Home > Best Places in Kolkata
Updated: December 8, 2019
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The Best Area to Stay in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta)
Vying with Delhi to be India’s second-largest metropolis (after Mumbai), the ‘City of Joy’ is one of overwhelming contrasts: historic and modern, hopelessly overcrowd but steadfastly friendly, and with a nouveau riche in fancy apartments alongside unfathomable slums. The traffic – and its noise and fumes – may be at times even more unbearable than the heat, humidity, and rain, but the former capital of the British Raj does boast broad streets and expansive gardens lined with lovely colonial-era buildings (many of them abandoned). Bengalis regard their city as India’s intellectual and literary center, but residents of Chennai may disagree about Kolkata’s pretensions of also being the national hub of arts and culture.
Spacious and modern outer suburbs offer malls and top-end hotels that contrast uncomfortably with the squalor of the inner city, home to millions of people, innumerable markets and temples, and the sort of hand-pulled rickshaws outlawed in other Indian cities. Often used as just a transit point for far-flung destinations like Darjeeling and Nepal, Kolkata is worth exploring, but allow plenty of time (because the road system has barely changed since colonial days) and book a decent hotel (to minimize any downsides).
The chaos or vibrancy (depending on viewpoint) is at its most apparent along Chowringhee (Jawaharlal Nehru) Road, where entrances to top-end hotels are often masked by busy markets, though the area is very handy to numerous colonial-era attractions and the metro. Budget-priced hotels can found around BBD Bagh, the commercial district past the northern end of Chowringhee Road and alongside the mighty Hooghly River. The long-term backpacker haunt of Sudder Street is a little more gentrified these days, but still packed with very useful tourist facilities rarely found elsewhere, and is also located near the metro.
Stretching southeast from Chowringhee Road is Park Street, the city’s classiest area for boutiques, bistros, and bars. The inner southern suburbs in and around Ballygunge are also upmarket. To escape the inner-city traffic, pollution, and squalor, the satellite town of Salt Lake City (Bidhan Nagar) has the added bonus of being home to a wonderful mall. To avoid lengthy taxi trips and ensure a quick getaway, many mid-range and top-end hotels are located near the airport in an area called Rajarhat or New Town.
The Best Places to Stay in Kolkata
Best Area in Kolkata for…
- Best Area in Kolkata for Sightseeing: Chowringhee (Jawaharlal Nehru) Road
Many sights within the city center are along or within walking distance of Chowringhee Road. This major thoroughfare stretches alongside the Maidan park, home to the magnificent cathedral, relics (such as the fort), and numerous sporting facilities. The road leads a short distance north to the BBD Bagh district (the former colonial hub featuring narrow lanes dotted with crumbling buildings), and south to the Indian Museum, the country’s largest and oldest. (Created only about 300 years ago, Kolkata does not offer any pre-colonial sights.)
- Best Area in Kolkata for Shopping: Park Street
Sidewalks along Chowringhee Road are filled with stalls, while the spacious New Market spreads across several blocks behind the road. Far more relaxed and enjoyable is shopping along the surprisingly fancy Park Street which is packed with inviting bookshops, dazzling jewelers, trendy boutiques, western-style supermarkets, and bistros as stylish as many in Europe. The less ritzy shops and stalls along lanes heading off Park Street are the places to haggle over the silk saris and terracotta items for which Kolkata is renowned.
- Best Area in Kolkata for Families: Salt Lake City (Bidhan Nagar)
This satellite town about halfway between the airport and downtown has features very rarely found anywhere else in Kolkata: broad streets, real sidewalks with shade, and minimal traffic. Families would appreciate escaping the squalor, traffic, and pollution of the city center and enjoy the delightful outdoor mall featuring a cinema, games arcade, and numerous eateries (including familiar fast-food outlets). Other attractions are the metro (which should link to downtown and the airport by 2021) and proximity to several family-oriented facilities, such as the Wet O Wild waterpark.
- Best Area in Kolkata for Food & Restaurants: Park Street
Distant from the rest of India and proudly Bengali, much of the local cuisine is unique, so some menu items can be unfamiliar. Kolkata is renowned for its fiery fish and prawn curries, tangy street food, and local versions of Indian staples such as paratha (flatbread). Bengali food can be enjoyed in air-conditioned comfort along Park Street within the inner city. Other choices along this astoundingly upmarket road range from chic tapas bars to westernized pizza joints, and meat-lovers will appreciate the trendy bistros serving kebabs and burgers.
- Best Area in Kolkata for Transport: Chowringhee (Jawaharlal Nehru) Road
Parallel to Chowringhee Road (the main thoroughfare through the city center) is the metro, India’s first. While cheap and efficient, services are of limited use so far for tourists – and even most residents. (By the early 2020s, the metro is expected to connect several major train and bus stations and the airport.) The area around Chowringhee Road is just over the river from Howrah Railway Station, the largest of the three major city terminals. For hassle-free flight connections and to avoid the overcrowded city center, numerous hotels are dotted around the airport, about an hour from downtown by taxi.
- Best Area in Kolkata for Nightlife: Park Street
English-style pubs and hip nightclubs can be found along or just off Park Street, a remarkably swanky area jutting off the overcrowded Chowringhee Road in downtown. Unlike other Indian cities, numerous places for a drink, meal, or dance are almost adjacent, so it’s possible to check out a few bars and clubs within walking distance of each other and then, perhaps, stagger back to a nearby hotel. Also, check out performances of Bengali music and dance, especially during the several local festivals.
