Before my most recent trek on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, my friend Amanda and I decided to meet up in Mumbai first to spend a few days exploring the capital city of the Indian State of Maharashtra.
Formerly called Bombay, Mumbai is a bustling and densely populated city on India’s west coast. It is the financial center of India and it’s largest city. We only had a few days before we had to fly to Kathmandu, but we made the best of our limited time and discovered some of the best things to do Mumbai.
1.) VISIT THE GATEWAY OF INDIA
Mumbai’s most famous tourist attraction, the Gateway of India is one of the places that every tourist must visit in Colaba Mumbai. The colossal arch-monument was built in the 20th century by George Wittet to honor the visit of the English monarchs. Three years later in 1947, the British troops departed through this arched gate, marking India’s independence from the British Empire.
The gateway is also a popular gathering spot for locals, street vendors, and photographers. Because it’s such a prime tourist attraction too - prepare for crowds.
A great time to visit the Gateway of India is in the evening, when the structure is lit up and looks even more dramatic with the sun setting behind it.
2.) WATCH THE SUNSET ON JUHU BEACH
Located on the shores of the Arabian Sea, this stretch of rocky formations and sand is more popular with the locals than it is with tourists which made it feel like a unique experience in Mumbai.
There is a food court at the main entrance that is famous for it’s “Mumbai style” street food and there were vendors along the beach offering everything from small gifts and artwork to chai.
Because there weren’t many tourists on Juhu Beach, we did seem to draw a lot of attention and experienced some of the same things that we did at The Gateway of India - like people wanting to take photographs with us. It made it a little difficult to fully enjoy the beautiful sunset, but nevertheless we took our shoes off and soaked our feet in the incoming waves right beside the locals and it was a special experience on our trip.
3.) HAVE A DRINK AT THE CAT CAFÉ
India’s first cat cafe was truly a one-of-a-kind experience in Mumbai and I would recommend it to any animal lover, especially when you’re a long way from home and missing your own animals like I was!
All of the cats at Cat Café are rescued stray cats. After rehabilitation and treatment, the cats which are deemed to not survive independently on the streets are brought to live at Cat Café until they find a perfect home.
They have a wide variety of food and drinks on the menu, and once you’ve ordered (I highly recommend one of their Fruit Coolers!) you will be taken to the cat sanctuary to hang out with the cats until your food and drinks are delivered. You’re welcome to spend as much time as you’d like and we found that not only were the cats really friendly - so were the staff and the other people visiting! The air conditioning was also welcomed after a long and hot day, so we spent a couple of hours cuddling kitties before we continued on with our day.
The following 4 things to do in Mumbai were my favorites and you can knock them all out in one day by taking a tour with Arpan of Bombay Walks, which we booked through AirBnB Experiences. I don’t feel like the experience would have been as special without Arpan, who was immensely knowledgeable about Mumbai’s history and culture and also made sure we had a lot of fun.
4.) TAKE A TOUR OF DHOBI GHAT
Dhobi Ghat is Mumbai’s 140 year old, open-air laundromat, and it is estimated that each day 100,000-150,000 pieces of clothing are sent there from hotels, hospitals, and homes. Home to around 200 dhobis and their families, the Dhobi Ghat has seen this occupation passed down from one generation to the next.
As chaotic as this scene looks - the washerman, called dhobis, have an incredible system in place that takes care of washing, drying and ironing. The system is fascinating and extremely efficient! Though you can see some modern equipment, most of the work is extremely labor-intensive and done entirely by hand!
The best time to visit is in the early morning where you can see the washing or the early afternoon to see the drying.
5.) WANDER AROUND WORLI FISHING VILLAGE AND THE WORLI FORT
Exploring the winding and colorful streets of this 600 year old fishing village with a local guide was a priceless part of my time in Mumbai.
The picturesque Worli Fishing Village is in an area surrounded by architectural wonders and towering sky-scrapers. An essential part of the 7 villages that make up the island city of Mumbai, this village is a quintessential settlement of the original Inhabitants of Mumbai – the fishermen community.
Wandering through Worli Fishing Village felt really special because we got a first hand experience of life there, between the fishing markets and the glimpses into people’s homes, as many of them had the doors open and would even step outside to see us as we walked by.
