Mumbai is Bollywood and glamour next to hard laborers and struggling entrepreneurs. Stars and starlets strut the streets while gangsters rule the slums. Some parts are opulent and modern while others throw you back into the past. Mumbai is bursting with life, yet teeming with oppression and is called home by both dreamers and sewer cleaners. Mumbai is all of these things and more. It is a city with a thousand personalities.
As hard as it was to see the rougher side (and I know I didn’t even see the worst of it) I still loved Mumbai. It has a certain energy that it instills in its people. Mumbai is quickly growing and modernizing, but still hangs on tight to its cultural roots. Mumbai feels very much alive.
What to See and Do in Mumbai
With our extremely limited time in Mumbai, I had a much bigger agenda than we could possibly have accomplished. That said, we were able to do most of these things, with a few exceptions I’ll mention. Since Mumbai is much more connected than some other Indian cities (I’m looking at you Hyderabad) you can accomplish quite a bit in one day. Try to give yourself a minimum of 3 days and 3 nights in Mumbai.
Sights in this Mumbai Guide are listed in order from south to north, with the exception of Elephanta Island, which can be accessed by ferry from the Gateway of India.
Gateway of India
You just have to go to the Gateway of India, if only to see the crush of people who congregate around it! Men, women, kids, vendors, and pigeons swarm around the giant stone arch facing the Mumbai Harbor. The chaos is mesmerizing. It’s a great place to grab a smokey snack from a vendor, step off to the side, and watch for a while. Just try not to stand under the swarming pigeons – let’s just say they’re well fed…
This island, also called Gharapuri, is about an hour ferry-ride from the Gateway of India and is home to a network of cave temples carved into the rock. Built around the 5th and 6th centuries AD, this UNESCO World Heritage Site houses some of the best representations of art from the cult of Shiva. A massive 7 meter tall statue of Sadashiva stands in the main temple, with three heads representing the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer.
This is the number one thing I wish I had done in Mumbai. It was high on the list, but when we went to the Gateway of India and saw the line for the ferry, we knew it wasn’t going to happen. It was late in the afternoon, the line was several blocks long, and we would have been waiting for hours in separate lines (men and women are separated). Just one reason I’ll have to go back.
The ferry ride (120 rupees – 150 rupees) is about an hour each way with departures every 30 minutes. Try to go for one of the first ferry launches of the day around 9am so you don’t have to wait in a huge line. Last departure for Elephanta Island is around 2pm.
Fashion Street – Mahatma Gandhi Road
Take some time off from sight-seeing with a walk along Mahatma Gandhi Road. Start at the roundabout just north of the Gateway of India and stop when you get tired. There are dozens of bargain stalls lining the sidewalks and several good stores along the way as well.
The Fabindia along this road is HUGE! It’s a great place to get some India-friendly clothes for both men and women, and the patterns are beautiful. This store has lots of jewelry and home goods as well. Since most of the activities in Mumbai are free or very cheap, I didn’t feel guilty at all about doing a bit of shopping!
Victoria Terminus (VT), or Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, is Asia’s busiest train station with over 3 million people passing through each day. The Victorian Gothic Revival style combined with traditional Hindu and Islamic architecture make it incredibly unique and got it listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2004. VT is gargantuan, decked out with gargoyles, islamic carvings, arches, stained glass, buttresses, spires, and carvings of traditional Indian animals.
VT is also where they filmed the Bollywood-style music video at the end of Slumdog Millionaire.
Chowpatty is a long arc of sandy beach along Marine Drive where Indians go to walk, play, and hang out. It’s worth a stroll, especially around sunset when everyone comes out to eat street snacks and take in the hazy sunset view while the city lights begin to glimmer. Lots of street vendors set up shop on the southern end.
This isn’t the sort of beach you wear your bathing suit to. The water can’t be any cleaner than the air, right? That said, the white air made for a unique backdrop for photos.
I really enjoyed this modest museum showcasing the life of Mahatma Gandhi. He lived in the building during his time in Bombay and shows his room as it was when he lived there. This is where he developed his nonviolent protest philosophy, and the museum displays several letters he wrote, some of them to incredibly high-profile political figures such as Adolf Hitler and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
It’s an easy-to-digest museum and worth a stop if you’re in the area and interested in Gandhi’s life.
The museum is free. Donations welcome. Within walking distance of Chowpatty.
Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat
This open-air man-powered laundromat is the biggest in Mumbai, and is quite a site to see! Rows and rows of over 1,000 stone wash basins fill the laundromat, each with a washer beating and scrubbing brightly colored garments that are then strung up to dry like colorful flags.
I found it really beautiful, in a weird sort of way. While it was wildly different from life in the US, there was something peacefully normal about the scene. Everyone was starting up work for the day, beginning their morning routine, and I was able to peek in on a slice of every-day life. It was comforting and some of my homesickness dissipated in a way I would never have expected when looking on a scene so different from my home.
The best place to view Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat is from the bridge across the train tracks near Mahalaxmi Station.
Mumbai Street Food to Try (and Some to Avoid)
Bhel puri is a crispy, sweet, and tangy snack that is a Mumbai staple. You simply can’t leave without trying it. That’s why I dragged Garren all over town on our last morning trying to find it – unsuccessfully. I had to settle for bhel puri in a restaurant back home and pretended like I was having it in Mumbai. It was delicious, but I’m sure not the same. Another reason I must go back.
Don’t miss out like me! Find it at Chowpatty along Marine Drive!
