Mumbai: city of financiers and film-makers, fishermen and fashion designers; beggars and billionaires, luxury hotels and languishing slums. Don’t be daunted by this crazy, chaotic Indian city-by-the-sea of some 16.4 million – despite what you might think, being in Mumbai (Bombay) with kids is lots of fun. The trick is to take the city in small doses: make no elaborate plans for a whole day out seeing sights; instead decide on just one thing you’d like to see, do or eat, and set out to do just that, before retreating back to your hotel to recuperate in time for your next foray. That way, your little ones won’t lose their will to sight-see, and you won’t lose your marbles.
Travel about Mumbai is best tackled by yellow-and-black taxi: they’re efficient, and nearly always use the meter (check it’s running as you set off, and demand it’s turned on if it’s not). They come in various shapes and sizes, from old Ambassadors to new mini-buses, but it’s unlikely that any will have working A/C, so wind down the windows and let the, um, fresh Mumbai breezes keep you cool. For an evening adventure, take a pre-bedtime spin on the Nilambari, a blue, open top double-decker bus serviced by the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC); it takes in all the sights and sounds of the city centre, without the need to push through the crowds. The bus departs from the Gateway of India (see below) at 7pm and 8.15pm on Saturdays and Sundays: pay extra to get a seat up top.
1. STAY AT THE TAJ MAHAL PALACE
If you can possibly run to it (and it’s certainly not cheap), a stay at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is certainly one to remember. Bursting with antiques, and boasting the loveliest swimming pool in the city, you and your little ones will feel the love. Eschew the bland tower bedrooms in favour of the heritage Palace rooms or suites (butler, anyone?), and you’ll enjoy some serious opulence; during our last December stay, someone even sent up Christmas presents for each of our children. And don’t forget the fabulous dining at Masala Kraft and Wasabi, the breakfast buffet, and drinks, High Tea and pre-dinnertime snacks in the Palace Lounge (a special perk of the Club Rooms). It’s expensive. But it’s worth it.
2. TAKE TIME OVER A THALI
You won’t quickly forget lunch at Samrat, a simply furnished “Pure Veg” (read: vegetarian) restaurant: come hungry, order a Gujurati Thali (a selection of dishes, breads, and rice, which are refilled as often as you can manage) and enjoy. There are child-sized thalis, too, although there’s plenty more on the menu if your brood’s not in the mood. Note that Samrat’s thalis are popular with locals and tourists alike: there may well be a waiting list for a table, so bring along a colouring book or two for the kids while they wait.
Alternatively, head to another of Mumbai’s top veg thali joints: Shree Thaker Bhojanalay (31 Dadisheth Agyari Lane, off Kalbadevi Rd, Marine Lines; open daily for lunch from 11.30am), an award-winning (but still simple) Gujarati joint, whose thalis are every bit as bountiful as Samrat’s, and some say are even tastier. We love both, so don’t ask us.
3. TAKE AN EVENING STROLL BENEATH THE GATEWAY OF INDIA
(free) Built to commemorate King George V’s royal visit to India in 1911 (though not completed till 1924), the Gateway of India is probably Mumbai’s most recognisable icon, looking out to sea from the tip of Apollo Bunder, near the Taj Palace Hotel. Take the kids for a pre-bedtime stroll, and you’ll find courting couples, gaggles of schoolgirls, trinket salesmen and other assorted Mumbaikers all doing the same.
4. RIDE OUT TO ELEPHANTA ISLAND
Take a ‘deluxe boat’ out from the wharfs at the Gateway of India (see number 3, above) to Elephanta Island, 9 nautical miles away in Mumbai Harbour, whose glorious rock-cut, carved cave temples – created more than 1000 years ago – are a UNESCO-protected site. Check, when booking at a booth at the Gateway of India, that your deluxe boat ticket includes an English-language guide, who will meet you at the entrance to the caves: that way, you can side-step with confidence the touts on the island jetty. If your children feel like it, there’s a miniature train that will shuttle them (and you) to the stairway to the caves, and lots of monkeys to observe from a safe distance. Boats depart every 30 minutes from the Gateway of India (except Mondays, when the caves are closed), and note that the boat ride takes an hour each way, so it’s a relatively long – but absolutely worthwhile – adventure.
