Intense heat followed by torrential monsoons that literally turn the streets into swirling rivers. Shocking overcrowding and extravagant bungalows. Devout monks and Bollywood glitz. Utter destitution and staggering wealth. The Indian city of Mumbai is a frenetic metropolis that embodies every modern contradiction—but the social restlessness and meteorological mood swings somehow work.
In case you've missed the news flashes on the travel front, everyone who's anyone is touching down at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. British actress and Estée Lauder spokesmodel Elizabeth Hurley showed up here last spring to kick off the second leg of her transcontinental wedding to Arun Nayar, a software entrepreneur and heir to an Indian textile fortune. Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and their children popped in a year ago when the actress was filming A Mighty Heart. Lured by a middle class made wealthy by the still-unabated manufacturing and technology boom—the Wall Street of India, Mumbai is the world's tenth largest commercial center and the country's financial engine—Ferragamo and Versace opened shops here in 2006. This year, Gucci and Christian Dior have joined them in pursuit of the wallets of fashionable Mumbaikars, as the city's 18 million residents are known. Megamalls have sprung up throughout the hip residential districts of South Mumbai, as well as deluxe northern suburbs like Juhu and Bandra, where the stars of Bollywood relax in sprawling pleasure domes. A frenzy of construction has resulted in a landscape that resembles a set from Blade Runner. Chic boutiques and restaurants are slotted amid colonial-era buildings and glass high-rises, though the march of progress has not changed one aspect of Mumbai—the beloved snack vendors known as chaat wallahs still rule the street corners, selling helpings of chaat, a tangy, fried tidbit splashed with cool yogurt.
Simply put, the teeming port that native son Rudyard Kipling described as the place where the smell of Asia begins is loud, overcrowded, and increasingly irresistible. In his new book Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra elegantly captures the nostalgia many NRIs (nonresident Indians) feel about Mumbai: "When you were far away from the jammed jumble of cars, and the thickets of slums, and the long loops of rail, and the swarms of people, and the radio music in the bazaars, you could ache for the city."
For Suvir Saran, an executive chef of Manhattan's Michelin-starred restaurant Dévi, "Bombay is to India what New York City is to America," using the British colonial name for this cacophonous spot near the center of India's western coast. (In 1995, the Hindu nationalist party triumphed in state elections and swiftly reinstated the Marathi name Mumbai, which refers to Mumba, a Hindu goddess who was dear to fishermen and salt collectors.) Tarun Tahiliani, the undisputed star of the subcontinent's fashion firmament—he has dressed the Indian film star Aishwarya Rai and gowned the trendsetting British heiress Jemima Goldsmith for her wedding to Pakistani cricket god Imran Khan—enthusiastically extols his boisterous hometown's "great youthful energy, general lack of aggression, and really kind spirit." Still, the fashion designer soberly adds, reality can bite. "The infrastructure and the services are appalling unless you are very wealthy," Tahiliani says. "I grew up in Mumbai. I still love it, but after two days, I'm yearning for the green, tree-lined avenues of Delhi. Then I read Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found"—journalist and screenwriter Suketu Mehta's award-winning 2004 portrait of the city—"and I fall in love with this place all over again."
Mumbai is a difficult city not to love, at least as far as India's starry-eyed public is concerned. The capital of the state of Maharashtra and occupying the pointed end of heart-shape Salsette Island, Mumbai is home to the country's film industry. Bollywood has played a leading role in popularizing Indian culture in the West—which, as a result, has increased the cachet of films in movie-mad India. Once-worn theaters are now outfitted with h seating and fantastic light shows designed to get audiences revved for the featured production, typically a boy-meets-girl love story packed with marathon song-and-dance interludes and spangled costumes. "The movie theaters have become unbelievable," says Payal Singhal, a popular bridal-gown designer who recently opened a shop in New York City. "They have reclining beds with seat service now, and I can order food and a blanket for $8 and have coffee and Samosas delivered."
