Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), more than anything, is an emotion, and one that people find difficult to put into words. The capital of British India from 1772 to 1911, and now the capital of West Bengal state, Kolkata blends its history under British rule with its Bengali roots and the influence of immigrant communities. These top things to do in Kolkata will connect you to the heart and soul of the city. In addition, check out our Kolkata city guide for help with planning your trip.
Start by acquainting yourself with Kolkata's heritage at any of its informative museums. One of the city's most imposing monuments, Victoria Memorial, houses an impressive Indo-British art history museum, while the city's new generation of themed museums have dynamic exhibitions on Bengali theater, film, art, and culture. The ancestral homes of acclaimed Bengali poet Rabindrinath Tagore and spiritual leader Swami Vivekenanda have also been turned into museums that document their lives.
Wander Through Historic Neighborhoods
One of the most absorbing things to do in Kolkata is simply wander the streets. The city is divided into distinct neighborhoods, their names a reflection of colonial-era segregation and stratification when Kolkata was the capital of British India. So-called "White Town," around Chowringhee Road and Dalhousie Square, is where the British and Europeans lived and worked; today, it is known for landmarks such as Raj Bhavan and the Currency Building. Meanwhile, "Black Town" in the north is where wealthy Bengalis resided, the Shobhabazar Rajbari perhaps the most prominent among the palaces. In between both neighborhoods is "Grey Town," home to the city's diverse immigrant communities. Ideally, sign up for a walking tour for the most immersive experience.
Marvel Over Palatial Noble Homes
Several grand aristocratic homes provide a glimpse into the well-heeled lifestyles of their Bengali owners. Illustrious Bengali merchant and art connoisseur Raja Rajendra Mullick made his Marble Palace out of some 100 types of the rock in the 19th century. Inside is an eccentric collection of valuables from around the world. Entry is free, though foreigners will need to get a pass in advance from the West Bengal Tourism office at BBD Bagh; otherwise, you must pay a fee to the guard. Nearby, 18th-century Sovabazar Rajbari is a prominent example of early Bengali noble architecture. It was built by Raja Nabakrishna Deb, who had close ties with the British East India Company.
Further afield, Itachuna Rajbari and Rajbari Bawali are now heritage hotels that can be visited on day trips from Kolkata. Both are about an hour and a half from the city, albeit in different directions. Itachuna Rajbari has guided tours and evening aartis (worship rituals).
Stay in a Heritage Hotel
Don't pass up the opportunity to stay at Calcutta Bungalow, a cozy 1920s Bengali townhouse. A home-away-from-home, it has been thoughtfully restored with contemporary and antique features, and even has its own vintage Ambassador car! The Lalit Great Eastern Hotel and The Oberoi Grand are outstanding 19th-century luxury options in the heart of the city, while the legendary Fairlawn Hotel on Sudder Street is still steeped in history dating back to 1783.
If you're looking for a bargain and can brave the crowds, New Market—with its undercover maze of 2,000-plus stores—stocks almost everything imaginable. Often the subject of photos, the flower market at Mullick Ghat (next to Howrah Bridge), is also worth a visit. Or, check out the lesser-known Mechhua fruit market in north Kolkata or the 24-hour Koley vegetable market near Sealdah railway station, both of which are devoid of tourists. In south Kolkata, a floating market in Patuli—India's first—is a new attraction with more than 50 stationary boats.
Explore the Riverside Ghats
Kolkata's riverside ghats (steps leading down to the water) are an integral part of the city where life and religious rituals are played out. Many have become dilapidated, but have significant stories to tell about the city's past. Prinsep Ghat is beautifully illuminated in the evening and is an appealing place to relax; it's even possible to walk from here to Babu Ghat, between Vidyasagar Setu and Howrah Bridge, along a 1.2-mile stretch of landscaped riverfront. Other notable ghats include Ahiritola, Nimtala, Jagannath, Prasanna Kumar Tagore’s, Armenian, and Mutty Lal Seal. The Ganges Walk conducts guided tours of them upon request.
Take a Boat on the Hooghly River
The Hooghly River, which separates Kolkata from its twin city Howrah, is best enjoyed by boat at sunset. Most convenient is a traditional nouko from Prinsep Ghat, which holds up to four people and costs 400 rupees for a 30-minute ride. If you don't mind splurging, another option is Calcutta Walks private three-hour sunset river cruise, which includes a visit to Belur Math. West Bengal Tourism also conducts regular evening Hooghly Boat Cruises. For those traveling on a super tight budget, you can opt for the inexpensive local ferry service for a ride on the river.
Cross the Howrah Bridge
Opened to traffic in 1943, the Howrah Bridge (officially called Rabindra Setu, after Rabindranath Tagore) links Kolkata with Howrah just north of BBD Bagh. One of the longest bridges of its type in the world, it has a single span without any pylons connecting it to the river bed. Approximately 150,000 vehicles and one million pedestrians use the bridge each day. To get a feel for why it's said to be the busiest bridge in the world, you really must walk across it!
Ride a Tram
Dating back to 1902, Kolkata's tramway is said to be the oldest one operating in Asia, with trams unlike any other in India trundling slowly along set north-south routes in the city. Routes 5, 11, 18, 25, 24/29, and 36 are currently functional; buy a 100 rupee ($1.40) Tram Pass for unlimited travel for a day and entry to Tram World museum at Gariahat Tram Depot. Alternatively, you can get a single one-way trip, which won't cost more than 7 rupees. Details of routes and a map are available online here.
Feast on Local Food
Bengali cuisine itself is commonly flavored with mustard and mustard oil, and also incorporates distinctive dishes made from flowers such as banana and pumpkin. Fish, too, is a mealtime staple in West Bengal, and Kolkata is especially famed for its kathi rolls. Those with a sweet tooth should sample popular dairy-based desserts such as mishti doi and rasgulla. Head to any of these authentic Bengali restaurants in Kolkata to sample some of the city's best cuisine.
Step Back in Time at a Heritage Eatery
Many of Kolkata's eateries have historical or cultural significance—some are more than a century old! In 2019, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) awarded heritage status to 14 of them in recognition of their longevity. These include the Indian Coffee House (1942), Mocambo (1941), and Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy sweets (1844). Other iconic establishments loved by tourists and locals alike are Flurys tearoom, Peter Cat for chelo kebabs, Arsalan for Kolkata-style biryani, and 115 year-old Jewish bakery Nahoum’s for cakes and pastries.
Visit the Temples
There are several important temples dedicated to goddess Kali, the fearsome dark mother who presides over Kolkata. Kalighat Temple draws the most devotees and is fascinating, albeit crowded. One of the largest Kali temples in eastern India, Dakshineshwar Kali Temple, alongside the Hoogly River on the city's northern outskirts, is more orderly and peaceful. Downriver, Belur Math was founded by Swami Vivekananda, and hosts a sunset aarti ritual worth attending. Those who are interested in temple architecture will also appreciate that of Birla Mandir, inspired by the Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha. Pareshnath Jain Temple (Calcutta Jain Temple) has intriguing architecture, colorful stained glass, and a continuously burning lamp, too.
See Hindu Idols Being Made at Kumartuli
The Kumartuli potters colony in north Kolkata is a hive of activity in the lead-up to festivals, when idols are handcrafted out of clay especially for the occasions. Most of the action occurs from June to January, with the months before the Durga Puja festival being the busiest time. The colony is made up of rows of small workshops, and you can walk through at leisure and stop by whichever ones grab your attention. The idol-makers are welcoming and used to tourists.
Experience a Festival
Durga Puja is the biggest festival of the year in Kolkata, taking place in September or October each year. The mother goddess, Durga, is believed to descend to Earth during the week-long festival, and spectacular themed displays of her take over the city. The fun continues as people visit them all, before the idols are taken out and immersed in the river on the last day. Kolkata is one of the best places in India to experience Christmas, too, with a special Christmas festival happening along Park Street. And in February, the city's Chinese community celebrates Chinese New Year.
Enjoy the Nightlife
Park Street is the hub of Kolkata's thriving nightlife, with The Park Hotel being the focal point. However, there are bars and clubs all over the city where you can get your groove on to live music, electronica, and Indian Bollywood. Or, settle into a comedy club for laughs instead. Our guide to nightlife in Kolkata will point you in the right direction.
The Times of India, Serving Kolkata’s taste buds for decades, 14 iconic eateries set to get heritage tag, December 5, 2019.