48 Hours In: Mumbai

Autumn is the ideal time to visit India’s most cosmopolitan city – with plenty to nourish the body and soul

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

The south-west monsoon is about to end in India's sexiest, most cosmopolitan city – and air fares are falling. The city that gave the world Bollywood has bounced back from the terrorist attacks two years ago, and offers opportunities from chic dining to organised charity slum tours. And India's commercial hub is the ideal gateway to the nation.

Touch down

Fly non-stop from Heathrow on Air India (020-8560 9996; airindia.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com); ba.com), Jet Airways (020-8970 1525; jetairways.com) or Kingfisher (0800 047 0810; flykingfisher.com). Many other connecting flights are available, especially via the Gulf; the writer travelled with Etihad (0800 731 9384; etihadairways.com), which flies from Heathrow and Manchester via Abu Dhabi.

Chhatrapati Shivaji airport, 20 miles north of the city centre, is surprisingly easy to negotiate. Just head over to the pre-paid taxi booth, which offers air-conditioned Cool Cabs (00 91 99 2094 4431) for the princely sum of 800 rupees (Rs800/£11) to make the journey into town – which takes between 45 and 90 minutes depending on traffic.

Get your bearings

Mumbai is essentially a V-shaped island connected by bridges to the mainland. The centre, or "Town" as the locals call it, is at its southern point with most of the attractions around Colaba, Kala Ghoda and the commercial area of the Fort. While Mumbaikers remain snobbish about the more northerly suburbs, Bandra – the home of Bollywood stars and some of its chicest bars – is now gaining momentum. A new Bandra Worli Sea Link cable bridge between the two. The Government of India tourist office (1)

is opposite Churchgate station at 123 Mararishi Karve Road (00 91 22 2207 4333; incredibleindia.org), open 8.30am-6pm from Monday to Friday, 8.30am-2pm on Saturday.

Check in

The king of Mumbai's hotel (its name literally means "crown"), is the Taj Palace and Tower (2), overlooking the harbour and imposing Gateway of India arch (3) at Apollo Bunder (00 91 22 6665 3366; tajhotels.com). After the terrorist attack in November 2008, in which 31 people died, it is now fully back in business. A Superior City View room in the Tower starts at Rs14,492 (£202) excluding breakfast.

A much more economical option is the clean and friendly Chateau Windsor Guest House (4) at 86 Veer Nariman Road (00 91 22 6622 4455; chateauwindsor.com); rates start at Rs4,100 (£57) for a double room with balcony, including breakfast.

Day one

Take a hike

Rise early and head down to Sassoon Dock (5) off Colaba Causeway, where, from 5am, Mumbai's fishermen bring in the daily catch and restaurateurs barter. Amid a mass of humanity, traders carry baskets of giant fish on their heads, while ladies sit peeling prawns with unbelievable dexterity and small boys push huge buckets of ice towards lavishly painted trucks preparing to whisk the seafood away.

When the noise and smell gets too much take a five-minute walk down Colaba Causeway and turn left into quiet, tree-lined streets to find the Mumbai Port Trust Gardens (6) at W G Union Road (00 91 22 2202 4482), open 8-10am and 4.30-8.30pm) – as serene as the docks are insane. Wander in the shade of the trees and watch wealthy, elderly Mumbaikers power walk around, enjoy their yoga or meditate in the pavilions before finding one of the benches looking out to sea.

Once restored, stroll further south down Shahid Bhagatsingh Marg to St John The Evangelist Church (7) at Nanabhai Moos Marg, Navy Nagar, Colaba – known simply to the locals as the Afghan Church. This is a quintessentially English retreat built to commemorate the British dead who fell "by sickness and sword' in the first battle of Afghanistan. If the church is locked, the verger lives next door.

Lunch on the run

Leopold's Café (8) on Colaba Causeway (00 91 22 2282 8185; leopoldcafe.com) was built in 1871, and has been a haunt of the backpacker crowd for the past few decades. The cafe, with its worn images of Elvis and James Dean, gained new significance when 10 people were killed here during the terrorist attacks. Savour a large iced coffee for Rs50 (70p), club sandwich Rs100 (£1.40) or Paneer Tikka for Rs143 (£2) while the staff point out the bullet holes that remain untouched and show you the modern art painting that now stands as a memorial to the two colleagues they lost.

