Gateway to India built for George V
Just hours after landing in Mumbai I’m on a tour bus, raring to see the sights of India’s “City of Dreams”. The medieval cave temples, the colonial architecture, cosmopolitan Juhu Beach and glitzy hang-outs of Bollywood stars. So when we stop at the side of a traffic-choked bypass to go to see locals doing their washing, I’m a bit miffed. Until I set eyes on Dhobi Ghat, touted as the world’s largest outdoor laundry, built in 1890, where 7,000 “dhobis” hand-scrub half a million items each day.
Gleaming white sheets from five-star hotels, Bollywood movie costumes and the designer jeans of wealthy Mumbaikars hang beside red hospital sheets, doctors’ green scrubs, and everyday saris.
It’s a 15-acre sprawl of frenetic activity and colour.And, I soon realise, an ideal introduction to this vibrant city of contrasts.
Known as Bombay until 1995, Mumbai is India’s largest city (actually a collection of seven islands) and, with a population of almost 10 million, among the most densely populated in the world. It grew up in the 17th century around a fort built by the British to protect their trading interests. But today it is the nation’s thriving industrial and economic capital.
I left Britain’s northern powerhouse, Manchester, on a wet Monday morning and arrived, refreshed, nine hours later after a great flight with excellent food, service and entertainment.
As soon as you step out of the airport, Mumbai’s energy is palpable.Actor Julian Sands once said: “The thing about Mumbai is you go five yards and all of human life is revealed. It’s an incredible cavalcade of life.”
Yet a decade after Slumdog Millionaire gave us a taste of Mumbai life, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Billionaire tycoons are now building taller skyscrapers alongside Asia’s biggest slum.
Like the grotesque, $2billion, 27-floor residence of India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, which we passed, rather ironically, en route to Mahatma Gandhi’s modest gaff.
Children in the Dharavi Slum in India
Now a museum, Mani Bhavan was Gandhi’s home from 1917 to 1934 as he led the battle for self-rule. It’s packed with fascinating books and writings, including a letter Gandhi penned to Hitler in 1939 begging him to avert a war that would “reduce humanity to the savage state”.
It was also touching to see the spinning wheel on which Gandhi made yarn for his iconic loincloth.
Echoes of Empire are everywhere in Mumbai, especially in the stunning colonial architecture.
Like the old Victoria station, now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, which throngs with 2.5 million commuters each day (Slumdog fans will recognise it from that famous dance scene).
The Opera House, Prince of Wales Museum and Mumbai University are also worth a visit, then stroll through the huge Oval Maidan Park and watch the locals playing cricket.
Take tea at the swanky Taj Palace hotel while gazing at the Gateway of India beside the Arabian Sea.
The monument was erected to commemorate the 1911 visit of King George V, then rebuilt 13 years later.
In 1947 British troops marched through its arches to waiting ships as the last regiment left newly-independent India.
Visit the 15-acre Dhobi Ghat open-air laundry
The Gateway is a popular spot for locals to hang out, so be prepared to be mobbed by friendly selfie-takers.
Mumbaikars are totally selfie-obsessed. There’s even an official Mumbai Selfie Spot listed on tourist maps now.
I spent an hour posing with locals as we headed by boat to the cave temples of Elephanta Island, a Unesco world heritage site. Carved between AD 450 and 750 and dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, their scale and beauty is gobsmacking.
Islanders act as guides, meeting the incoming boats but some are pushy so barter the price down. I was lucky to find Manoj Bhoir, incredibly knowledgeable and a top photographer.
And go early while it’s not too hot as there’s a sweaty 20-minute climb up steps lined with souvenir stalls, pesky monkeys and meandering cows. One of the sacred beasts pooed on my foot a blessing, apparently.
Back on the mainland I took a stroll along Marine Drive, lined with lovely art deco buildings.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is used by 2.5 million commuters every day
At night the crescent-shaped road twinkles with so many lights it is nicknamed the Queen’s Necklace
At night the crescent-shaped road twinkles with so many lights it is nicknamed the Queen’s Necklace. I stopped at Chowpatty Beach at the northern end for a delicious plate of bhelpuri – puffed rice, veg and tamarind sauce.
Mumbai has cafes, bars and restaurants to suit every pocket. But you’ll need deep ones if you visit upmarket Juhu, the suburb that’s home to Bollywood A-listers.
It’s so cool that Harry and Meghan’s favourite club, Soho House, has just opened a branch there.
Penny-wise tourists love Leopold Cafe – a traveller’s rest since 1871, famed for its wobbly ceiling fans and bad service but incredible atmosphere.
It’s in the heart of Colaba Causeway Market which sells handicrafts and tat. For classier gifts visit Contemporary Arts & Crafts in Fort.
There are also some excellent organised tours available, visiting the local fishing villages and food markets, Bollywood studios or Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
Tourists can take an ethical Reality Tours trip to Dharavi Slum
Visitors also flock to the vast Dharavi slum. It may seem a little exploitative but Reality Tours are excellent, ethical and give 80 per cent of profits to the community (realitytoursandtravel.com, from around £6.70).
You should also catch the daily spectacle of the dabbawalas. Thousands of delivery men steam into the city on trains with homecooked lunches balanced on their heads and somehow they all get to the designated family member in his or her office – with mix-ups fewer than four in a million.
The 125-year-old co-operative works so efficiently that tycoon Richard Branson even spent a day learning its secrets.
It’s another fascinating example of tradition and technology rubbing along together – like it does at Mumbai’s beautiful laundrette, where they’ve been scrubbing clothes by hand since the days of the British Raj but where some of the wealthier dhobis have now installed washing machines.
India’s City of Dreams will certainly set your head spinning – and leave colourful memories that never fade.
British Airways flies from Heathrow to Mumbai from £408 return in World Traveller, £2,005 return in ClubWorld. Go to ba.com or call 0844 493 0787. Rooms at the ITC Maratha hotel in Mumbai start at around £125 a night. See itchotels.in Visit incredibleindia.com