The Insider’s Guide to Mumbai series is loaded with information to help you visit and explore this expansive and vibrant city like a local. After living as an expat for so many years, I found that to really get to know a city quickly you need to stay outside of the tourist zones and hang out and eat where the locals do. You will never get a fully local experience from just a visit, but this guide series will help you see a bit of the soul that runs deep beneath this eclectic metropolis.
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What to See and Do in Mumbai
Most tourists pop through Mumbai either on business or because their train to Goa is not until the following day. Even though it is a large city, there is so much you can do to get a real sense of the city. I am not going to list the main tourist attractions you will find in your guidebook, rather just a few things that will help you get close to the real Mumbai.
Ride the local trains
The local train networks are the lifeline of this sprawling city. The open door train cars are as synonymous with Mumbai as Bollywood. Riding the trains close to rush hour will give you a great sense of the magnificent people of Mumbai. Women sitting on the floor in the ladies car peeling and preparing vegetables for dinner. Street children getting on/off the cars selling trinkets, hair ties, combs or toys for kids. Men in business suits texting or listening to music on their brand new smart phones. Gaggles of teenagers excitedly chatting in Hinglish about the latest gossip. The trains in Mumbai give a visitor an inside look into the lives of the people who call this manic city home, across the many levels of society.
For the first timer, go during off peak hours (10-3) and ride in the first class cars. Second class cars are often filled to the brim at all hours of the day. If you are a mixed group (male & female) you will have to go in the men’s first class car. If you are only females, search out the ladies only carriage. (look for the painted lady on the side of the train car as it races past you!) You will need to locate your boarding area before the train arrives as it’s a mad dash to get on/off a train at anytime of day and even more so during rush hour. Check out our post on Mumbai’s local trains for more information on how to read the signs and find your carriage. If you are brave, you can do it during rush hour to really get a sense of how this city commutes.
Depending where you are staying, ride the train to/from Bandra to the South either to Churchgate Station or VT Station (called Mumbai CST on station maps/signs). To make the most of your visit, ride the slow train on the Harbor Line to/from VT to/from Bandra. These trains are often less hectic and you have the bonus of checking out VT station in all of it’s glory before/after your journey. Buy a one way ticket so you can explore the Western line (to/from Churchgate Station) on your way back if you want.
Dhobi Ghats in Mahalaxmi
The well known and much photographed open air laundromat in the center of Mumbai is a tourist site, but it’s one that most tourists do wrong. Typically tourists peer over the bridge from Mahalaxmi station and take a few overhead shots of the clothes drying on the lines (like above!) and the washers (dhobi’s) down below doing their work. But the way to really get a feel for this is to walk down the stairs and go inside the ghats.
Lucky for you, the ghats now officially have unofficial tours! Pay a few hundred rupees and someone who speaks pretty good English will lead you around explaining everything and answering any questions you might have. The Dhobi Ghats are not just a 9-5 laundry washing operation. It is a community where people live day and night. The workers’ entire lives center around the ghat. They work, eat, sleep and raise their families here. Ask to go deep within the ghats where the classrooms/school is located. Don’t be afraid to peek into the crevices located at each and every turn. It is extraordinary to see this washing area not as just a place that is bustling with activity during the day but as an entire community that lives here night and day.
Slum & Market Tours
Tours can often be hit or miss and most often they whip you around to the major tourist attractions where you never actually interact with the place you have come to visit. But the tours hosted by Reality Tours are different. Started by an expat and a local Dharavi resident, they strive to take you to the real Mumbai (and now Delhi). Yes, they conduct the major tourist site tours, but they also offer some extraordinary tours that take you deep within this magical metropolis.
The tour that started it all for them is their very popular and highly recommended Dharavi tour. It is not a tour to showcase the poverty in Dharavi. Yes, you see poverty, but what it really shows you is the community that is Dharavi, the industry and the massive amounts of product and money that go through “Asia’s largest slum”. It is an enlightening and educational tour that I recommend to everyone who visits Mumbai. If you have small walking children (toddlers-preschoolers), you will have to contact them to find out if they can join or not. The tour takes you through small, wet walkways and up a small ladder to the roof of a building. Children in carriers would be fine, but others might find it quite hot, humid and difficult to manage the entire tour.
Besides the Dharavi tour, another fascinating tour offered by Reality Tours is the Market Tour. This tour has a great itinerary visiting a cow sanctuary in the middle of the city, Mangalas fabric market and Crawford Market all while weaving your way through tiny by-lanes crowded with people going about their every day business. This is where you will get a real sense of Mumbai and how it operates for much of the city. If you weren’t on a tour, you most likely wouldn’t venture into some of these areas for fear of getting lost (and trust me I have been there and done that many times!).
