1 - The Maidan
The best way to get around Kolkata is by air-conditioned car, but if you have time, a taxi ride or the subway is well worth it for short journeys. Chowringhee Road, one of the city’s main streets, runs alongside the Maidan, a huge green field popular with Kolkatans across the city. Whenever you pass it you will see children and adults playing cricket, families having picnics and occasionally a political rally or exhibition.
In the south of the park is the Victoria Memorial Hall, built in the memory of Queen Victoria after she died in 1901. King George V laid the foundation stone here in 1906, but it was another 15 years before this incredible white marble marvel was opened to the public in 1921.
Sir William Emerson, president of the British Institute of Architects, was responsible for the stately design (as well as other Indian treasures, such as the Gothic Crawford Market in Mumbai). Today, the memorial is a museum set in 64 acres of green landscaped gardens – a welcome break from the packed streets. The museum is open from 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday. Entry is 150 rupees (£2).
2 - Rickshaw ride
There are around 17,000 rickshaws in Kolkata, but this may well change soon as the government is trying to phase them out, stating they are too dangerous for the modern world of huge cars and buses. My rickshaw driver did have a small accident with a reversing taxi, so it is worth holding on tightly to avoid being catapulted into the crowds.
If you can find one, though, it is probably the most enjoyable way of travelling around the city. You ride above the crowds slowly enough to take in the sights and sounds as you glide past market places and temples. Make sure you agree a price of a few rupees before you clamber up into your seat, and if there are two of you prepare for a tight squeeze. Rickshaws were introduced in 1901 and were certainly not built for the modern Western fast-food waistline.
3 - Flower market
Howrah Bridge is said to be the busiest bridge in the world, with millions of people crossing the River Hooghly each day. Indeed, the population of Kolkata swells by four million (from 14 million people to a staggering 18 million) each day, as workers enter the city. The bridge was built by the British in 1874 and is 450 metres long.
Below it is a sight which should not be missed. It won’t be on the tourist map, but the wholesale flower market is open daily from sunrise to sunset, and is a spectacular display of colour and activity under the arms of the bridge. Stall owners sit threading brightly coloured flower heads into garlands, men dart past with over 20kg of flowers in baskets balanced on their heads, and people are buying and selling as far as you can see.
As it is a wholesale market you can only buy in large quantities (such as 50 roses at a time) but it won’t set you back too much if you do. However, it is worth a visit simply for the experience of ducking and diving down pungent alleyways strewn with petals and stalks, and filled with chatter, before breaking into the daylight again.
4 - St John’s Church
To the north of the Maidan you can take a pleasant architectural walk. If you go on a Monday, as I did, the streets are eerily empty as it is a day of rest. St John’s Church, on Council House Street, is in a pretty green enclosure and inside are the offices of Warren Hastings, the first governor general of British India. Hastings also worked for the East India Company and was based in Kolkata for three years. The office inside the church has original furniture and on the wall is The Last Supper, painted in 1786 by Hastings’ Dutch friend John Zoffany. (Apparently, Mary Magdalene is based on Zoffany’s girlfriend and Judas on the local police chief.)
Outside the church is a memorial to the victims of the Black Hole of Kolkata. When Fort William was captured by the Indians in 1756 – significant because the British established the fort to protect the trading of the East India Company in the city – British prisoners were held in a small cell known as the Black Hole, where over 100 of them died from suffocation.
5 - The Oberoi Grand
To escape the heat and hassle, head to the famous 125-year-old Oberoi Grand Kolkata hotel, on Chowringhee Road. The “Grande Dame of Kolkata”, as it is known, is elegant and cool inside. It has a spa and fitness centre by Banyan Tree and a popular restaurant called Baan Thai, serving Thai food, which I would highly recommend if you want a change from all the delicious traditional Indian fare. You’ll need to book. Call +91 33 2249 2323, oberoikolkata.com.