Welcome to Mumbai

Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is big. It’s full of dreamers and hard-laborers, starlets and gangsters, stray dogs and exotic birds, artists and servants, fisherfolk and crorepatis (millionaires), and lots and lots of people. It has India’s most prolific film industry, some of Asia’s biggest slums (as well as the world’s most expensive home) and the largest tropical forest in an urban zone. Mumbai is India’s financial powerhouse, fashion epicenter and a pulse point of religious tension.

If Mumbai is your introduction to India, prepare yourself. The city isn’t a threatening place but its furious energy, limited public transport and punishing pollution make it challenging for visitors. The heart of the city contains some of the grandest colonial-era architecture on the planet but explore a little more and you’ll uncover unique bazaars, hidden temples, hipster enclaves and India’s premier restaurants and nightlife.

 

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus


Top experiences in Mumbai

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus

Imposing, exuberant and overflowing with people, this monumental train station is the city’s most extravagant Gothic building and an aphorism for colonial-era India. It’s a meringue of Victorian, Hindu and Islamic styles whipped into an imposing Daliesque structure of buttresses, domes, turrets, spires and stained glass.

Some of the architectural detail is incredible, with dog-faced gargoyles adorning the magnificent central tower and peacock-filled windows above the central courtyard. Designed by Frederick Stevens, it was completed in 1887, 34 years after the first train in India left this site.

Officially renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) in 1998, it’s still better known locally as VT. Sadly, its interior is far less impressive, with ugly modern additions and a neglected air – stray dogs roam around the ticket offices – despite the structure’s Unesco World Heritage Site status.

Iskcon Temple
Top choice hindu temple in Mumbai

skcon Juhu plays a key part in the Hare Krishna story, as founder AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada spent extended periods here (you can visit his modest living quarters in the adjacent building). The temple compound comes alive during prayer time as the faithful whip themselves into a devotional frenzy of joy, with kirtan dancing accompanied by crashing hand symbols and drumbeats.

Murals around the compound detail the Hare Krishna narrative. The Iskcon hotel here is also recommended, as is the thali-only restaurant (meals ₹230 to ₹450). It’s a compelling place to visit for intense, celebratory worship in the sedate suburbs.

Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai
Heritage hotel in Mumbai

The grande dame of Mumbai is one of the world’s most iconic hotels and has hosted a roster of presidents and royalty. Sweeping arches, staircases and domes, and a glorious garden and pool ensure an unforgettable stay. Rooms in the adjacent tower lack the period details of the palace itself, but many have spectacular, full-frontal Gateway of India views.

With a myriad of excellent in-house eating and drinking options, plus spa and leisure facilities, it can be a wrench to leave the hotel premises. There’s even a new (small but discernibly curated) art gallery. Heritage walks for guests at 5pm daily provide illuminating context about the hotel’s role in the city’s history.

Elephanta Island

Northeast of the Gateway of India in Mumbai Harbour, the rock-cut temples on Gharapuri, better known as Elephanta Island, are a Unesco World Heritage Site. Created between AD 450 and 750, the labyrinth of cave temples represent some of India’s most impressive temple carving.

The main Shiva-dedicated temple is an intriguing latticework of courtyards, halls, pillars and shrines; its magnum opus is a 6m-tall statue of Sadhashiva, depicting a three-faced Shiva as the destroyer, creator and preserver of the universe, his eyes closed in eternal contemplation.

Elephanta Island in Mumbai
Elephanta Island in Mumbai

It was the Portuguese who dubbed the island Elephanta because of a large stone elephant near the shore (this collapsed in 1814 and was moved by the British to Mumbai’s Jijamata Udyan). There’s a small museum on-site, with informative pictorial panels on the origin of the caves.

Pushy, expensive guides are available – but you don’t really need one as Pramod Chandra’s A Guide to the Elephanta Caves, widely for sale, is more than sufficient.

Launches head to Gharapuri from the Gateway of India every half-hour from 9am to 3.30pm. Buy tickets at the booths lining Apollo Bunder. The voyage takes about an hour.

The ferries dock at the end of a concrete pier, from where you can walk or take the miniature train (₹10) to the stairway (admission ₹10) leading up to the caves. It’s lined with souvenir stalls and patrolled by pesky monkeys. Wear good shoes.

Girgaum Chowpatty
Beach in Mumbai

This city beach is a favorite evening spot for courting couples, families, political rallies and anyone out to enjoy what passes for fresh air. Evening bhelpuri at the throng of stalls at the beach’s southern end is an essential part of the Mumbai experience. Forget about taking a dip: the water’s toxic.

On the 10th day of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival (in August or September) millions flock here to submerge huge Ganesh statues: it’s joyful mayhem.

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