Pav bhaji is another famous Mumbai street snack or chaat. It’s made from lots of vegetables and spices, cooked and smashed on a huge flat pan, then piled onto toasted buns (pav). It’s so good. I’ll just say that Garren and I really screwed up on the Mumbai food scene and when we were hungry, we just couldn’t find pav bhaji.
I was so upset I’d missed out, I made a double recipe myself as soon as I got home! A double recipe in Indian terms is like a quadruple recipe in any other cuisine. If you’re curious, here’s the recipe I used. It was excellent.
I hear the best place to get this Mumbai street snacks is Juhu Beach. That’s where you’ll find me next time. (Do the Mumbai experts agree? Let’s hear it in the comments!)
Sugar Cane Juice
This one, while extremely delicious and thirst quenching on a hot Mumbai day, is also a big risk. You have to be very careful of the cleanliness of the stand if you aren’t accustomed to drinking it (aka, if you are a foreigner).
Any water added should be filtered, the glass should be cleaned with filtered water and any ice needs to be made from filtered water as well. All three of these conditions are rarely met, but some stands do follow these practices. Check out cleanliness of the crusher as well. Even with the utmost precaution, you can’t guarantee the canes were transported hygienically. If you must try it, go where there is a big crowd and enjoy!
You Can Skip the Kulfi
Avoid Lonely Planet’s recommendation of the New Kulfi Centre for their firm-textured ice cream. They way over-sell it by saying it is “pretty much the best thing in the world.” In reality, I thought it tasted like frozen, flavored sand. But maybe that’s just me being spoiled by the actual best thing in the world – the University of Wisconsin’s Babcock Hall ice cream. I guess you could call me an ice cream snob.
Nightlife in Mumbai
Four Seasons AER
India isn’t exactly known for its nightlife, but Mumbai may be the exception. We only got to check out one place, but if there’s only one place to try it’s AER.
This rooftop lounge on top of the Four Seasons Hotel was the highlight of my time in Mumbai and my favorite bar from all of my travels. Step onto the roof of this 34 story skyscraper looking out over Mumbai’s coastline and you’ll see a whole new side of India. It gave me that ‘I can’t believe I’m here’ feeling.
Upbeat electronica, jazz, and house are the soundtrack to this all-white lounge with blue lights, glass walls, cool cocktails, and beautiful people. Garren and I were mesmerized by the 360° view of the city lights glimmering all around us.
We just missed sunset, but I’d recommend arriving a little before sunset to enjoy the hazy glow, then stay for a couple drinks as it gets dark to watch the city lights come to life.
This conveniently would coincide with their happy hour from 5:30-8:00pm (2 for 1 champagne and cocktails). Unless you have wads of cash to blow, make sure you show up and order your drinks before happy hour ends or you’ll be stuck paying cover at a whopping 2,500 rupees and drinks will run you another 900+ rupees each!
Sleeping in Mumbai
ITC Grand Central
Can’t help you out too much on this one, as we only stayed in one place, but the ITC Grand Central Hotel was absolutely regal. It felt like a palace! The staff was exceptional, and the views were fantastic. Located in Parel, just a quick, cheap cab ride from lots of major sites. A major bonus was that most cab drivers knew where it was and it was easy to catch a cab from right outside the hotel.
Just like in Hyderabad, we used Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints (6,000 Starpoints/night). If you book a room without Starpoints, they start around 6,000 rupees/night. Starpoints are a better deal.
Flights to Mumbai from many Indian cities are convenient, cheap, and often direct. It’s a very well-connected city. There is an international terminal and a domestic terminal so keep that in mind. This isn’t so important to know flying in, but it’s important to know there are two different airports for when you fly out! We went to the wrong one at first. Fortunately, they are very close to each other.
You can take a bus or train to Mumbai as well, but when flights are so cheap and quick, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend all day or night on a train or bus.
You’re probably sick of my rants about my difficulties getting around in Hyderabad. Well, you’re in luck because I have no rants for Mumbai. Mumbai was the easiest city to get around that we visited! Taxis were everywhere, drivers knew where things were, fares were inexpensive, and they almost always used the meter. If they didn’t, we just got out and grabbed the next taxi.
It was really so incredibly easy. We were even able to walk between a few destinations. We had an easier time getting around Mumbai than we would in our home city in St. Paul, Minnesota if we didn’t own a car. I was so impressed with the transport in this city.
Should You Go?
The energy of Mumbai was intoxicating. I would stay up late looking out our window, watching the city hum. I found myself wanting to explore each and every corner. I was so glad I decided to add Mumbai to my trip. I only wished I had stayed longer.
Even in a place where I had no cultural ties and nothing was familiar, it was the first place in India where I finally felt comfortable. I could walk down the street without feeling like I would be hit by a car. I could go places without worrying about the logistics of getting back. Everything, as foreign and unfamiliar as it all was, was somehow easy. Finally I could appreciate India for what it was, without being too bogged down by logistical nightmares and culture shock.
When it came time to leave for the next stop of our trip, Garren had to practically drag me to the airport. I just wasn’t quite ready to go. There was so much more to see, eat, and experience!
I guess I’ll just have to come back.
All expenses were paid on our own dime (or starpoints!). As always, you receive my honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill. Feel free to book your stay at ITC Grand Central Hotel using this link. At no extra cost to you, a small percentage of the booking will go toward keeping this site up and running. Thanks for your support!