Worli Fort, set at the very tip of Worli, is often overlooked by tourists. It was built by the British in 1675. Built on the Worli hill, Worli Fort overlooked the Mahim Bay at a time when the city was made up of just seven islands. It was used as a lookout for enemy ships and pirates.
Although photography with cameras isn’t allowed, we were allowed to get photos with our phones at the top of the fort - and the view was so beautiful.
If you want to see the action of the morning catch, the best time to visit Worli Fishing Village is in the morning. But I really recommend that you book a tour with Bombay Walks to get the best experience.
6.) TAKE A RIDE ON A LOCAL TRAIN
This is something that I recommend you only do with a local guide or friend, simply because it transports over 8 million passengers a day and is not only overwhelming, but also dangerous.
The Mumbai local train is one of the busiest commuter rail systems in the world and is also known to be one of the deadliest. Trains can be extremely overcrowded, the doors never close and constantly have passengers hanging out of them, and people occasionally even travel on the rooftop. Sometimes passengers even fall out of the trains.
Our ride on the train was a unique experience and a true glimpse into the lives of locals, but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing it without a local.
7.) TRY SOME INCREDIBLE INDIAN FOOD
The cultural diversity of Mumbai can be seen in the culinary richness that the city offers in the form of street food with Gujarati, South Indian, Parsi, Muslim, and Maharashtrian influences. And luckily, the food is inexpensive because there are so many different things you’ll want to try.
From Pani Puri to Vada Pav and countless other delicious options, there are several food courts where you can try whatever your heart desires and there are also some really great local restaurants. I highly recommend going with a local (like our guide, Arpan.) We were so lucky to meet up with two of Amanda’s friends there who also showed us the best street food vendors.
I highly recommend that you try Pav Bhaaji - an assortment of mashed vegetables cooked with spices and seasonings (bhaaji) is served with bun bread (pav) heated on a pan. Butter is applied on the bun. It was so delicious.
8.) ENJOY COLD COFFEE AT LEOPOLD CAFE
Leopold Cafe and Bar was built in 1871 and is located in the Coloba area of Mumbai. It’s a famous restaurant with a huge menu offering continental, Chinese and Indian food. But you MUST visit for a cold coffee. This sweet and caffeinated treat is a blend of ice cream and cold coffee, and as simple as it sounds, it is so delicious and the perfect pick-me-up on a hot day in Mumbai. I tried several around the city, but Leopold Cafe definitely had the best and I don’t think any visit to Mumbai is complete without sitting inside this historical spot and enjoying a cold and creamy beverage.
9.) TAKE A WALK ON MARINE DRIVE
A visit in Mumbai isn’t complete without taking a walk down Marine Drive. This famous curved boulevard alongside the coast is often referred to as the Queen's Necklace because of its glowing string of street lights. The long stretch of Art Deco buildings lining it even received UNESCO World Heritage status in 2018.
Marine Drive extends about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the Nariman Point business district to Girgaum Chowpatty at the foot of posh Malabar Hill in South Mumbai. It’s bordered by the Back Bay on one side (which meets the Arabian Sea) and the Western Line of the Mumbai local train on the other.
Marine Drive is the most popular spot in Mumbai to watch the sunset and it’s amazing to see how much it changes from daytime to nighttime, when the street is lined with locals and tourists alike, and endless street food stalls.
10.) CHECK OUT CASTELLA DE AGUADA/BANDRA FORT
Castella de Aguada (Portuguese for Fort of the Waterpoint,) or Bandra Fort as it’s commonly called, is located at Land’s End in Bandra, Mumbai. It was built by the Portuguese in 1640 as a watchtower overlooking Mahim Bay, the Arabian Sea, and the southern island of Mahim. It’s name originated because it was a place where fresh water was available for Portuguese ships.
Bandra Fort offered a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai and a beautiful view of the bridge, Bandra-Worli sea link and the Arabian Sea. There’s even a small garden inside of the fort which was a perfect place to relax on a hot afternoon under the shade of the large trees.
Whether you have a few days in Mumbai, or a few weeks - you will find plenty to do. Mumbai was my first experience with India and I didn’t expect to love it quite as much as I did but I found myself wishing we had more time to explore more of the city and eat more of the incredible food. It’s a special place because it had so many of the familiarities of a large city closer to home but also felt so different than any place I’d ever experienced before.