Planning a Trip
The West Bengal Tourism Centre (3/2 B.B.D. Bagh E.; tel. 033/2248-8271 or -8272; www.wbtourism.com; Mon-Sat 10am-6pm) is good for up-to-date information and you can also arrange city tours here. Visit the India Tourism Kolkata (MSE Building, 4 Shakespeare Sarani; tel. 033/2282-5813, -1475, or -7731) for (limited) information on the entire subcontinent. Cal Calling is a monthly catalog of events and general information (tel. 98-3121-4445).
Getting There & Away
By Air -- Kolkata is served by domestic flights from most major destinations in India. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport, formerly Dum Dum Airport (tel. 033/2511-8787 or -9721; www.calcuttaairport.com) is 15km (9 1/3 miles) northeast. You can exchange currency and get tourist information from two separate booths here. Use the prepaid taxi stand (tel. 033/2511-1201); the 40-minute trip into town should cost Rs 300 ($7.30/£3.70).
By Train -- Kolkata's Howrah Junction (tel. 033/2638-2217), just south of Howrah Bridge, connects the city with most other parts of the country. It's made up of the adjoining Old and New Howrah stations. You should purchase tickets through your hotel or a travel agent, but there is a section specifically for foreigners in the main reservations office (daily 10am-5pm). For general inquiries, call tel. 1310; for prerecorded information, call tel. 1331. Trains to destinations farther east and to the northern areas of West Bengal often depart from Sealdah Station (Bepin Behari Ganguly St.; tel. 033/2350-3535 or -3537); check your ticket to confirm which station you need to be at. Also arrive with time to spare so that you can navigate through the crowds and find out about any changes to the schedule. You can also log on to www.indianrail.gov.in for information.
By Road -- Don't consider getting to or from Kolkata by motor vehicle (either driving yourself or by bus); otherwise you'll waste a great deal of your vacation time.
By Taxi & Auto-Rickshaw -- The full-to-capacity streets of Kolkata can be the very devil to get around, but a jaunt in a hired Ambassador is a good way to experience the city. Taxi drivers here are notoriously keen on ripping you off, even after you've negotiated a fare. Ask your hotel concierge for an approximate idea of the fare for your route, check that the meter is reset, and make sure that the driver knows where you're going (use a street map to ensure you aren't taken on a detour). You can hire a good car and driver through Avis (Oberoi Grand; tel. 033/2249-2323, ext. 6325 or 6335) or through Car-Cab (2 Manook Lane, off Ezra St.; tel. 033/2235 -3535 or 98-3104-1614). Note that rickshaws are outlawed from entering many of the city's major streets.
The Metro -- India's first underground railway was started in Calcutta in 1984; it currently connects Tollygunge in the south with Dum Dum Station in the north. It's a reliable, clean, and surprisingly uncrowded transport option, and tickets are cheap (Rs 4-Rs 8/10¢-20¢/5p-10p). The Metro operates Monday through Saturday from 7am to 9:45pm, and on Sunday from 3 to 9:45pm. For information, contact the Metro Rail Bhavan (33/1 Jawaharlal Nehru Rd.; tel. 033/2226-7280 or -1054).
By Bus or Tram -- To experience India at its most confusing, claustrophobic, and unpredictable, by all means hop aboard one of Kolkata's battered buses or road-clogging trams. If you're looking for a joyride, take a tram around Victoria Memorial.
On Foot -- If you don't mind breaking a sweat and rubbing shoulders with the aam janta (common man), Kolkata is quite a walkable city, at least in parts, with its pavements lined end to end with makeshift shacks selling practically anything that is sellable! Early morning is the best time to get out and stroll through the streets; it's still relatively quiet, and the air is cooler and less choked by pollution. Pick up a cup of tea from the chai-wallas who serve their sweet brew in tiny unfired clay cups -- India's answer to the polystyrene cup, these are simply discarded after use. A great way to get acquainted with Kolkata is to pick up a copy of Ten Walks in Calcutta by Prosenjit Das Gupta (Hermes Inc.) from a bookstore.
The guide services of the following two men are worth booking before you arrive. Shanti Bhattacharjee is a retired history teacher with a profound knowledge of his city, who provides in-depth tours of Kolkata (tel. 033/2350-1576 or 98-3024-2803). He charges Rs 800 ($20/£10) per day for a group of four people (all entrance and transport costs to be paid by tourists). Architect Manish Chakrabovti conducts excellent heritage walks (usually on Sun) of northern Kolkata on behalf of Action Research in Conservation of Heritage (tel. 033/2337-5757 or 033/2359-6303; email@example.com). There is also a shopping tour. The Tourism Centre (3/2 B.B.D. Bagh E.; tel. 033/2248-8271 or -8272) conducts two different daily sightseeing tours of the city; these inevitably involve a great deal of bus travel and little sightseeing. In the same center, the West Bengal Tourist Development Corporation (tel. 033/2243-7260) organizes short and long-distance tours of the state and selected destinations around the country.
Kolkata is a huge, sprawling city, divided into north and south, both spread along the eastern bank of the Hooghly River, which divides it from the vast suburb of Howrah, located on the western bank. Howrah is where you'll be deposited if you arrive by train; the main station is close to the Howrah Bridge, which connects with the city proper. Just east and south of Howrah Bridge are Kolkata's commercial and tourist hubs, centered around B.B.D. Bagh, still known by its colonial name, Dalhousie Square, and the long stretch of road once known as Chowringhee (now Jawaharlal Nehru Rd.) that runs southward, alongside the Maidan, Kolkata's vast urban park. Many visitors base themselves around Chowringhee; nearby Sudder Street teems with budget accommodations, while Park Street has plenty of boutiques and fine restaurants.
To the northeast is the rapidly expanding business district of Salt Lake City, which has few historical sites but is steadily developing a reputation for its upscale business hotels and high-tech entertainment facilities. It's the closest district to the airport.