Kolkata, India - Stein Travel
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Kolkata

Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is a city of contrasts and contradictions, and one which has a lasting impact on its visitors. It is India's third-largest city, and home to some of its holiest temples and finest colonial structures.

As the 'Cultural Capital of India', Kolkata has the biggest concentration of artists, writers and publishers in the country. And although it is the centre of Bengali culture, Kolkata is also a diverse city, with a polyglot mixture of languages spoken amongst its 14 million inhabitants.

Kolkata was home to two Nobel Laureates - Mother Theresa, whose humble home can still be visited - and writer Rabindranath Tagore. The city also accommodates sports fans, with Eden Gardens, the city's temple to cricket and the second-largest cricket stadium in the world; and Saltlake Stadium, one of the world's largest football venues, with an unbelievable capacity of 120,000.

From 1772 to 1912 Kolkata was the capital of the British Raj - a legacy evident in its superb colonial architecture (highlighted by the enormous Victoria Memorial), and well-planned infrastructure. The latter half of the 20th century, however, saw Kolkata enter a period of decline, with rampant poverty and economic stagnation. It was only in the 1980s, under India's first democratically-elected Marxist administration, that the city turned the corner.

Today, visitors making the journey to this eastern corner of the country will find a city that has rediscovered its pride and cultural identity, offering a Bengali welcome warm enough to seduce even the most jaded traveller.

Information & Facts

Climate

Kolkata experiences a tropical climate, with wet and dry seasons. Summers are hot and humid, with temperatures soaring as high as 104ºF (40ºC) during the months of May and June. The summer months are often punctuated with dusty squalls, followed by hail or thunderstorms, bringing slight relief from the humidity and heat. Winters are short, lasting only about two to three months, with temperatures dropping to 54F (9C) during the day between December and January. The best time to visit Kolkata is between November and April.

Getting Around

Kolkata has one of the best transport networks in the country. The metro - India's oldest underground - runs the length of the city, while trams and buses provide wide coverage as well. The ubiquitous yellow Ambassador taxis are good value (and a thrilling means of getting around, too). Hand-pulled rickshaws are a fun way to travel short distances - though this practice is being discouraged by policy-makers, who deem it ignoble. Car hire is available, with drivers included - unless you are a professional stunt driver on vacation, do not even attempt to drive around Kolkata yourself. As in all Indian cities, traffic congestion is a problem that results in frequent, noisy gridlock. Walking from one attraction to the other is, therefore, often the quickest way of getting around. Note that the 11-mile (17km) journey to and from the airport usually takes over an hour.

Language

Although English is generally used for official and business purposes, Hindi is the official language and is spoken by about 40 percent of the population. Urdu is the language common with the Muslim demographic. India has a total of 22 official languages

Money

The currency is the Indian Rupee (INR), which is divided into 100 paise (singular paisa). Major currencies can be changed at banks, and authorised bureaux de changes. It is impossible to obtain rupees outside India, but no matter what time you arrive in India there will be an exchange office open at the airport. It is illegal to exchange money through the black market and it is advisable to refuse torn notes, as no one will accept them apart from the National Bank. It is best to change money into small denominations. Travellers cheques and major credit cards are widely accepted, particularly in tourist orientated establishments. ATMs are not generally available.

Night Life

From a zero-base in the 1990s, Calcutta has developed a flourishing nightlife - with much of it centred round the big hotels, where good-quality nightclubs attract well-heeled locals and tourists, and 24-hour coffee bars do a brisk trade with chaste young couples. The traditional nocturnal activity of eating out is still universally popular, from top-class restaurants down to roadside eateries. For theatre, cinema and nightclub event listings, see the publications 'Calcutta This Fortnight' and 'CalCalling'. Note that Thursday is a dry day in the city, with no alcohol being sold except in the major hotels, and that Kolkata has a 2am curfew imposed throughout the city.

The Tantra (located in the Park Hotel on Park Street), as well as Underground and Shisha, remain the most popular haunts for late-night revellers in Kolkata.

Shopping

Shoppers wanting it 'all in one place' should head for New Market on Lindsay Street, which has an astounding range of goods for sale in a chaotic, vibrant atmosphere. Look out for jewellery, clothing and fabric. Bargaining is expected. Dakshinapan Shopping Centre is a government-controlled centre, selling cottage industry goods at set prices deemed fair to buyer and seller, while Central Cottage Industries Emporium employs a similar concept. Shops tend to close after lunch on Saturdays and all day on Sunday. Best buys include pith and conch-shell handicrafts, clay plagues of the goddess Kali, silk in the form of saris and shawls, leather bags, and wool garments from Darjeeling. Indian musical instruments can be bought from Mondal and Sons on Rabindra Sarani Road.

A selection of Kolkata's best shopping venues are:

New Market, also known as Hogg's Market, is a popular market in Kolkata. With a dizzying amount of over 2, 000 stalls, shoppers should expect crowds. New Market is great for saris, inexpensive jewellery and beautiful bags. Just remember to bargain hard.

Dakshinapan Shopping Centre, an open-air market where you can buy handicrafts, artefacts, cheap Indian clothing and a selection of Indian teas and tea-drinking paraphernalia. It is a wonderful place to shop for gifts and trinkets.

Known as Kolkata's first shopping mall, Forum Mall is a six-floor building that hosts a range of up-market shops. Expect higher prices, but a great selection of accessories, shoes and beautiful clothes. The mall also has a cinema and some great restaurants.

Chowringhee Road is home to a large amount of street vendors. While a fair amount of the goods on sale are useless, those in the mood to trawl through what's on offer may easily come away with a bargain. A number of Kolkata's speciality terracotta products can be found by those prepared to hunt.

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