I really don’t know why, but somehow Mumbai always gets a bad wrap with foreigners. Okay, that’s a lie — I guess I know why. It may have something to do with its reputation for being a poverty-ridden city that’s filled with underworld criminals and heaps of hair-pulling traffic. And you wouldn’t be wrong to think that. But just as the entire country of India is a land of wild contradictions, so is the magnetic city of Mumbai.
Let it be known, I never expected to fall in love with Mumbai.
When I first visited this urban paradise in April of 2016, I had just arrived at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport from Indira Gandhi in Delhi. Upon arrival, I was still hopelessly consumed with a fierce longing to be in Delhi after falling head-over-heels in love with that difficult, stubborn city — much to my surprise. It took me some time to warm up to Delhi (about three visits) and I was actually quite set on finding some way to move there as an expat.
So, when I came to Mumbai (or Bombay, as I like to call it) I came with a guarded heart.
It still makes me giggle a bit every time I replay the moment in my mind, but I remember telling myself in the cab to my hotel upon arrival, “You’ll never like Mumbai as much as you love Delhi.”
And then I did the unthinkable. I dared to fall in love again.
With each day and each encounter with this mega city and its people, I fell harder and harder in love with Mumbai and the Mumbai way of life. Even as I said goodbye to the Maximum City and ventured off to explore the gorgeous lands of Kerala about a week later, I did so with a heavy heart.
So, how do you fall in love with a city like Mumbai that’s both fast-paced and overwhelming?
Ride the local trains, but plan ahead
The traffic in Mumbai is basically unavoidable but what are you going to do? Stay in your room all day? Not a chance. Your best bet for bypassing the shitshow that is Bombay traffic is to, instead, opt for the cheaper and (in my opinion) more thrilling option: the local trains.
When taking the local trains to and from destinations around Mumbai, it’s important to note that it has the potential to be just as insane as traffic on the streets, if not more. The plus side? It’s cheap as hell (like 5 – 10 rupees, which is about 10 cents USD) and if you plan accordingly, it isn’t so bad. It can actually be a pleasant and engaging experience with the right mindset!
Keep in mind, it would be wise to avoid using the local trains during heavy commuter times, like early mornings and early evenings. I was told by a local that the train route from Churchgate to Virar during those times was especially terrible and from what he’s told me about his experiences on that route, I’ll take his word for it.
From personal experience, not all routes will be exceptionally crowded during those times, as I traveled during early evenings (like 5 or 6 o’clock) without experiencing the huge wave of crowds people talk about. In fact, I never really had a bad time the entire week I rode the trains. Maybe I just got lucky!
Also, be sure to ask your hotel receptionist or the front desk staff which is the best route to get to where you’re trying to go. And don’t forget to ask the ticket booth person which platform you need to head to. If you’re still confused, just ask someone nearby how to get to your platform or a train staff member who is usually located at the front of the train.
If you’re a woman, try grabbing a seat (or a place to stand is more like it) in the woman’s compartment, but don’t freak out if you can’t get a spot. It’s probably a good idea to use Uber at night if you’re going out to party and you’re dressed a little more scandalous than you would be dressed during the day, although I have taken the local trains at night and it’s more than fine. I wasn’t in the woman’s compartment either.
Uber is also great to use in Mumbai if you’re okay with dealing with traffic but want a cheaper option than a taxi that isn’t the local trains, and it’s great for either day or night.
Experience the best of Mumbai under moonlight
It is my humble opinion that nobody should leave Mumbai without experiencing the city once the sun goes down and the stars come out.
As a woman, don’t be afraid to go for late-night drinks or to party at nightclubs, especially in the well-to-do areas and tourist hubs like Colaba and Bandra. I felt extremely safe inside every place I went to and as I hopped from one bar to the next. Bonobo, Alibi and Royalty proved to be my favorites.
I highly suggested wandering into friendly-looking pubs and bars if the music emanating from it catches your ear. The smaller bars that cater to a younger, college-age crowd were actually more fun, less “stuffy” and waaaay cheaper than the more popular spots. Oh, and it’s important to know that Indians love EDM music. Like, they really love it.
If you’re not into partying, than you definitely should check out Marine Drive around sunset and even later into the evening. Or go for a moonlit drive on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link and take in the electric city skyline.
Visit Juhu Beach
Hanging out at Juhu isn’t just any old day at the beach. Oh, it’s much more than that.
Visiting Juhu Beach is a fabulous way to catch a break from the crazy heat and humidity that relentlessly follows you everywhere you go in Mumbai. There are tons of delicious food stalls that serve lots of goodies, such as kulfi drinks (like an ice cream but not), yummy Indian food and mouth-watering sweets.
And as the sun starts setting, it feels almost as if the entire city has flocked to the beach. Have fun gawking at the amount of people Mumbai can fit on one single stretch of sand and be sure to get yourself a nice, refreshing coconut to sip on while you soak it all in.
Stay at a strategically placed hotel or hostel
Where you decide to stay in Mumbai won’t make or break your trip, but it will definitely make it a whole lot easier if you stay near the areas in the city you plan on spending the most time frequenting.
If you happen to stay outside the areas you plan on visiting and you’re on board with using the local trains, it’d be smart to stay at a hostel or hotel that’s right next to a local train station.
During my time in Mumbai, I stayed at Hotel Silver Moon. The area the hotel is located in is straight mayhem (tons of stalls, lots of people and busy streets) but just around the corner and down a street was a train station. So ideal! Plus, the hotel staff is really helpful and friendly.
Explore South Mumbai
South Mumbai is basically the epicenter of tourism in this city. The British colonial architecture combined with the organic nature of Indian culture will really take your breath away. There’s something exceedingly pleasing about Mumbai’s laidback beach aesthetic and its enduring regality residing all in one place.
The prime tourist attractions in the area are the Gateway of India, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) and the Marine Drive beach. There are also many temples, churches, and synagogues in the vicinity.
Cruise through the Colaba Causeway to get your shop on, grab a drink or two at Cafe Leopold (the famous setting for the infamous Shantaram novel) and then check out Brittannia & Co. for lunch. I hear the food’s good — potentially overhyped — but the real treat is the “Old Bombay” atmosphere and ambience.
Relax at a movie theater — You’re in the home of Bollywood, after all!
If you’re looking for a cool, calm escape from the urban jungle, head over to one of the many deluxe movie theaters the city has to offer. Where I’m from, movie theaters are never as fun as the ones in India!
In a city that might seem relentlessly exhausting to navigate your way through, watching a Bollywood or Hollywood flick might be just the reprieve you need. A ticket will cost you around 500 INR (about 7 USD), but it really is an awesome time getting to lounge in reclining chairs and get snacks brought to you upon request from the many employees who hand you menus at your seat.
When I saw “Kapoor and Sons,” I went to the INOX movie theater near CST. It was a fun little test to see how much Hindi I could actually comprehend. Turns out, I had gotten pretty good at Hindi, enough that I understood what was going on (for the most part.)
Well, that’s all I’ve got for you, folks! Hopefully my tips and suggestions prove useful to you during your time in Mumbai. Let me know if you have any other questions I can help you with. If you don’t happen to fall in love with this city quite like I did, that’s quite alright. Just like any travel destination, Mumbai isn’t for everyone. Some people visit for a week and then depart — never to return — while some visit and have a love affair forever.