Just Back From...Mumbai
Rymn Massand’s list of where to stay, eat, see art, shop and get custom clothing made in South Mumbai
A well-traveled creative director originally from New Delhi, our friend Rymn Massand was finally able to return to India with her family this spring, so we jumped at the chance to tap her for her Mumbai favorites!
Most people would plan something new and unexpected for their 50th birthday celebrations; all I wanted was to go home. Home to India with my family and a handful of friends, home to the babble of languages I speak, home to the smells and tastes that somehow I never tire of, home to the chaos and warmth. That was three years ago. We never took that trip.
In the ensuing time, I thought a lot about what kind of a journey I wanted to take, what I really wanted to see (and show my companions), how much of a tourist did I want to be (even though I was born and raised in India, it’s a vast and complex place that one never ever gets to the bottom of) and, mostly, how did I want to feel while I was there? India allows for multiple personalities. I am a different creature in Delhi (where I grew up), than I am in Bombay (now known as Mumbai).
I decided I wanted to start my visit with the city that makes me feel most like myself: a cosmopolitan, cultural hub, with the lushness of the tropics and the slickness of a town where publishing, art, cinema, gastronomy, fashion and architecture all come together in a brilliant mélange. Bombay is where we began.
Traveling with 3 teenagers, friends from Spain, NYC and London had me thinking seriously about logistics. Lucky for me, some of my closest friends live in Bombay and with their tips and insider recommendations, along with a list that I have fine-tuned after years of visits, I ventured forth.
Bombay is a massive sprawl of a city, a mad mix of clearly defined neighborhoods with their own distinct personality. Friends who live in south Bombay take staycations in North Bombay by Juhu beach (that’s how massive it is). Friends who live in Bandra have to factor in at least a two-hour commute to dinner in South Bombay (and that’s a one way trip). I am very much a creature of habit and I always stay in what is locally referred to as “town” (aka South Bombay, Colaba). It is a self-contained architectural marvel: the most amazing Art Deco and Gothic buildings, the best galleries and shops, the loveliest restaurants and, best of all, it’s all walkable (which is a rare thing in India, where most cities force you to travel by car from one place to another).
A week is not enough to take it all in, but it’s a great start, and while I meandered around the Colaba/Fort/ Kala Ghoda area on foot, I did jump into a car for a few must-sees that were within a 20-30 minute drive. Here is my South Mumbai list.
WHERE TO STAY
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel: Bombay’s oldest, most spectacular landmark hotel, built in 1903. From Viceroys to royalty, prime ministers to movie stars, the Taj has hosted them all. The famous red dome, visible for miles, the beautiful interiors, the best pool in town, great service and an impressive hotel art collection (the collection ranges from 18th century pieces to modern day artists: take the heritage walking tour with a member of staff to appreciate the depth and breadth of it). Stay in the heritage palace wing, not the more recently built tower wing. Ask for a view of the gateway of India and the harbor, and people watch from your window. Perfectly located for all the galleries, shops, sightseeing and restaurants.
The Royal Bombay Yacht Club: Even older than the Taj, this is a former gentleman’s club for sailors and naval officers. Located in the heart of Colaba, it is a jewel of a building set amidst lush lawns and towering palms. Harking back to colonial times, the rooms are simple and large, views of the gateway of India abound, the bar and the billiards rooms are classic English India, the dress code is enforced (which I love) and the food is fantastic. You have to be the guest of a member to get a room, or to even walk into the bar, but it is worth the pulling of favors to spend a night or two there or even have a civilized old-school dinner and a cocktail.
The Oberoi Nariman Point: An excellent business hotel located on the bay side of Colaba, with views of the water stretching for miles, modern rooms located around an insane inner atrium (very 60s futuristic vibes) and best of all: the quintessential Oberoi service. There is no better hotel chain in India that trains its staff like the Oberoi hotels do, and I have stayed there just to be coddled by the staff. Tip: stay in the Oberoi not the Trident hotel (they are linked and stand side by side).
Of the hundreds of things one can do on any given day in Bombay, just walking through town is a sensory delight. Much as I love an aimless wander, I am a planner at heart and one of the best things I have ever done in Bombay is to take a guided tour. In a city as complex and layered as this, an insider tour is the perfect way to understand the city (ever so slightly).
