Kolkata, or “Calcutta” in India is not an easy city to understand. You need to stay here for a while to figure out the Bengali people, their incredible cuisine, the unique culture, the numerous festivals and the rush hour traffic jams.
This is a city that likes to take it easy, where the heart rules the head, where the old and the new merge and the rich-poor difference is in your face. Some people dislike it all so much that they leave never to return. Others so love it that they can never imagine leaving.
Kolkata is not just a city. It is a way of life.
Consequently, getting a true feel of the city’s pulse is not possible by just visiting the many touristy places in and around it.
Do you really want to experience what Kolkata is about? Then start with these top 10 things to do in Kolkata, India.
10 things to do in Kolkatata
1. Rosogolla and Mishti doi
The true Bengali considers a meal incomplete without desserts and these two items top his list. Rosogolla is a ball of cottage cheese dipped in sugar syrup and mishti doi is sweet curd. You’ll find these at the local sweet shop everywhere.
If you have a sweet tooth, it’s a sin to miss them during your visit to Kolkata. Even if you don’t like sweets so much, they’re absolutely worth a try.
2. Street food
Roll and chow mein is to Kolkata what currywurst is to Berlin. Street food is big in this city and these two items are the clear favorites. Try the chicken or the egg roll. You will find hundreds of temporary kiosks selling these and much more near every office area. The focus is less on hygiene and more on taste, though!
3. Hand-pulled rickshaw
Kolkata is one of the few places in the world where hand-pulled rickshaws run on a commercial basis. Though this mode of transport was banned some years ago, the poor rickshaw-pullers continued to ferry passengers because they could not find an alternative livelihood.
If you're tired, taking the tram is one of the best things to do in Kolkata. Especially since Kolkata is the only city in India where you get to ride the tram. Though some new carriages have been introduced, there are some that date back to goodness knows when. Get in one of those and feel a part of history!
5. College Street
If you love books, this is the place to be. With a number of colleges and universities situated in the area, this street is always teeming with students. You can get awesome deals on pre-owned books at the kiosks along the pavement. You could take a tram from Esplanade to reach College Street.
For book lovers, this is one of the most fun places in Kolkata.
6. New Market
The epicenter of the shopping experience in Kolkata, New Market sells everything from clothes to cold cuts to spices. If something is not available here, there are very low chances of you getting it elsewhere in the city. You can get great deals (especially on clothing and accessories) here if you know how to bargain.
7. Prinsep Ghat
The perfect place to spend a lazy evening by the river Hooghly. If you’re in the mood, hire a traditional boat and go for a ride under the second Hooghly bridge around sunset. It's one of the most romantic things to do in Kolkata.
The literal translation of Kumortuli is “clay artisans’ area”. This is where they make incredibly beautiful clay idols of (mostly) Hindu gods and goddesses for festive worshiping that take place at various times of the year. Idols from here are even exported to various parts of the world. Visit this area in north Kolkata to click some great pictures.
9. Durga Puja
For any Bengali worth his rice and fish curry, the yearly calendar revolves around this mother of all festivals, which usually takes place in or around October. Though the basis of the four-day Durga Puja (worshipping of Goddess Durga) is religious, rest assured, this aspect is nothing more than an excuse to have super fun.
Durga Puja is the culmination of all things Bengal and Bengalis stand for. Puja pandals (marquees) are set up across the state which houses the idols of Durga and her four children. The lightings and pandals based on unusual themes, which could be as varied as the movie Avatar to Saddam Hussein, will take your breath away.
If you're wondering what to see in Kolkata, this is it!
10. Park Street
Kolkata’s original party street. Though several nightclubs and pubs have opened all over the city, this is where it all began and this place still packs a punch. Down a couple of drinks at Oly Pub before heading to Tantra, the city’s oldest running nightclub, to shake a leg. If you’re into live music, Someplace Else is just the place for you. Hungry? Try the chicken a la Kiev at Mocambo or the Chelo Kebab at Peter Cat.
Tour options in Kolkata
If you want to combine wandering around the city with getting expert information on the top sights, consider booking a tour with a guide. This one gets great reviews.
Where to stay in Kolkata
Budget: Bombay Backpackers Kolkata
This bright and cheerful hostel is a backpacker’s haven. It’s located very close to New Market, and has shared dorms that have a fun vibe while remaining clean and tidy. There’s free WiFi, a shared kitchen and great social space for chilling out. It also has a garden terrace and evening entertainment.
Boutique: The Astor
Only a short walk from Victoria Memorial and New Market, The Astor is in a century-old building with a classic interior. It’s all air-conditioned, and there’s a 24-hour front desk, garden and two eateries within the hotel. Free WiFi is provided in the public spaces and rooms have a minibar, TV and a city view.
Chain: JW Marriott Hotel Kolkata
JW Marriott Kolkata features a lavish infinity pool where you can relax and take in the city views away from the dust and heat of the streets. This air-conditioned hotel comes with free WiFi and a choice of two restaurants. As well as the outdoor pool, there is a well-equipped gym for guests to use.
Luxury: The Oberoi Grand Kolkata
The Oberoi Grand Kolkata is a five-star hotel in a perfect location – just next to New Market and the main shopping district. It has four different restaurants, a spa, outdoor pool flanked with palm trees, and a fitness suite. Guest rooms overlook the courtyard and pool, and comfortable rooms are timeless and classy.
Apartment: Service Apartments, Park Street, Calcutta
This self-catering apartment has everything you need for a great stay in Kolkata. Its location is central and conveniently close to Park Street and New Market. It comes with an equipped kitchenette, dining area, TV and free WiFi, and is air-conditioned.
There are many more apartment options on Airbnb. While I use Booking for hotels, I always check Airbnb for self-catering options they have such a large selection.
If you'd like to try Airbnb but don't have an account yet, here’s a discount on your first booking if you book through my link. This doesn't add any cost to you.
If you already have an account and found this post helpful, I’d be grateful if you’d consider booking your next Airbnb through my link. I'll earn a small commission while the price for you stays exactly the same. Income like this helps me travel independently and create new content.
How to get to Kolkata
Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport in Dumdum lies about 17 kilometers outside the city center of Kolkata. From there, you can take a taxi or a bus into the city.
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Arnab Nandy, the author of this post, is a journalist and travel writer who believes you don’t have to be super rich to see the world. He runs www.travelandy.com where he offers tips and advice on how to spend less and travel more.