Kolkata Guide: Jazz, Books, and Colonial Architecture

An insider's guide to central Kolkata.  
esplanade in kolkata
Some of the Esplanade’s heritage properties like the 1935 movie theatre, Metro Cinema, are in the process of getting a facelift. Next door is the Metropolitan Building, now restored to its former glory. Photo: Steve Raymer/National Geographic Creative/Corbis/Imagelibrary

Kolkata is swaddled in multiple histories—19th century colonial grandeur, glamorous swinging sixties, violent Naxalite years, communist decades, and the slow arrival of 21st century glitter. It is a city of migrants and each community has imprinted its own culture onto a particular corner. Begin the weekend with a walk to understand the city’s multicultural past. Calcutta Walks offers a tour through old neighbourhoods of Central Kolkata inhabited by Chinese, Anglo Indians, Parsis, Jews, and Armenians respectively. One of the highlights of this walk is the hearty Chinese breakfast at Tiretta Bazaar, one of the stops along the tour. This is a true breakfast of champions as stalls offer assorted treats including fish ball soup and pork dumplings cooked by old Chinese mamas (www.calcuttawalks.com; ₹2,000 per person; duration 3 hours; begins 7 a.m. outside Indian Airlines building on C.R. Avenue).

Chinese breakfast in tiretta bazaar

Patrons sample pork and fish ball soup at the Chinese breakfast in Tiretta Bazaar. Photo: Manjit Singh Hoonian

Old Guard

After this sampler, focus your attention on central Kolkata. No visit to the city is complete without a jaunt through Chowringhee, the erstwhile White Town of the British Raj. It’s also the name of an arterial road passing through the city centre, skirted by the sprawling green area called the Maidan on one side and magnificent colonial-era buildings on the other. Adorned in stucco-covered brick, many of these grand structures were residences of English officials and earned Kolkata the sobriquet of “City of Palaces.” A good point to begin any walk through Chowringhee is at the Esplanade Metro Station. It opens out into the hustle and bustle of shops lining the arcade leading up to The Oberoi Grand hotel or simply The Grand, the undisputed Grande Dame of the neighbourhood. Walk in through its gates to admire its elegant interiors and have a cup of tea or a glass of bubbly at their stylish coffee shop La Terrasse (15, Jawaharlal Nehru Road; 033 2249 2323; glass of wine from ₹700).

Maidan in Kolkata

The sprawling Maidan, where British army soldiers once went for regular marching practice, is now a favourite with joggers. Photo: Manjit Singh Hoonian

Shop Hop

Chaotic and colourful New Market is a five-minute walk southeast of The Grand. Officially named Sir Stuart Hogg Market, it was “new” over a century ago when it opened in 1874, but the name has stuck around. It is possible to find the most obscure things within the profusion of shops inside the market’s cheerful red Gothic-era facade. There are some items that every traveller must buy and these include silver jewellery from Tibetan-owned Chamba Lama, dense plum cake and chocolate brownies from legendary Jewish bakery Nahoum & Sons, and exquisite shawls from Pumposh Kashmir Shawl Emporium.

Eclectic Mix

From here, continue east for half a kilometre to Mirza Ghalib Street, also known as Free School Street, a place with a character as diverse as the people who live here. Novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was born here, in 1811, at house number 56B. Since 1884, the building has housed the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, founded to educate the children of Armenians who settled in the city. Historical value aside, Mirza Ghalib Street is a hub for budget travellers to the city with a higgledy-piggledy assortment of backpacker hotels, cheap lunch homes, and shops festooned with Christmas tinsel all year round. It has a myriad biryani joints including the absolutely unmissable Arsalan (119A, Intersection of Ripon Street and Mirza Ghalib Street; 033-30990567; special mutton biryani costs ₹260). The street is lined with second-hand book shops and roadside stalls with an eclectic collection. There are rare editions or personal notes, bookends, and inscriptions that make each book a collector’s item.

