Kolkata – the City of Joy?

Kolkata, one of the Indian mega-cities, might feel a bit overwhelming if not repellent at first sight. It also has a misfortune to be associated mainly with poverty due to Mother Theresa’s work. But if you get over the first impression, allowing the city to work its charms, you’ll notice a vibrant, fascinating place holding surprises round every corner. Kolkata isn’t polished– it is a crumbling beauty, a shadow of its past glory. Nothing here is tourist-oriented which in the era of mass tourism is enough to make it an attractive destination. It is also a perfect place for a traveller on a backpacker’s budget.

People washing their clothes and having a bath on the ghats, steps leading to Hooghly river in Kolkata
People bathing at the ghats at Hooghly river

Many Bengalis call Kolkata the City of Joy after the title of the Dominique Lapierre’s book describing the slum of the same name in the neighbouring Howrah. For Bengalis this name doesn’t sound in the least sarcastic – they’re truly proud of the cultural richness of their capital and if you stay here long enough, you’ll soon understand why.

Groups of middle- aged men play chess on the road barrier in Kolkata
Men playing chess on the roadside in Kolkata

I’d argue that the best reason to visit Kolkata is for its vibe. The stereotype of a Bengali in the rest of the subcontinent is that of a foodie, particularly in love with fish and sweets, an intellectual and a person deeply involved in politics. Much of this is true in my experience. Life of a Bengali revolves around food. Bengalis are more likely to show off by speaking in English to each other or quoting poetry than by buying flashy gadgets. The favourite pastime of the male section of the society is adda – meeting outdoors in groups of peers for endless discussions about politics and other highly divisive topics over innumerable cups of milky tea and cigarettes.

Kolkata on a budget

Kolkata is definitely the cheapest among India’s metropolises. The transport and food is very affordable and the entrance fees to the sights aren’t unreasonable either.

Transport

The transportation system in Kolkata isn’t great and certainly isn’t tourist-friendly. The traffic is heavy so expect to get stuck in the jam if you travel in the peak hours. All the means of trasportation are inavoidably crowded so in the move to avoid sexual harassment, the metro, trains and buses have separate seat sections for women.

The airport isn’t particularly well connected with the city. The AC-39 bus to Howrah runs every hour and takes about one hour to reach the Esplanade. Uber or Ola taxi would be faster as they use a special flyover. The planned metro connecting the airport to the existing line in Dum Dum is in construction since… 2011.

The metro is a convenient way to move around since it’s inexpensive and allows avoid traffic. Unfortunately, only one complete line exists. The new routes of over-ground rapid transit are in construction since 2011 – without much progress. The metro would help you to move fast from the Esplanade area to the north Kolkata or the Kalighat temple but not much beyond it.

There are two kinds of regular buses in Kolkata: yellow-and-blue and maroon ‘minibuses’ (marginally more expensive). Some are public, some private. The private ones move slower as the drivers intend to fill the bus to the maximum. The buses often just slow down while the ticket seller shouts the destination name. Some of the destinations are written only in Bengali script but more often both in Bengali and English. Not all bus stops are obvious so just check where people gather waiting. Google maps show all bus stops and bus routes. Once you get inside the bus, the ticket seller will approach you and sell you the ticket according to the distance covered. The ticket prices are very low. The vast majority of buses are old and battered and they tend to get very crowded. There are some special, much more expensive blue AC Volvo services but they run only on specific routes.

Sayak and Weronika standing in front of a red, battered bus with Bengali script all over in Kolkata
Kolkata’s red minibus

The autorickshaw running on a fixed route is something specific to Kolkata. It helps you avoid overpaying and is cheaper than using autorickshaw as a taxi. Downside? You’d have to wait until the rickshaw fills up and if you happen to sit between two larger-bodied people, you won’t be very comfortable. Just like the buses, autorickshaws tend to slow down rather than stop and what’s written on them doesn’t always reflect the current route. This means of transportation might be useful to get from Girish Park metro to the Kolkata Jain Temple or from the Park Street area to Park Street Cemetery.

A street in Kolkata full of old-fashioned yellow taxis, yellow and green autorickhaws and a blue and yellow old bus. Two pollicemen control the traffic
Kolkata traffic consists mostly of autorickhaws, yellow cabs and buses

I wholeheartedly recommended at least a short ride on Kolkata tram (the old kind , as a modern AC version has been introduced). It’s a real journey in a time-capsule. The progress is slow but the journey costs close to nothing. Some of the last existing routes lead from Esplanade to College Street and from Esplanade to Park Circus (for Park Street Cemetery).

