Last updated: 24th February 2024
Kolkata is located in the east state of West Bengal, it was the last stop on our small group tour of India. We were pleasantly surprised by the city, especially how many of the British Raj buildings are still intact, at times it felt like we were driving through a part of London. In this Kolkata travel guide, we’ll show you all the top 10 things to do in Kolkata – famous things in Kolkata, plus some unique places to visit in Kolkata. We spent 2 days and also hired a private guide for a Kolkata city tour.
Table of Contents
A Brief History of Kolkata, India’s ‘City of Joy’
Kolkata was the capital of India under the rule of the British Raj from 1773 until 1911 when the capital was relocated to Delhi. It was named ‘Calcutta’ by the British and was the Empire’s most important trading post in the far east because of its strategic location on the Hooghly River that runs through the city.
Today Kolkata is India’s 3rd largest city and is considered to be India’s cultural and artistic capital. Where people come for literature, performing arts, music and the established film industry. Kolkata’s nickname is “the city of joy” because of the cultural festivals that happen all year round. It was nothing like what we had imagined and we were pleasantly surprised how charming it is. Kolkata feels and looks completely different to other cities in India because there are no holy cows or tuk-tuks in the city centre because they are banned.
British Raj Architecture
Kolkata is full of magnificent old colonial architecture like The Victoria Memorial and St Pauls Cathedral and it feels like driving through parts of London or Europe especially as many roads are wide and lined with trees. The grandest of buildings were built as a symbol of Empire power and many are still in use by the Indian government. Looking at them gave us a sense of what it must have been like living here in the British Raj era. However many more are crumbling away or left derelict, in desperate need of restoration. They are just like the faded grandeur of the 1950s buildings we saw in Old Havana, Cuba.
You can recognise most of the old British buildings because they are mainly built in red brick or painted red. There are also lots of glorious art deco buildings in Kolkata, just remember to look up and see all the details. Adding to the atmosphere on the streets are Kolkata’s iconic and vintage yellow taxis. They are Ambassador cars and made in India, however, they don’t make them anymore. The traffic is also very well behaved in Kolkata compared to other Indian cities, people follow the rules, even the traffic lights! What’s interesting is that the roads in Kolkata are one way however they reverse the direction at 1pm every day!
Top 10 Things to do in Kolkata
1. Victoria Memorial Hall & Gardens
Top of our list and the number 1 site of tourist places in Kolkata is the Victoria Memorial Hall. Built in white marble, it’s huge and elegant and oozes grandeur. It was built as a memorial to Queen Victoria after her death in 1901. It’s now an art gallery and museum with paintings and artefacts from the British Raj. We paid for a ticket for just the gardens which are open every day from 5.30am to 6pm. By chance we visited on Republic Day – a national holiday to celebrate the date India became a republic. So with everyone off work, the gardens were busy but had a really nice atmosphere with lots of families out walking and playing games. Not many westerners visit Kolkata that we could see, so lots of people kept asking us for selfies which by now we had got used to from our tour of India.
2. Kumartuli Craft Neighbourhood
In North Kolkata is a fascinating arts and crafts neighbourhood called Kumartuli. This area is what we really wanted to see, especially Garth who loves art. Kumartuli is famous for around 150 families of potters and sculptors who have been crafting clay idols of Hindu gods and goddesses for over 300 years. Their work is exported throughout India. The clay modellers use techniques that haven’t changed for years and their skills are passed down from father to son. We loved wandering around the neighbourhood’s small streets looking into the artist studios seeing the clay idols in their various stages of production. From the initial mesh models made of straw to the next stage of moulding clay to the final finishing touches of airbrushing, painting and adding saris and jewels, it’s absolutely fascinating to witness even if you’re not into art.
They make all kinds of Hindu gods and goddesses, popular idols include Ganesh and Saraswati. However, Kumartuli’s artists are most famous for making Goddess Durga for the ‘Durga Puja’ – Kolkata’s biggest and grandest festival lasting 5 days. Every size of statue is available to buy – from little ones for use at home or extra-large idols for village festivals. The large 5-foot statues cost £35 and will generally last 2 weeks before being thrown into a river, ideally the holy River Ganges, so the clay mud is returned to where it came from. It’s a good job they are made from natural materials and now use biodegradable paint as the rivers in India are polluted enough as it is.
3. Mullik Ghat Flower Market
Underneath the landmark Howrah Bridge is Kolkata’s famous Mullick Ghat Flower Market. It’s India’s biggest wholesale flower market when from sunrise wholesalers sell their freshly picked flowers for making religious garlands for temples, weddings and festivals. We loved it here as it’s a feast for the senses – so colourful and so many textures plus it smells divine, Garth was in his element photographing. It’s very busy and somewhat chaotic with so many people rushing around, haggling and negotiating deals. Space is at a bare minimum here and the pathways are very narrow, so you have to be very careful not to knock huge bags and baskets of flowers people are carrying, we had a guide so he was able to lead the way. However, spaces do open up where you can stand out of the way and watch what’s going on and take photographs.