5. MUNCH A TIKKA ROLL FROM BADEMIYA
Holy Tikka Roll: Bademiya (Tulloch Rd) is street food to the nth degree. Tucked into a lane not far from the Taj Mahal Palace (see above), it’s a hit with locals from all walks of life. There are two separate stalls: one vending meaty kebabs (mostly mutton and chicken), and the other selling flesh-free: our kids adore the paneer (cheese) and aloo (potato) rolls, whilst we grown-ups jazz ours up with fried onions and finger-licking spicy sauces. Perfect to take away, too, for a long onward journey or late night snacking.
6. GO TO THE LAW
(free) A short outing to the Law Court (Eldon Rd) might be just what your aspiring young barrister ordered. Built in the mid 19th century to resemble an imposing German castle, the justice dispensed here is on public view: look in on a few cases-in-progress (leave your camera at the hotel: it’s not allowed) to see who’s on trial today. It’s a fascinating, poignant, glimpse into the Indian legal system, and at the very least will likely have your kids behaving themselves come bedtime.
7. TAKE A TRAIN TRIP
If you’re travelling on from Mumbai, don’t immediately discount rail travel in favour of going by air. Train travel here may not be luxurious (think: toilets that are simply holes leading down to the track beneath), but it’s in most ways a magical experience. That experience begins at Chhatrapati Shivahi Terminus, Mumbai’s architectural jewel, perfectly Gothic-graceful from the outside, and on the inside…chaos. Buy a snack and a newspaper, watch freight trains being loaded with fresh-caught fish on blocks of ice, see a man walk a goat, and get your weight, and fortune, read simultaneously on one of the whizzing, coin-op machines. If you’re actually after tickets, however, head upstairs to the serene Foreign Tourists reservation counters on the first floor (firmly ignoring the touts who have, for decades, been trying to persuade tourists that it’s moved/closed/burnt down).
8. GIGGLE AT A LAUGHTER CLUB
(free) Have your children rise and shine earlier than usual, to take them out to a dawn Laughter Club, where locals meet to laugh their troubles away, with a technique they call “Laughter Yoga.” Started by Mumbai local Dr. Kataria, and now a worldwide movement, sessions are free (and often comprise elderly Mumbaikers in jogging suits) and the laughter is contagious. Search for a Mumbai club here: there’s lots to choose from.
9. PROMENADE ON MARINE DRIVE
(free) Arcing around Mumbai Harbour, with views out to the Arabian Sea, walking the Marine Drive Promenade – especially towards sunset – is about as quintessential as Mumbai experiences come. The pavement’s not always in great repair, and you’ll undoubtedly be hassled by an itinerant salesman or two, but it’s worth it…and when you’re fed up, just hail a cab to whisk you along the sea-shore homeward.
10. CHOW DOWN AT CHOWPATTY (GIRGUAM CHOWPATTY)
A favourite spot for generations of Mumbai families (if you’ve read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, you may well recognise it) this Bombay beach is the place to which many flock come evening – especially weekend evenings – to sit about and munch from the streetside stalls. Banish all thoughts of swimming or even paddling from your mind (the water here is revolting); instead, grab your kids some silly trinket, let them ride a slightly dodgy miniature Ferris wheel, and snack away with the locals on piled-high portions of bhelpuri (savoury puffed rice snacks).
11. COOL OFF AT THE NEW KULFI CENTRE
Indian ice cream to soothe even the most frazzled little traveller at the hole-in-wall New Kulfi Centre, (on the corner of Sardar V Patel Rd & Chowpatty Seaface) where the frozen goods come in yummy, unusual flavours like rose and pistachio. It’s been cooling down Mumbaikers since 1960, and you’ll likely like it too.
12. HANG AT THE BANGANGA TANK
(free) According to legend, the wooden pole at the centre of the small, sacred Banganga bathing spot (Walkeshwar Rd, Malabar Hill) is actually the centre of the world: a guaranteed conversation-starter with your little people. Head here for a moment of repose in the busy city: it’s crumbly and atmospheric, and is one of the holiest places, for Hindus, in the whole of Mumbai.
