kolkata victoria memorial

48 Hours in Kolkata: Day One


Kolkata was my first port of call in West Bengal, a start to an eleven-day trip covering Kolkata, Darjeeling and Gangtok. I arrived from Kuala Lumpur close to midnight and woke up the next morning to catch the tail end of the Durga Puja festival. In between the festivities, my host AmritaΒ and I planned our activities for the next two days, after which I would head off to Darjeeling.

Kolkata is a densely populated city of 14 million, thus there are numerous places to visit and things to do. I’m a heritage buff, so the first thing I always look out for in a city is anything related to history, heritage and architecture. Since I had only 48 hours in the city, I’d thought I share with you what I did during my stay, and perhaps that could help you too when you plan for a trip to Kolkata.

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Victoria Memorial
The first thing we did was to visit one of the famous landmarks of Kolkata – Victoria Memorial. Made of Rajasthani white marble, the Victoria Memorial is a grand, imposing building with a museum and gardens. The building was constructed in honour of Queen Victoria, an idea envisaged by the former Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon who, after the death of the Queen, wanted a stately memorial dedicated in her memory.

According to Wikipedia, Lord Curzon stated the following:

“Let us, therefore, have a building, stately, spacious, monumental and grand, to which every newcomer in Calcutta will turn, to which all the resident population, European and Native, will flock, where all classes will learn the lessons of history, and see revived before their eyes the marvels of the past.”

Construction of the building began in 1906 and it took 15 years to complete. Ironically, halfway through the construction, the capital of India moved from Calcutta (former name of Kolkata) to New Delhi, thus the memorial was looking majestic but in a provincial city rather than a capital.

There are 25 galleries inside the building, however, not all are opened to the public. We saw galleries exhibiting the history of the construction, the history of Calcutta and collections of oil paintings of India by notable painters. In the central hall stands a marble statue of the Queen, and frescoes of scenes from her life.

kolkata victoria memorial

Victoria Memorial Hall
– Opening Hours: 10am – 5pm daily except (Monday and national holidays)
– Ticket Price: INR20 for Indians; INR200 for foreigners
– Photography inside the museum building is prohibited.

Victoria Memorial Gardens
– Opening Hours: 5:30am – 6:15pm daily (including public holidays)
– Ticket Price: INR10. Garden ticket does not entitle entry to the museum building.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral
Just a short walk from Victoria Memorial is the Anglican church and largest cathedral in Kolkata – St. Paul’s Cathedral. Built in Indo-Gothic architectural style, St Paul’s Cathedral was the first cathedral built in the overseas territory of the British Empire.

kolkata st pauls cathedral

Opening Hours: 10am – 6pm daily
Photography inside the cathedral is prohibited.

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Park Street area
By the time we exited St. Paul’s Cathedral, it was already midday and we were feeling peckish. It was time for lunch and after much discussions, we decided to go to Suruchi on Elliot Road. We could have taken the metro from Maidan Station to Park Street Station and then walk to Elliot Road but we chose to walk along Jawaharlal Nehru Road (formerly known as Chowringhee Road), then on to Park Street, the prime commercial district of Kolkata.

We walked past shops, commercial buildlings, eateries and hotels. Street food stalls were also set up especially on J.N. Road, and since it was already past noon, we saw office workers coming out to have lunch by the stalls.

Suruchi is an old eatery serving Bengali food and is run by the destitute women of The All Bengal Women’s Union. I have read that the establishment is simple and is open only for lunch. Sadly, after that long walk from J.N Road, we arrived to find it closed because of Durga Puja festival. If you get a chance to eat at Suruchi, do share with me your experience!

We quickly hopped on to an auto rickshaw and headed back again to Park Street. We walked to Mocambo Restaurant but only to find a long queue outside the restaurant. In the end, we settled for lunch at One Step Up cafe.

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Magen David Synagogue
After lunch, we took a taxi to Brabourne Road to search for Jewish synagogues in the central quarter of the city. I have always wanted to visit a synagogue ever since I learnt about the legacy of the Sassoon family in Bombay who were Baghdadi Jews and prominent philantropists during the mid 19th century. The Sassoon family built a synagogue for their community, and that synagogue is called the Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue, a stone’s throw away from the David Sassoon Library in Colaba district. However, during my visit to Mumbai in 2014, I could not enter that synagogue as it was heavily barricaded by the police.

The Baghdadi Jews also came and settled in Calcutta in the early 19th century when Calcutta was the capital of India during the British Raj rule. The number of Jews was 6,000 at one point but has now declined to 20. Five synagogues were built in the city but now only two are in use.

We were in search of Magen David Synagogue but upon arrival at the bustling Brabourne Road, it was a little difficult to locate the synagogue amidst vendors and makeshift stalls. Finally, we located a synagogue which turned out to be Beth El synagogue instead. The caretaker was about to close the synagogue when we walked in but we pleaded with him to let us enter for 10 minutes.

Here’s the interesting facts about the Kolkata synagogues:
– There are no more regular services conducted on Saturdays but only one person from the Jewish community comes to the synagogues every Friday evening to light a candle.
– The caretakers of the synagogues come from a generation of Muslim families who have been helping to maintain the synagogues for more than 50 years.

