24 hours in Mumbai

Alongside dabbawallahs and slumdogs, Louise Southerden plunges into the human tide of India's largest city.

Mumbai is like New York. At least that's what one Mumbaikar tells me. Delhi, she believes, is more like London, with its green spaces, historical landmarks and British heritage. In contrast, Mumbai, the largest city in India, is fast-paced and multicultural, with water views from most places that help you get your bearings - though the Arabian Sea is a tad more exotic than the Hudson River.

9am

Catch the first tourist boat of the day from the Gateway of India, a stone arch at the water's edge built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary; it's also where Gandhi was welcomed home in 1915 after living for 21 years in South Africa. The one-hour trip to Elephanta Island, named by the Portugese for an elephant statue that used to grace its port, costs 120 rupees ($3.40) return and the sea breeze is refreshing, especially on the top deck (though hawkers selling beaded necklaces will try to charge you 10 rupees for the privilege).

10am

At Elephanta Island, it's a 15- to 20-minute walk up 120 steps, past pesky monkeys, to the main attraction: World Heritage-listed caves and sculptures carved out of the island's rocky hill more than 2500 years ago. If Mumbai's tropical heat is getting to you, sit back in a sedan chair (one-way costs 300 rupees). It's worth getting a guide (750 rupees for up to five people) as there's minimal signage and there are some interesting stories about the sculptures, which tell of the battle between Buddhists and Hindus for the hearts and minds of India's masses.

1pm

Catch the noon boat back to the Gateway, then cross the road into colonial England for a spot of lunch at the regal Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, where you'll find post-26/11 (as the November tourist attacks are now being called) security measures such as metal detectors, X-ray scanners and sniffer dogs. Masala Kraft puts a contemporary spin on traditional Indian cuisine (mains from 800 rupees); three dishes are inspired by Mumbai's dabbawallahs (see below).

Masala Kraft, lobby level, Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Apollo Bunder, 12.30-2.45pm, see tajhotels.com.

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2.30pm

Finish lunch by 2pm and you'll be able to see something unique to Mumbai: dabbawallahs delivering lunch, in boxes called tiffins, to 200,000 office workers every day. They're famously reliable; even during monsoonal rains the 5000 wallahs make only one mistake in every 6 million deliveries. About 11.30am you can see dabbawallahs at Churchgate station, arranging home-cooked meals they've picked up from wives and mothers across Mumbai (India is still very patriarchal) then catching trains to take them all over the city. At 2.30pm you'll see them packing up at Chhatrapati Shivaji, aka Victoria Terminus, as seen in Slumdog Millionaire.

See mydabbawala.com.

3.30pm

Catch a black-and-yellow 1962 Fiat taxi (they're more authentic and cheaper - minimum charge 13 rupees, about 35 cent - than the newer, air-conditioned Cool Cabs) to Mani Bhavan, a museum dedicated to the father of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi. Like the man himself, the museum is both humble and inspirational, telling the story of his life until his assassination in 1948, with photos, dioramas and letters he wrote to his contemporaries, including Hitler, Tolstoy, Roosevelt and Einstein.

Mani Bhavan, 19 Laburnum Road, open 10am-6pm, admission by donation.

6pm

Half of Mumbai's 20 million inhabitants live in slums, the largest of which is Dharavi, but there are other, less-visited slums such as Dhobi Ghat, a washing slum that featured in Gregory David Roberts's book, Shantaram.

Climb a ladder to a nearby rooftop and prepare for a sunset view with a difference: a sea of corrugated roofs surrounded by the city's skyscrapers, one of which is owned by the seventh-richest man in the world, Mukesh Ambani, chief executive of the Fortune 500 company Reliance Industries.

7pm

If you're not averse to mixing with a few expatriates, the legendary Leopold Cafe is a must for dinner. It's a social place and you can order paneer tikka (170 rupees) or beef burgers (230 rupees), washed down with chocolate shakes (70 rupees) or Kingfisher beer (70 rupees).

Leopold Cafe, Colaba Causeway, open 7.30am-midnight.

9.30pm

Around the corner from Leopold Cafe is the art deco Regal Cinema. The French Lumiere brothers introduced moving pictures to India when they visited Mumbai in 1896. Now the city has more than 100 cinemas and is the hub of the booming Indian film industry, so there's no better place to catch a Bollywood flick. Be warned: they can be three hours long and are usually in Hindi with no subtitles, though it's rarely difficult to tell the heroine from the wicked stepmother and there are always plenty of musical interludes to keep you bemused.

Regal Cinema, Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, noon-10.30pm, balcony tickets 100 rupees.

11pm

Step out of the world of Bollywood and into a fairytale for a scenic night ride from the Gateway of India to Chowpatty Beach in a Victoria, a silver, horse-drawn carriage similar to the open carriages that ply New York's Central Park (a half-hour ride costs 150-300 rupees). The road that hugs the coast sparkles with street lights at night, hence its nickname: the Queen's Necklace.

11.30pm

For a late coffee, try Mocha, an Arabian-themed cafe with hookah pipes and world music. Then plunge into Enigma, one of Mumbai's hottest night spots. You might even find yourself dancing cheek-to-chic with a Bollywood star.

Mocha, 82 Veer Nariman Road, Churchgate, 9am-12.30am. Enigma, JW Marriott Hotel, Juhu Tara Road, Juhu Beach, 10pm-3am, Wednesday-Sunday, cover charge 1000-1500 rupees a couple, which includes drinks coupons.

Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of India Tourism and Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces.

Malaysia Airlines has a fare to Mumbai for $486 with an aircraft change in Kuala Lumpur. Thai Airways flies for $1210 with an aircraft change in Bangkok. Jet Airways charges $1186 (fly a partner airline to Asia and then Jet Airways to Mumbai). These fares allow you to fly into Mumbai and out of another Indian city. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax.) Australians require a visa.

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