Marigold flowers are used for making religious offerings. The colours used are important in Hinduism. Yellow marigold flowers symbolise holiness, orange symbolises bravery and sacrifice whilst white marigolds symbolise peace. We loved the people watching – ladies thread marigold flowers into garlands and men threading little red roses together, so skilled. It reminded us of the flower market we visited in Goa, South India. If you have the time walk up the stairs to the Howrah Bridge where you can look down and observe all the action.
Of all the Kolkata places to visit, this flower market is easily the most colourful place to see.
4. Howrah Bridge
Built in 1874 the Howrah Bridge is another landmark of Kolkata. It’s the world’s 6th longest cantilever bridge made entirely from steel. It crosses the Hooghly River linking the two cities of Kolkata and Howrah. Around 100,000 vehicles use the Howrah Bridge every day, however, it’s used by more pedestrians – an estimated 150,000 commuters. In 1965 the bridge was renamed Rabindra Setu after a local poet but people still call it the Howrah Bridge. On the Howrah side, we passed the main train station, Howrah Junction – India’s largest and oldest train station and one of the world’s busiest train stations.
There is another newer toll bridge called the Vidyasagar Setu, also known as the 2nd Hooghly Bridge. We stood next to it when we visited the Prinsep Ghat in the evening to watch the sunset over the Hooghly River.
5. College Street
Back in central Kolkata and we explored the 1 mile stretch of College Street. An interesting street lined with loads of bookstalls, its nickname is ‘book market’ and is the largest book market in the whole of Asia. It’s a great example in up-cycling where university students come to buy and sell second-hand books.
Indian Coffee House
On College Street, you will find the historic Indian Coffee House, a favourite hangout for university students. They have a number of coffee houses all over Kolkata but the one on College Street is the original. It’s housed inside Kolkata’s old Royal Albert Hall, this place looks like it has some stories to tell. We ordered some white coffee and sandwiches, the atmosphere was nice, great people watching especially the immaculately dressed staff rushing around serving people.
6. St. John’s Church
We made a quick stop at St. John’s Church, one of the first buildings to be built by the British Raj in 1787. It served as an Anglican Cathedral until 1847 when the much larger St Paul’s Cathedral was opened. The gardens contain various monuments and memorials to high ranking officials.
7. Pareshnath Jain Temple
Set in a lovely small garden is the ornate Pareshnath Jain Temple, built in 1867 by a family who own a jewellery business. It’s a complex of 4 separate temples and it was the first time we had both visited a Jain temple. Jainism is an ancient Indian religion where Jains don’t worship gods or saints. They believe the world is without a beginning or an end, so don’t believe a god created the universe.
Inside the temple, it has a bling wow factor with intricate mirror and glasswork, chandeliers and marble floors. A flame in a glass box has been burning since it was built. Photography is not allowed inside the temples but is allowed on the grounds.
8. Mother Teresa’s Mother House
Just like other Indian cities we visited, Kolkata has some heartbreaking poverty that we witnessed, especially seeing the slums right next to the railway tracks. Mother Teresa spent her life helping Kolkata’s poor and disadvantaged. Mother Teresa lived and worked at Mother House, it’s also where she is buried. We visited her simple tomb and the small museum with artefacts, photographs and stories of her life. It was very peaceful and quite moving to see everything she had accomplished. We also went up the stairs to see where she lived and slept – a simple room which just a typewriter on which she answered the mail and a camp bed, reflecting the simple life she led. Mother House is open from 8am to 6pm every day except on Thursdays when it’s closed as a day of prayer for the sisters.
Mother House is considered by pilgrims one of the most important places to visit in Kolkata.
9. South Park Street Cemetery
Our guide Mukherjee thought because we’re from the UK we might like to see the South Park Street Cemetery where many senior officials of the British Raj were buried. It closed in 1830 and is now a heritage site and is an interesting place for a visit. A little bit spooky walking around the gardens seeing all the old gothic-looking tombs, there’s around 1,600 here. It’s certainly one of the most unique places to visit in Kolkata.
10. Shop at New Market (Hogg Market)
In Central Kolkata is New Market, also known as Hogg Market with 2,000 indoor shops. It was built by the British Raj in 1874 for the upper class to shop. Today it sells everything you can think of and the surrounding outdoor area has some even more chaotic shopping stalls and according to our guide some of the best street food in Kolkata. We headed inside the market in search of some thali dishes as a souvenir to take home. With the help of our guide Mukherjee translating, Phil haggled for 2 trays and 2 sets of thali dishes. Garth was delighted we had bought a useful souvenir to take home.
Eat Bengali Street Food – Kathi Rolls
Looking for local things to eat in Kolkata? Well, not far from the South Park Street Cemetery we tried Kolkata’s signature street food dish – Kathi rolls (or Kati rolls). Kolkata is famous for its Bengali street food and Kathi Rolls is one of the dishes invented here. We bought them from a hygienic restaurant, the Golden Spoon in the Park Street area. We ordered the chicken Kati rolls – skewer roasted chicken served in paratha wraps, veggies can choose a stuffed cheese option.
