Information About Kolkata: What to Know Before You Go

Essential Guide to Visiting India's Cultural Capital, Kolkata

Kolkata street scene.
••• Kolkata street scene. Bruno Morandi/Getty Images.

Kolkata, officially known by its British name of Calcutta until 2001, has undergone a dramatic transformation over the last decade. No longer identified with slums, destitution, and the inspiring work of Mother Teresa, Kolkata has grown into the cultural capital of India. It's a vibrant yet intimate city, full of captivating soul and crumbling buildings. In addition, Kolkata is only city in India to have a tram car network, which adds to its old-world charm.

Plan your trip there with this Kolkata information and city guide.

Kolkata History

After establishing itself in Mumbai, the British East India Company arrived in Kolkata in 1690 and began creating a base for itself there, starting with the construction of Fort William in 1702. In 1772, Kolkata was declared to be the capital of British India, and remained as such until the British decided to shift the capital to Delhi in 1911. Kolkata boomed with rapid industrial growth from the 1850s but problems began to occur after the British left. Power shortages and political action damaged the city's infrastructure. Fortunately, government reforms during the 1990s have brought about economic recovery.

Location

Kolkata is located in West Bengal, on the eastern coast of India.

Timezone

UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) +5.5 hours. Kolkata does not have Daylight Saving Time.

Population

There are just over 15 million people living in Kolkata, making it India's third largest city after Mumbai and Delhi.

Climate and Weather

Kolkata has a tropical climate that's extremely hot, wet and humid during the summer, and cool and dry during the winter. The weather in April and May is unbearable, and travel to Kolkata should be avoided during that time. Temperatures can exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day and rarely drop below 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) at night.

Humidity levels are also uncomfortably high. The best time to visit Kolkata is from November to February, after the monsoon, when the weather is the coolest and temperatures range from around 25-12 degrees Celsius (77-54 degrees Fahrenheit).

Airport Information

Kolkata's Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport is India's fifth busiest airport and handles about 10 million passengers per year. It's an international airport but over 80% of its passengers are domestic travelers. A much needed, new and modern terminal (known as Terminal 2) was constructed and opened in January 2013. The airport is located in Dum Dum, 16 kilometers (10 miles) northeast of the city. Travel time to the city center is 45 minutes to one and a half hours.

Viator offers private airport transfers from $20. They can be easily booked online.

  • Private Arrivals Transfer: From Airport to Hotel
  • Private Departures Transfer: From Hotel to Airport

Getting Around

The easiest way to travel around Kolkata is to take a taxi. The fare is twice the meter reading plus two rupees. Kolkata also has auto-rickshaws, but unlike in other cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, they operate on fixed routes and are shared with other passengers.

The Kolkata Metro, India's first underground rail network, is another option for those wanting to travel north or south from one side of the city to the other. For getting around the city center, Kolkata's historic trams are useful. Kolkata's worn local buses are noisy beasts that lurch and spew out pollution, and are only recommended for the adventurous.

What to Do

Kolkata offers an eclectic combination of historical, cultural, and spiritual attractions. Take a look at these 12 Compelling Places to Visit in Kolkata to get an idea of what you shouldn't miss.  A walking tour is an excellent way of exploring the city. As a trading hub of eastern India, Kolkata is a great place for shopping. Also make sure you try some delicious Bengali cuisine at these authentic restaurants. Although a nightlife curfew has now been imposed in Kolkata, there are still some decent places to party.

Here's where to find the most happening bars and clubs in Kolkata.

Durga Puja is the biggest festival of the year in Kolkata. Discover five ways of experiencing it. You may also like to volunteer in Kolkata. There are a range of volunteer opportunities in human trafficking.

For a hassle way of seeing the city, book one of these full-day private tours from Viator.

  • Kolkata Sightseeing Including Mother House, University of Calcutta and Victoria Memorial
  • Places of Worship in Kolkata including Mother House

Where to Stay

Most people choose to stay in and around Park Street, which is the center of Kolkata and close to most tourist attractions. Sudder Street, Kolkata's backpacker's district, is nearby. These 10 Best Hotels in Kolkata for All Budgets are recommended.

Health and Safety Information

Although the people of Kolkata are warm and friendly, a great deal of poverty still remains, making begging and scams a problem. Taxi drivers often get extra money from tourists by tampering with the meters in their cabs and making them run fast. Kolkata is a reasonably safe Indian city though. However, Sudder Street does attract some undesirable types of people, including drug dealers.

One of the most frustrating things about Kolkata is that being a Communist state, it is subject to frequent political and industrial action that brings the city to a complete standstill. During these bandhs (strikes), it's virtually impossible to get around the city as transport doesn't operate and all shops remain closed.

As always in India, it's important not to drink the water in Kolkata. Instead buy readily available and inexpensive bottled water to stay healthy. In addition, it's a good idea to visit your doctor or travel clinic well in advance of your departure date to ensure that you receive all the necessary immunizations and medications, especially in relation to illnesses such as malaria and hepatitis.