Music Masala

Mirza Ghalib Street is also great hunting ground for music lovers and collectors, with rare cassette tapes and piles of vinyl hoarded in street stalls. The records may not always be in mint condition, but it is thrilling to go through boxes and discover rare singles by Jimi Hendrix, bootlegs of Grateful Dead, or albums by the Allman Brothers Band. The key to a good bargain here is the ability to haggle. Among the many makeshift shops, Record Prince near Lindsay Street is a good place to dig up treasures. For those who want to do more than just listen, stroll into Braganza & Co. (56C, Mirza Ghalib Street) or J. Reynold & Co. (15, Mirza Ghalib Street). These music shops stock an enviable collection of guitars, drums, electric pianos, and more. Friendly, knowledgeable shop attendants can suggest an instrument that fits your level and encourage you to try them out. If you are lucky you might witness an impromptu jam session by musicians testing out the equipment.

Food Head

Moulin Rouge

Many of the restobars in and around Park Street were the original jazz clubs of India. Photo: Manjit Singh Hoonian

South Park Cemetery

South Park Cemetery has an interesting array of graves, many of them obelisks. Photo: Dennis K. Johnson/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

At the head of the street, where Mirza Ghalib meets Park Street, is the atmospheric restaurant Mocambo, once a cabaret and jazz venue. Today it is a charming family joint, still serving up mean European fare like devilled crab, fish Florentine, and baked Alaska. (25B, Park Street; 033-22654300; meal for two ₹1,600 approx).

Park Street is Kolkata’s approximation of downtown and there’s much to explore here. Smoky kathi roll shops like Kusum Snack Bar churn out an unbeatable combination of egg, chicken, and mutton kebabs rolled in flaky parathas (21, Karnani Mansion, 033-30280478, rolls start at ₹30). It stands cheek by jowl with old-school fine dining restaurants like Kwality that have been making a mean saag meat and pindi chhole for many decades (17, Park Street, 033-30990567, meal for two ₹900). Legendary dive bars like Olypub and Moulin Rouge jostle for space with a lodge for the Freemasons. The 18th-century South Park Street Cemetery with elaborate cenotaphs dedicated to British soldiers and government officers who died here is right next to St Xavier’s Collegiate School for Boys and the adjoining college, among the city’s premier educational institutions. Books bought from Oxford Bookstore’s well-curated collection are best browsed across the road at Flurys, a European tea room and iconic Park Street landmark.

Park Present

While there are malls and modern bars aplenty in the city, there is nothing more atmospheric than a night out at Park Street where the cult of music reigns supreme. In the swinging sixties and seventies, Park Street was regarded a Mecca of western music in India and stars like Pam Craine, Louis Banks, and Usha Uthup set the stage on fire. One of the popular spots is Trincas, a quieter version of its former self. Yet, it continues to draw old-timers and travellers alike with occasional pub quizzes, comedy evenings, and jazz afternoons. It offers good quality continental and tandoori fare and plenty of cheap chilled beer (17, Park Street, 033-22297825; meal for two ₹1,200). Right next door, is the swish The Park hotel. Its tiny English pub, Someplace Else, is a beacon to live music in the city. There is a fabulous band playing here on any given day of the week, filling the air with riffs of rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and blues (17, Park Street; 033 40049000; happy hours 4.30-8.30 p.m.; most bands start playing at 9 p.m.).

Someplace Else

Saturday Night Blues Band makes a regular appearance at the popular Someplace Else pub. Photo courtesy The Park

End the night with a walk past Park Street’s shuttered shops, the road lined with yellow taxis waiting to take the last revellers home. Even in the late hours, the neon signs, fairy lights, and street lamps shine on. I don’t know if Kolkata is as charming as Ernest Hemingway’s Paris but, much like that city, it has a habit of staying with those who come here and remains “a moveable feast.”

Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “A Moveable Feast”.

The Guide

Calcutta Photo Tours specializes in walks featuring vivid colours and visual stories woven into Kolkata’s fabric. Proprietor Manjit Singh Hoonjan is an avid photographer with a wealth of knowledge about the city. He offers tours like European Calcutta, Mesmerizing Markets, and a most interesting photography workshop inside a cemetery (www.calcuttaphototours.com; prices start at ₹1,500 for a shared tour).

Calcutta Walks offers tours spanning different aspects of the city, from its multicultural history to its food and culture. Besides walking trails, visitors can also sign up for cycling tours or rides to the nearby colonial towns of Bengal on Enfield bikes. Their other offerings include a customized haunted trail and a “Cook as the Bongs do” tour which features a market visit and cooking demo (calcuttawalks.com; approx. ₹2,000 per tour, varies based on group size and itinerary).

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    Diya Kohli is Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.

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