Bollywood also has given the world a taste of Mumbai chic. Hotshot designers Ashish N. Soni, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, and Naeem Khan have turned heads at New York's fashion week, following in the footsteps of established Indian dressmakers such as Malini Ramani, a purveyor of rock-star glamour and daughter of society queen Bina Ramani; Manish Arora, whose clients include Madonna and Nicole Kidman; and Manish Malhotra, a former Bollywood costume whiz who counts Sharon Stone among his admirers. Boutiques pepper the downtown business district, such as old-guard favorites Tarun Tahiliani and Abu-Sandeep, whose partners, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, are known for extravagant evening wear that has become a wardrobe hallmark of the Bachchans, a Bollywood dynasty which now includes Aishwarya Rai, who married actor Abhishek Bachchan in April. Mumbai's prime fashion destination, however, is Kemps Corner, a high-traffic crossroads near the tony Malabar Hill neighborhood.
Before you jump into the next taxi, be forewarned: Don't expect to find much restraint on the racks, fiscal or aesthetic. Like the city it graces, fashion here is all about flaunting it. In terms of personal wardrobes, the splendor of the maharajahs has never quite gone out of style. Colorful silk saris shimmer with Swarovski crystals, and after dark, every self-respecting Mumbai woman drapes herself in the fiery 22K-gold jewelry that is a cultural leitmotif. (Mumbaikars tend to strut their most opulent attire at weddings, which often incorporate marching bands, a groom seated on a white horse, and clangorous processions through the streets.) Whenever Naeem Khan's in town, the Mumbai-raised, New York–based fashion designer can be found trolling through bolts of silk at Mangaldas fabric market—it's near Crawford Market, a Victorian castlelike structure that has been renamed Mahatma Jyotirao Phule Market—and Kala Niketan, which carries both modern and traditional fabrics.
If your interests lean more toward fine art than fashion, then head to the galleries that dot the artsy Kala Ghoda neighborhood in South Mumbai—but be well aware that the demand for Indian art far exceeds the supply. According to Yamini Mehta, the head of modern and contemporary Indian art at Christie's, the auction house's sales of the genre have skyrocketed from $15 million in 2005 to $42 million in 2006. One of the hottest names on the Indian art scene is Tyeb Mehta, a grand old Mumbai modernist whose painting Mahisasura sold for $1.58 million at Christie's in 2005, a record for contemporary Indian art. Three other local names to remember are Subodh Gupta, Ravinder Reddy, and Atul Dodiya, who is a favorite of Naeem Khan. Gupta creates Duchampian readymades. Reddy combines pop and religious iconography into works that riff on temple idols. And Dodiya—who won accolades with a series of Mahatma Gandhi watercolors—combines everything from wooden cabinets to artificial limbs in a manner that seems to channel Joseph Beuys. Saryu Doshi, former director of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, says the subcontinental contemporary art market wasn't always so buoyant. "I was considered crazy to be buying modern art in the 1970s and '80s," says the elegant, sari-clad septuagenarian. Her passion for supporting emerging artists, however, has paid off. "In the past decade," Doshi explains, "Dodiya's prices have grown a hundredfold."
In contrast to Mumbai's increasingly cosmopolitan air are its food vendors. Whether you are rich or poor, wandering down the street with a fresh snack in hand is a way of life in this city. Literally thousands of men reign over steaming carts bursting with regional specialties that have been designed to be eaten on the run, from pav bhaji (mashed veggies with masala and a hunk of buttery bunlike bread) to vada pav (deep-fried potato fritters served in bread with chutney or chilies) to pani puri (puffed deep-fried golf ball–size puris filled with sprouted moong dal and a watery mix of spices and coriander leaves).
Make sure that at least one gastronomic excursion is an evening at Girgaum Chowpatty, a beach along Marine Drive that bears a resemblance to Coney Island. Populated at night with snake charmers, the transgendered persons known as hijras, and yogis midcontortion, the beach has drawn raves globally for its after-dark dining. Stalls at one end of the beach offer bhel puri, a traditional sweet-and-savory snack made of puffed rice, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and chilies.
