Despite being the capital of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow remains an underrated tourist destination that's still off-the-beaten-track. Yet, some of the most significant events in India's history unfolded there. In 1856, when the British took over the city, it was ruled by the Nawabs (noblemen) of Awadh. These Shia Muslims came from Persia in the early 18th century and gained control of the region when the Mughal empire crumbled.
The locals greatly resented the British presence, especially after the British banished the last nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, to Calcutta. When the First War of Indian Independence (also known as the Indian Revolt and the Sepoy Mutiny) started in 1857, they were eager to join in. This culminated in an intense five-month siege at the Residency building, which was occupied by the British. Although the rebels were successful in ousting the British, the British fought back brutally and reconquered the region 18 months later.
While lovers of history and architecture will no doubt be delighted by Lucknow, the city is also renowned for its cuisine, arts, and crafts.
Uttar Pradesh Tourism conducts an inexpensive guided heritage walk that's highly recommended for becoming acquainted with Lucknow's Old City and the major monuments from the Nawabi era. This well-planned walk covers Teele Wali Masjid, the landmark Bara Imambara, Gol Darwaza and Akbari Darwaza gates, lively alleyways of Chowk Bazaar, and Phool Wali Gali (flower seller lane). It also provides an opportunity to get immersed in local life and culture. You'll be encouraged to interact with the people you encounter in the market area and hear their stories. The walk runs daily from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. April through September, and 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. October through March. The cost for foreigners is 330 rupees per person. Tornos offers an outstanding personal walking tour of the Chowk Bazaar area too.
Reimagine the Rein of the Nawabs
Uttar Pradesh Tourism's second guided walk focuses on the Kaiserbagh palace complex, which was completed by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in 1850. Unfortunately, the British destroyed a lot of it after the failed uprising in 1858. It's said to have been the most spectacular of all Awadh palaces, meticulously designed with landscaped gardens, markets, mosques, audience halls, and opulent living quarters. A bit of imagination and a good guide will give you an idea of what it was like to live there. An alternative option for exploring Kaiserbagh is the Wajid Ali Shah Walk conducted by Tornos. It includes tea at Kotwara House, which is part of the palace complex and is now the home of filmmaker Muzaffar Ali.
Retrace British History
The British Residency building was the stage of the dramatic 19th-century battle over Lucknow, and now bears the scars of the siege. The building was reduced to ruins during the fighting and thousands of lives were lost. Indentations from cannon balls and bullets punctuate its walls. A newly restored museum (closed Fridays) on the premises provides information about the battle. Entry tickets cost 300 rupees for foreigners and 25 rupees for Indians. A cemetery surrounding the ruins of Saint Mary's church is another attraction. The bodies of those who died in the mutiny (including Sir Henry Lawrence, who led the defense) are buried there. History buffs may wish to take this informative Residency Reconstructed tour and/or Lucknow Mutiny Tour.
Stay in a Restored Heritage Mansion
Further relive the bygone era and its architectural splendor at the Lebua Lucknow—an elegant 1936 art deco mansion that was recently restored and opened as a boutique heritage hotel. The hotel, which is perhaps the coolest hotel in the city, certainly shows that heritage doesn't have to be staid. It attracts trendy young couples and families on vacation and, it's conveniently close to heritage sites such as Bara Imambara and the Residency. What's more, it has an iconic classic yellow Ambassador car for guests to go sightseeing in. Refurbishment was a passionate labor of love for the husband and wife owners, who saved the property from dereliction. There are 41 guest rooms, two restaurants (one serves authentic Awadhi cuisine), lounge bar, rooftop bar, fitness center, and swimming pool. Expect to pay about 7,500 rupees per night for a double room.
Discover Awadhi Cuisine
Lucknow's distinctive Awadhi cuisine is widely influenced by Mughal cooking techniques. However, it's the "dum" style of cooking over a slow fire that the city is renowned for. The cuisine features richly spiced dishes such as biryani, kebabs, keema (minced meat), and nihari (meat stew). Mutton—beware that it's goat, not sheep—is used extensively. Vegetarians don't have to worry about starving though, as there are dishes without meat. If you're an adventurous eater, you'll find plenty of local delicacies along the streets of Aminabad Bazaar. Hugely popular Tunday Kebabi has been in business for more than a century there. Get to know the restaurants of Aminabad on a food trail conducted by Lucknow Magic. The specialist Culinary Walk and Beyond the Kebab Walk offered by Tornos are excellent as well. For a really memorable time, you can even dine with royalty and sample their secret family recipes!
