by Abigail Blasi, The Telegraph, April 24, 2018
Mumbai offers a dazzling range of experiences, from exploring the city’s fantastical architecture to escaping into a tangle of jungle or going birdwatching. You can, in the space of a few days, take a boat trip to Elephanta island, with its ancient cave temples, explore the sets of Bollywood, try historic Iranian recipes in a historic Parsi café, or cycle through the city in the early morning as it slowly wakes up from a heavy sleep. Get exploring with Telegraph Travel's Mumbai expert, Abigail Blasi.
Colaba & Fort
Marvel at Mumbai's magnificent railway station
So gothic that you might expect bats to come swooping out from its pinnacles, domes and buttresses, Mumbai’s main railway station, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, is the preeminent emblem of the 19th-century colonial-era architecture that dots the city, built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. The station may have colonial origins, but its constant throng of passengers epitomises Mumbai’s energy more than anywhere else.
Insider’s tip: The architecture is an extraordinary reimagining of Indian culture through 19th-century British eyes and is not to be missed. The station looks its most spectacular lit up after dark, when its architectural frills are artistically illuminated in jelly-bright LED colours.
Contact: 00 91 22 2369 0992
Opening times: Various
Cycle through the city at dawn
As Mumbai slowly stirs, it’s a wonderful experience to take a 14km (nine-mile) bicycle circuit with Reality Tours. People are still fast asleep on the pavement, devotees head to early morning prayer, and street-side stalls brew the first cup of chai with the rising sun. The easy-going tour takes in some off-beat places such as Sassoon Dock, the pungent yet fascinating fish market, and Bombay Panjrapole, a cow sanctuary.
Insider’s tip: No need to have breakfast as you’ll finish at a local café, gorging on a typical South Indian breakfast (crispy dosa/pancake served with vegetables and coconut chutney).
Contact: 00 91 9820822253; realitytoursandtravel.com
Opening times: 8am-6pm
Scope out spectacular architecture
Founded by two city architects, Bombay Heritage Walks have been uncovering Mumbai’s different architectural layers for 20 years. You’ll feel dwarfed by the imperial bravado of the sea-facing Gateway of India and enlightened by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, a feverish Victorian Gothic symphony of design. Learn about the buildings’ colourful histories, and discover surprising corners, such as the station’s cathedral-like vaulted ceiling.
Insider’s tip: As well as choosing between two different routes that take two hours each, participants can opt for a combination of the two, taking three-and-a-half hours.
Contact: 00 91 22 23690992; bombayheritagewalks.com
Opening times: 24 hrs
Hang out at a Parsi café
With soaring ceilings, droopy chandeliers, whirring fans that stir up the muggy city day, and tall stained-glass arched doors opening onto the street, Britannia & Co is one of Mumbai’s few remaining grand old Parsi cafes. It’s still run by the 95-year-old Boman Kohinoor, who routinely regales foreign visitors with affectionate musings on the colonial era.
Insider’s Tip: Do try Britania’s most famous dishes — Iranian chicken, which resembles a rice-based biryani, served with cashews, tangibly sour barberries, and caramelised onion, and a sinfully decadently creamy and subtly fragrant crème caramel.
Contact: 00 22 2261 5264
Opening times: Mon-Fri, 12pm-4pm; Sat, 11.30am-10pm; closed Sundays
Take a tour through Indian history
The fabulous Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum in South Mumbai would be worth visiting for the building alone, a colonial-era fantasy of eastern promise, topped by a white dome and set in balmy palm-fringed gardens. However, do spend time exploring the 50,000-strong collection of artefacts within, which include hand-painted snuff bottles and the personal suit of armour of Mughal emperor Akbar.
Insider’s tip: While away contented hours in the cool museum galleries to escape the heat and don't forget to pop to the museum cafeteria which is set in lush green gardens. There’s a particularly good museum shop too.
Contact: 00 91 22 2284 4484
Opening times: Daily, 10.15am-6pm
Get your Bollywood on
The escapism dreamed up by Bollywood studios is part of the lifeblood of India, and although there are major film studios elsewhere in the country, no others have quite the hold on the national imagination as those in Mumbai. Through Bollywood Tours, glimpse some behind-the-scenes action at a shooting studio and experience the fascination yourself.
Insider’s tip: Fully research the tour companies as some are alternative outfits under smiliar names who charge for an overpriced, underwhelming tour.
Contact: 00 91-22-22668786; bollywoodtours.in
Opening times: various
Explore the riches of Mumbai's oldest museum
Amid the pastel-coloured colonnades of the beautifully restored Dr. Bau Daji Lad Museum, discover some of Mumbai’s most remarkable treasures, including the elephant that gave Elephanta island its name. The museum is a survey of the soul, culture and history of the city: you can’t fail to be beguiled by its collection of early maps of the nascent city or displays of traditional headwear on an array of busts from the 1930s.
Insider’s Tip: The museum has a busy program of workshops and talks for both adults and children, from creative writing to guided walks – check the website before you go.
Contact: 00 91 22 2373 1234; bdlmuseum.org
Opening times: 10am-6pm; closed Wednesdays
Get lost in ancient temples
An hour-long boat trip from the Gateway of India and you’re out on a thickly-wooded island, a Unesco World Heritage site, and seemingly a world away from the mainland. Its rock-cut temples date back to the 5th century, their columns are carved out of the hillside and renowed for their mythological engravings. The largest cave, full of courtyards, shrines and halls, is fronted by a seven-metre-high sculpture of Shiva, the destroyer.
Insider’s tip: There are plenty of guides offering their services but you can wander around at your leisure, assisted by guidebook pamphlets or an app.
Opening times: 9am-5pm; closed Mondays
Catch your breath in the city's 'green lung'
The extraordinary thing about Mumbai is that it contains an immense green lung, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Found north of the city, a lushly green landscape rippling into the distance, it is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Splendidly diverse and sliced through with streams and rivers, it hosts thousands of plant species, scuttling reptiles, birds, deer, monkeys and some shy leopards.
Insiders tip: Book a tour with the Bombay Natural History Society, which has access to all the park’s sights, most notably the Kanheri Caves which consist of 100 Buddhist dwellings dating back to the 1st century BC.
Contact: 00 91 22 2886 0362; sgnp.maharashtra.gov.in
Opening times: 7.30am-6pm; closed Mondays