Frankly, food is one of Mumbai's major draws, and the restaurant scene here is a celebration of regional diversity, with everything from Parsi to Goan to Frontier cuisines. When Floyd Cardoz, the executive chef of Tabla in New York, returns to his hometown, he always heads to Bade Miya kebab stand on Tulloch Road (it's downtown, behind the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel) and Elco Pani Puri Centre, an hour's drive north in Bandra. He also finds inspiration from all the new regional joints that have popped up since his last sojourn.
Most of the best restaurants are in and around South Mumbai's business district, tucked among microneighborhoods with evocative names such as Churchgate, Colaba, Apollo Bunder, and Cuffe Parade. According to Hemant Oberoi, the executive chef of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, the cuisine of the moment is that of Konkan, a relatively isolated coastal region known for its dramatic rocky landscape and reliance on coconuts and kokum fruit. He's also fond of the lightly spiced seafood at Ankur as well as Mangalorean food, such as the prawn curry at Mahesh Lunch Home. But get him off the subject of fine dining and what impresses Oberoi about Mumbai is its resilience. "Even if there are riots or monsoon and flooding, it's back to normal in 24 hours," he says. "We are very bold. It's the people that make the city."
The country code is 91.
Head to Elephanta caves. Locals love the breezy ferry ride to the temples; others, the sixth-century sculptures.
Stroll Marine Drive, a.k.a. the Queen's Necklace. Walk in the evening, when the coastline sparkles like crown jewels.
Eat on the street. The traditional vendors known as chaat wallahs offer pav bhaji (crusty bread with mashed vegetables and tomatoes) and pani puri (deep-fried bread stuffed with sprouts, potatoes, and tamarind sauce).
Visit Girgaum Chowpatty. This tourist-trap beach offers the best bhel puri around; join the early-evening crowds.
Climb Malabar Hill. Take in panoramic views from Kamala Nehru Park or head to the equally scenic Hanging Gardens.
Go Bollywood. Metro Adlabs, an Art Deco cinema built in 1938 by MGM, is the place to watch (Mahatma Gandhi Rd.). Warning: Hindi movies have no subtitles and can run three- hours.
WHAT TO SEE
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (former Prince of Wales Museum), 159 Mahatma Gandhi Rd. Kala Ghoda, 22-2284-4519; : Artifacts from the Indus Valley and Indian miniatures.
Crawford Market, Lokmanya Tilak Rd., Fort: This sprawling, covered Victorian market has purveyed fresh produce, spices, and kitchenware since 1869.
Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Jijamata Udyan, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar Rd., Byculla, 22-2284-3644: Decorative arts.
Mahalaxmi Racecourse, Royal Western India Turf Club, Keshavrao Khadye Marg, 22-2307-1401; : Watch the blue-ribbon thoroughbreds run neck and neck from November through April.
Malabar Hill Jain Temple, Bal Gangadhar Kher Marg, 22-2369-2727: Murals depicting the lives of the 24 Jain saints ornament this 1904 marble temple.
National Gallery of Modern Art, Mahatma Gandhi Rd., Fort, 22-2288-1971; : Top-flight modern and contemporary Indian art.
Wankhede Stadium, D Rd., Churchgate, 22-2281-7820: Well-attended cricket matches from late fall to early spring.
WHERE TO STAY
InterContinental Marine Drive, 135 Marine Dr., 22-3987-9999; : This boutique hotel, with a rooftop lounge and pool, has spectacular views of the Arabian Sea.
The Oberoi, Nariman Point, 22-6632-5757; : Rated one of the best hotels in Asia.
The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Apollo Bunder, 22-6665-3366; : Raj-era hotel with a modern tower and glamorous Golden Dragon restaurant.
Taj President, 90 Cuffe Parade, 22-6665-0808; : A 292-room high-rise with Konkan Café, home of fabulous Mangalorean seafood.
WHERE TO EAT
Bachelorr's, 45 Sattar Sea View, Girgaum, 22-2368-8107: Homemade ice cream in flavors like green chili and chickoo.
Indigo, 4 Mandlik Rd., Colaba, 22-5636-8999: Where the glitterati order top cuisine and serious cocktails.
Jimmy Boy Café, Vikas Building, 11 Bank St., Fort, 22-2270-0880: Old-time Parsi joint serving delicious regional staples like succulent lamb with apricots.