13. STRIKE OUT TO HAJI ALI’S MOSQUE
(free) At low tide, a causeway stretching out into the Arabian Sea transports you to the vast and stunning Haji Ali Mosque, which contains the tomb of the Muslim Saint, Haji. Make the walk on Thursdays or Fridays with hundreds of pilgrims, or take it at your own pace any time, past hawkers, hustlers and beggars, en route to this welcoming (off-)white shrine.
14. WATCH THE WASHERMEN AND WOMEN AT MAHALAXMI DHOBI GHAT
(free) This is no ordinary Laundromat: take your little ones to see where much of Mumbai has its socks washed, at the century-old Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat (Dr. E. Moses Rd, Mahalaxmi). Here, hundreds of workers pound the bejinkies out of the city’s dirty laundry in over a thousand open-air troughs: for the best view of the action, stand on the bridge across the railway close to Mahalaxmi Station.
15. TAKE A RESPONSIBLE SLUM TOUR
If you’ve heard of the Mumbai slums and wish to see for yourselves what they’re really like, book a tour with Reality Tours & Travel, who will take you on an eye-opening guided walking tour through the Dharavi Slum. Guides are friendly and knowledgable, children are welcome, and 80% of profits go to help the community. It’s the perfect, thought-provoking way to really get beneath the surface of the city, and is likely to stay in your young ones’ minds for a very long time.
16. SNACK AT LEOPOLD CAFÉ
Beloved of tourists for decades (have you read Shantaram?) and open since 1871, Leopold is still going strong, and makes a nice refuelling stop whilst out and about in the city. Homesick family members can feast on fries, pasta, garlic bread and Coke floats – or even, for that matter, Vietnamese noodles or chop suey. Thirsty parents will appreciate a nice cold glass of draft beer.
17. RUN AROUND IN THE HANGING GARDENS
(free) Babylon it ain’t, but to run off a little excess energy, bring your small people up to the Hanging Gardens (Pherozeshah Mehta Garden, opp. Kamala Nehru Park) at Malabar Hill, from which you’ll get lovely views out over the city. Our little ones especially like clambering on the giant shoe, and wandering amongst the lopsized topiary animals.
18. GET YOUR HANDS MESSY AT PESHAWRI
Consistently cited as one of Mumbai’s best restaurants, fancy Peshawri – like every Mumbai restaurant – is nevertheless very child-friendly, and your little ones will be greeted with warmth. Housed in the 5 star ITC Maratha Hotel (another great staying option), not far from the airport, this is a great one to try just before or after a flight: fill up on incredible North West Frontier food…and the best bit? You get to eat entirely with your hands.
19. BROWSE THE CHHATRAPATI SHIVAJI MAHARAJ VASTU SANGRAHALAYA MUSEUM
Indian museums aren’t well known for their cutting-edge displays or child-friendly activity programs, but it’s nevertheless well worth spending an hour or two’s respite from the heat in this mouthful of a museum (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum), Mumbai’s largest, housed in a glorious, domed Victorian building designed by the architect who also conceived the Gateway Of India (see above). Dusty cases, odd mannequins and plenty of ancient weaponry await your children’s viewing pleasure, along with the occasional art or craft activity. And at 10 rupees entry for under-12s, it’s a bargain.
20. FEAST ON A SOUTHERN BREAKFAST
Even if you’re not headed south, you can taste the coconut-infused breakfast magic of India’s southern states at Café Madras (38B, Kamakshi Bldg, Circle House Matunga, near King’s Circle; breakfast from 7am; closed Mondays), where the dosas (rice flour pancakes) are divine. Picky little eaters will like the plain dosas; we always plump for idlis (steamed lentil-and-rice cakes )and a masala dosa, filled with yummy, yellow mashed potatoes, and served with coconut chutneys and a thin, spicy sambar soup.
+1. PERUSE THE THIEVES’ MARKET
(free) Hang on tight to your tinies and enter the whirlwind world that is the daily Chor Bazaar (the Thieves’ Market; main market area on Mutton St), in whose labyrinthine lanes you’ll find amazing antiques and ephemera on offer – yours to take home, if you’ve got your best bargaining hat on. Stop off whenever you feel fatigued, to grab a glass of hot, sweet chai (tea) and a plateful of puri (puffed-up fried bread), which our children find infinitely reviving.