Khaki Tours is the best out there (recommended by a friend who is very active in the architectural preservation of the city’s landmarks: South Bombay has a number of UNESCO Heritage sights and the people fighting for these landmark buildings are, to me, the guardians of South Bombay).
As I was jet lagged anyways, I opted for the Wake up Mumbai tour (I booked a private tour for our group), and at 4:30 am promptly the tour guide, driver and jeep arrived at our hotel to whisk us off to see Bombay as it woke. We started with the newspaper vendors, moved on to the dawn pandemonium of the fish market at Sassoon docks, then onwards to the Crawford vegetable market and the flower market (unlike the flower markets we know – they prepare millions of flowers for temple services and religious use), ending with the vast Shivaji Park, where hundreds of children were at their morning cricket practice and we witnessed the ancient art of Mallakhamba (a cross between yoga, climbing and wrestling grips). Four hours of pure delight and we were back for breakfast by the pool at 9 am!
The tours are run by locals who love Bombay: one of our guides was a software specialist and another a mother of three who was an architect in a former life. There are walking tours of art deco buildings, the Banaganga tank (surrounded by temples) and the slums of Bombay. Something for everyone—and I have promised myself to try a new tour on every future trip.
Bombay Gothic and Art Deco wander: Early morning or early evening are the perfect time to take a walk to Oval Maidan (a massive recreational park set in the Fort district of Colaba), which is surrounded on the east side by some of the most spectacular Victorian Gothic buildings: the High Court, the University of Mumbai, the City courts and the Rajabai clock tower. On the west side (towards Marine Drive) are the fading but stunning Art Deco buildings including the Regal and Eros cinemas, and mostly private residences. As a graphic designer, I find there are few greater pleasures than the original deco typography that adorns the entrances and signage of all these buildings.
Slightly beyond the Oval is Victoria Terminus, a UNESCO heritage site built in 1887 in most exuberant Italian gothic architectural style. A massive landmark with thousands of trains and hundreds of thousands of passengers transiting through it daily, it is a gem. Admire it from the outside, but my secret is to go to the platforms inside and just wait for a train to depart or arrive. The swirl of humanity, the cacophony of sound and the energy of people going about their commutes is invigorating.
Venture out to the Royal Opera House (India’s only opera house, built in 1911 and inaugurated by King George in 1917, recently restored in 2017) and admire its baroque architecture, and plush interiors. Get tickets to a show, like I did, and get a glimpse of the social swirl.
Bombay is home to the largest community of Parsis (descended from Persian Zoroastrians who emigrated in the 1600s to avoid religious persecution). Their religious, cultural and gastronomical contributions have enriched the city greatly, and a visit to some of Bombay’s most iconic Parsi buidings—Sir JJ College of Architecture, JN Petit Institute Library, Horniman Circle, Darabshaw House (until recently home to the Condé Nast group in India), amongst others—is a great way to experience quite how diverse this city is. Also worth a visit: the famous Parsi cafes of south Bombay, Brittania and Co. being one of the most popular. It feels like a step back in time, but it is so packed daily that it never feels like a relic.
Visit the street booksellers surrounding Flora Fountain. Under bright blue tarp, these 6-foot-high stacks of secondhand books are a reader’s delight. Locals call it “book street” and a mix of classics, first editions, comics, cookbooks, coffee table books, modern fiction and rare finds makes it easy to spend hours browsing. All for prices ranging from $1-20! I always leave with an old graphic novel or the latest murder mystery or a beautifully illustrated book on some odd topic that I didn’t think I needed until I spotted it hiding in some stack.
Go for a walk on Marine Drive. Evenings are best when families come out for their daily walk, the sun is setting over the bay and the length of the drive stretches out before you. It is known as the Queens necklace, and when spotted at night, one sees why.
EAT AND DRINK
All the big hotels have good restaurants, and while I have my favorites—Chinese at the Golden Dragon, afternoon tea at the Sea Lounge (both at the Taj Mahal hotel), Zia at the Oberoi Nariman Point—I much prefer to eat at the smaller local restaurants in the area.