Now known as Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), this city was the capital during the British reign over India. Thus, if you really want to get a glimpse of India’s iconic history, you should definitely plan a trip here. This beauty of a city is known for a cultural vibe like quite nothing else in the world. The city speaks for itself, and the warmth of the locals here will not only make you fall in love with the place but also spread smiles all around. Hence, quite literally it is renowned as the ‘city of joy’! Expect awe-inspiring architecture, vibrant local bazaars, loads of ‘mishti doi’ (sweet dessert yogurt), extremely friendly locals and what is regarded as the most delightful sounding language of the world (Bengali), humming all around you.
Though there are infinite things to do and see in this historic city, here’s my insider’s list…
The Top 12 Things To Do In Kolkata (In No Particular Order)
1. Head To The BBD Bagh
Initially called the ‘Dalhousie Square,’ BBD Bagh is one of the most iconic areas of Kolkata and the oldest square. This area has a completely different feel as it was greatly influenced by the British colonial architecture. Created as the hub of the British East India Company’s trading post, even today a lot of the political and vital commercial East India activities are centered from this square.
Here, you can expect to see some of the grandest and most beautiful buildings of the city — many of which had been built during the British Raj and still stand tall as manifestations of the city’s rich historical relevance.
Go see the main government buildings such as the Raj Bhavan situated to the south of the square and where the governor himself resides.
Also, don’t miss out on the Writers Building right in the center — one of my favorite buildings of the city. You’ll see why.
St. John’s Church, also in the square, is magnificent and one of the most exceptional instances of the remnants of the British architecture in Kolkata. It was modeled after the ‘St Martin in the Fields’ church in Trafalgar Square, London.
2. Visit The Victoria Memorial
Another breathtaking historically eminent building that is a must-see when in Kolkata! This marble memorial was built after Queen Victoria’s death (1819–1901) and is now lit up in different colors each day. Surrounding it is a huge garden that makes a great spot for sightseeing, picnics, art, and photography.
The inside of the Victoria Memorial is now a museum to help you understand more about Kolkata’s past and how the structure came into being.
A visit to the memorial would be incomplete without a buggy ride on one of the many horse-driven chariots lined outside. If you are visiting during the winter, the experience of riding around the most appealing green and enchanting areas of the city, in an exquisitely decorated carriage can be otherworldly.
3. Check Out The Howrah Bridge
The most popular icon used for Kolkata and featured in plenty of Bollywood movies, the Howrah Bridge — with its structures protruding upwards magnificently into space and extending over the Hooghly River — is one of the things for which the city is indeed known.
The bridge connects the city to the ‘Howrah’ area, and despite being the oldest (opened in 1943), it still stands in all its glory as one of the busiest bridges supporting a maximum number of vehicles each week. Fun fact: It is the 6th longest bridge of its kind in the whole world.
4. See The Making Of Idols In KumarTuli
Are you a sucker for anything that screams art and culture?! KumarTuli will surely tantalize your senses and leave you with tons of artsy inspiration. Pronounced often as ‘Coomartuli,’ this cultural hotspot is located on the North side of the city along the Hooghly River and is the traditional abode, workplace, and paradise of all potters and sculptors.
Imagine beautiful clay modeling all done by hand in front of you. People from all around the world visit Kolkata at the time of ‘Durga Puja’ — the most famous festival of the city celebrated during September and October each year. During this time, everyone is holidaying, observing, and rejoicing the arrival of the goddess, Maa Durga.
Thousands of larger than life idols are made, all in this one vibrant neighborhood of Kumartuli. Go explore to see exquisitely modeled idols as they come into existence (even when it is not Durga Puja since idols are made for exports as well), a riot of colors and a trade center so busy and alive!
5. Go Shopping In The New Market
It is definitely not ‘new,’ but it’s often said that if you cannot find something in New Market, you cannot find it at all in Kolkata!
Not for the faint-hearted, prepare for an extremely busy day with lots of walking and haggling. Expect to find some of the best buys here with separate areas dedicated to specific products such as artificial flowers, décor, plastic items, shoes, edibles, clothes, electronics — you name it, the New Market has it.
Munch on the ‘daal pakodas’ sold by the many hawkers of the area with the accompanying spicy green chutney for an even more authentically local experience.
6. Get Schooled On College Street
This larger than life second-hand book market (1.5 KM long road) houses stalls and stalls of independent sellers dealing in only books. There is rarely ever a book that you are unable to find here. So if you’re looking for some really ancient copy that you have tried time and again to get your hands on but have failed, College Street is where you should look next.
Just the sheer passion, excitement and knowledge that these sellers share with regard to books and reading is enough to make the day of any bookworm or avid reader. So if you eat, sleep, and breathe books — this place shall be your ultimate happy!