If you think the food in Lucknow is delicious and want to learn how to make it yourself, a cooking class will help you understand the complexities of the cuisine and give you some hands-on involvement. Tornos arranges three very different types of classes. A 2 to 3-hour session in a private kitchen with a local family concentrates on the nuances of a single dish that's easy to replicate back home. Those who want to see a whole meal being prepared will appreciate an experiential dining experience, which takes place with a chef in the Tornos artisanal kitchen called Coquina. Or, for something really different, try the village cuisine experience. You'll be taken to a nearby village to observe and taste traditional cooking on a wood fire.
Relax at Ambedkar Memorial Park
Walk off your gluttony, or walk up an appetite, at the expansive and modern Ambedkar Memorial Park. The park was constructed out of marble and red sandstone from Rajasthan in memory of Doctor Bhimrao Ambedkar, who drafted the Indian Constitution. It features more than 50 large stone elephants, a bronze statue of Ambedkar, murals, and a museum with statues of other social reformers. The best time to visit is just before sunset. Plan to spend at least an hour there and stay to see it beautifully illuminated in the evening. There's an entry fee of 10 rupees.
Enjoy a Sundowner With Spectacular Views
Lucknow's highest bar, Sky Bar, is situated on the 16th floor of the stylish Renaissance hotel, overlooking Ambedkar Memorial Park and the city in Gomti Nagar. The bar is a contemporary place with open-air seating, pool, creative cocktails, and appetizers. It's open daily from noon until midnight. There's a party atmosphere with music on Friday and Saturday nights.
Pose With Sir Cliff Richard
Are you a Cliff Richard fan? If so, don't miss out on posing in front of his mural. It was painted in early 2018 as part of a city beautification project featuring six notable individuals who were born in Lucknow. The project was undertaken as a collaboration between the Lucknow Development Authority, Delhi Street Art, and Colorothon (a platform that encourages people to get together and draw or paint). You'll find the mural on the side of Shaheed Path flyover near Indira Gandhi Pratishthan in Gomti Nagar.
Check Out the Craft Workshops
Apart for its cuisine, Lucknow is also famed for its delicate floral chikan embroidery. It appears mostly on saris and along the necklines of kurtas (a loose collarless shirt). The best place to see it, and other crafts, is in the congested Chowk market area of the Old City, where numerous workshops are tucked away. Lines of shops stock embroidered garments for all age groups too. A Bazaar Walk hosted by Lucknow Magic includes visits to chikan workshops, as well as silver foil and block printing workshops. If you're really interested in chikan embroidery, you can also take a half-day course in a designer's studio.
See Clothes Being Washed Beside the River
A walk along the Gomti River will reward you with an offbeat attraction that's integral to the city's functionality—the dhobi ghats where clothes are manually washed, by rhythmically beating them against the rocks, and hanging them out to dry in the sunshine. The dhobis (washermen) specialize in starching and ironing garments that have just been embroidered. Start at Kudia Ghat, which is a 5-minute walk north of Rumi Darwaza near Bara Imambara. Boat rides are also available from the ghat.
Watch or Learn Kathak Dancing
Thanks to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the artistic last ruler of the city, Lucknow is also highly regarded for its graceful kathak classical dance that depicts love and romance. The Nawab was passionate about kathak and it developed mainly in his royal court. He trained in the dance until he perfected it, and shaped its modern form. Out of the three styles of kathak in India, Lucknow's is considered to be superior due to its intricate movements. (The other styles originated in Jaipur and Varanasi). You can participate in a kathak learning and appreciation session, watch the dancers train, or receive an interpretation of the dance.
Experience the Muharram Festival
Muharram is the biggest festival in Lucknow. It's a period of mourning for Shia Muslims, held to commemorate the death of Hussein ibn Ali (the grandson of Prophet Muhammad) during the 7th century Battle of Karbala. However, what makes the festival unique is that Hindus also reverently join in the rituals, unifying both religions. Chhota Imambara is beautifully decorated with chandeliers and lighting during the festival. Muharram will take place from Aug. 18 to Oct. 26, 2020, with special events such as processions on selected days. Tornos offers educational tours that incorporate lectures, documentaries, and participation in events and rituals.