Kolkata was the first stop on our recent tour of India. We’d never visited India before so this was our introduction to this amazing country. I’ve put together this report of our Kolkata City Tour so you can see what places to visit in Kolkata.
Oberoi Grand Hotel Kolkata
While we were in Kolkata, our base was the Oberoi Grand Hotel. It’s a great location right in the city centre and within walking distance of many top places to visit in Kolkata.
According to its website, the hotel is fondly known as the ‘Grand Dame of Chowringhee’. Basically, Chowringhee is the area in which it is located in Kolkata. The Oberoi was built in 1880 and is in a Colonial style. Throughout its history, it’s been popular with royalty and heads of state and that tradition continues today as we discovered.
Arriving at the Oberoi
Although it’s very central, the hotel is tucked away so that you can’t see it from the street very well. As you drive up to the hotel entrance you get the first glimpse of this attractive building. Security is tight. Our taxi was scanned and the boot opened before we were allowed in. However, you still get a warm welcome. Before we could get out, the doorman opened the door and collected our bags. Our bags were scanned but we were swept inside without any hassle.
You immediately notice the calm and tranquillity when you enter the hotel lobby area. It is so different from the noise and chaos outside. Moreover, it’s so cool and that is such a relief after the heat outside.
The Oberoi has a lovely pool area. Surprisingly, the pool was never busy even though it was so hot. There weren’t a lot of pool loungers though so they did get snapped up early. We only stayed one night but we ate in the hotel restaurant in the evening and it was good value for such an expensive hotel.
Coffee by the pool
Breakfast was included in our room rate and was a good buffet selection. The main restaurant was really busy when we turned up for breakfast but they provided an overflow room which was very nice and quite peaceful. It’s certainly not the cheapest hotel in Kolkata but it is something quite special and worth splashing out on.
Beware the coffee in the pool bar though. When we arrived they gave us complimentary coffee and we didn’t realise how generous they were being until we returned. Coffee is expensive at the Oberoi. I suppose you expect that in a 5* hotel and we should have walked down the road and had some Chai instead. Still, it was a lovely environment to drink it in.
Before you can go anywhere for a tour of Kolkata, you need to cross the road. Indeed, we’ve been in a few places where this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Hanoi springs to mind as probably the worst place to try and cross the road with parts of Beijing a close second. Anyway, when we first set out sightseeing in Kolkata I actually thought we might have to abandon crossing the road. We stood there for ages. Other people seemed to be able to cross but as far as I could see they were just leaping into the road and hoping for the best.
When we’re travelling it always takes me a day or two to get used to crossing the roads. I suppose it was our first day in India and we were a bit clueless. Just as we thought we’d just wander down our side of the road instead a traffic policeman in a white uniform appeared. Straightaway, he leapt into the middle of the road, halted the traffic and beckoned us to cross. So, with relief, we found ourselves on the other side of the road and right next to the Maidan, Kolkata’s main park area.
Of course, cricket is enormously popular in India and several matches were already underway that morning. The park covers a huge area in the centre of the city and a lot of people were out enjoying it. However, it still feels like an open uncrowded space. And that’s something worth remembering when you’re in a city as busy and chaotic as Kolkata.
You can see the contrast between the open space of the park and the city behind it in the photo above. We saw quite a few horses in the park. Most of them had riders on though. One of the things I worried about before we travelled to India was how dirty it might be. There was a lot of rubbish in the park which is a shame but it wasn’t too intrusive.
Also, we saw these colourful carriages lined up along the edge of the park. They look lovely but it is very hot for the poor horses and it was still early in the morning. Not sure if they are a regular thing because there was some kind of fair being set up on the southern end of the park. It may have been something to do with that.
We walked south through the park and across some more roads, thankfully not too busy, and found our way to the Victoria Memorial. This iconic marble building is one of the most famous sights in Kolkata. It was built between 1916 and 1921 and is dedicated to Queen Victoria who was Empress of India from 1876 until her death in 1901.
You can buy tickets online for the memorial but we just turned up and bought them at the gate. It is very busy at the kiosk though so if you don’t like pushing and shoving you might prefer to buy online in advance. I just sent Paul into the fray and he came out with 2 tickets. Foreigners pay 500 Rupees (approximately £5) which covers access to the Victoria Memorial Museum as well as the gardens. Although it’s a lot more than the locals pay, it’s still a very reasonable charge. As you can see above, the gardens are beautiful and really well looked after.