7. Experience The Beauty Of Princep Ghat
There are a lot of beautiful spots and things to do in Kolkata, but this has to be my personal favorite! Princep Ghat is the perfect place for a romantic date or a nice destination to enjoy on your own and admire in awe, how magical the entire setting is. Imagine being up close to the Hooghly river bank of the city and taking a shikara (wooden boat) ride passing under the even more magnificent ‘Setu’ Bridge into the hearts of the Ganges!
Usually costing 500 INR, I would suggest going around early evening, just as the sun begins to set so that once you’re on the boat, you can see the Setu bridge and the city’s picturesque scene all lit up in golden hues. Expect lots of local street food, lots of Instagram-worthy pictures, plus the sound of the trains from the nearby tracks adding to the nostalgic charm of the place.
8. Take A Drive Over Vidyasagar Setu
Yes, the same Setu that makes the Princep Ghat so splendid! The Vidyasagar Setu Bridge deserves a separate mention because, among all of the things to do in Kolkata, it is one of those hotspots that I love going back to time and time again. Get in a car and drive over the bridge during early evenings to see the sun setting on the river bank. Structured beautifully with horizontal protruding arms, I find this one even more beautiful than the iconic Howrah Bridge and a Sunday sunset drive here is one of the many things that keeps me in love with this magical city. You will be asked to pay a customary toll, but I say it is worth it.
9. Check Out The Malik Ghat Flower Market
At the foot of one of the ends of the Howrah Bridge, you will find a ‘bazaar’ truly unique and always bustling with life and colors! Think truckloads of flowers auctioned off to retailers each day. Varieties, hues, and qualities that are unheard of — the Malik Ghat Flower Market is literally as flowery as it gets.
Kolkata boasts of substantial religious beliefs, festivals, high profile celebrations, weddings, décor and more, and all the flowers for these occasions are ultimately sourced from this one hell of a market. So go here for your own escape to a scented floral heaven and take your picks!
10. Visit Mother’s Wax Museum
Located in the newly planned Rajerhat extension of the city, Mother’s Wax Museum is more like Kolkata’s take on the Madame Tussauds museum. Kolkata artisans are highly regarded as some of the best talents in the world, and they take their wax figures seriously. Take your cameras and your kids along for an experience full of fun. See and get to know more about the major influencers in Bengal and of India in general for an insight into the culture and history.
11. Explore The Park Street Area
If you are in Kolkata during Christmas and are afraid of missing out on the festivities back in your city, I assure you, you’re going to feel right at home here — especially on Park Street! One of the most central and buzzing stretches of Kolkata; this is a hub for all things entertaining — some of the best restaurants (old and new popular chains), bars, nightclubs and the liveliest vibe.
The Park Street area is decorated all sparkly and Christmassy during the winter! However at any given time throughout the year, you can expect tons of happy faces, lots of options to choose from and some of the most iconic places to eat and drink.
You have to try Mocambo or Peter Cat as the locals and tourists swear by these, and they’re among the oldest yet busiest restaurants of all times. Order the ‘Chelo Kebab’ at Peter Cat and the continental at Mocambo. My favorite restaurant in the area, however, has to be BarBQ (Indian and Indianised Chinese food). If you want to have some breezy cocktails by the poolside, try Aqua located in the Park Hotel for a lovely ambiance and a chilled vibe.
12. Grab An Authentic Bengali Meal
How can you leave Kolkata without actually exploring Bengali food? Get lunch at either 6 Ballygunge Place or Aaheli for a quintessential authentic experience and a burst of ‘Bangla’ (typically Bengal) flavors.
Try the ‘Pabda Macher Jhal’ at 6 Ballygunge, which is a fish curry but a bit on the spicier side. Nevertheless, it is extremely delicious and rich with the flavors of mustard and poppy seeds (Kolkata’s Bengali cuisine is known for and uses tons of fish and mustard).
Order the ‘Chingri Malaikari,’ coconut based curry with prawns in Aaheli (get set for a typical ‘bangla’ experience with live Bengali music and servers clad in traditional attires). Whatever you eat, don’t forget the ‘chaal’ (rice, a staple in Bengal) as the best accompaniment to any curry or fish and the ‘mishti doi’ to finish up the meal and cleanse your palette!
So, there you have it, my ultimate list of the top 12 things to do in Kolkata. Ready to book your trip?
Author’s Favourite Travel Gear
LA Fresh Eco-Beauty Cleansing Wipes: Especially essential during the summers, these facial wipes are extremely handy and will leave you feeling fresh and cooler within seconds. Kolkata can get quite humid so it is advisable to carry something like this in your handbags at all time if you’re not used to humidity. This also doubles up as a makeup remover so perfect for traveling.
Portable Travel Makeup Cosmetic Bag: I love this travel kit which can house my cosmetics and makeup in such an efficient yet space–friendly manner. It’s the perfect organizer for my products and comes in a lovely floral design.
Coola Suncare Sunscreen Spray: When going to India, make sure you have a good sunscreen! The heat — even during winters — and the suns direct rays can be maddening when one is not used to such weather conditions so protecting your skin is extremely important. I love this sunscreen because it also doubles up as a coolant.