The low-down on the best places to visit in Mumbai, by Janine Stein
1 Gateway of India Colonial India's answer to the Arc de Triomphe, the Gateway of India is Mumbai's most prominent landmark. Built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in the early 1900s, the Gateway of India is memorable as much for its imposing position on the harbour as for the mass of humanity gathered at its base, selling everything from food to giant balloons. Words and phrases most often used to describe the monument include 'setting sun', 'bathed in light' and 'hues of russet, gold and pink'. But whatever the description, the irony of the majestic landmark, which was built to symbolise the enduring nature of British rule, is glaring. Perhaps the best place from which to appreciate the scene is Souk, the revamped version of the old and stodgy Apollo Bar atop the Taj Mahal Hotel across the road. The only restaurant of its kind in Mumbai, Souk offers the cuisines of Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco, as well as stunning harbour views. The orange and gold decor is reminiscent of London, along with the atmosphere and, of course, the clientele (Apollo Bunder, 400 001. Tel: 91 22 5665 3366; www.tajhotels.com).
2 Intercontinental Marine Drive The most fashionable place to be right now is the Intercontinental Marine Drive Mumbai, a new boutique hotel overlooking the bay. The Intercontinental forms part of what locals proudly term the Queen's Necklace - a string of waterfront lights that ring the bay at night. The venue to head for is the rooftop Dome, which is being billed as the pendant on the Queen's Necklace, as much for its location as for the glitterati flocking there (so far it has only played host to private parties, but the doors open for walk-in business at the end of May). The glass-encased bar and cigar room combine with sofas on the terrace and open skies to showcase Mumbai at its best, particularly at sunset. This can all be enjoyed high above the noise and clutter of the streets of the world's second biggest city. Right across the bay is Malabar Hill, where some of Mumbai's wealthiest have their homes. On the ground floor, Czar is the bar to drink at. Unfortunately, it's billed as the classic men's bar, which is annoying for women who might appreciate the wide selection of malt whiskey. The restaurant of the moment is RGs Kitchen, which offers a catch-all concept that can put Western, Oriental and Indian cuisines on the same table from the restaurant's three glass-fronted kitchens. (135 Marine Drive Mumbai, 400 020. Tel: 91 22 5639 9999; mumbai.india.intercontinental.com).
3 Victoria Terminus This is a must-visit as much for its Gothic architecture as the spectacle of millions of commuters rushing about their business. Tour guides like to call it the city's most exuberant Gothic building, an unlikely description for a transport terminus. Housing about 14 platforms and said to be one of the city's largest buildings, the terminus is still commonly called VT, despite official attempts to change its name to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The first train left the then Bori Bunder station, which wasn't anything as grand, in 1853. Legend has it that the Portuguese hung criminals in the area during the 17th century. The station is, however, always too crowded to feel haunted.
4 The Bombay Store This is the closest thing to an upmarket department store in Mumbai, with clearly marked sections for everything from candles, jewellery, hand-made paper and hair oil to silk bedcovers, tablecloths, carpets, lamps and clothing. It's also easier to pay and leave than at many other stores. Here, there is none of the usual cumbersome and confusing routine of collecting sales slips in one place, paying in another and fetching parcels at a third. If the prices are higher than most other places in the city, they are nevertheless still astonishingly inexpensive. Think tablecloths for less than US$10 (HK$78) and silk bedcovers for less than US$100 (Sir P M Road, Fort. Tel: 91 22 288 5048/49; www.thebombaystore.com). On the high-fashion end of the spectrum, all roads lead to Tarun Tahilianis Ensemble, a wall-to-wall designer shop dealing in cottons, linens, silks and beyond (130/132 Great Western Building, Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg, Fort. Tel: 99 22 287 2883). On the other end of the comfort scale (seeing how the other half lives is one of India's must-do experiences) is the Kalbadevi bazaar area, which gives the word 'crowded' new meaning, and just beyond that the Chor Bazaar, or Thieves' Market. Located near Crawford Market (named after a British municipal commissioner in the 1860s), the area is said by locals to be the heart of ethnic Mumbai. A quick wander through the Gothic portals of Crawford Market, complete with William Morris-inspired bas reliefs, offers yet another of Mumbai's marvels - a massive fresh produce market selling everything from dogs and cats to tropical fish.
