January 10, 2019
Not quite north India and not quiet south India, Mumbai is a city that stands apart from everywhere else in India.
It’s bustling and energetic, but constrained within the tiny parcel of land on which it sits. It’s modern and cosmopolitan yet traditional in the same breath. It holds none of the big-ticket sights of cities such as Delhi, yet its full of charm and things to see. And above all else, it’s a city with a massive heart and residents that are proud to call it home.
Mumbai is our second home and a city we truly love. At first glance, it may not appeal to everyone. It is after all an Indian megacity in every sense of the word.
With a population that exceeds 20 million and traffic that will test the patience of any well-travelled visitor or resident, Mumbai is India’s financial capital and home to one of its best-known industries – Bollywood cinema.
Often a first or final destination during a private tour of India, what is there to see in Mumbai? If you are prepared to get out and about – you will discover a city bursting with history, community and tradition, and side-by-side, the new, modern, affluent India. As you continue through India, this city will stand in contrast to other places you will visit during your travel in India.
Mumbai features in our suggested itineraries Contemporary India and The Story of India. It is also one of the stops in our upcoming group tour Insights of India – a group tour designed especially for solo women travelling in India.
So what are the best things to see and do in Mumbai – here are some of our suggestions in no particular order.
#1 Mumbai landmarks
To get a sense of Mumbai start by seeing its two best-known landmarks – the Gateway of India and nearby grand luxury hotel the Taj Mahal Palace, both located in South Mumbai. Both icons of this city, they are much loved and much photographed. Visitors from around the world and across India flock to see both. (Sunset on weekends can be very busy with local visitors enjoying an evening out in front of the Gateway.) Stroll under the archway and join the crowds posing for photographs with the hotel façade behind them. Don’t be surprised if an eager local asks if they can have their photo taken with you while you are at Gateway of India – just be prepared that if you say yes to one, more photo requests will follow!
#2 Colaba Causeway
Take a stroll along Colaba Causeway – a busy strip of shops and restaurants in South Mumbai where street hawkers and stalls line the footpath. Here you can find lots of great trinkets, cheap clothing and souvenirs to take home. Be prepared to bargain though as there are no fixed prices, the hawkers are tough and they will try to maximise their earnings! Colaba Causeway can get very busy so we also advice people to take care of their belongings if they do visit. There are also some nice boutiques located in the streets behind the main causeway and some lovely contemporary cafes too. Colaba Causeway is within easy walking distance of The Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Palace hotel.
#3 Fort tour
Discover Mumbai’s heritage buildings with a guided walking tour through the city’s Fort district. Marvel at the historic buildings and different architectural styles at places including Mumbai University and the courts buildings, as well as the impressive neo-gothic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station. Head inside the railway station to gawk at this heaving terminal that brings commuters from Mumbai’s far-reaching suburbs to the central business district each day. And be sure to stop by Azad Maidan where on any given day you are guaranteed to see cricket being played.
#4 Pulao delight
A stay in Mumbai must include lunch at Britannia – a dining institution of the city that serves Parsi and Iranian cuisine. Feast on mouth-watering rice dishes at this Fort restaurant that’s been visited by several generations of the Royal Family, and chat with the restaurant’s charismatic owners while you order. Our favourite dish is the egg berry pulao. Expect it to be busy at lunch with locals who know and love this place.
#5 Dharavi Tour
Discover a thriving community and small-scale industrial hub at Dharavi, known as Asia’s largest slum, but in reality a place of great enterprise and community living. With an annual turn over around US$665 million in Dharavi, see some of the businesses that run here such as the recyclers, the biscuit makers and the pottery colony. You’ll also notice how people from many different backgrounds and communities live side-by-side in Dharavi and the fabric of community that exists here. (Please note this is a guided walk and no photographs are allowed during the walk out of respect for those that live here.)
#6 Ride a local train
See how millions of locals travel each day on Mumbai’s local train network. Take a ride one way from the south – or join one of our expert local guides for a Mumbai transport tour. You won’t believe your eyes at the packed carriages that roll into each station with locals bursting out the doors.
#7 See the city on two wheels
For the more active and adventurous, explore Mumbai on a city bike riding tour. These tours start early in the morning when the traffic is not yet so active. We recently did this ourselves on a Sunday morning and loved it. Ride through the historic Fort area, past CST station, through a local flower market and visit a small temple. Stop for chai along the way and finish with a local breakfast. Mumbai is a different city early in the morning and you’ll see it from a completely different perspective by bicycle.
#8 Lunch boxes
Head to Churchgate station in South Mumbai and witness the famous dabbawallahs: the dabbawallah operation is one of the most organised unwritten systems in the world. Every day, millions of lunches are collected from individual homes in Mumbai and then delivered to offices and worksites. It’s one of those traditions that’s unlike any you’ll see elsewhere. (If you are travelling to Mumbai we also recommend watching the film `The Lunchbox’ before you go.)
#9 Visit the flower market
Colour bursts of yellow and orange, chili dust in the air and singlet-clad men hauling boxes of vegetables and fish. If you are an early bird then head to Dadar to visit the city’s bustling wholesale market. See the trucks laden with flowers, with marigolds bursting from crates; the small vendors who come to buy fruit and vegetables to be sold on small carts in the suburbs; and crates of fish being unstacked. It’s lively and colourful! Afterwards, head to nearby Kings Circle at Matunga for South Indian breakfast of masala dosa and freshly brewed filter coffee.
What is there to see and do in Mumbai?
#10 Explore the city’s museum
Mumbai’s main museum is the Chhatrapati Shivaj Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya – formerly the Prince of Wales museum. It’s centrally located in South Mumbai – close to Colaba Causeway and Kala Ghoda. The building alone is worth stopping to see. Inside you’ll find an impressive collection of Indian artefacts, miniature paintings and animals.
#11 Visit Mumbai’s art galleries
Go gallery hoping at Kala Ghoda, the arts district of the city in South Mumbai. There are several galleries close to each other such as Jehangir Art Gallery and the newer ones such as DAG (Delhi Art Gallery). Neither gallery is huge so, but they are worth a look and you can easily walk between these two.
#12 Explore the shops and cafes of Kala Ghoda
For us, one of the best things to do I Mumbai is head to Kala Ghoda, the city’s art hub, for a morning or afternoon of mooching around. Strolling around you will notice not the just the galleries mentioned above, but also a number of modern cafes and new boutiques. We particularly love Kala Ghoda Café – for lunch of healthy sandwiches and excellent coffee and cake - and the stores Fab India and Nicobar.
# 13 Planetarium
We’ve include Mumbai’s planetarium in our list of top things to do in Mumbai as we travel as a family in India often and it’s great to have some activities to do with kids in Mumbai that aren’t sightseeing or involve a lot of walking around. It’s also a good reprieve from the summer heat in Mumbai – as you can sit back and watch the star show for an hour in the air-conditioning (just don’t fall asleep like some of us have at times!). It’s also a quaint theatre – with old-fashioned wooden seats that slide back – no modern multiplex here! We’ve done it a few times and love it. It’s really affordable (just a few dollars) and is a good activity for children if they have had enough of the busyness of Mumbai for an afternoon.
#14 Head to Crawford and Mangaldas market
Explore the thriving local markets of Crawford and Mangaldas – the former is where you can buy all manner of foods from boxes of mangoes if they are in season to imported chocolates, while the latter is the fabric market where locals come to buy cloth to be stitched into clothing. There’s also a section for pets at Crawford Market and in the streets and surroundings lanes you will find stores and street hawkers selling just about everything imaginable – chai cups, children’s clothing, bags, shoes, home wares and on and on. The end of the day is when the action is and it’s at this time you will see locals coming out to shop and haggle, plus stopping for afternoon chai and snacks. If you are not up for a busy outing then we would avoid visiting these markets.
#15 Sweet delights – look for the best kulfi
We are huge kulfi fans; a type of Indian ice cream made with buttermilk and flavours such as saffron and pistachio. These are our favourites ones in Mumbai – Badshah at Crawford Market, New Kulfi Centre near Chowpatty Beach as well as Bachelorr’s on Marine Drive. Usually we visit them all during our visit to Mumbai!
#16 Gawk at the mansion on the hill
It’s hard to miss – the towering home in Mumbai built by billionaire Mukesh Ambani – India’s richest man. Much talked about during construction, this mega-home is a perfect example of the new, rich India. Ask your driver to point it out on the way to your hotel, though we are pretty sure you will know it when you see it. To see Mumbai’s other mansions, take a drive around Malabar Hill.
#17 High tea
When the going gets tough, the tough go for high tea! For a perfect afternoon in Mumbai, indulge in high tea at the Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Palace. If you aren’t lucky enough to be staying at the hotel, this will give you the chance to soak up the atmosphere at this grand palace hotel for the afternoon. Savour scones and sweets and savour items including the hotel’s take on Mumbai street snacks. Ask for a booth and gaze out over the Gateway of India and add a glass of sparkling for a truly memorable afternoon. A must do during a tour in Mumbai.
#18 Pamper yourself
Mumbai is home to a number of great places for a massage and if you are trying to beat the jetlag or just want to pamper yourself a little – take an afternoon off to enjoy a massage or spa treatment. In South Mumbai you can book a massage at Abode Hotel, where the therapists are trained by a local school for the blind, and The Palms spa in Colaba, where we have enjoyed treatments such as their jetlag package. Hotels such as the Taj Mahal Palace also have excellent in-house spas.
#19 Groovy evenings
In Mumbai, if you know where to go, you will see the city’s young and groovy enjoying dinner and drinks at any number of hip/modern cafés or restaurants. The city is also home to a number of fine dining venues, as well as contemporary restaurants such as Masala Library. In Mumbai’s central area around the old mills districts you can find a lot of groovy places for a night out such as Bombay Canteen, Café Zoe and Toit. ( A little side note – Bombay Canteen usurped Delhi’s Indian Accent as India’s top restaurant according to Conde Nest Traveller – so be sure to book ahead and see if it’s all that it’s claimed to be. We’ve dined here and recommend it’s worth a visit.)
#20 Stay in style
Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace is not only an icon of the city but one of the country’s best luxury heritage hotels and a destination of its own. Stay at the Taj Mahal Palace and surround yourself in the history and luxury of this grand hotel. Splurge and book a room in the palace wing.
And one last thing about places to visit in Mumbai. If you are researching things to see and do in Mumbai and have come across references to Elephanta Island and want to know why it doesn’t make our list of must see places in Mumbai, it’s because we don’t rate it and don’t include it in our itineraries. We don’t like the ferry over and we hate the monkeys on the way to the caves. There are so many other wonderful things do in Mumbai that will reveal to you the city’s heart and history – skip Elephanta Island.
And what are some of the best places to stay in Mumbai? Here are some hotels we recommend in Mumbai in no particular order or preference:
Taj Mahal Palace
Taj West End
St Regis and Four Seasons in central Mumbai
You may also like to read our other India travel blogs:
What are the best things to see and do in Jaipur?
What are the essentials to pack when travelling in India?
What are the best places to visit in India?
If you like train travel – the luxury rail journey Hidden Treasures of Gujarat starts and ends in Mumbai – making it an ideal add on to a visit to Mumbai.