- Best Area in Kolkata for Vibe & Culture: Chowringhee (Jawaharlal Nehru) Road
This inner-city thoroughfare is choked with traffic, and the sidewalks are hopelessly overcrowded with market stalls, but it is the true essence of all that’s vibrant (and chaotic) about this mesmerizing metropolis. On the other side of Chowringhee Road, Maidan, one of the world’s largest city parks, is where families seek respite from the traffic, couples like to canoodle, and boys play impromptu games of cricket.
- Most Romantic Area in Kolkata: Sudder Street
To be honest, this may be one of the few instances that the words ‘Kolkata’ and ‘romantic’ have ever been seen in the same sentence. With wildlife-packed mangroves at Sundarbans and the charming mountaintop region of Darjeeling within a few hours by bus and/or plane, very few would come to Kolkata for a honeymoon or romantic getaway. Still, for some peace and quiet, yet convenience to the inner-city sights and tourist facilities rarely found elsewhere, there is no finer place in Kolkata than Sudder Street.
- Best Area in Kolkata for First Timers: Sudder Street
The noise, traffic, pollution, and poverty expected at this and every other major Indian city can still be overwhelming for those who have visited India many times. With the exception of the traffic (which is relentless everywhere), these issues can be minimized by staying in and around Sudder Street, quietly tucked away within the inner city. This area also offers vital facilities rarely found elsewhere in Kolkata, such as money-changers and agencies that sell train tickets, as well as bars and cafés serving excellent western food.
- Safest Area in Kolkata: Salt Lake City (Bidhan Nagar)
The potential dangers that exist in every Indian city can be substantially minimized by taking the usual precautions and staying at this modern satellite town, where streets are broad and well-lit, sidewalks exist, and most residents live in middle-class housing. In reality, the main danger elsewhere in Kolkata may simply be crossing the road. Always remember: pedestrians do not have the right of way in India, except (usually) at a red traffic light.
The 7 Best Neighborhoods in Kolkata for Tourists
The heart of the city center is chaotic and pulsating. There are sidewalks (which are rare anywhere) packed with market stalls, as are the backstreets nearby. The main attraction is its proximity on foot to outstanding colonial-era sights such as the Indian Museum, Victoria Memorial, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, as well as the former colonial hub at the adjoining district of BBD Bagh. (Created by the British as their original capital, Kolkata does not boast any pre-colonial attractions.) Adding to the appeal of staying along or just off Chowringhee Road is its convenience to the expanding metro service and extensive parks alongside.
Spreading north from Chowringhee Road, this center of old Calcutta is the location of the original fort (now disappeared) and Chinatown (now mostly populated by Muslims). The narrow lanes are crowded with abandoned colonial-era buildings and new constructions, part of an increasingly redeveloped commercial area alongside Hooghly River. Dominated by the stunning Writers’ Building, BBD Bagh (still known by its old name of Dalhousie Square) is one of contrasts, epitomized by slums only 50m from the entrance to the 5-star LaLiT hotel.
Just off Chowringhee Road, but with a separate identity, this backpacker haunt has been serving budget-conscious travelers since the Hippy Trail days of the 1960s. Although homeless people can be found on some sidewalks, the area is invitingly cleaner, safer, and less crowded than downtown. It still provides essentials for all travelers – e.g. money-changers, agencies selling train tickets, and pizza joints – and charming colonial-era guesthouses among decent (and some seedy) cheaper options. Another major advantage is one of the city’s prime attractions: the Indian Museum.
Branching off at a sharp angle from Chowringhee Road, the facilities along Park Street are as enticing and refined as anywhere in Asia. This one-way road and, to a lesser degree, the backstreets are lined with internationally-recognized fast-food outlets, English-style pubs, hip nightclubs, and restaurants that serve pizzas rather than parathas. Still known (and probably always will be) as simply Park Street, the shopping is among the finest in India – from western-style supermarkets to tempting bookshops and gorgeous boutiques selling silk saris.
The suburbs in the inner south stretching from Park Street to Rabindra Sarobar lake and gardens are often given the general term ‘Ballygunge’, named since colonial times after the namesake main road that runs through it. Sections vary enormously from affluent business districts with fashionable bars in office blocks to areas of chic boutiques and fancy apartments alongside slums. Areas closer to Chowringhee Road are handy to the expanding metro, and the whole area is within a short taxi trip of the numerous attractions in the city center.
Nothing like the Utah capital, this satellite town of government buildings and midrange housing is about 45 minutes northeast of downtown by taxi. The multi-angled design ensures that a hotel may have an address like ‘DD-21 DD Block, Sector 1’. (This means nothing to any driver, so landmarks are infinitely more useful.) Conveniently about halfway between the airport and downtown, Salt Lake City (as it’s more commonly known) offers genuine rarities: wide streets, shady sidewalks, and minimal traffic. Other advantages are the outdoor (but inappropriately-named) City Centre Mall, the metro that is expected to connect to downtown and the airport by 2021, and family-oriented attractions like the Wet O Wild waterpark.
Several vague terms are used to describe the area between Salt Lake City and the airport. All hotels here are convenient to the airport; distant from the crowds, pollution, and poverty of the inner city; and offer substantial gardens and other facilities rarely possible elsewhere. Some hotels (like the Novotel and Westin) are remote, while others (such as the Holiday Inn and Swissôtel) are surrounded by decent Indian-style places to eat, drink, and shop.
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