Kolkata, officially known by its British name of Calcutta until 2001, has undergone a dramatic transformation over the last couple of decades. No longer identified with slums, destitution, and the inspiring work of Mother Teresa, the capital city of West Bengal is widely referred to as the cultural capital of India. Kolkata is renowned for its compelling heritage that extends across literature, arts, cinema, music and theater.
In addition, it's the only city in India to have a tram/street car network, which adds to its old-world charm. However, it's conflicting city full of captivating soul and sadly neglected crumbling buildings.
Unfortunately, people often overlook visiting Kolkata in favor of India's more iconic destinations. However, those who are most interested in history, experiential travel and day-to-day life will appreciate what it has to offer. Plan your trip there with this Kolkata information and city guide.
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.
The city's prosperity and cosmopolitan atmosphere drew an influx of Chinese migrants, starting from the late 18th century when they came to work at the city's ports.
This continued throughout the 19th century, as they fled from the effects of the Opium Wars in China. Kolkata was also shaped by the massive Renaissance social and religious reform movement in the 19th and 20th centuries, which originated in the city and spread across India. During this time, Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore rose to prominence as the first non-European Nobel Prize winner, and also composed India's national anthem.
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. The Chinese community hasn't been so lucky though. Although Kolkata has India's only Chinatown, the population has dwindled significantly after facing local opposition. The reputation of creative and intellectual Bengalis, for enjoying spirited discussions and debates, remains strong though.
Kolkata is located in West Bengal, on the east coast of India.
UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) +5.5 hours. Kolkata does not have Daylight Saving Time.
There are just over 15 million people living in Kolkata's metropolitan region, 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 visiting the city 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 season, when the weather is the coolest and temperatures range from around 25-12 degrees Celsius (77-54 degrees Fahrenheit).
Kolkata's Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport is India's fifth busiest airport and handles nearly 20 million passengers per year. It's an international airport but about 85% of its passengers are domestic travelers. A much needed, new and modern terminal (known as Terminal 2) was constructed and opened in January 2013. Further expansion plans are underway to increase the airport's capacity to 40 million passengers by 2021. This will involve linking the old terminal with the new one, and then building a third terminal.
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.
App-based cabs Uber and Ola now operate in Kolkata, and are the easier way to travel. Ola tends to be a bit cheaper than Uber but Uber has more cabs. Alternatively, the city's distinctive yellow Ambassador meter taxis are another option. The minimum fare is 30 rupees. There are also new "no refusal" taxis, most of which are air-conditioned, painted white with a blue stripe. Kolkata 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 useful for those wanting to travel north or south from one side of the city to the other. For getting around the city center, try taking a ride on Kolkata's historic trams/street cars. If you're on a strict budget, Kolkata's worn out local buses have been replaced with upgraded models (some are even air-conditioned) and they operate all over the city.
Neighborhoods in Kolkata
Kolkata is divided into three main districts -- north, central and south. North Kolkata is the atmospheric old part of the city, formerly referred to as "Black Town" by the British because it was inhabited by native Bengalis, many of whom were wealthy landowners and merchants. The district has many palatial heritage mansions, with architecture reflecting Italian and Dutch influences (you can even stay in a restored 1920s townhouse). Kumartuli, where statues of Goddess Durga are handcrafted for the Durga Puja festival, is another highlight.
Central Kolkata is predominantly associated with the British. The Central Business District is located there, along with grand British-era buildings, Park Street (the city's landmark thoroughfare), Sudder Street (the seedy backpacker "ghetto") and Camac Street (an entertainment and restaurant precinct). However, it also has cluster of interesting neighborhoods in what was known as "Grey Town", between British "White Town" and "Black Town". These include Bow Bazaar, Burra Bazaar and China Town, where people of various communities live. It's a fascinating place to go on a walking tour, such as this one. The area around College Street was the epicenter of the Bengal Renaissance and can explored on this walking tour.
South Kolkata is a relatively modern part of the city, having developed most in the years after India gained independence from the British. It has shopping malls and many upscale neighborhoods such as Tollygunge, Ballygunge, Lansdowne, Bhowanipore, Alipore, Jodhpur Park and Gariahat. Many of the old mansions around Ballygunge, built by the city's fashionable elite who relocated to the south, have been converted into hip boutique, restaurants and hotels. In contrast, one of the city's ancient temples can be found at Kalighat.
Further south, the area around South City Mall is a happening hangout for the city's younger generation.
To the east of Kolkata, Salt Lake is a planned satellite neighborhood that's become the hub of the IT sector.
What to Do
Kolkata offers an eclectic combination of attractions. Take a look at these top places to visit in Kolkata and this Kolkata photo feature to get an idea of what you shouldn't miss. An insightful walking tour is an ideal way of immersing yourself in the city.
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.
Sleeping and Eating
Most people choose to stay in and around Park Street, as it's close to the main tourist spots. The Park Hotel is the most happening hotel in the city. Backpackers head to nearby Sudder Street, where there's a plethora of inexpensive accommodations. Hotel Galaxy is a reliable choice in that area. The quirky Fairlawn Hotel on Sudder Street has a new owner but is legendary. The Astor is a standout, newly renovated heritage option only a few blocks from Park Street (and it has a hip bar). Central Bed & Breakfast is cheap and cheerful -- and central. Hotel Cecil also offers comfortable budget accommodations on College Street. The Bodhi Tree is an arty boutique guesthouse and serviced apartment in south Kolkata. It's perfect for creative types.
Many of Kolkata's other top hotels, including luxury hotels, are listed here. If you're visiting the city during Durga Puja, these hotels are conveniently close to the action. Alternatively, here are the best hotels near Kolkata airport for those who are arriving or flying out.
Bengalis are passionate about food (especially fish), so don't miss sampling some delicious Bengali cuisine at these authentic restaurants or kathi rolls (a popular street food that originated in Kolkata).
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. Short-changing and pick-pocketing are particularly prevalent. Kolkata is a reasonably safe Indian city though. However, Sudder Street does attract some undesirable types of people, including drug dealers.
Kolkata experiences 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.