5 Red Light A new bar/nightclub that characterises Mumbai's high-living, after-dark attitude. Located atop the Kyber Indian Restaurant, Red Light opened earlier this year with a mixture of music ranging from house to garage and trance. The young and the young-at-heart who gather here mostly wear black, and as little as possible, in keeping with the style that originally gave this place its name. The ceiling is covered with red lights and the walls are dark with plate glass and water features. The bartenders reminded me of Tom Cruise in his Cocktail days. Located on Kalaghoda, opposite the Jehangir Art Gallery, Red Light is the night-time part of the area's restoration project. This renovation includes the Elphinstone College and the Army Navy Building, which has been taken over by the Westside retail store (145 M G Road, Fort, 400 023. Tel: 91 22 5634 6246/7).
6 Red-light district Light years away from the club of the same name is Mumbai's red-light district in the Falklands Road area. These dismal few streets are depressing, but as much a part of today's Mumbai as the many Mercedes lining up outside the Taj Hotel. Here, women ply their trade in little hovels called 'cages'. The best time to see the area in full swing is around midnight and the best way to go is by car - with the windows firmly shut.
7 Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat This is probably the biggest human laundromat - and certainly the biggest open-air washing machine - in the world. Here, thousands of washer-people pound away at Mumbai's dirty clothes before rows of 100-year-old troughs and cubicles. The best time to go is around 8am, when about 5,000 dhobis are in full tilt at an occupation passed down from father to son. Tip: the instruction 'wash by hand' doesn't mean quite the same thing as it might elsewhere, so watch, take pictures that will be some of the most interesting in your travel album, and be careful of what you hand over for washing. That said, by some miracle, the clothes that go in come out pressed and ironed and ready for the next business meeting.
8 Prince of Wales Museum Mumbai's most impressive museum, the Prince of Wales, was built to commemorate King George V's first visit to India in the early 1900s. While the exhibits could do with more sophisticated curatorship and preservation, the halls are nevertheless filled with treasures (everything from miniature paintings and weapons to natural history) from some of India's finest periods. The museum, which took about nine years to build, was designed by Scottish architect George Wittet (who was also responsible for the Gateway of India) and completed in 1914, only to be turned into a military hospital during World War I. The official opening finally took place in 1923. The museum is located near the Gateway of India. Tip: be careful what you buy in the museum shop - some of the heritage works for sale are by law not allowed to leave India (www.bombaymuseum.org).
9 Masala Kraft Mumbai, a city that prides itself on being to India what New York is to Omaha, is awash with 'modern Indian concepts'. One of the places that flies the flag for this trend is the new Masala Kraft, billed as a contemporary Indian eatery and said by locals to serve the best Indian food in the city. The heavy, old Maharajah-style Burmese teak that characterised its predecessor has made way for a cooler, lighter, but still very Indian, feel. Along with Souk, Masala Kraft is part of the current remake of 1903 landmark, the Taj Mahal Hotel. The centenary revamp and celebrations also includes the makeover of the Taj's grand old wing into something more deserving of the hotel's grande dame standing among Mumbai's heritage sites (Apollo Bunder, 400 001. Tel: 91 22 5665 3366; www.tajhotels.com).
10 Haji Ali Mosque This picturesque mosque at the end of a 500-metre causeway that juts out into the Arabian sea can be admired from a number of vantage points, including close up if you care to walk along a causeway. Tip: Go at low tide, because at high-tide you'll be swimming. The vision at high tide of a floating island is stunning. The working mosque, most often described in cliched fairytale terms, houses the tomb of Muslim Saint Haji Ali. The inside (divided into separate sections for men and women, of course) is filled with marble pillars, mirror work and coloured glass.