Magen David Synagogue
Magen David Synagogue

And one of the last remaining Jews in Kolkata owns a bakery in New MarketNahoum’s – apparently the bakery holds a special place in Kolkata confectionery and Nahoum’s is known for their fruit cake, pastries and bread. We had planned to go to New Market but we were told many shops were closed because of Durga Puja festival, thus we didn’t get the chance to taste pastries from Nahoum’s.

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View of Howrah Bridge at the Ghat
The sun was about to set and one of the iconic landmarks of Kolkata which I did not want to miss was the Howrah Bridge. Since we were coming from Brabourne Road, the best place to capture Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River was from the river ghats. We walked to Armenian Ghat which was incidentally right in the Flower Market, and took this photo.

kolkata howrah bridge

Indian Coffee House
After we left the ghats, it was already dark but there was one more place that I wanted to go before leaving the city for the suburbs. It’s the Indian Coffee House on College Street.

In the 1940s and 1960s, the Coffee House was a well-known meeting place for poets, artists, scholars, writers, and it is said that several ideas of political and cultural movements were conceived during debates held in this coffee house. The establishment is now a regular hang-out place for students of the Presidency College of University of Calcutta.

If you are a heritage buff like me who do not mind a cup of (bad) coffee, non-air conditioned loud environment, poor lighting, then go to the Coffee House to sit there for the heck of it and imagine what it was like back in the day.

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kolkata indian coffee house

Kolkata is a sprawling city and admittedly, it is tough to decide which place to visit within a short period of time. In fact, we had planned to visit a few more places for the first day but many establishments were closed and with the increased levels of traffic during the festive season, it was not possible to see all the places on our list.

However, there was still another day left in Kolkata, and I signed up for a half-day walking tour with Calcutta Walks which is one of the best walking tours in the city. To read more about the walking tour, look out for the next post!

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31 comments

  1. The dichotomy between the British architecture and all things Indian has always amazed me. In some ways, so perfectly English…only not. Very picturesque, though. That was quite an itinerary – thanks for sharing it with us on #TheWeeklyPostcard!

    1. Indeed, because Britain ruled India for 300 years. The British Raj administrators were well established in cities like Kolkata and Mumbai, thus the building architecture and some traditions are very English – you will find many Victorian or Gothic designs.

  2. What a great introduction to the city- it sounds a fascinating place and so much to discover. The synagogue is beautiful and a fascinating side over the city’s history. #citytripping

  3. This city looks very European (based on what you have shown in here). Don’t you think? I would love to visit. Well, I would be happy if I can go anywhere in India! #citytripping

  4. Really interesting to hear about your visit to Kolkata. The Victoria Memorial is incredibly striking. Much of the architecture is anglicised, the British Empire leaving its mark. Quite sad to hear that the synagogues are barely used and the Jewish numbers have dwindled to so few. Looks like they are being well looked after though. Thanks for sharing on #citytripping

    1. Well, India had been under British rule for over 300 years or so, hence much of English elements can still be found in their building architecture, culture, law, government administration, etc. Yeah, I felt sad too, mainly for the fact that this small community is gradually losing their heritage altogether in this metropolis. Majority of their descendants have emigrated to Israel, therefore the remaining folks here are their senior citizens.

  5. Wow you did a lot in 48 hours! Thanks so much for sharing I haven’t read a city guide to Kolkata before I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for the pin am now following you on pinterest, twitter and instagram. Happy travels! #citytripping

    1. Haha, I understand what you mean, after all, India was under British rule for more than 300 years or so. Therefore, English elements can still be found in their building architecture, culture, government administration, law, etc.

  6. Nice coverage of the ancient city Kolkata. I remember going to the few of these places while my college trip some 5 years ago. I have not heard of Magen David Synagogue before, but I would love to explore it sometime.

    1. Hi Savar, I had a great time being in Kolkata even though it was only for a few days. Next time you’re there, yeah, do visit the synagogue. Thanks for visiting my blog, and for your comment. Cheers.

  7. Calcutta has always been one of those cities for me which I love. Your mere mention of Park Street brought a flood of memories πŸ™‚

    And hey! I never knew there are ‘city walks’ available in Kolkata. Thanks for that info. There are many areas which only the locals know and this is something I am sure I will sign-up with next time I am there.

    Looking forward to read about the next 24 hours now!

    Cheers,
    Rajiv

    1. Yeah, and there are walking tours springing up in major cities now. I’m sure Bangalore has one too? If not, perhaps that gives you an idea to start one? πŸ˜‰

  8. There is nothing quite like capturing the history of a place by experiencing both historical site (Victoria Memorial Hall & Garden look awesome) but also in capturing the culture as well which is why I always like your ventures into the local coffee shops/tea shops and getting a good flavor of the place πŸ™‚

    1. Oh if only you had seen our original list for Day 1, we were ambitious! We spent a longer time in VM but the afternoon was really a rush esp inside the synagogues because we arrived late and the caretakers were reluctant to let us in as they were about to close. But I had managed to spend longer time in the synagogue on Day 2, look out for the post πŸ™‚

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