Window shopping

If you are not up to bargaining, look around the fixed-price shops on Colaba Causeway or if you fancy a bit more fun head into the nearby market (9) on Lala Nigam Road to watch the locals buying everything from their daily vegetables to jewellery. Stop and pay five rupees (6p) to the old ladies with grass to feed a cow for good luck or watch your fresh sugar cane juice being crushed at stalls. Alternatively, dash over to Chor Bazaar (10) or "thieves market" on Mutton Street, opposite Shafi Masjid, open 11am-7pm except Fridays) to haggle over antiques. Legend has it that Queen Victoria, upon arriving in the city, discovered her violin, purse and jewellery were missing; they were later traced here.

An aperitif

Head for Bandra. Bar Olive (11) at 14 Union Park, Khar West (00 91 22 2605 8228, open 7.30pm to 1.30am) said to be where the prettiest aspiring actresses in Mumbai gather for club nights on Thursday.

Dining with the locals

Back in Town, Trishna's (12) is a local favourite next to Rhythm House at 7 Rope Walk Lane, Kala Ghoda (00 91 22 2270 3213/4). It makes up for its decor and slightly grumpy staff with the best seafood in town, such as the signature butter pepper prawns for Rs550 (£8) or garlic king crab for Rs1270 (£17).

Take a ride

After dinner, head for the Gateway of India (3) and jump on one of the silver horse carriages for approximately Rs200 (£3) for 15 minutes) which appear to be competing for the prize of the most gaudy displays in town, festooned with fake flowers, balloons and flashing fairy lights.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to a mosque

Haji Ali Mosque (13) appears to float out to sea. You can reach it only when the tide is low enough to negotiate the walkway past the stalls and heart-rending beggars. But it is a pretty white mosque (00 91 22 2352 9082) with a silver shrine to the Muslim holy man Haji Ali, and well worth a visit; open 5.30am-10pm. Legend has it he died on a pilgrimage to Mecca but his casket floated back to this spot.

Out to brunch

Chowpatty Beach on Marine Drive is not a wise swimming location, due to pollution, but it is a splendid place to graze on dishes from a myriad of stalls. Or head to the string of modern cafes and ice cream parlours over the road and enjoy a refreshing lime soda drink and pizza or veggie burger for Rs100 (£1.40) along with gaggles of local rich kids at the New Yorker.

Then meander down Marine Drive, the two-mile promontory by the sea and marvel at the old art deco buildings. Stop at the Air India tower (14) and enjoy beautifully laid out plates of fruit from the street sellers on Madame Cama Road before heading over to see cricketers at the Oval Maidan (15) in front of the glorious colonial gothic Mumbai University (16) building designed by Gilbert Scott, also responsible for St Pancras station in London.

Cultural afternoon

Mani Bhavan (17), on tranquil tree-lined streets at 19 Laburnam Marg in Gamdevi (00 91 22 2380 5864; gandhi-manibhavan.org; open 9.30am-6pm, admission free) is a marvellous house where Mahatma Gandhi used to stay during his frequent visits to the diamond merchant and Indian National Congress supporter, Revashankar Jhaveri. It was here that he formulated his policy of non-violent protest.

The house has turned into an inspiring museum depicting his life in pictures from boyhood and containing mementoes including his Boer War medal. It is hard not to be moved to see the words "Be truthful, gentle and fearless" in his own handwriting or read a humble letter written to Hitler in 1939 imploring him, for the sake of humanity, not to go to war.

A walk in the park

Escape the chaos of the city to relax on the hour-long ferry to the Unesco world heritage site of Elephanta Island. A steep climb through the trees is rewarded by a series of hill-top caves housing awe-inspiring eighth century carvings depicting the legends of Shiva. It is a good place to look back over the Mumbai skyline. Boats sail from the Gateway of India (3) every half-hour from around 9am to around 3.30pm, for a return fare of around Rs120 (£1.70).

The icing on the cake

Back at the Gateway of India arch (3), built to commemorate George V and Queen Mary's visit in 1911, you can eat popcorn or kulfi ice-cream while children chase balloon sellers and dance around men blowing soap bubbles before standing with Victorian-stern faces for family pictures. Then pop into the Sea Lounge of the Taj Hotel (2) – though you will have to book ahead for one of their window seats over the bay – for Indian High Tea in elegant surroundings, price Rs1,125 (£16).

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