Kolkata (then Calcutta) was founded and built by the British as the capital of their empire in South Asia. Although the seat of political power shifted to Delhi after independence, Kolkata is still the cultural capital of the country. Naturally, the city of Kolkata has many different faces. It is regarded as the intellectual and artistic metropolis, where artists and revolutionaries gather. It is famous for its sprawling poverty and for its cultural opulence, for its rich cuisine and its dirty streets, for its intellectualism and its ritualistic piety.
Kolkata is a city of seasonal celebrations. The best time to visit the city is in September, for the festival of Durga Puja, the largest religious holiday for Bengali Hindus. For the week of Durga Puja, thousands of opulent temporary temples are erected in the middle of busy thoroughfares, each more creative than the last. Each neighborhood opens its doors to all visitors, and the streets are thronged with all types of celebrants.
Soon after, the cultural season begins, and runs all winter long, when the whether is the most mild. Check out the Kolkata Film Festival
. Then, as the winter progresses, the drama season begins; Kolkata is home to some of the most visionary playwrights in Asia, and plays are performed in English, Bengali, and Hindi. In December and January, you will see the poetically beautiful dancers and musicians of the Indian classical tradition. Celebrity musicians serenade meditative audiences on the Sitar, the Tabla, the Sarod, and with their carefully honed voices. The music season culminates in the Dover Lane Music Conference
But you need not happen upon any specific event to get the most out of Kolkata. Walk through Kumartoli, a neighborhood in the north of the city where sculptors make idols for the upcoming festival (and there is almost always an upcoming festival). These clay statues are mass-produced by hand on the street, worshipped for a few days or a week, and then ritually thrown in the river. You will see artisans at work sculpting and painting rows upon rows of gods and goddesses. From there, stroll through Shova Bazaar—a storied neighborhood and a unique market—to the riverside. If you are willing to dodge hard-working coolies loading riverboats, you can walk down the riverbank to the flower market under the Howrah Bridge, where millions of garlanded flowers are sold every day. Don’t miss the Indian Coffee House on College Street, where the most powerful intellectuals and revolutionaries meet to pontificate over dishwater coffee and fried snacks.
Not to mention the classy Park Street and the adjoining New Market (really quite old), where you will find the most dizzying array of foods, goods, fabrics and crafts—it is said that you can buy anything in the world at New Market, if you know how to look.
For the brave, the Kalighat temple in the south part of the city offers a powerful experience of goddess-worship that you won’t soon forget.
Other sights include the Indian Museum, a dusty but engrossing relic of Oriental studies, and the Victoria Memorial in the Maidan, the central park of Kolkata.
Kolkata is also a wonderful place for charitable acts. The Mother Teresa House
is always looking for volunteers.
Hotel Maria—A backpacker favorite, on Sudder Street
The YMCA—The cleanliness and hospitality of this YMCA will surprise you
Hotel Chrome—A brand new edifice, centrally located
Capital Guest House—on Chowranghee Road
The Park Hotel—Centrally located on Park Street, home to three of the most popular bars in the city
The Oberoi Grand—a branch of the most celebrated chain of hotels in India
The Hotel Hindustan International—a landmark in the bustling commercial center of modern Kolkata