“Bombay, you will be told, is the only City India has, in the sense that the world city is understood in the West. Other Indian metropolises like Calcutta, Madras, and Delhi are like oversized villages. It is true that Bombay has many more high-rise buildings than any other Indian city: when you approach it by the sea, it looks like a miniature New York. It has other things to justify its city status: it is congested, it has traffic jams at all hours of the day, it is highly polluted, and many parts of it stink.”
Khushwant Singh, Truth, Love, and a Little Malice

Visit Mumbai: The World’s Most Surprisingly Interesting Big City

Periodically, I (Paul Heller, Fifty-Plus Nomad) may feature a profile of one of my favorite little-known places I have visited during my travels to 85 countries.

The first article on my favorite places is below: The World’s Most Surprisingly Interesting Big City: Mumbai, India.

When Did I Visit Mumbai? 

I visited Mumbai for two weeks in 2013. I made a reservation through hotels.com to stay at the Vivanta President Hotel (part of the Taj Hotel chain) in the Colaba neighborhood of Mumbai. When I got to the hotel, the clerk said that I must have a lot of business in Mumbai, and I told him that I was there as a tourist and often stayed in one City for a week or two at a time.  

The clerk said he had never heard of a tourist staying so long, and most people don’t think of Mumbai as a tourist destination. He told me he had very few rooms available for two weeks. I told him that there was a lot to see in Mumbai.

Since I was a tourist, he would give me a suite. (I spent about $100 a night for the room; suites were usually $200 plus a night). The suite was huge and included many pleasant surprises, like a complimentary bottle of wine per week. I thanked him for the suite, which set the stage for a delightful stay in Mumbai.

I have never visited another city where I thought every place I saw was more interesting than expected. However, I can’t say that Mumbai is the most pleasant, clean, or beautiful City I have visited. 

Mumbai deserves its reputation for poverty, chaos, and pollution. However, no place has so captured my attention. It is unlike any city I have ever seen. I felt like I could spend months in the City and still have lots of exciting places left to discover.

Why Did I Decide to Award Mumbai My Designation as the World’s Most Surprisingly Interesting Big City?

The following list highlights why I feel that Mumbai merits my designation as the World’s Most Surprisingly Interesting Big City:

Mumbai Real Estate

  • Mumbai has some of the world’s most expensive real estate in South Mumbai. Many relatively modest apartments in these areas rent over $2000 a month. Mumbai’s high-cost real estate is on a peninsula with limited space and stringent urban planning regulations.
  • Mumbai also is home to Antilla, one of the world’s most expensive ($2 billion) and largest homes (23 stories). Antilla is occupied by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambari.
Antilla, 23 stories tall house

Architecture

One of my most significant surprises in Mumbai is its incredible collection of landmark architectural buildings built between the 1860s and 1930s. These buildings come in various styles, including Gothic Revival, Indo-Saracenic, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco.

Probably my favorite architectural style from my travels is Indo-Saracenic architecture. I love the Indo-Saracenic style’s whimsical and playful mix of European and Asian architectural styles. The British built numerous large public buildings and royal palaces in the early 20th century using Indo-Saracenic Architecture. While it is most common in the Indian subcontinent, examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture exist in many countries. 

The most noticeable aspect of the architecture is its heavy use of exotic Asian colors and design elements. However, the style also used modern European technology and employed many European architectural styles, particularly Neo-Classic and Gothic. (Note: The first Indo-Saracenic building I saw -and probably the best example of the type anywhere- is the Royal Palace in Mysore (Southern India).

Architectural Highlights

I learned much about the City’s rich architectural history through tours with Bombay Heritage Walks. Some of the highlights of this tour included the following:

Gateway of India

Designed to celebrate the arrival of Queen Mary and King George V from England, the Gateway of India wasn’t finished when they arrived. Supposedly the inspiration for the initial design of the monument was the Taj Mahal. The royal family wanted to visit the Taj Mahal but were disappointed to learn that it was too far from Mumbai, 1500 kilometers. The Gate of India took almost fifteen years to complete. The Gateway of India is one of India’s most iconic buildings and an excellent example of Indo-Saracenic style. 

Gateway of India (pxfuel)

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminal

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminal (railway station) was the first of many British Gothic revival-style public buildings in India. The exterior of the building is by far my favorite of any train station. I love the playful use of spires, towers, and Indian-inspired decorative touches. Today more than three million people use the station daily. (I went on a tour that used the railroad to get between sites, and I have seldom felt so crowded getting off the train).

Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

Opened in 1903, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is Bombay’s premier destination for luxury travelers. It is also one of the most iconic Indo-Saracenic buildings in the world. 

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was the first in India with electricity and running water. I loved walking around the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and soaking in its elegant interior design. Many stories exist about why the founder, Jamsetji Tata, built the hotel. Most historians maintain that Tata built the hotel because he saw the need for a world-class luxury hotel in Mumbai. Everyone’s favorite story is that he made it after being denied access to another luxury hotel because he was Indian.

Taj Mahal Palace Hotel Photo by Arju Babu from Pexels

Bombay High Court

While I generally like Gothic Revival buildings, The Bombay High Court is one of the few in this style that I love. I went into the building and briefly saw a trial in progress. Like India, the whole feeling of the proceedings and the environment still retained traces of Britain. To my surprise, lawyers even wear the iconic British gown and coat at 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit).

Bombay High Court

I remember also passing by a nondescript building on the Bombay Heritage Walks, which the guide said was one of the first skyscrapers in the world. I tried to find information on this building but could not. I would love to hear more about it if anyone knows about it.

Sights in Mumbai You Won’t See in Other Cities (At Least Outside of India)

I took various tours through Reality Tours and Travel designed to show tourists some of the more unusual yet off-the-beaten aspects of Indian culture. Some of the uniquely Indian places I visited included:

Dharavi Slum

The most popular Reality Tours and Travel excursion visits Dharavi, the world’s largest slum (home to over two million people). The tour begins with a visit to a recycling business that was genuinely Dickensian in its poverty and work conditions. However, as the tour evolves, you realize that slum life is much more complicated than we assume. Even some millionaires live in large houses in Dharavi.

There is a thriving commercial district, and the tour visits a typical home that was very small but more comfortable than I would have imagined. (I did feel how privileged I am when I realized that the bathroom in my suite was almost as big as the home we visited in Dharavi). In addition, you will learn about how Hindu nationalism forced the Muslim and Hindu communities to separate in the 1990s.

Dharavi Slum. Photo by Archit Rege from Pexels

Dabbawallahs

Watching the dabbawallahs gather to coordinate the distribution of homemade lunches throughout the City is fascinating. For over a century, the dabbawallahs, a Mumbai institution, pick up hot lunches at around ten o’clock and deliver them to workers throughout the City at noon. Though many dabbawallahs are illiterate, they provide over 80 million lunches annually without error. Harvard Business School even uses the dabbawallahs as a case study for a model delivery system.

Dabbawallahs

Dhobi Ghat

Dhobi Ghat is the world’s largest laundromat and is home to 200 families. It takes over 7,000 people to collect, wash (often by hand), and deliver more than 100,000 garments daily.

Dhobi Ghat

Panjrapole Cow Rescue Shelter

Founded nearly 200 years ago to protect stray dogs and pigs, over time, the Panjarapole shelter has primarily evolved into a haven for stray cows. They otherwise may end up in an abattoir. It is interesting to see how well-kept the cows seem.

Pajrapole Shelter

While I did not see these sites on my Reality Tour, I also enjoyed visiting the places reflecting Mumbai’s Jewish and Parsi culture.

Jewish Culture

Many people are surprised to discover India is home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities. First arriving in India around the time of Christ, Bombay’s Jews were significant in the City’s economic life during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most Jews today have immigrated elsewhere for better economic activities. (India has never had a history of Anti-Semitism)

I visited several synagogues in India, but the only still functioning synagogue was the Magen Hassidim synagogue in Mumbai. One of Mumbai’s most potent reminders of Jewish culture is Moshe’s Mediterranean restaurant in Colaba. Moshe’s feels more like an old-fashioned Jewish delicatessen than any restaurant in Asia. 

Magen Hassidic Synagogue

Parsi Culture

Though small in number, Parsis have played a significant role in Mumbai’s economic and political life. The Tatas, one of the most crucial business families in India and the world, are Parsis from Mumbai. Parsi also were many of the leaders of the Indian independence movement. The Parsi originally came from Iran in the 9th century to escape persecution. Today they are one of the few communities left anywhere that adhere to Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions. While in Mumbai, you can see the exterior of several Zoroastrian fire temples.

Parsi Fire Temple

Excellent Tourist Sights

Mumbai also has many sophisticated and vital tourist attractions, including:

High-Quality Museums

I always make a point of visiting modern art museums in the Third World. Third World contemporary art is often more interesting than what you see in the West. Everyone seems devoted to making modern art that is universal in its appeal in the West. In Third World Countries, many contemporary art pieces contain references to local culture, exuberant colors, and extravagant designs.