The interior of the ancient tram in Kolkata with wooden seats and a steering wheel of the driver visible
The wooden interior of the old Kolkata tram

Another unusual but useful means of transport is the ferry. Although the ferries plying Hooghly river aren’t very modern either, it is still much nicer to use them than face the city’s traffic. A ferry is by far the best way to travel between Belur Math and Daskhineshwar temples.

A large pedestrian ferry half-filled with people on the Hooghly river in Kolkata, the huge Howrah railway station visible in the background
A passenger ferry on Hooghly river, Howrah station in the background

There are two kinds of trains in Kolkata: circular and short-distance suburban trains. The circular train is not very popular (hence usually empty) but it moves very slowly. Taking that train is a pleasant way of travelling along the Ganges, eg. to Kumartuli district. It’s fabulously cheap, too.

An old-fashioned circular train arrives at the station just next to the Hooghly river in Kolkata
A circular train pulling at the station. Hooghly river on the left.

The suburban trains, on the other hand, tend to be very crowded in peak hours. It’s not uncommon to see men hanging off the doors. Outside peak hours those trains could be used to get from Sealdah station to Dakshineshwar temple in the far north.

The doors of the male compartment of a suburban train in Kolkata with man hanging outside the train and sitting on the ground
A crowded suburban train

Iconic yellow cabs (all Ambassador cars with 1950s design) are a frustrating way of getting around. The taxi drivers often refuse the potential customers (if they think the ride is not going to be profitable for them) and equally often ask for more than the meter price. Don’t hesitate to use Uber and its local version Ola. It might be by far the easiest way of getting around and unlike the yellow cab, you’d be able to enjoy the AC.

The ambassador- 1950s design Indian car serving as a yellow cab in Kolkata
The iconic yellow cab

Finally, for short distances, there is cycle rickshaw or even man-pulled rickshaw. I’m not a big fan of using these as the ratio of price to the effort needed from the rickhaw wallah doesn’t seem very fair.

A street in northern Kolkata with a man pulling in a rickshaw a man with shopping bags and some yellow cabs in the background
Man-pulled rickshaw on the street of north Kolkata

Accommodation

Tiny backpacker’s ghetto on the Suder Street is right behind the Esplanade and near Maidan, at the very heart of the city. You can find some tourist agents (useful if you want to go eg. to Sunderbans) on the same street. I’ve never stayed in paid accommodation in Kolkata but it seems from offers on Booking that the ratio of price to quality isn’t too good. You can always try Coach Surfing as there are plenty of host here but check with the host how far does he live first to avoid spending too much time on commuting.

Food

Kolkata will give you plenty of opportunities to try delicious food without hurting your pocket. A very filling veg roll (a local wrap) costs around 30 rupees, while a sit-down vegetable thali (plate) would be around 70 rupees.

Plates with Bengali rolls (pancakes wrapped with filling), chops (breaded deep fried snacks) and milk sweets
Roll, veg chop and sandesh sweet – typical Bengali treats for guests

Food is not only cheap but also delicious. The best place to try safe (that is, hygenic) and seriously good street food is Dacre’s Lane (officially James Hickey Sarani), just 10 min walk from the Esplanade Metro Station. Those stalls are in operation for decades and have become legendary. You’d be dining sitting on a long bench along a narrow lane, sharing it with office workers.

Sayak and his friends at a trendy cafe in Kolkata
Sayak with his friends at a trendy cafe in south Kolkata

A notch above street food in terms of food safety and comfort of dining is the so-called hotel, a cheap indoors eatery, where you’d spend around 50 Rs for a simple meal. A meal at the medium- standard, AC restaurant should be around 150-250 Rs while dining at a posh, trendy restaurant would cost you around 500-1000 Rs.

Weronika eating at a mid-range Indian-Chinese restaurant in Kolkata with her Bengali friend
Desi-Chinese dishes at a mid-range restaurant in Kolkata

Bear in mind that the roadside diners and hotels don’t necessarily serve typical Bengali curries. For a more complete experience of Bengali cuisine, you’d need to visit a specialised Bengali restaurant, such as Bhojohori Manna at the Esplanade. Muglai (Moghul, north Indian) or Desi-Chinese (Indianised Chinese) restaurants are much easier to find than Bengali ones.

