West Bengal Getaways for the Culture, Nature and Ocean Lovers

There's far more to West Bengal than Darjeeling.  
Sundarbans Mangrove
In the Sundarban mangroves, spot the saltwater crocodile, Irrawady dolphin, and maybe even the tiger. Photo: Prasanta Biswas/Majority World/Dinodia Photo Library

Sundarbans National Park

Three hours from the commotion of Kolkata, the world’s largest mangrove forest is a dark, mist-shrouded world—a fitting home for the legend of its man-eating tigers. Stay at one of the many ecolodges at the edges of the Sundarbans National Park and get a boat to take you along the river, to meet the marshes’ many residents: low-lying crocodiles, monitor lizards, and if you’re lucky, an Irrawaddy dolphin or two. As your boat makes its way along the murky waters of the Sundarbans, listen to the silence, and keep your eyes wide open for a glimpse of the feline phantom of the forest. You can also head to one of the several watchtowers for a panoramic view of one of the world’s most unique forests.

Getting There The most convenient entry point to the Sundarbans is Godhkali, which is 110km/ 3hr from Kolkata by road. There are a number of guided boat safaris available from here. The nearest airport is in Kolkata, 110km/3hr away and the nearest railway station is in Canning 30km/1hr30min away.

Bishnupur

bishnupur temple, photo by iStock.com/RNMitra

Bishnupur’s traditional Baluchari saree weavers often derive inspiration from panels in the terracotta temples. Photo: iStock.com/RNMitra

If you’re looking for a getaway that doesn’t feature hill stations, tea or wildlife, head to Bishnupur for a good show of Bengali heritage with its terracotta temples, silk sarees and folk history. Centuries after they were first carved from terracotta, Bishnupur’s temples still draw travellers from near and far. The carvings, with Bengali, Muslim and Oriya (Odishan) elements, depict scenes from religious epics, Hindu myths and folk history. They’re a striking sight at dusk, and can be explored by foot and cycle rickshaw. The town is also known for its Baluchari weavers, who often replicate temple motifs and panels in the sarees they create from silk.

Getting There Bishnupur is 202km/4hr from Kolkata. The nearest airport is in Kolkata, 140km/3hr30min and the nearest railway station is in Bishnupur.

Shantiniketan

Glass house Kolkata Shantiniketan Kala Bhavana

Because of its many coloured glass windows, Shantiniketan’s Upasana Griha or prayer hall is also known as the Glass House. Photo: Suman Roychoudhury

For an easy, impromptu weekend away from Kolkata, head to Shantiniketan for old-world Bengali charm, in the style of Rabindranath Tagore. At the Rabindra Bhavan museum, look at Tagore’s original letters and photographs; or explore the Uttarayan Complex, which houses the five homes that Tagore lived in at various stages in his life. Stay at one of the homestays and head out to see the sights of the charming town by foot or bicycle. Visit Shantiniketan in December for a crash course in Bengali culture at the three-day Poush Mela. Here, Baul music provides the background score to your stroll from one handicraft stall to the next, with stops to sample phuchkas, piping hot kachoris and the special winter-time Bengali indulgence: pithe, or rice-flour dumplings stuffed with sticky date jaggery, coconut, and khoya. More here.

Getting There Shantiniketan is 200km/4hr from Kolkata and 2km/10min from Bolpur, the closest big town. The nearest airport and railway are both in Kolkata.

Singalila National Park

Singalila National Park Sunbird West Bengal

A fire-tailed sunbird enjoys the nectar of the scarlet rhododendron in Singalila National Park. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

A little under three hours from Kolkata, Singalila National Park has legendary sunrises, exceptional mountain views, and rare bird sightings amidst furiously blooming rhododendrons and magnolias. It’s no surprise that it is becoming a popular hiking holiday destination. Stay at one of the several lodges and trekking huts along the Sandakphu route as you prepare to trek through one of the most beautiful regions of the Himalayas to reach West Bengal’s loftiest peak. Did we mention that the Singalila National Park is home to the red panda?

Getting There The most popular entry to Singalila National Park is Manebhanjan, which is 630km/14hr10min from Kolkata and 25km/1hr from Darjeeling. The nearest airport is in Bagdogra, 83km/3hr, and the nearest railway station is in New Jalpaiguri, 83km/3hrs away.

Darjeeling

Darjeeling

Tenzing Norgay, the first person to scale Mt. Everest along with Edmund Hillary, was born in Darjeeling and used to practice climbing on a rock that is now named Tenzing Rock. Photo: Justin Guariglia

For the classic hill station break, there’s always Darjeeling. Sample its fine teas, ride the Toy Train, or spend your time soaking in its mountain views and pretty, colonial-style bungalows. Lovers of all things vintage, can check into one of the colonial-style bungalows at the Glenburn Tea Estate, which has a tea factory from 1859.  Predictably lovely, and perpetually laid-back, Darjeeling never disappoints. If you’re a diehard Beatles fan, you’ll enjoy staying at the Revolver Hotel where each room is named after one of the Fab Four.

Getting There Darjeeling is 614km/14hr20min from Kolkata and 66km/2hr30min from Bagdogra, which has the nearest airport. The nearest railway station and big town is New Jalpaiguri, 69km/2hr40min away.

