How best to spend 48 hours in Kolkata, India
Forty-eight hours in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, is not enough. But if this is all the time you have, we can help you make the most of your stay. This colonial city in West Bengal was developed by the British East India Company and then the British Empire. Today, it is considered India’s intellectual heartland and cultural capital.
The best way to begin your adventure among the riot of colour and sounds here is by taking the local tram – the oldest in Asia and the only one you will find in India. With the help of my guide, Leena, I was given a snapshot of bustling Kolkata from the tram window, as we passed through some of the most historic areas before disembarking at the Maidan, near St Paul’s Cathedral and the iconic Victoria Memorial, a magnificent spectacle of white marble.
To absorb the atmosphere and observe local life at its most authentic, spend an hour or so meandering through the streets. The pavements are dotted with a plethora of sellers, portable hair salons, shoe shiners and parked rickshaws with their drivers eagerly awaiting their next customer.
Leena took me on a short culinary walk for some well-deserved snacks. Street food here is among the best in India and I would highly recommend tasting the Kolkata version of ‘pani puri’, called ‘puchka’, a traditional and very popular quick bite. This was finished off with a clay pot of chai before I returned to my hotel.
It was an early start the following morning, as it was my only full day to squeeze in as much as I possibly could. Leena took me to Howrah Junction railway station where we joined the throng of rush-hour commuters, as thousands teemed across the Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River. Howrah Junction is the oldest and largest train station in the country, and to see it at its busiest (and noisiest) was somewhat exciting.
Just opposite the station is the jetty for the public ferry, which transferred me across the Hooghly River. On the other side, I was met by an enormous warren of vibrant stalls at the Mullik Ghat Flower Market, my new favourite in Asia. By around 10am, masses of fresh blooms are brought in along the Hooghly, adding to the sensational atmosphere. Flowers are such an integral part of Indian life, and the garlands – used in many Indian festivals – are evidence of an incredible art form that has been perfected over many years.
There are more than 50 religious festivals in the calendar year, so there is usually an opportunity to experience one, and we know all the secrets of how to get the most out of them. Luckily, my time in Kolkata coincided with the Durga Puja – a 300-year-old annual event, which celebrates the Hindu goddess Durga and her victory over evil. It marks a five-day holiday for Hindus, which meant that the city’s backstreets were crammed with people alongside clay representations of gods and goddesses, and huge, opulently decorated temples assembled purely for the festival. In all my visits to India, I have never seen as much colour as I did then. Leena took me to all the right places and made me feel part of the festivities.
As the day was drawing to a close, I had time to visit some of Kolkata’s most interesting temples and important buildings, including the intricate Parasnath Jain Temple, the Marble Palace and the Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary (or the Portuguese Church), before finishing at the Kalighat Kali Temple.
The city’s colonial history is inescapable and many of the main roads are lined with Western-style architecture, the last traces of the Raj. Church yards are full of monuments bearing testament to a bygone age, and the imperious Victoria Memorial stands proud, commemorating the peak of the British Empire in India.
Kolkata can, at times, seem quite overwhelming, but it’s hard to find a more intriguing city, with its ‘Old World’ air still very much in tact. My advice would be to go in the winter months, when it’s a bit cooler, and to give yourself enough time here – three to four days would combine very well with some trekking in glorious Sikkim and tea sampling in peaceful Darjeeling.