Mumbai, the financial capital of India, is the proverbial melting pot of cultures. Many different migrant communities have left their mark on the city since the British acquired the seven Bombay islands from the Portuguese in the 17th century and started developing them. These cool neighborhoods to explore in Mumbai reveal the city's diversity.
Mumbai's Fort neighborhood gets its name from Fort George, built there by the British East India Company 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 the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Railway Station, as well as institutions such as the Reserve Bank of India and Bombay Stock Exchange. It also has historic restaurants, homes and temples belonging to the Parsi community.
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 has 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. A unique and memorable way of exploring the area is on Khaki Tour's Fort Ride Urban Safari.
Bordering the Fort neighborhood, Colaba was one of the seven islands that made up Bombay, and is now the city's top tourist district. Its main thoroughfare, Colaba Causeway, was constructed by the British East India Company in 1838. Rapid development of the neighborhood followed. Two of its 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 the 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.
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.
Khotachiwadi, near Girgaum Chowpatty in south Mumbai, is also an historic village with characterful Indo-Portuguese heritage homes. It dates back to the late 18th century, when a land owner sold plots to locals. Unfortunately, the neighborhood's longevity is limited though, as residents move out and developers are keen to construct high-rise buildings. For now, it's still possible to wander through Khotachiwadi's lanes and even stay in the neighborhood. Distinguished Indian fashion designer and heritage activist James Ferreira has opened a bed and breakfast in part of his home. 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.
Affluent coastal Juhu is another of Mumbai's sought-after suburbs, and is also 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. 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.
North of Juhu, Versova was originally inhabited by the indigenous Koli fishing community before it came under Portuguese rule. The Kolis still live in a small enclave there. Every year in January, they hold a weekend-long seafood festival, with dozens of stalls serving mouthwatering fish and beer. Thanks to a recent clean-up initiative, Versova beach is looking better than ever, and it's less crowded than adjoining Juhu.
Although the neighborhood still has a relaxed vibe to it, it's acquiring stylish new cafes and bars, and is becoming a new hangout of the city's creative people. Head to the areas around Aram Nagar I and II, and Seven Bungalows. If you're a freelancer who needs co-working facilities for the day, try Harkat Studios. If you're enthusiastic about cats, do drop by the Cat Cafe and give them some love. Aamad is where you can take a dance or yoga class. The only drawback is the scarcity of accommodations in the neighborhood.
An area of ancient and contemporary contrasts that's cut-off from the rest of Mumbai, Malabar Hill 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 attractions is tucked away on the tip of Malabar Hill, bordered by towering apartment buildings. Banganga Tank is regarded as 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.