government-run venture putting traditional arts and crafts in the spotlight. They're all a few minutes away from each other and are good pit-stops for gifts just before your flight home.

It also has a slew of new-age designers churning out quirky, but not necessarily kitsch, products. They can be found at the Good Earth stores, The Shop in Bandra, and Filter in Kala Ghoda, proving Mumbai is slowly emerging on to the international fashion catwalk.

Places mentioned
Contemporary Arts and Crafts: Fort. T: 00 91 22 6657 6069.
The Shop: Ambedkar Road, Bandra West. T: 00 91 22 2648 7887.
Fabindia: Kala Ghoda. T: 00 91 22 2262 6539.
Filter: Kala Ghoda. T: 00 91 22 2288 7070.
Good Earth: Colaba. T: 00 91 22 2202 1030.
Central Cottage Industries Emporium: Colaba. T: 00 91 22 2202 7537.
Chor Bazaar: Mutton Street.

Top 10 local tips

01 Spend an hour entranced in Sufi qawwalis, hypnotic musical odes to Allah, at the Haji Ali Dargah, a beautiful mosque-tomb on an islet off the coast.
02 From the chilli souks and textile markets to bustling jewellery bazaars and the diamond district, Mumbai Magic's guided tours help tourists make sense of the chaos.
03 Mumbai's beaches are a whirlwind of cricket matches, canoodling couples, and cackling families. Make a trip around sundown and take your camera along.
04 The Live from the Console concerts at Mehboob Studio in Bandra offer a crash course in the underground music scene.
05 On the second Thursday of every month, galleries around Colaba (the city's art district) stay open till 9.30pm.
06 Take a ferry to Elephanta Island to explore the caves and temples dating back to the 5th century. The UNESCO World Heritage Site has two groups of caves: one dedicated to Shiva and his apostles and another with Buddhist carvings.
07 Learn to cook a traditional North Indian meal from scratch with Seema Dhingra. Participants will be taught to make roti (flat bread) and chicken curry. T: 00 91 98204 87727
08 At the Hotel Harbour View's terrace bar in Colaba, you can sip chilled lager (they only serve beer) while you watch ferries bob gently on the Arabian Sea.
09 Many bars in Colaba and Bandra have happy hours until 8pm on week days. Try Busaba (T: 00 91 22 2204 3769) for martinis, Dome (T: 00 91 0 22 5639 9999) for Indian tipples and the Salt Water Cafe (T: 00 91 22 2643 4441) for sangria.
10 Never pay a taxi or an auto rickshaw without looking at the tariff card. Some drivers have been known to claim they have lost their cards to con tourists, so insist on seeing one before you step into the vehicle. 

More info

Published in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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