Cool Colaba: from historical hub to hipster hang-out, Mumbai’s old British quarter has something for everyone

In Colaba the curious traveller will experience the perfect blend of past and present. Bohemian and corporate, filled with colonial charm, yet progressive and gentrified, it’s many contradictions make it well worth a visit

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2018, 11:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2018, 6:09pm

Vibrant Colaba on the southern tip of Mumbai hums with unbridled energy. On its streets, tourists and locals mix.

Old and new are seamlessly interwoven, from the brazen graffiti to the rustic cantilevered balcony of Rhythm House, a famous music store that shut down in 2016.

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“Colaba is chichi and grungy, bohemian and corporate, highly cosmopolitan and super local,” says Mumbai local Leeza Mangaldas, a 28-year-old TV presenter and YouTuber.

Relics of the British East India Company – whose merchants profited from trade with India and ran large parts of the country until colonial officials took over – cast a regal shadow over recent modern additions.

Among the architectural gems in Colaba left from the 19th century are the Bombay High Court, Mumbai University, David Sassoon Library and the Regal Cinema. They and 90 other Victorian Gothic and art deco buildings have been inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage list.

Old museums stand next to new art galleries; commercial banks and law firms thrive, as do the tourists who throng the Gateway of India and the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace hotel. “It’s hippie and yuppie, artsy and business-like, historic and hipster all at once,” says Mangaldas.

“Colaba is my favourite part of Bombay. A sort of broad boulevard, arcade-filled time capsule with the arrogance of the crumbling Empire. Its corners and corniches have a majesty that is both gleaming and paan-stained,” says frequent visitor Priya Narayanan, 37, a TV producer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who insists on referring to the city by its anglicised Portuguese name. (Colaba was among a group of islands presented by the Portuguese to King Charles II of Spain as a dowry when he married Catherine of Braganza in 1661.)

Bombay is a state of mind, free of shackles, she says, unlike Mumbai – as it was renamed in 1995 – which is India’s financial, commercial and entertainment hub.

Farhad Bomanjee opened Kala Ghoda Cafe nine years ago when he could not find a good place to go for coffee. The 45-year-old proprietor neither dislikes nor completely approves of Colaba’s gentrification.

“It has changed a lot,” he says. “New injection of life is good, as long as stores and cafes are independent and offer variety – unlike corporate chains.”

Colaba is chichi and grungy, bohemian and corporate, highly cosmopolitan and super local
Mumbai local Leeza Mangaldas

Colaba Causeway is a shopper’s paradise where everything is for sale on the street: jewellery, clothes, kitchen items and hashish. The founder of graphic art and design store Kulture Shop, Arjun Charanjiva, 47, hopes to democratise art. “The idea is to make it more accessible to young people, to buy items that they can relate to – rather than as an investment piece.”

For now, Colaba’s cool remains more underground than mainstream. Unlike the traditionally hip Bandra, in the west of the city, it attracts not only avid tourists, but also Mumbai’s younger hipster set. Mostly college students and young office workers, they come here to sip on wheat grass shots at Kala Ghoda Cafe or share a pitcher of Kingfisher beer at Cafe Mondegar.

They buy exquisite salted caramel macaroons at Le 15 Patisserie, browse handcrafted lifestyle goods at Nicobar and custom-made shirts from Bombay Shirt Company.

“So many current hipster things were actually South Asian to begin with – take yoga and turmeric,” says Mangaldas, who likes to hang out at The Table, an upmarket restaurant where she almost always bumps into friends. “Colaba is especially filled with eclectic, creative spaces with a very relaxed vibe.”

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Historical highlights

Gateway of India: overlooking the Arabian Sea, this august archway, an amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim architectural styles, was erected to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary when they visited India in 1911.

The Taj Mahal Palace hotel: with a central Moorish dome, it was used as a military hospital in the first world war, and it was from its steps that the last colonial governor general of India, Lord Mountbatten, announced the country’s independence. The target of a terrorist attack in 2008, the restored hotel housed then US president Barack Obama two years later.

Sassoon Docks: the 143-year-old dock is the largest fish market in the city, with hundreds of colourful boats bringing in their catch every morning. It was given a facelift with funky street art last year as part of the Sassoon Dock Art Project.

Afghan Church: built by the British to commemorate the soldiers killed in the first Afghan war, the 160-year-old building is one of the finest neo-Gothic landmarks in Colaba. Revel in its 70-metre tall spire, stained glass panels, Minton tiles and intricate ironwork.

Tradition reinvented

Bombay Shirt Company: specialises in custom-made shirts that take two weeks to deliver anywhere in the world. It is India’s first online custom shirt brand, marrying contemporary design and old-school tailoring, using cutting-edge technology.

Cafe Mondegar: a famous cafe run by the same Iranian family since 1932. With its walls illustrated by Mario Miranda, old-style jukebox and hardly any space to manoeuvre, it seems that nothing much has changed through the decades – except for the people passing through its doors.

Raw Mango: a contemporary brand of Indian handloom textiles, crafted using traditional techniques while sustaining artisanal communities. Clashing textures, colours and interpretations beg to be discovered. A community story is woven into every piece.

Cool culture

Kala Ghoda Cafe: located in what used to be an old chai (tea) shop, the menu is a delightful mix of classic comfort food and progressive, healthy alternatives served in an old-school interior. Ingredients are kept as local and seasonal as possible with an emphasis on promoting India’s organic coffee and local wines in its newly opened wine bar.

Nicobar: consciously crafted, chic fashion, with home and travel items that incorporate both classic Indian and contemporary design. Weekend trousers are inspired by the dhoti; clay cups by the humble, handleless terracotta “kulhar” cups.

Kulture Shop: a graphic design art store that curates collections by Indian graphic artists from around the world. Here you will find art on canvases, T-shirts, bags, mugs and limited-edition prints.

Le 15 patisserie: known for its inventive and interesting range of macaroons and tiny cupcakes, this extremely popular place was opened by Le Cordon Bleu graduate and celebrity chef Pooja Dhingra when she was only 23. Be warned – mere morsels will not suffice.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific and Jet Airways fly direct from Hong Kong to Mumbai. Colaba is about one hour from Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. It is also accessible by bus, train, metro, taxi and auto-rickshaw from anywhere in Mumbai. The most popular taxi apps are Uber and Ola.

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Staying there: attracting mostly foreign guests, Abode, Mumbai’s first luxury boutique hotel was originally the private residence of entrepreneur David Sassoon. Its colonial charm has been retained in the 1910 heritage building, carefully restored with reclaimed Burmese teak and antiques from Chor Bazaar.