Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal and is located on the east banks of the Hooghly River. Although it is India’s second largest city, Kolkata is the country’s major cultural and commercial hub.
The sprawling city has a metropolitan population exceeding 15 million, which makes it the third most populous area in India, and the 13th most populated city in the world.
The city was established in 1686. During the British Raj it also served as the capital of India, until New Delhi became the capital in 1911. Throughout the course of history, Kolkata has been at the heart of the Indian struggle for independence; it was a center of modern culture and education, as well as the center of leftist and trade union movements. After India’s independence the city experienced stagnation but it enjoyed a revival in 2000.
The city is huge. Most of the sights that are of interest to tourists are located to the south of the Howrah Bridge in the areas around Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bag, or B.B.D. Bagh, and Chowringhee. These are amalgamations of the old and the new, as Kolkata is home to exceptional culture and heritage and driving commerce. Among its sights are splendid Indian architectural gems, stately but rather crumbling British Raj-era buildings, large gardens and historical colleges.
Calcutta has a tropical climate that is alternatively wet and dry. The summers are hot and humid with temperatures around 30° C, and in the dry spell during May and June, even surpassing 40° C. Winters are short, usually lasting just 2 months. The coolest temperatures are between December and January sinking to around 12° C. The wettest part of the year is between June and September, peaking in August, when the city is hit by the South-West monsoon.
January average temperature 19 deg Celsius 8 mm rainfall February average temperature 22 deg Celsius, 20 mm rainfall March average temperature 27 deg Celsius, 30 mm rainfall April average temperature 30 deg Celsius, 41 mm rainfall May average temperature 30 deg Celsius, 117 mm rainfall June average temperature 30 deg Celsius, 302 mm rainfall July average temperature 29 deg Celsius, 333 mm rainfall August average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 264 mm rainfall September average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 297 mm rainfall October average temperature 27 deg Celsius, 112 mm rainfall November average temperature 24 deg Celsius, 3 mm rainfall December average temperature 20 deg Celsius, 10 mm rainfall
Calcutta is served by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport, which handles domestic and international flights. It is located 20 km from the city.
Taxi: prepaid taxis are available at the airport. Train: trains operate on the new rail link between the airport and the city. Bus: The new air-conditioned Volvo Bus service has 5 different routes and stops at the domestic arrivals terminal.
The city is served by a fleet of yellow taxis, easily available and relatively cheap. They are usually metered.
The Metro has only one line running between the city’s North and South. It is clean and reliable, albeit crowded. Services run between 8 am and 10 pm.
Trams serve some parts of the city; they move slowly but are environmentally friendly.
The city is served by an extensive suburban rail network.
The bus network is extensive and cheap but not very comfortable.
Rickshaws travel fixed routes and have fixed tariffs. They are available at several stations throughout the city.
Catching a ferry on the river is an alternative to navigating the crowded streets and provides access to some of the sights along the banks. There are several ‘ghats’ or jetties located along the riverbanks.
Most rental cars are chauffeured and rental places are available throughout the city.
Kolkata is considered one of the culinary capitals of India.
The city offers a diverse selection of nightlife to suit all tastes– bars, clubs and theaters. For the culturally inclined, Kolkata has many venues that feature Bengali dance, poetry, art, music, film and theatre.
Birla Planetarium is the world’s second largest planetarium and provides entertainment and education on astronomical phenomena.
Kolkata Alipore Zoo
One of India's largest zoological gardens, Kolkata Alipore Zoo, is home to a vast amount of wildlife including elephants, monkeys, dolphins and underwater animals. Among the most notable are the white tigers. There is also a reptile house, and an excellent aquarium with more than a thousand species of fish.
Kolkata is home to a number of superb golfing venues. A passion for this game is a connection to the British from the days of the Raj. Today, the city has three splendid 18-hole golf courses. These are:
The architectural design of the Indian Museum is in the Italian style. It was built in 1878 and is India’s largest museum. It is considered to be one of the best in all of Asia. It houses a large collection of exhibits including rare antiques, armor and ornaments, fossils, skeletons, mummies, Mughal paintings, and Buddhist Gandharan art.
The Victoria Memorial was designed by Lord Curzon and modeled on the Taj Mahal. It was built in the early 20th century in memory of Queen Victoria and was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1921. This splendid white marble structure houses a fantastic collection of rare memorabilia from the British colonial era.
Kalighat, Kali Temple
The temple is dedicated to Kali and located on the banks of the Hooghly River on a ghat, or jetty. It was intended as a place for worshippers to bathe and cleanse themselves with the waters of the Holy Ganges. The ghat, with its numerous steps and washing platforms, is always full of people and is considered the holiest spot in Calcutta. The devotees congregate to present hibiscus flowers to the goddess Kali. Behind the temple, goats are often sacrificed in honor of the deity.
Address: Shibpur, Howrah
The Gardens are located in Shibpur, 8 km from the city, on the west bank of the Hooghly River. They were established in 1787 and cover an area of 1,100 square meters, which makes it one of India’s oldest and largest botanical gardens. The main attraction is the giant banyan tree. The 250 year old tree is also said to have the second largest canopy in the world.
The bridge, spanning the Hooghly River, is a fine example of the engineering techniques of the early 20th century. It measures 450 m long and yet there are no pylons in the river. It is also considered one of the busiest bridges in the world handling, as it does, around 100,000 vehicles and innumerable pedestrians daily.
Address: Muktaram Babu Street
The Marble Palace is a private mansion and was built in 1835 by Raja Rajendra Mullick. Today the building houses a museum, which features a prominent collection of statues and paintings, among which are also works by Rubens and Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Date: Sept/Oct (Dates are set according to Hindu calendar)
This festival is in honor of the goddess Durga, who killed the demon Mahishasura and restored peace. The city is filled with idols of the goddess, and streets are adorned with bright lights. Many fairs are set up all over the city. At the end of the celebrations, the idols are immersed in the holy Ganges River.
Date: late autumn
The festival celebrates the Hindu goddess Kali on the new day of the Hindu month, Ashwin. Celebrations are made with fire crackers and over 2,000 altars are erected all over the city.
Christmas is called Baro Din. It is celebrated with gifts and traditional Christmas delicacies, as well as decorated trees.
India is a hierarchical society so the eldest or most senior person should be greeted first. Shaking hands is common, especially in the cities and in more educated circles, where people are used to dealing with westerners. Avoid public displays of affection, as these are seen as impolite and rude. Bargaining is common in shops and markets. Indians are very curious about personal things and asking extremely personal questions is not seen as impolite.
Also, Indians are reluctant to say ‘no’, which means, if something is not available they will give an affirmative answer, but will be deliberately vague about the specific details.
Gifts: Care should be taken when giving gifts to either Hindus or Muslims. For example, do not give anything made of leather to a Hindu. Similarly, avoid presenting Muslims with anything made of pigskin or alcohol. People usually do not open the gifts upon receiving them. Wrap gifts in yellow, green or red colors, as these are deemed lucky. Do not give frangipani or white flowers because these are used at funerals. If you are invited to an Indian household, bring sweets or flowers.
Kolkata is a reasonably safe city. In general, people are friendlier than in other big cities throughout India.
Nevertheless the usual safety procedures should be observed: Keep any money, cards, passport and tickets in a well hidden money-belt. Only a small amount of money should be easily accessible. Attention should be paid when changing money, shopping, or at any time valuables are handled.
Make sure taxi drivers really understand the whereabouts and the preferred route to the destination.