Interestingly local Indian collectors must agree with me. One of the most visited modern art museums is the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. In the early 2000s, Indian art collectors made some of these paintings among the most expensive artworks.  

Jehangir Art Gallery

Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum

One of my favorite museums is the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad (BDL) Museum. Affiliated initially with London’s respected Victoria and Albert Museum, the BDL Museum is the oldest in India. Restored twenty years ago, the museum’s interior harkens back to the height of the British Empire in India. Like Victoria and Albert, the BDL museum showcases the best local crafts. The BDL museum also has excellent dioramas charting Mumbai’s natural and cultural history. I went to the museum expecting to spend two hours and spent a delightful full day there instead.  

Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vasty Sangrahalaya Museum, previously known as the Prince of Wales Museum

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vasty Sangrahalaya Museum, previously known as the Prince of Wales Museum, is one of the City’s best examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture. The quality of the art collection and curation (including audio guides) is as good as some of the most famous museums in the world. The garden is lush, and the museum has excellent sections on the region’s forests. Anyone willing to spend several hours at the museum will encounter an excellent overview of the history of India’s rich artistic traditions. (The museum has some art from other Asian countries and Europe as well).

Prince of Wales Museum

Historical Sites

Elephanta Island Caves 

While Mumbai is mainly a modern city, Elephanta Island, ten miles from the Gateway of India by boat, has cave temples dating back to the 5th century AD. (Bombay was a small town until 200 years ago, the British decided to use it as the entryway to India). The trip to Elephanta Island is a UNESCO-protected site, a welcome respite from Mumbai’s hubbub. While not as big as some of India’s massive temples, it has lovely architecture, and the setting of the Elephanta caves is stunning. 

Elephanta Island Caves

Gandhi’s House (Mani Bhavan)

One of my strongest memories of the movie Gandhi is when a Western journalist (played by Candace Bergen) says it costs a lot of money to keep Gandhi in poverty. (In reality, a member of the Indian National Congress declared the quote about the costs of controlling the crowds that surrounded Gandhi). I thought of this quote frequently when visiting Mani Bhavan, Gandhi’s headquarters in Bombay. The house, owned by Revashankar Jhaveri, a prominent businessman, played an essential role in Gandhi’s movement. However, it is also a large and elegant mansion located in Mumbai’s most exclusive neighborhood.   

Mani Bhavan (Gandhi’s Home)

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Want to Learn Even More About Mumbai?

  • Read Mumbai Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketa Mehta. Mr. Mehta’s book is a captivating and insightful portrait of the City through the ideas of an Indian who lived in the US for many years and returned home to his native City. 
  • When I was in Mumbai, Psy’s song Gangnam Style was the rage worldwide. Every time I turned on the TV, there was a video by Jackky Bhagnani set to the music of Gangnam Style. The video showcases many places in Mumbai with Bollywood dancers. As often happens, the song grew on me. I include a video clip of the song. It captures the spirit of a city I have become very fond of, Mumbai.

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Paul Heller has been a lifelong avid traveler and language learner and teacher, Even as a child, he told Santa Claus that he wanted to visit all the children worldwide. At seven years old, Paul wanted to retire to Mexico. At eight, he memorized the name, capital, location, and some facts about every country worldwide. At twelve, he found a book "Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" and started developing his own itinerary for a future round-the-world trip. He remained obsessed with travel; after getting a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and working as an administrator, He spent his vacations going to different countries around the globe studying language, touring, and volunteering. In 1994, he quit his job and lived in Russia as a volunteer English instructor. He discovered that he loved teaching languages. In 2004, he decided to make a living out of his travels and founded a community of people who love to travel just like him. He developed 5 three-hour classes about living and traveling long-term worldwide which he taught in over 50 adult education programs throughout the US. After his parents passed, he realized his dream of traveling around the world; cruising and touring some of the most remote places like the North Atlantic, Patagonia, and Oceania; and learning new languages (he knows Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian). Paul encourages everyone to learn foreign languages. He knows that it can be frustrating and slow but that anyone can learn a language if they put in the work and, most importantly, learning a language is well worth the time and effort because it opens up a whole new set of people, ideas, and cultures. He is currently spending the next chapter of his life in Mérida, México. He is excited about using this blog and his classes and workshops to inspire and equip fellow Fifty Plus Nomads with the language, cultural, and psychological skills necessary to be successful and happy long-term travelers and expats over 50.

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