To top it off, Reality Tours is also a great social endeavor. Through their revenues Chris & Krishna have helped many projects and people living in slums, including a girls shelter I have been associated with for almost a decade. Feel good about supporting the local communities here while also getting a close up look at how many live in this city of of millions. They offer many tours now, but try sticking to ones a bit off the beaten path.
There is little open natural space in Mumbai, making a visit to the Khaneri Caves a welcome relief from the congestion and pollution of the city. The Khaneri Caves are a fun excursion for the entire family. But be prepared it is a day trip as the roads are full of potholes and traffic moves very slowly. Taking the train is possible, but hiring a driver for the day really is the best way to have the most flexibility, even if it does take longer. The Khaneri Caves are located in Sanjay Ghandi National Park. If you have time, check it out as well. There is a small Lion and Tiger safari, toy train and plenty of trails to walk. But watch out for the famed wild cats that come out at night!
The Kanheri Caves were sculpted by Buddhists from as far back at the 1st century BCE. The caves are a great testament to the long connection of Buddhism to Indian culture. There are over 100 entrances to the different caves which is a lot of fun to explore. There are unfinished paintings of Buddha within the caves that are great for the art history buffs. The terrain around the caves creates several, small waterfalls (after monsoon season) and rock areas to climb around on. It is easy to forget that you are just steps away from a bustling city with an unofficial population of 20 million residents!
Bring snacks, water and everything you need as choices are limited here. And watch out for those monkeys!! They have been known to come up to people with absolutely no fear to snatch food out of your hand.
Haji Ali Dargah
This is a site listed in every guidebook, but it is a tourist site worth making the effort to visit. The Dargah (tomb) is located on a little island in the Arabian Sea, accessible only by a small raised pathway. Watch for high tide, especially in monsoon season as the path can quickly become covered with water. And, during low tide, it can be quite smelly!
Even with the effort of visiting Haji Ali, people from all religions and castes make pilgrimages here. Be aware, this is not for the faint at heart. All of the images of poverty that you might have seen before coming to India come to life here. Beggars, severe poverty and missing limbs is what greets you as you walk along the pathway. Continue on to the dargah and you just might be lucky enough to hear qawalli (Sufi music/songs) music being played live.
Haji Ali is a reflection of the extremes of Mumbai. The homeless laying on the path overlooking the sparkling lights reflecting off the new glass buildings in the distance symbolizing progress and prosperity. Children excitedly swimming and playing in stinky polluted water while families quietly sit in devotion inside the dargah.
Take your time to sit and take it all in. Enjoy the breeze off the ocean to cool you down, even if it’s tinged with a not so pleasant scent! Fridays are extremely busy days, but will give you the full Haji Ali experience. Otherwise, go on any other day and find yourself able to sit in quiet reflection while staring out across Mumbai.
A night out with the locals
If Mumbai was an animal, she would be an owl. The sun has set, the humidity is decreasing and a slight breeze is blowing. This city comes alive after dark. You have spent the day seeing how the majority of this city lives, now is the time to see how the middle and upper classes live.
For a full Bollywood night out, head to Olive in Bandra/Khar on a Thusday night. Olive will be hopping with wanna be Bollywood stars and perhaps a few that have already made it. The food is great and the ambiance is even better. But be prepared for Western prices!
Want to watch the sun set while having a posh drink? Head to the Four Seasons in Worli for a sundowner at their rooftop bar Aer. The sun setting over Lower Parel and Mahalaxmi will be all the entertainment you need here. It’s a glam place, so clean youself up a bit. As evening sets, you will see the bar begin to fill with expats and the young and hip upper class Indians.
Looking for a locals ‘dive’ bar, head to Toto’s in Bandra for some loud music DJ’ed from the car hanging above and squeeze in for a night out with Bandra’s creative types.
For those of you wanting to dance the night away with the elite of Mumbai, head to China House at the Grand Hyatt. This place does not start hopping until late in the night. Also note, that if you are a male on your own, you could experience issues getting into some bars/clubs as a stag. To reduce the amount of stag men, many clubs limit their admission depending on how the clientele is shaping up for the night. To avoid this hassle, call in advance or go early.
Clubbing not your thing, check out a live gig at Blue Frog in Lower Parel. This is an amazingly cool venue and a must see for live music lovers. Any show will sound great in this specially designed club with pod seats/tables. If you want to ensure a pod, book a table in advance for dinner and a show.
Comment below to let us know your favorite local’s spot to share with others!
Also, if you want to check out other blogs for Mumbai, NomadicNotes has a great collection of Mumbai based blogs/information sites.
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