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10 Photos: A Whirlwind Tour of Mumbai, India

Jan. 23, 2016
9 min read
10 Photos: A Whirlwind Tour of Mumbai, India
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Our “10 Photos” essays include travel tips, destination insights, tricks for getting travel discounts and redemptions and, of course, the best stuff not to miss. TPG Contributor Kelsy Chauvin explores Mumbai, home to Bollywood and other amazing Indian sights, sounds and flavors. (All photos are by the author.)

It was my second visit to India but my first to Mumbai, and I knew it would be hot (naturally), cosmopolitan (comparatively) and fascinating (completely). Right away this tremendous city of 20 million residents felt even bigger than I anticipated. It’s a place where the term “bustling” is a vast understatement.

Lucky for me, my fabulous friend Urvashi Joneja, a rising star in India’s fashion-design world, lives in Mumbai and loaded me up with tips and a whirlwind tour, starting with her neighborhood, Bandra West.

Famous as the Bollywood hub, the Bandra is a dynamic area whose west-facing shoreline is rimmed by high-rise condos and hotels. Urvashi and I strolled the Bandstand Promenade snapping photos, where the mile-long Bollywood “Walk of the Stars” leads the way to Bandra Fort at the southern tip. But the Bandra’s cute restaurants and Carter Road were only brief stops on my way to Colaba, the city’s main commercial, historic and tourist area, often called South Bombay.

Bollywood film stars shine on the Bandstand Promenade’s Walk of the Stars.

Urvashi shared one of the best transportation tips in town: Book a Meru Cab or a Cool Cab in advance to get a reasonable, set fare — it’s especially convenient for long drives and airport transport. (I charged this in advance to ensure I would earn 3x points for a travel expense on my Citi Premier® Card.) For shorter trips, local cabs are fine and usually pretty cheap; just be sure to negotiate the fare before getting in.

Don’t be alarmed if your cab driver starts driving backwards down a major thoroughfare.

The city’s most prestigious hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai (scroll to the bottom of this post for more info), was built in 1903 and has plenty of rich history to go with its marvelous architecture. I was lucky enough to get a tour and discovered the original long, symmetrical arches over open corridors and grand stairways designed to maximize airflow and natural light. This is where world dignitaries and celebrities like the Beatles, the Clintons and the Jolie-Pitts once lay their heads — you’ll find photos of some of them around the hotel.

The Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai is as architecturally impressive inside as it is outside.

Of the travelers who lodge at the Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai — including TPG in 2013 — the luckiest among them get bayside views that open onto the famous Gateway of India. Completed in 1924, the massive basalt arch was built to commemorate the “landing” of England’s King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. I’m sure they felt quite welcome, as did I and thousands of other visitors, all of us sweating and selfie-ready.

The Gateway to India forms the perfect view from the Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai.

Colaba’s streets brimmed with action from tourists, locals, vendors, families, tour guides, cops and the occasional cow, all navigating between short, winding blocks and big, broad arterials. Occasionally I’d find a shady spot to catch my breath in the stark humidity, and sometimes I’d just find a great vista along the Ramchandani Marg seawall watching fishing and rowboats bob in the bay and ferries travel out to Elephanta Island, home to UNESCO-landmarked ancient cave temples.

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Colorful boats dot the bay outside the Gateway of India.
Colorful boats dot the bay outside the Gateway of India.

South Bombay is always buzzing, and even with a good sense of direction I found myself sometimes wandering down a street I could’ve sworn I’d gone down before, but in reality hadn’t. Fortunately, one of my navigational landmarks near the hotel came with a distinct and tantalizing smell from roadside grill Bade Miya. At this local-favorite street stand, cooks barbecue menu staples from the sit-down restaurant, which opened in 1946, including amazing veggie and meat kebabs with fresh rotis.

Local and global tourists will pull up some shade and rest for a moment, wherever that may be.

Another great marker was the humongous and stately Chhatrapatī Shivaji Mahārāj Vastu Saṅgrahālay Museum, the institution formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum. It’s one of India’s architectural gems, housing huge, amazing collections of art, textiles and artifacts.

Visitors from India and around the world fill the Chhatrapatī Shivaji Mahārāj Vastu Saṅgrahālay Museum.

On the main drag that is Colaba Causeway, Café Leopold was both conveniently located and a reliable eatery to boot. In the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, this café was among the multiple sites hit by gunfire, as was the Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai, which has a memorial waterfall in its main lobby. In addition to having ice-cold drinks and delicious Indian (and other) fare at the café, you can also check out the preserved bullet holes and broken glass from the attacks. Yes, it’s sort of creepy, but also fascinating — and a great reminder of the enduring strength of Mumbai.

Café Leopold is a great spot for a bite — and to check out bullet holes left by the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

I filled up on all the souvenirs I ever wanted on the crowded streets and sidewalks, where it was easy to boldly negotiate prices in this buyer’s market. There are so many friendly vendors, it’s impossible to leave empty handed — they’re shrewd, but they know how to sell, and sell a lot. After all, this is Mumbai, and they really don’t do minimal.

Shops, restaurants, street vendors and shoppers take up virtually every spare inch along the Colaba Causeway.

Visiting Mumbai

Arrive: Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (BOM) is India’s biggest airport, and its International Terminal is in the Sahar suburb, which is 18 miles north of the Colaba district. The Domestic Terminal is 2.5 miles from the International Terminal, but a free bus connects the two every 15 minutes. You'll find service from North America to Mumbai (BOM) on Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and Etihad, as well as on the following alliance-member airlines:

Oneworld — British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas
SkyTeam — Delta
Star Alliance — United, Air India, Austrian Airways, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Swiss, Turkish Airlines

For travel to India, US citizens will need a visa (and remember, 10-year visas are now available). Before purchasing, though, be sure to read our post, Are Travel Visas Eligible for Category Bonus Points?

Stay: If you have points to burn in just about any loyalty program, you're in luck in Mumbai — for a wide array of hotel suggestions, be sure to read through our Destination of the Week: Mumbai piece. If you're okay with foregoing a redemption in exchange for charming, chic style, consider the Gordon House Hotel (about $130 per night) in Apollo Bander, easy walking distance from the city's big attractions.

Traffic can be rough in Mumbai. Sometimes even the traffic cops seem to be at a loss.

Two of the city's most luxurious hotels, the Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai (starting around $190 per night) and the Taj Lands End (starting at about $160 per night) are Visa Signature Hotels, which means that those who hold Visa Signature cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Hyatt Credit Card, the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card, the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card, etc. can book at either property through the Visa Signature travel portal to earn perks like early check-in/late check-out, food and beverage credits and room upgrades (when available).

Because traffic can be unpredictable, consider spending your last night closer to the airport. Only 15 minutes' drive from Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (BOM), the sleek and polished Grand Hyatt Mumbai has several noteworthy restaurants, a lovely spa, tennis courts and pools. Spacious rooms start at $148 or 15,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points per night.

Spend: Credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Citi Prestige don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use on a trip to Mumbai. To see more cards without these fees, check out our post, Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees.