Mumbai, the financial capital of India, is the proverbial melting pot of cultures. To the casual visitor, the city may look like a mass of untamed urban sprawl. However, many different migrant communities have left their mark since the British acquired the seven Bombay islands from the Portuguese in the 17th century and started developing them. Explore these nostalgic, cool Mumbai neighborhoods to uncover the city's heritage and diversity.
The Fort neighborhood in South Mumbai gets its name from Fort George, which the British East India Company built there in 1769. Although the fort was demolished in 1865, a small portion still remains. The British established themselves within the walls of the fort, and the neighborhood was the heart of the city before much of it got destroyed by fire in 1803. It has some of the finest Victorian Gothic buildings in the world including Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Railway Station, plus the Town Hall, and institutions such as the Reserve Bank of India and Bombay Stock Exchange. Historic restaurants, homes and temples belonging to the Parsi community are also of interest.
However, the coolest part of the Fort district is undoubtedly the Kala Ghoda (Black Horse) Arts Precinct, named after an equestrian statue of King Edward VII. This compelling cultural hub is filled with art galleries, museums, boutiques, and some of the city's most popular restaurants. The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival takes place there every year in February.
Bordering Fort, Colaba was one of the seven islands, separated by swamps, that originally made up Bombay. Its main thoroughfare, Colaba Causeway, was constructed by the British East India Company in 1838. Rapid development of the neighborhood followed, and it has now morphed into the city's unofficial tourist district. Two of the most notable landmarks are the Gateway of India, and opulent Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel. In contrast, Colaba also has one of the oldest and largest wholesale fish markets in India, at Sassoon Dock.
The neighborhood continues to have an old-world feel, with predominant Colonial and Art Deco styles of architecture. However, its cool quotient has grown in recent years with the opening of a number of new hipster hangouts, hotels, and boutiques. These include Effingut Pub, Colaba Social, Abode, and Clove The Store. Long-standing, iconic Leopold Cafe (opened in 1871) and Cafe Mondedar (opened in 1932) have retained their popularity too.
Matharpacady village, sequestered in the lanes of Mazgaon, is a heritage precinct that's been home to the city's Catholic East Indian community for some 200 years. Mazgaon was another of the seven Bombay islands. It became a trendy and cosmopolitan outlying suburb of the city in the late 17th century after it was linked by the land reclamation process, and Mazgaon Docks opened up. Most of the village residents were connected with the shipping industry. Stepping into the serene village is like entering a living museum where old wooden and stone Indo-Portuguese mansions have been remarkably-well preserved amid encroaching modern apartment towers. The neighborhood really comes alive for Christmas.
No Footprints informative guided Matharpacady Walk is recommended for sightseeing and ends with tea at an East Indian residence.
A few miles away, near Girgaum Chowpatty in South Mumbai, Khotachiwadi is another historic village with characterful Indo-Portuguese heritage homes. It also dates back to the late 18th century, when a land owner sold plots to locals. Unfortunately, the neighborhood's longevity is limited too, as residents move out and developers are keen to construct high-rise buildings. For a memorable immersive experience, book a stay at the house of distinguished Indian fashion designer and heritage activist James Ferreira. He has opened a section of it as a bed and breakfast. Apart from being a very interesting person, he's full of knowledge and is happy to chat to guests when free. Guitarist and singer Wilfred "Willy Black" Felizardo is another cool resident of Khotachiwadi. His house (number 57) is brightly covered in mosaics and filled with curios.
Mumbai's cotton mills proliferated in industrial Lower Parel during the early 1900s, until the Depression of the 1920s and competition from Japan after World War II caused stagnation to set in. Redevelopment of the defunct mills got underway in 1992, as part of a plan to modernize the neighborhood. The Phoenix Mills, Kamala Mills, Raghuvanshi Mills Mathuradas Mills compounds have since been turned into cool retail and dining destinations, with some of Mumbai's hottest restaurants, bars and microbreweries. Shop 'til you drop at High Street Phoenix mall, and stay in luxury at the Saint Regis Hotel.
Often referred to as the "Queen of the Suburbs", fashionable Bandra West was originally a Portuguese settlement that continued to exist after the British gained possession of the Bombay islands further south. It was eventually integrated with the rest of the city. Yet, the Portuguese influence is pervasive, and the neighborhood's liberal attitudes have made it a firm favorite with the city's hipsters and celebrities.
Bandra West began evolving into Mumbai's coolest suburb in the 1950s, when film director Mehboob Khan established Mehboob Studios there. Nowadays old churches, upscale bars and restaurants, trendy tea houses, coffee shops, organic stores, yoga studios, and performance spaces all jostle for space. And, ancestral Portuguese-style heritage bungalows co-exist with modern street art at Ranwar village. This guided tour offered by Mumbai Magic is a great way to explore the neighborhood.
Affluent beachside Juhu is another of Mumbai's sought-after suburbs and is home to many Bollywood celebrities including Amitabh Bachchan (the Big B). Like many other parts of Mumbai, Juhu was once an island. Its main beach is a suburban version of South Mumbai's Girgaum Chowpatty, with rows of snack stalls and a carnival-like atmosphere on Sunday afternoons.
Stay at one of the top beachfront hotels in Juhu, and you'll feel miles away from the hectic city. Watch the sunset with a cocktail during happy hours at the Novotel's seaside lounge, Gadda da Vida. Dine on fine Italian cuisine at Cecconi's, the open-to-the-public restaurant at exclusive Soho House. Catch a play at the Prithvi Theater, which belongs to one of the most influential families in Bollywood, and grab a bite to eat in its cool cafe. The sprawling ISKCON temple complex is an attraction in the neighborhood too.
Malabar Hill juts out from the rest of the city and is best known as an exclusive residential neighborhood that's home to top government officials (including the Governor of Maharashtra who lives there in Raj Bhawan). The British began to populate Malabar Hill after the fire in the Fort district, and the city's elite also relocated there after the fort was demolished.
Apart from mansion-spotting, the neighborhood offers an outstanding view over Girgaum Chowpatty and Marine Drive from the viewpoint in Kamala Nehru Park. Opposite, manicured Hanging Gardens features an odd menagerie of topiary animals. However, the real attraction is tucked away on the tip of Malabar Hill, bordered by towering apartment buildings. Banganga Tank is thought to be the oldest continually inhabited place in Mumbai, and there are more than 100 temples in its vicinity. It really feels like time has stood still there.