Khyber, 145 Mahatma Gandhi Rd., Kala Ghoda, 22-2267-3227; : Deluxe food in a glamorous setting; Richard Gere eats here.
Moti Mahal Delux, 102 CR2 Shopping Mall, Nariman Point, 22-6654-6434: Their butter chicken has satisfied world-stage types such as Bill Clinton.
Oh! Calcutta, Hotel Rosewood, Tulsiwadi Ln., Tardeo, 22-2496-3114; : Bengali cuisine at its finest and freshest.
Olive Bar & Kitchen, 14 Union Park, Khar, 22-2605-8228: This Italian boîte in Pali Hill is packed with film stars and supermodels on Thursday nights.
Sea Lounge, The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Apollo Bunder, 22-6665-3366; : Mumbai's elite take afternoon tea here, sipping their Earl Grey while gazing upon a knockout view of the Gateway of India.
Swati Snacks, 248 Karai Estate, Tardeo, 22-6660-8405: Dig into paanki—steamed rice-flour pancakes with turmeric, served with coriander chutney.
Trishna, 7 Sai Baba Marg, Kala Ghoda, 22-2270-3213: The late New York Times gourmand R. W. Apple Jr. declared this spot's seafood worthy of hopping a plane for.
WHERE TO SHOP
Amrapali, Shop 62 Oberoi Shopping Arcade, Nariman Point, 22-2284-3687; : Naomi Campbell, Calvin Klein, and Padma Lakshmi of Top Chef are fans of this firm, which made the silver Greek-style medallions Brad Pitt wore in Troy.
Art Musings, 1 Admiralty Building, Colaba Cross Lane, Colaba, 22-2216-3339; : A leading venue for blue-chip Indian artists.
Azeem Khan Couture, 1 Usha Sadan Building, Colaba, 22-2215-1028; : Ultrafeminine dresses.
Be:, Kemps Corner, 22-2382-5621; : Crushed-silk tops, linen kurtas, and embellished gypsy skirts.
Bungalow 8, Wankhede Stadium, North Stand, E-F Block, D Rd., Churchgate, 22-2281-9880; : Global housewares, including shapely vases and shining lacquerware.
Chimanlals, A-2 Taj Building, 210 D. N. Rd., Fort, 22-2207-7717; . Artisanal stationery and more.
Chor Bazaar, Mutton St., Bhuleshwar: Antiques, furniture, and bric-a-brac.
Ensemble, Great Western Building, 130-132 Colaba Causeway, Colaba, 22-2284-3227: A swank fashion boutique with a seriously sleek mien.
Good Earth, Raghuvanshi Mills, Senapati Bapat Marg, Lower Parel, 22-2495-1954; : Modern furnishings and accessories.
Jehangir Art Gallery, Mahatma Gandhi Rd., Kala Ghoda, 2204-8212: Mumbai's most famous art spot, with an ace café.
Kimaya, 2 Asha Colony, Juhu Tara Rd., Santacruz, 22-2260-6154: Embroidered fashions by many Indian designers.
Manish Malhotra, Vishudham CHS, 14th Rd., Khar, 22-2605-0723; : The flagship store of Bollywood society's top couturier.
Phillips, Dr. S. P. Mukherjee Chowk, Kala Ghoda, 22-2202-0564; phillipsantiques.com: Colonial antiques of every stripe.
Pinakin, Raghuvanshi Mills, Senapati Bapat Marg, Lower Parel, 22-6500-2400; : Modern furniture designed by Mumbai architect Pinakin Patel and handmade by local artisans.
Rajesh Pratap Singh, Courtyard, 41/44 Minoo Desai Marg, Colaba, 6638-5480; : Naeem Khan hails this fashion designer as "brilliant and talented."
Shrujan, Saagar Villa, 38 Bhulabahi Desai Rd., Juhu, 22-2352-1693; : Chanda Shroff won a Rolex Award in 2006 for revitalizing the Kutchi arts of embroidery and weaving, herein cast as handbags, belts, and more.
Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri, Zaveri Bazaar, Bhuleshwar, 22-2342-5001; : This goldsmith has bejeweled Mumbaikars since 1864.