Because of the influence of the British Raj in India, a lot of places in Kolkata have a British feel to them. The lions in the Victoria Memorial Park reminded me of the ones in Trafalgar Square in London. When you actually compare them side by side they’re quite different really but it’s what I thought when I saw them.
As you approach the Victoria Memorial Building there is a large statue of Queen Victoria. It was quite difficult to get a photo as there were so many people getting their photos taken here. Obviously, Queen Victoria is still quite popular as a tourist attraction here.
As can be seen, the gardens are kept very clean and tidy and they’re a lovely place to spend time.
Our Kolkata City Tour Continues Inside the Victoria Memorial
Later, after spending some time admiring the gardens we headed inside the Victoria Memorial Museum. Inside, it feels a lot busier. That’s mainly because it’s actually quite a small space inside and it is popular. You’ll find several galleries.
As a tourist, I found the Calcutta Gallery fascinating. It has paintings which chronicle the development of Calcutta over the years. This lifesize diorama of Chitpur Road in the 19th century gives you an idea of what Kolkata used to be like.
At the centre of the Queens Hall Gallery is a marble statue of a young Queen Victoria, created by Sir Thomas Brock.
It’s an impressive circular room with a particularly stunning domed ceiling.
You can also climb up for a view from above and a glimpse at some semicircular paintings by Frank Salisbury. They depict important events in Queen Victoria’s life. For instance, the one below shows her coronation.
As you leave the Victoria Memorial Museum you come across this statue of Gandhi. It was unveiled in November 2018 as part of the celebrations of 150 years since his birth. Artist, Debanjan Roy, made the statue out of all natural materials such as straw, bamboo and clay. This is to reflect Gandhi’s own philosophies on life. The statue depicts Gandhi with a child and is thought to have been inspired by an earlier photograph.
Gandhi is such an important figure in Indian history and particularly in relation to its independence from Britain that it seems fitting that his statue is given a prominent place here.
The gardens around the Memorial Museum are extensive. Above you can see the gardens stretching away at the rear of the building. We spent ages just enjoying the gardens and of course, getting the fabulous all-around views of the Memorial building.
After the Victoria Memorial gardens, we returned to our hotel. As you can see above, the Indian press were crowding around the entrance to the Oberoi Grand Hotel. You can’t see in that photo but there were a lot of Indian Army officers around as well. No, we haven’t got really famous and they ignored us completely. Apparently, some high ranking Indian politicians were meeting at the hotel and so security was even higher than usual. Indian elections were coming up shortly after we were there and there was also a rally taking place in Kolkata later that week.
Kolkata Food Tour
On our second day, we arranged a food tour of the city. Although we don’t take a lot of tours normally, it can be a great way to get to know a city. In this case, we really wanted to be more adventurous and try the street foods during our trip to India. I don’t think we’d be quite brave enough without a guide so this was the ideal solution.
Our guide, Mark from Calcutta Caravan, met us outside the Oberoi and started by giving us some history of the city. This is the great things about this kind of tour. I’d much rather be in a small group or just us as you get a much more personalised tour and can chat with the guide much more easily. Mark told us that he actually owns Calcutta Caravan so we felt very privileged that he’d taken time to show us around. I paid around £40 for the tour for both of us and I think that’s very reasonable for a morning’s sightseeing.
Kolkata New Market
Mark is local to Kolkata and knew all about this city and was able to share so much information with us. Firstly, we walked around the back of the hotel to the New Market area. There is a huge area here which is all market buildings and stalls. It’s very busy and a lot of the time you are walking on the road so it was a relief to move inside one of the buildings.
Unfortunately, we started in the poultry and meat areas of the market. We’re vegetarians and we didn’t enjoy that experience much at all. Mark moved us through that area very quickly once he realised. The worst thing was the smell. It was quite overpowering. What was interesting though was the area that was preparing beef. I always thought they didn’t eat beef in India as the cow is sacred. However, that’s only for the Hindus and although they are the majority religion in India there are lots of others too. Something else that I didn’t realise is that not all Hindus are vegetarians. Many of them are and it is really easy to get lovely vegetarian food in India. However, many of them eat meat. On the other hand, Jains are another religion in India and they eat a very strict vegetarian diet.
