India is difficult to define and all things at once – a place where life, and all its complexities, are on full display. This is particularly true of Mumbai, a collection of reclaimed islands by the Arabian Sea.
This thriving, cosmopolitan city, one of the world’s most affluent, has long been a centre for trade, and is dotted with vestiges of its colonial past. Some buildings have evolved into icons (the Gothic, gargoyle-festooned Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is Unesco-listed), others threaten to crumble with the next monsoon.
Here old and new, decadence and poverty co-exist. The streets are traffic bedlam, with men clad in sarong-like lungis pushing wooden carts through a maze of noisy motorbikes, taxis and trucks.
Forty percent of the population still live in slums, but life in the city is evolving fast and there is a pervading sense of positivity.
Wanting to observe Mumbai’s potential, I based myself in the neighbourhoods of Colaba and Fort. Here are crumbling stately homes, constructed when colonial trade was much in vogue, and house stores selling fabrics and glistening jewels. Ambling chickens share the road with prestige cars and restored buildings reveal themelves as boutique hotels and galleries.
Should you choose to follow my lead, look to stay at the waterfront grande dame that is the Taj Mahal Palace – home to the Sea Lounge, an ideal afternoon tea setting that in decades past was the favoured spot for couples in arranged marriages to meet for the first time.
Or there’s Abode, the embodiment of old Bombay style with spacious rooms and retro furniture to long for.
Homely and playful, Abode is renowned for its custom tours, the signature Early Morning outing allowing you to drink chai with pre-dawn newspaper sorters, marvel at Dadar Flower market and observe Dhobi Ghat, the world’s largest outdoor laundry.
The architecture of Colaba and Fort is stunning, from Art Deco cinemas to museums with facades designed to captivate. One of the most alluring structures is the beautifully-preserved David Sassoon Library, named after Jewish émigré David Sassoon, who moved here from Baghdad.
The Sassoon family is responsible for or contributed to several of Mumbai’s architectural attractions. They include Sassoon Docks, a fishing port with sari-adorned Koli fisherwomen selling the morning’s catch, Magen David Synagogue and the powerful Gateway of India, glowing in the evening light, through which the last British troops departed from India.
The Sassoons were also behind the Knesset Eliyahoo synagogue. Its interiors are charming but it is the exterior, painted a brilliant shade of turquoise, that garners the most attention. It fits perfectly with its Kala Ghoda location, the neighbourhood having undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years. It houses Mumbai’s arts district, home to the annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival and has India’s aesthetic heritage on full display.
Visitors can admire street art outside the Jehangir Nicholson Art Gallery and the extensive collection inside of 20th-century Indian art, buy homewares and clothing from stores dedicated to indigenous design, and feast on dishes that show just how delicious fusion cooking can be.
There is Artisans, an independent gallery showcasing traditional craft and design that also hosts regular exhibitions, and Kulture Shop, which provides a platform for India’s graphic artists,
Also here are Nicobar, the younger sibling of Good Earth, both stores selling sustainably produced homewares and clothing, and Sabyasachi, a sari, jewellery and clothing shop adored by India’s brides.
Foodies should also make a point of calling in at Trishna and Kala Ghoda Café, a cosy eatery where meals and the setting have a relaxed, modern feel.
Kala Ghoda is a lively, fashionable suburb found in the heart of a city that gives the impression of never being still. It is an area proud of its heritage, forward thinking, and determined to keep Mumbai moving confidently into the future.
Liz’s travel tips
Liz Schaffer travelled to Mumbai with KLM, which has just launched direct flights from its award-winning hub, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, to Mumbai, with connections to and from 17 departure points across the UK. Return economy fares are from £388 (KLM.com). She stayed at Abode Hotel, Mumbai (abodeboutiquehotels.com). Liz is editor of Lodestars Anthology, which publishes their India magazine this month (lodestarsanthology.co.uk)