Take advantage of Thai Airways’ special fares this month and discover Kolkata – the “City of Joy” – on India’s East Coast.
Kolkata is a paradox of sorts. It can shock and inspire awe at the same time. Crumbling and chaotic, yet exuberantly grandiose and graceful, this bustling 350-year-old metropolis in Eastern India is akin to an ageing circus performer; down at the heels, costume held together by safety pins, clinging desperately to a glorious past. But when the spotlight shines, the city puts on a brave face, and dazzles with a performance of a lifetime.
From tiny rural village to trading post to seat of power and jewel in the crown of the British Imperial power in India, the spectacular trajectory of Kolkata has made it into an unparalleled kaleidoscope for every sense. Everywhere, East collides with West to dramatic effect – as best seen in the architecture. Stunning Palladian, Baroque and Gothic mansions and monuments rub shoulders with exquisite Mughal porticoes, extravagant temples, modern apartments and ritzy shopping malls. Large immigrant populations of Chinese, Iranians, Anglo-Indians, Jewish and Armenian, among others, have also left an indelible mark on the social and cultural fabric of the city, leaving it all the more richer, eclectic and vibrant.
Thai Airways’ special fare on its Bangkok-Kolkata-Bangkok route allows you to get under the skin of this fascinating city – and our Kolkata travel guide will point you in the right direction from the moment you arrive.
(Fares for a roundtrip ticket on the Bangkok-Kolkata route starts from only 8,375 Baht in Economy Class, if booked before or by May 31, 2018. Travel anytime between now and September 30, 2018.)
Victoria Memorial Hall
Located in the centre of the city, this is perhaps one of most magnificent monuments in the country after the Taj Mahal. Commissioned by the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, to commemorate Queen Victoria’s demise in 1901, it took over 15 years to complete. Using Makrana white marble from Rajasthan, the designer (British architect William Emerson) incorporated Egyptian, Venetian, Mughal, and Deccani architectural elements into it.
Stroll through the sprawling well-tended gardens before spending some time within in the 25 galleries filled with an outstanding collection of paintings, artefacts, weapons, textiles, coins and stamps, and an extensive historical display of the city’s origins to the present. Also of special interest is the rare collection of books, which include The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam and masterpieces of William Shakespeare, and the display of a few of the Queen’s personal possessions like her writing desk and chair and scrapbooks.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Built in 1847, it is said to be the first Episcopal Church of the Eastern world. At 247 feet in length, 81 feet in width and 114 feet at transept, this architectural marvel is said to resemble England’s Norwich Cathedral, while its tower is modelled after the “Bell Harry” tower of Canterbury Cathedral; the great bell is inscribed with “its sound is gone out into all lands”. It also features three Gothic stained glass windows and two frescoes in the Florentine Renaissance style. The amazing floral designs on the interior walls are a visual delight – as are the vivid paintings of the life and works of St Paul.
Located in historic North Kolkata, this three-storey, neo-classical confection was built by wealthy Bengali merchant and keen art collector Raja Rajendra Mullick in 1835. It has a grand portico with stucco work, and Tuscan and Corinthian columns. The interiors feature 90 varieties of patterned marble on the walls and floors, and house an astonishing collection of paintings by Indian and European artists, sculptures, antique furniture, and other objets d’art such as clocks, massive chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling ornate mirrors, urns and busts of kings and queens. Descendants of the Raja still stay in one section of the house not open to the public.
This 1784 family mansion pays homage to Rabindranath Tagore, arguably India’s greatest modern poet and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 (the first Asian to do so), and is a must-see for anyone with an interest in Bengali history and culture.
This traditional potters’ district is northern Kolkata is a must-visit. Here, artisans craft intricate statutes of the Goddess Durga, various other Hindu gods, Victorian figurines as well as those of local legends and celebrities.
This eclectically decorated family-run restaurant set up in the owners’ bungalow is a culinary institution in the city and the perfect springboard to Bengali cuisine. If you’re not sure what to order, dive into one of their popular thalis (platters) that feature samplers of local dishes such as the Ilish Bhape (a much sought after Bengali fish cooked in mustard sauce); Dab Chingri (freshwater shrimp cooked with grated coconut, mustard paste, spices and steamed in a green coconut); Mangsho Kosha (a slow-cooked mutton preparation); murgi jhol (a lightly-spiced stew with chicken). Finish off on a sweet note with mishit doi and sandesh, the famous Bengal sweetened yogurt and cottage cheese dessert.
Another gastronomic institution, this is the place to go to get your fill of the famed kathi roll (a flat bread fried in egg and then wrapped around a mutton or chicken kebab with finely chopped onions, green chillis and lime). Other must-haves at this iconic eating-place is the spiced beef biryani, or any of the meats from their tandoor ovens.
For those craving home cuisine, this impressive venue, accessorised with striking Thai wooden masks and carvings, at the five-star Oberoi Grand Hotel serves authentic Thai cuisine. Most of the ingredients are imported directly from Thailand and the menu offerings such as yam neua salad, moo phad bai krapow or khao phad kung among other popular dishes might cure any homesickness.
College Street Coffee House
Although it ain’t Starbucks, this historic coffee shop was an important meeting place for political revolutionaries in the mid-20th Century. Even today students and intellectuals still gather for animated discussions on politics, art, and culture over endless cups of coffee and piping hot samosas.
Few visitors are aware that Kolkata is home to India’s only Chinatown. This is the place to sample some of the city’s finest street food. From momos, either steamed or deep-fried and filled with beef, pork, chicken, seafood or vegetables, to delicious handmade sausages, stuffed buns, pork rolls and wontons. A walk around the area allows for a peek into the lives of the Chinese immigrants who have made this district their home.
Dolly’s Tea Shop
The gregarious owner, Dolly Roy, is India’s first lady tea taster and a walking encyclopedia on the subject. Her charming teashop is the place to pick a Darjeeling First Flush, Darjeeling Silver Tips and other premium teas. The menu offers 15 flavours of cold teas and 28 in hot teas, cakes, sandwiches and other finger food.
Doll up and head over to this sophisticated bar at the Oberoi Grand Hotel for a night out. A mahogany bar, hard-wood floors, vintage furniture and walls lined with artifacts from a bygone colonial era make this just the place to sample their wide range of single malts and premium cigars on offer, while the live jazz acts injects another nostalgic layer to the mood.
Inspired by the French lounge concept, this branch of Dubai’s legendary Club Boudoir sprawls over 6,000 square foot with a 35-foot long bar stocked with premium pours. World-famous DJs keep the bold and the beautiful grooving all night long here with everything from hip-hop, reggaeton, trance and desi beats.
This retro glam bar at the Park Hotel evokes the Swinging Sixties and is a great place to do some people-watching. Skilled bartenders mix up old classics as well as signature cocktails, while some of the country’s top DJs keep the place rocking.
A 75-year-old Bengali baari (mansion) was restored to house this 5,000- square foot concept store which showcases 45 well-known designers from all over India, as well as serves as a platform for talented up-and-coming designers. It’s a one-stop for a complete look from clothing to bags, shoes and accessories.
The name means green parrot in Bengali and is evocative of the vivid colours of Kolkata. Married to a local, French fashion designer Anaïs Basu shows her love for India and its beautiful crafts with her collections of home décor and accessories. The products meld traditional craftsmanship with contemporary designs in a range of brilliant colours and textures.
Located in the heart of the city, this is one of the largest shopping malls in the city, offering high-end luxury retail therapy such as Thomas Pink, Burberry, Canali, and local designers; as well as fine dining at Yauatcha, China South and Masala Kitchen, among others. The mall also includes a top-notch cinema multiplex.
The Oberoi Grand
Dating back to the 1880s, this grand dame occupies prime real estate in the Chowringhee neighbourhood, putting it in close proximity to the central business district, bustling markets and cultural landmarks of the city. It successfully marries both heritage and modern amenities, offering well-appointed rooms that pay homage to the city’s legacy, courteous service and top-notch facilities. It is also home to one of the best Thai restaurants in the city, Baan Thai.
The LaLit Great Eastern
Built in 1841 as the Auckland Hotel, it was city’s the longest continuously operating hotel with 165 years of operation until its renovation in 2006. It has, in the past, played host to Rudyard Kipling, Mahatma Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, Nikita Khruschev, Nikolai Bulganin, Queen Elizabeth II and Mark Twain – the latter who dubbed it the “the Jewel of the East” when he stayed there. Today, the renovated property has three wings resembling three distinct historic eras: Victorian, Edwardian and Contemporary. Its central location, high standard of service, 215 aesthetically designed rooms and suites, complete with all modern amenities and other world-class facilities, make it the perfect base to discover the city.
The Corner Courtyard
This beautifully restored Bengali landowner’s 1904 family home offers seven funky yet comfortable rooms, each with a colour theme. The traditionally open central courtyard is now enclosed and lined with bookshelves filled with vintage cameras and books, serving as the dining room for guests to partake of the Western dishes with Bengali influences. The rooftop bar hidden by bougainvillea is a charming space for an after-dinner drink. The service is excellent, though on account of the size of the property, the facilities are limited.
Hop on a tram for a true Kolkatan adventure. A ride on the oldest surviving electric tram network in Asia is the best way to get glimpses of city life. The one-line Metro is also a convenient way to get to different points in the city. Just remember to avoid it during rush hours. The omnipresent yellow Ambassador taxis are surprisingly cheap and easy to flag down. Alternatively, use the Uber app to call for an air-conditioned car.
- To check out what’s on in the city and to buy tickets, click here.
- Calcutta Photo Tours offers an insider experience of the city with all its flavours.
- Sign up for the free Kolkata FoodWalk run by group of enthusiastic volunteers eager to show the culinary side of their city. A small donation is expected at the end.