Mishti – Indian Sweets
After that, we went to Nahoum and Sons, a Jewish Bakery shop. Tucked away in the market this fabulous bakery has been making Indian sweets, or mishti as the Bengalis call them, for 115 years. Now, until we arrived in India I had no idea that Indians loved sweets so much. Why don’t we have more Indian sweet shops in the UK? This was just my first try of Indian sweets. There were many more but I’ll tell you about those later. Nahoum’s make all sorts of little cakes and pastries and choosing just one is the hardest thing. We shared some delicious pink cakes.
You can buy just about anything at Kolkata New Market. It’s mainly divided into specific areas so you have a clothes area, meat area, household goods area etc. Next, we wandered into the spice area. The smell here was lovely. I’m a big fan of spices in cooking and obviously, India is a good place to sample spicy food.
Chai or Indian Tea
In the photo above, you can see a tea shop. Indians love their tea and you find shops selling it everywhere. Mostly, in the street stalls, you see Masala chai being sold in clay cups. Mark explained that the leaf tea that we’re used to in the UK is very expensive so most Indians drink tea made from tea dust. It still tastes good and is much cheaper. We drank a lot of tea in India. The Masala chai is excellent even though it comes with milk and I usually drink my tea black.
Kolkata Street Food
Now, I have to confess that we were so busy eating that I forgot to take many photos. I’ve got a few though. This was our first time eating Indian street food and we were a bit uncertain of what to expect. We needn’t have worried though. It was delicious. If you’re anywhere in India I encourage you to give it a go. This is one occasion when I would say get a guide or book onto a small group tour and taste the food. You won’t regret it.
So, what did we eat? We tasted Phuchkas. You can see them in the photo above. They’re a crispy shell made from flour and fried in hot oil. They then break the shell and put a spiced potato mixture into it. Then they pour tamarind water in. You’re supposed to eat it in one bite. If you don’t then things get very messy!
Then we tried Aloo Chat which is spicy boiled potatoes. No photo I’m afraid. One of my favourites was Jhal Muri which is puffed rice, fried dal, peanuts, onions, tomatoes, coriander, a handful of masala seasonings, and a light drizzle of mustard oil on top. You can see a photo above.
We had intended to finish our walking tour after the food tour and hang out at our hotel until it was time to catch our train. However, Mark suggested we add on another of his tours, a walking tour of Whitetown or Dalhousie. As we were keen to see more of Kolkata we jumped at the chance to see another part of the city.
We all hopped in one of the yellow Kolkata taxis and drove the short distance to Dalhousie. Mark explained that Kolkata, then Calcutta, was the most important Indian city of the British Empire. On this walk, he wanted to give us a glimpse of Kolkata during the Raj.
The Lalit Great Eastern Hotel
We started outside the Lalit Great Eastern Hotel. This was the first five-star hotel in Asia. Oddly enough, we nearly stayed here. I changed to the Oberoi at the last minute because I wanted to be nearer the Victoria Memorial and park area. Also because I got a great deal on the Oberoi and it looked wonderful. Actually, the Lalit looks pretty impressive too and it has a lot of history.
The Lalit Great Eastern Hotel was built in 1841 although it was called the Auckland Hotel then. It used to have a popular confectionary shop. Members of the famous East India Company used to meet here and it’s seen many celebrities and royal guests over the years. In fact, Mark Twain referred to it as the “Best Hotel East of the Suez” and the “Jewel in the East”. I kind of wish I’d stayed there now so next time I visit Kolkata it’s where you’ll find me!
The Old Telegraph Office
After the Lalit, we walked to the Old Telegraph Office. Completed in 1876, it is often referred to at the Dead Letter Office. Mark explained that this is because it was used as a sorting office for international post and much of it could not be delivered. Thus it ended up piled up in unused rooms at the Telegraph Office. As far as I know, it’s all still there!
Renovating old buildings in Kolkata
Sadly, a lot of the buildings in Kolkata are in a poor state. Fortunately, some are now being restored to their former glory. We stepped inside this beautiful building which is currently undergoing extensive renovations to restore it both inside and out. The detailing is superb and it gives you an idea of what Kolkata must have been like at its peak.