Mongpu

Tagore Museum Rabindra Bhavan Mongpu

The Tagore museum, Rabindra Bhavan, is full of memorabilia that draws in literary pilgrims. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

If Darjeeling is too touristy for your tastes, head to tranquil little Mongpu, which lies just an hour and a half away. The road to the little hamlet is the perfect precursor to what the small village has to offer: sprawling tea estates, orchid and cinchona plantations and quieter sceneries. It’s not surprising that Tagore liked spending his summers in this idyllic spot. Whether you’re a literary pilgrim or not, taking in the landscape that inspired Tagore’s poetry as you sit at his old mahogany desk at Rabindra Bhavan certainly makes for a fantastic memory. While Mongpu does not offer much in terms of accommodation, the warm locals will often open up their homes to welcome visitors looking for a quiet, easy getaway. More here.

Getting There Mongpu is 35km/1.5hr from Darjeeling. The nearest airport is in Bagdogra 85km/4hr and the nearest railway station is in New Jalpaiguri, 57km/2hr away.

Dooars

dooars, rhino, photo by iStock.com/saha_avijan

Catch the endangered Asiatic one-horned rhino in Jaldapara National Park in the Dooars Valley. Photo: iStock.com/saha_avijan

The Dooars Valley is a wildlife enthusiast’s dream holiday. Considered the gateway to Northeast India and Bhutan, Dooars is situated at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas. Visitors can take their pick: go on an elephant safari through the Jaldapara National Park; look for tigers in the Buxa Tiger Reserve; or say hello to the valley’s one-horned rhinoceros in the Jaldapara or Gorumara National Parks.

Getting There New Jalpaiguri is the gateway to the Dooars Valley. It is 663km/14hr30min from Kolkata and 137km/3hr10min from Bagdogra, the nearest airport. The nearest railway station is in New Jalpaiguri, 122km/2hr35min away.

Kalimpong

Pickles Kalimpong Market

Kalimpong’s biweekly haats have a lot on offer: fresh mushrooms, millet beer, and bottles of pickled tofu, chillis, dried fish and meat. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Not too far from Darjeeling, Kalimpong is the perfect base for a lazy holiday in the north Bengal hills, with sleepier streets, a wide array of local foods, and a view of the five peaks of Kanchenjunga. Relax at a heritage hotel, homestay, or ecolodge, setting out on foot occasionally to explore the town. For a bit of local excitement, head to the bustling, biweekly haat on Kalimpong’s main street, where seasonal produce—brought down from the nearby village farms—is sold. From vegetables to meats, cheeses, breads, and fresh locally sourced mushrooms—you name it, they have it. Retreat with baskets spilling good food, perfect for a picnic.

Getting There Kalimpong is 624km/14hr21min from Kolkata and 55km/2hr30min from Darjeeling. The nearest airport is in Bagdogra, 75km/2hr45mins and the nearest railway station is in New Jalpaiguri, 73km/2hr3omin away.

Murshidabad

murshidabad, cemetery, photo by Trans-World Photos/Premium/Dinodia Photo Library

Khoshbagh or the “Garden of Happiness” in Murshidabad, is the burial ground of the last Nawabs of Bengal. Photo: Trans-World Photos/Premium/Dinodia Photo Library

To see a sliver of Bengal’s Nawabi past, drive down to the town of Murshidabad. Plan a heritage walk around the last capital of independent Bengal, before British rule, and go hopping from one historic reminder of the past to the other. What’s not to miss: the thousand doors of the Hazarduari Palace from 1837, the Nizamat Imambara—Bengal’s largest, and the striking Katra Mosque of 1724. And, while you’re learning your history lessons, don’t forget to pick up Murshidabad’s gorgeous silk saris.

Getting There Murshidabad is 238km/5hr20min from Kolkata. The nearest airport is in Kolkata, 198km/5hr10min away. Murshidabad has its own railway station.

Kurseong

Tea samples

Kurseong’s 155-year-old Makaibari Tea Estate sells classic brews like silver-leaf tea, and more adventurous variants that are flavoured with rose petals and fruit. Photo: Justin Guariglia

A tea lover’s paradise, Kurseong is a little over an hour’s drive away from Darjeeling. Known for its tea and orchids, most of the charming, nineteenth-century colonial hill station seems stuck in time. Stay at one of several heritage homestays and visit Kurseong’s many tea estates and tea salons to indulge in some serious tasting of Bengal’s favourite beverage. You’ll find apple cinnamon tea, tea mixed with crushed betel leaves, brews with orange peel, and tea with the strong flavour of passion fruit. However you like to take your tea, you’ll love Kurseong. More here.

Getting There Kurseong is 600km/16hr from Kolkata and 30km/1hr from Darjeeling. The nearest airport is in Bagdora, 60km/1.5hr and the nearest railway station is in New Jalpaiguri, 55km/2hr.

Bakkhali

Bakkhali Beach, photo by eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr/Creative Commons

The deserted shores of Bakkhali offer the perfect backdrop for a quiet beach holiday. Photo: eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr/Creative Commons

The key to a successful beach holiday is to find a seaside spot before everyone else has invaded it. The sparsely populated, crescent-shaped beach of Bakkhali, in south Bengal, is just the ticket. Several options for accommodation in the area ensure that your quiet, laid-back beach sojourn will also be comfortable. From Bakkhali, you can take a boat and cross over to Jambu Dwip for some bird-spotting, or head to the wind park in Frasergunj for some lovely landscape views. Make time for a walk along the beach, under the casuarina trees bathed in moonlight.

Getting There Bakkhali is 125km/3hr40min from Kolkata. The nearest airport is in Kolkata, 141km/4hr8min and the nearest railway station is in Namkhana, 25km/1hr away.

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    Amrita Lall is a former Web Intern at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves people-watching, reading books, and all the dogs in the world. She strongly believes that the best stories are right here, in our everyday lives.

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