India is a land of chai (milky tea). The one served in a clay or paper cup at a street stall costs just 5 Rs. The upscale cafes are your only chance to get coffee which isn’t a very popular beverage in India. You’d pay for it at least 100-120 rupees.

Tourist attractions

Tourist attractions in Kolkata are very affordable, though locals still pay 10 times less than foreigners in most of the places. You’d pay between 100 and 200 Rupees for the entrance to the Botanic Gardens, Indian Museum and Victoria Memorial. The good news is that the Marble Palace, Park Street Cemetery and all the temples, churches and mosques are free to visit. However, in some places the gatekeeper might expect something for the effort of letting you in or some ‘friendly’ person showing you around could ask you for money at the end of your visit.

Palms and green grass growing among the old tombs at the Scotish Cemetery in Kolkata
Scottish Cemetery

Best time to visit Kolkata

Weather-wise, the best time to visit is between November and February where the weather is cooler and dry (but still pleasantly warm!).

In terms of festivities, 10-days long Durga Puja celebrations in mid -Sept-Oct are fascinating and most spectacular in Kolkata itself but the city gets flooded with people during that period and many attractions might be closed that time. Kali Puja might be a good alternative with much fewer visitors but still lots of fascinating things going on.

A temporary altar for Kali Puja featuring scary figure of black goddess with huge red tongue steppig on a man, skeletons, and other deities below her.
Temporary altar for fierce goddess Kali during Kali Puja celebrations in Kolkata

If you enjoy exotic and maybe even gore customs, visit Kolkata in April, during the Bengali new year (Novo Borsho). In some places (though mostly rural or in the outskirts) you can see brave young men throwing themselves from a bamboo scaffolding some 3-4 meters down onto a blade. I had the luck to see it twice right in front of my in-laws’ house. In some places, men attach hooks to loose skin on their backs and then rotate on a rudimental carousel at a considerable height.

A young man in a yellow robe hangs horizontally from a bamboo scaffolding getting ready to throw himself onto a blade held by men standing below during New Year celebrations in Kolkata
A man throwing himself onto a blade during the Bengali New Year celebrations

Winter is the time of cultural events. Kolkata’s Book Fair (starting last Wednesday of Jan) is the third-largest in the world. It’s worth to visit as plenty of the books on sale are in English. Also in January, you can listen to some of the finest Indian Classical Music at the Dover Lane Festival (23 – 26 January). Prepare to pay for the quality, though.

The model of the White House as one of the stalls at the Kolkata International Book Fair
One of hundreds of stalls during Kolkata Book Fair

Final notes

If you visit India, you have to brace yourself for a considerable level of physical and mental discomfort. Like other Indian mega-cities, Kolkata is badly polluted and the noise pollution levels are very high, too (due to constant honking).

Street in north Kolkata: a family of beggars squatting on the asphalt, a hand-pulled rickshaw wallah waiting for a passenger and people eating from a street stall
A street scene in north Kolkata

Like elsewhere in India, there also plenty of stray dogs roaming the city’s streets. From my experience, they are harmless, though at night they congregate into larger packs which can be a bit unnerving. You might be shaken by the poor shape many of them are in. Likewise, if you are quite sensitive, it might be difficult to see the entire families living under a tarpaulin underneath flyovers or on the pavements.

Yet, Kolkata is still easier and more pleasant to navigate than some other places in India. In contrast to the situation in many north-Indian cities, you won’t be bothered by aggressive touts, for example. Also, this region of India is relatively safer for solo female travellers.

PRACTICALITIES

Prices [in Indian rupees as of 2020]:
300 pre-paid taxi from the airport to the Esplanade area
200 foreigner entrance fee to Victoria Memorial
150 foreigner entrance fee to Indian Museum
150 a meal in a cheap but decent restaurant
120-150 coffee at a cafe
100 foreigner entrance fee to Indian Botanic Garden
80 AC bus from the airport to the Esplanade
70 veg thali (vegetarian dish plate) at a ‘hotel’
50 a meal in a cheap sit-down eatery
50 foreigner entrance fee to Tagore’s house
30-50 fresh juice from a street stall
30-40 egg roll from a street stall
20 bottle of mineral water
20 single AC tram journey
10 ferry from Dakshineshwar to Belur Math
10-15 single journey on a circular train
5-10 single metro ride in zone 1-2
7-10 single regular bus journey
25 minimum fare for a single AC bus journey
6-7 single non-AC tram journey
5-10 short journey on a circular train
5 chai from a street stall (at the Esplanade it could be double)

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