The vestiges of the days when Kolkata was the rich and prosperous capital of the British India can be seen all around the city. Kolkata always was and to lesser extent remains a melting pot of various ethnicities (Jews, Armenians, Chinese) and religions. Although it is a relatively new city (just over 300 years old) it is certainly not bland or uniform. A thorough exploration of this vast city is going to take a few days.
Esplanade and around
The heart of the city is the Maidan – a huge grass-covered area encompassing Fort William and Victoria Memorial, Kolkata’s landmark. The Maidan borders with the Esplanade which is known for its grand Victorian-era edifices. The area from the Esplanade to BBD Bagh contains mostly European- style architecture which might not be very exciting. If you’re short on time, after seeing the Victoria Memorial and the New Market, head straight for the north Kolkata.
Victoria Memorial and around
Victoria Memorial is an imposing, elegant building made of white marble. It was constructed to commemorate Queen Victoria. There isn’t much to see inside but as its surrounded with gardens, it is very fotogenic.
Right across the street from Victoria Memorial stands St. Paul’s Cathedral, neo-gothic white church with a typically austere interior. Birla Planetarium with a bust of Jurij Gagarin is the cathedral’s direct neighbour.
Park Street and Scottish Cemetery
If you have more time to spare, you shouldn’t miss two British cemeteries: the smaller Scottish Cemetery and the neighbouring Park Street Cemetery. Both are free to enter. The greenery and trees taking over the magnificent tombstones of the British colonisers are the image capable of making a lasting impression.
To get there, head for Park Circus. You can reach it by bus 3D from Rabindra Sadan metro station (if you start from the southern end of the Esplanade) or take tram number 25 from the Chandi Chowk stop (near the Esplanade’s north end). You could also take a fixed route autorickshaw from the crossing of Ripon St and Mirza Galib St (near Park St metro station). All of them stop in the Park Circus area, very near the cemeteries.
Indian Museum and New Market
The Indian Museum, located in the vicinity of Suder Street and the New Market, is old-fashioned and not greatly maintained but it does have a quite impressive collection of ancient sculptures.
The nearby New Market isn’t all that new: that closed market was built in 1874. It is a fascinating, lively place, where you can find anything from meat and vegetables to saris. Pop into 120 years old Nahoum & Sons – a Jewish sweet shop famous for its fruit cake. Closer to the main street you can find a few high-quality juice stalls.
From Esplanade to BBD Bagh
Walking along the Chowringhee Rd northwards and having the Maidan to your left, you’ll pass by a few grand Victorian buildings, including the five star Grand Hotel, the white Esplanade Mansion and the golden-domed Metropolitan Building (originally a department store). Right on the corner of Lenin Sarani (yes, Lenin street!) and Chowridgee Rd stands 19th century Tipu Sultan Mosque with characteristic multiple domes.
Reaching the corner of the Maidan, you can turn left to get to a whole cluster of administrative colonial buildings: Raj Bhavan (formerly viceroy residence, now the governor of West Bengal residence), red Calcutta High Court Building and the classicist Town Hall. The latter one is now housing a rather lacklustre museum, filled mostly with dioramas presenting the history of the city. Don’t forget to grab something to eat from the street stalls at Dacres Lane (James Hickey Sarani).
On the other side of the road, within the Maidan area, behind the cricket stadium spread the Eden Gardens featuring an artificial lake and an adjacent Burmese temple, (moved there by the British). When we visited, it was covered in scaffolding but now it’s beautifully renovated.
A walk further north would take you to the enormous red-painted Writers Building, originally the office for the junior clerks of the East India Company. As you’re in the area, you can pop in to Foreign Tourist Bureau (No. 2, Brabourne Road, open 10am-5pm) to obtain the permit to visit the Marble Palace (yes, it’s worth the hassle).
From the Writer’s Building, it’s just a short walk to the Hooghly River (which is a branch of the Ganges). You could take the circular train from BBD Bagh station to get for example to Kumartuli district further north. You could also carry on with walking: Territy Bazaar and China Town are just 10 minutes walk away.
North of the Maidan: the multi-ethnic trail
You can easily combine visiting the remnants of the once-thriving communities of the Chinese, Armenians and Jews, a few old churches and a grand mosque in one walk, opening your eyes to the full spectrum of the city’s diversity.
Start with an early morning visit to Territy/ Tiretta Bazaar – the street food stalls wrap up at around 9 am. That’s one of the very few places in India where you can taste the genuine Hakka Chinese food and not the blend of Indian and Chinese cuisine served in most ‘Chinese’ restaurants in India.
Three of eight remaining Chinese temples, called in Kolkata ‘churches’: quite large Toong On church, tiny, red-painted Sea Voi Yune Leong Futh church and Sea Ip church are just round the corner from the bazaar. Those temples are usually open. Formerly, 20 000 Chinese people lived in Kolkata, now just 2 000 remained, most of them living in that area.
The Chinese ‘churches’ are just a short walk from the Kolkata’s two remaining synagogues: the Italian renaissance style Beth El and Magen David Synagogue (which looks more like an Anglican church from the outside). Both have very richly decorated interior, giving the idea of how thriving and prosperous the community of Baghdadi Jews once was. From the population of 6 000, only 30 Jews remained, still taking a good care of their temples. Both synagogues are eagerly opened by a caretaker.
Portuguese and Armenian Church
On the opposite side of the road from Beth El synagogue stands the Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary aka Portuguese Church. The Meditteranean looks of this Roman Catholic temple make it stand out from the British protestant churches in the city. The cathedral was built in 1799 by the Portuguese missionaries who actually arrived in Bengal well before the British.
A walk further up north would lead you to the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth. It is the oldest church in Kolkata (1734) still serving the 100 strong Armenian community. The church has a beautiful graveyard with white stone tombs around it.
From there you could start closing the loop by walking to the enormous and grand Nakhoda Masjid. This mosque built as an imitation of Mughal architecture in the 1920s is a very welcoming place. Me and my Bengali friends were shown around by two very knowledgeable men who didn’t want anything for the tour.
Armenian Ghat and Howrah Bridge
Alternatively, you could walk from the Armenian Church to the Mullick Ghat at the banks of Hooghly to visit the Flower Market . Keep in mind that the market is at its busiest and most colourful in the very early morning. Once you’re there, have a look at the Howrah Bridge, the busiest cantilever bridge in the world, serving hundreds of thousands of vehicles and pedestrians every day. Howrah station, the largest railway station in India, is on the other side of the river.
NOTE: All of the sights mentioned are clearly marked on Google maps and Maps.me (app which works offline). The exception is the Foreign Tourist Bureau wrongly marked on Maps.me. Google shows also all bus and tram stops and the route numbers which makes finding your way around the city easier.
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)