Bengalis are also big fish eaters and have a sweet tooth, locals also love Chinese food which you’ll find plenty of Chinese restaurants in the Park Street area of Kolkata. In fact, this area where we ate is a good place to start for all kinds of food options. There are street food stands, lots of smart and hip restaurants, bakeries for pastries plus western food brands like KFC and Hard Rock Cafe. We also thought it would be a good place to stay with shops and restaurants on your doorstep.
Here are some other Bengali food dishes you could try:
- Macher Jhol – A spicy fish curry of freshwater fish cooked in mustard oil.
- Mutton Biryani – A safe dish of rice, potato and tender pieces of mutton.
- Shukto – A vegetable curry of potato, pumpkin, gourd, bitter gourd and milk.
- Luchi – Deep-fried chapattis served with a small potato curry (aloo poori).
- Aloo Posto – Potato mixed with poppy seeds (posto) and chillies, served with rice or as a side dish.
- Roshogollas – A sugary dessert of cottage cheese and semolina dough balls dipped in syrup.
Getting Around Kolkata
Kolkata was the first city in India to get an underground subway – The Metro, which is the easiest way to get around Kolkata. The city also has the oldest operating tram system in Asia. We chose to hire a guide and driver for the day which was great because we could see lots of things in one day.
Other Kolkata Places To Visit & Attractions
- St Pauls Cathedral – Huge white Anglican cathedral across the road from Victoria Memorial.
- Indian Museum – India’s oldest and largest museum. Also known as The Magic House.
- Dakshineshwar Kali Temple – Huge riverside Hindu temple and complex.
- Marble Palace – 19th century mansion. Free to enter but you need a letter from the Tourism Office.
- Kalighat Temple – The oldest Hindu temple in Kolkata dedicated to Kali, the Goddess of Kolkata.
Kolkata Practical Information & Useful Advice
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Kolkata Tips
- Tip #1: Trains into Kolkata commonly arrive hours late in the winter, so you might lose half a day.
- Tip #2: Hotels are nowhere near as clean as western standards, so we took wet wipes to clean all surfaces.
- Tip #3: Many museums are closed on Mondays.
- Tip #4: At the flower market keep your belongings in front of you to avoid pick-pockets.
- Tip #5: Tipping is expected everywhere – 10%.
- What is Kolkata’s Airport Code? CCU – Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport, 9 miles from the city centre.
- What time zone is Kolkata? GMT+5:30 – India Standard Time.
- What currency is used in Kolkata? Indian Rupee (Symbol: ₹)
- What language is spoken in Kolkata? Bengali and some English.
- What is the population of Kolkata? 4.85 million
- What number should I call in an emergency? Dial 100 for police, 101 for the fire brigade and 102 for an ambulance.
- What electric plug is used in Kolkata? Plug Types C, D & M. The 3 round pin type is the most common. Voltage is 230V / 50Hz.
- What is the best time to visit Kolkata? October to March it’s dry and sunny. Evenings are cold. Check the date for the Durga Puja festival – the grandest of all festivals held in September or October.
- What is the worst time to visit Kolkata? April to May is very hot (35ºC to 40ºC). June to September is monsoon season.
- What is Kolkata famous for? Arts & literature, colonial architecture, Mother Teresa and Bengali food.
- What’s Kolkata’s history? Calcutta was established in 1686 by the British Indian empire and was the capital until 1911 when it was relocated to Delhi.
- 5 famous things in Kolkata? Victoria Memorial Hall, Mullik Ghat Flower Market, Kumartuli, Howrah Bridge and College Street.
- Kolkata local food? Kathi rolls or ‘Kati rolls’ a street food invented in Kolkata, see above for details.
- What’s the best way to get around? Kolkata is big so hire Ambassador taxis, or use the modern underground – Kolkata Metro.
- What’s a fun fact about Kolkata? Kolkata has the oldest network of electric tram-trains in Asia. It’s also the only city in India to use trams.
- What movies have been filmed in Kolkata? City of Joy (1992) with Patrick Swayze and Lion (2016) starring Dev Patel were both filmed in Kolkata.
- What is the best photo spot in Kolkata? The Mullik Ghat Flower Market has so many colourful photo opportunities.
- What is a Kolkata hidden gem? The South Park Street Cemetery is an unusual and unique place for an afternoon walk (see above).
- What is the best Kolkata souvenir? Buy a small clay statue of a god or goddess from the Kumartuli craft neighbourhood.
- What are the best 5-star hotels in Kolkata? ITC Royal Bengal, The Oberoi Grand and The Westin Kolkata Rajarhat.
How We Did It
- We stayed at a budget hotel for 2 nights – The Treebo Trend Globe International.
- We hired a guide/driver for the day by booking a Kolkata City Tour with kolkatatrips.com. It was an amazing day and cost INR 7,393 that’s £76. Our guide Mr Tirthankar Mukherjee was an incredible guide and went above and beyond to help us visit everything we wanted to. You can read our full review on TripAdvisor.
- We visited Kolkata in January which included Republic Day on the 26th January – a national holiday in India. The weather was mild during the day and cold in the evenings.
- We paid for our small group tour of India with Explore Worldwide.