Sprawling along the eastern shore of the Ganges, Kolkata has been getting a bad rap since 146 British prisoners of war were locked in a dungeon they nicknamed the Black Hole of Calcutta in 1756 (the city's name changed in 2001). But this is one of the friendliest, most cultured cities in India and much less touristy than Mumbai or Delhi. Sure, it's noisy and chaotic, a place where grime rubs shoulders with grandeur, but you can't help feeling swept up in the rushing river of life there. In fact, its other nickname seems more apt: City of Joy, after a 1985 novel by French writer Dominique Lapierre, later made into a Patrick Swayze movie.
Once the second largest city in the British Empire, after London, Kolkata's colonial history still shows in landmarks such as Victoria Memorial (a cross between St Paul's Cathedral and the Taj Mahal, with a museum inside), Howrah Station (the oldest and largest railway station in India, built by the British in 1854) and the classic, colonnaded Indian Museum (its dusty exhibits are oddly fascinating, if a little lost in time). Then there are Kolkata's yellow Ambassador taxis. Modelled on the UK's Morris Oxford, they were the first cars to be made in India, in Kolkata, in 1957; the last one rolled off the assembly line in 2014, but there are still plenty in service and a ride in one is a must.
You can't visit Kolkata without paying homage to two of the city's former residents. Mother Teresa (1910-1997) may have been born in Macedonia, but India was her true home. At Mother House you can see her simple living quarters, her marigold-covered tomb and a few white-clad nuns gliding peacefully about. Less known outside India was Bengali poet, painter, philosopher and musician Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1913. His former family home is now a must-see museum called Jorasanko Thakurbari that celebrates his life, work, travels and friends (including Einstein and Gandhi).
To really see, smell, hear and feel Kolkata, you need to hit the streets either on a walking tour or, if you can bear the imperialism of it, by human-pulled rickshaw (rare in other Indian cities now). Don't forget your camera; Kolkata's street life is as photogenic as it gets, with footpath barbers, chai wallahs, colourful swirling saris and evocative clouds of dust and exhaust from brightly painted buses, sardine-packed trams and those big yellow taxis.
A daily cup of chai is a must in Kolkata, where this sweet milky tea spiced with ginger and cardamom is traditionally served in espresso-sized terracotta cups called "khuli" (you can still find chai wallahs around the city using them). A popular Kolkatan street food is the "kathi" roll: the curry of your choice wrapped in paratha, a type of flatbread. And Bengalis love sweets such as "rasogolla" (cottage cheese dumplings in a sugar syrup) and little biscuit-cakes called "sandesh". Try Oh! Calcutta in Elgin Road or 6 Ballygunge Place (at that address) for authentic Bengali dishes.
Two of the best places to stay are the palatial Oberoi Grand (oberoihotels.com), which dates to the 1880s and takes up an entire city block; and The Park Kolkata (theparkhotels.com), one of the city's most glamorous addresses. The five-star, centrally located Hotel Hindustan International (hhihotels.com/hotel-kolkata) is less flashy but also excellent and The Corner Courtyard (thecornercourtyard.com) is a charming boutique hotel in a heritage house with themed rooms (a cadmium-yellow room, for instance, to honour those Ambassador taxis).
Museums and other attractions are often closed on Mondays, Thursdays or both; check with your concierge before sightseeing. Because most shops don't open until about 10am, the streets are relatively quiet and ideal for early morning strolls before then. October to March is the best time to visit, when the heat is less intense and it's festival season.
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of G Adventures and at her own expense.