A Highlist of our Kolkata City Tour
A ferry across the river Hooghly
Next, we made our way down to the river Hoogly or Ganga as they call it here. But first, we had to cross the railway line. As you can see, it’s just a single track so not dangerous at all to wander across! You might notice the barriers. Well, we just walked around those. Fortunately, you can see a long way in either direction and trains in India don’t move very quickly.
You get a totally different perspective of a city from the river so I was very excited to go on the ferry. This is no tourist attraction. Locals use the ferry to get to and from work and Howrah, one of Kolkata’s main stations is on the other side.
As you can see, it was quite hazy by now. The air quality in Kolkata definitely deteriorates as the day goes on. You can still make out the massive steel Howrah bridge across the river. It’s an impressive sight and the ferry is the perfect place to get a good view of it.
On the other side of the river is Howrah and its massive railway station. It seems to stretch on for miles and this is a very busy part of the city. We’ll be back here again later today to catch our train to Varanasi.
Also on this side of the river is the Kolkata Swimming Club. It was built by order of the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal in 1887 and is now very exclusive. It has both indoor and outdoor pools as well as other sports facilities. We didn’t get a look inside but it’s an impressive building.
The final stop on our Kolkata City Tour
St John’s Church and the Black Hole of Calcutta
Our final stop on our Kolkata City Tour was St Johns Church. This was built on the site of a former fort and is based on the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. It’s notable mostly for its peaceful setting which is within the business district of Kolkata. What I was most interested in though is its connection to the Black Hole of Calcutta.
As you may know, the Black Hole of Calcutta occurred in June 1756 when the troops of Siraj ud Daulah imprisoned 146 British prisoners of war in a tiny cell in Kolkata’s Fort William. They were held for 3 days but the 14 feet by 8 feet cell was too hot and too cramped for so many men. Only 23 survived their ordeal. John Howell, who later became governor of Bengal was one of them.
He erected a monument nearby on what he claimed was the original site of the Black Hole. Unfortunately, his monument disappeared and so another was created. For various reasons, it was later moved to sit outside St Johns Church. The exact location of the Black Hole of Calcutta is unknown although several sites have been suggested.
Our first Indian Train Trip
Sadly, our time in Kolkata was coming to an end. After our tour, we headed back to the hotel and collected our bags. I used the Uber app to order a taxi without realising that the driver would ring me to check the location. Bit of a problem there as he didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Hindi. Fortunately, the Oberoi doorman was used to this situation and spoke to the driver to arrange our pick up. Very soon, we were on our way to Howrah Railway Station. This time we drove across the Howrah Bridge.
Travelling by train in India is quite an experience. Walking into Howrah station was quite a shock. It was packed and there was a lot going on. As you can see in the photo above, there were even motorbikes zooming along the platform. Look at the photo below. That’s people waiting for their trains.
It’s a very confusing environment to walk into. Fortunately, we had plenty of time. We discovered that we could sit in the VIP waiting room upstairs since we were travelling in an AC1 sleeper. AC1 is the top level of sleeper on Indian trains. Next down is AC2. Ticketholders for both AC1 and AC2 can use the VIP waiting room. It was quite busy but we got seats and there were clean toilets. Bonus!
Food for the Train
Despite its size, Howrah Railway Station actually has very few facilities. We found one cafe and a couple of food kiosks. However, we had already ordered dinner through the Indian Railways Food App and we were able to buy water at the kiosk.
The food ordering app is really cool. You sign up and then put in your Indian Railways reservation number. Then it tells you what food is available at each stop on your journey. We ordered two vegetable thalis to be delivered to our compartment in Kolkata and it arrived piping hot just after we found our places on the train.
Onboard the Train
Here, you can see a photo of our compartment on the train. When you book an AC1 ticket they do not give you an assigned compartment number until a few hours before you travel. This is the main disadvantage of travelling in AC1. In every other class, you get an assignment straight away. We had to find a notice pinned on a board and look up our number. You can be assigned a 2 berth or a 4 berth. I’d been told that couples usually get a 2 berth but there are no guarantees.
We were lucky this time and got a 2 berth. As you can see, it was pretty basic but it was clean enough. You get a pack with a clean sheet and pillowcase, a blanket and a pillow. It was already dark outside as we pulled out of Howrah Station on our overnight journey to Varanasi. One of the great things about travelling by train like this is that you go to sleep and wake up somewhere completely new.