Visiting Mumbai on a budget? Even thought it might be on the list of the most expensive urban areas on the planet. No matter – there are myriad ways to get around town without breaking the bank. Whether it’s dining options or the city’s diverse attractions, Mumbai is extremely accommodating of all budgets. With sturdy legs, an open heart and a reasonably filled wallet, you’re good to go!
Apollo Bunder near the Gateway of India and the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel & Towers is where many an exploration of Mumbai begins. A ferry ride around the harbour is a fun way to start off. The ferries aren’t exactly state-of-the-art and life-belts are something of a euphemism. But at Rs. 50 for a 20-minute ride, it’s cheap and safe enough, if you don’t lean out too far. Tickets are sold right on the steps leading down to the water!
Some of Mumbai’s best views come for free. Arrive for a pre-sunset stroll at Land’s End, a narrow concrete strip that strides out into the Arabian Sea just past the Oberoi Towers. From here, you have a superb, 180-degree view of the sea and the plush towers of Backbay Reclamation (brace yourself for strong whiffs of drying fish, from the Koli fisher folk colonies in neighbouring Colaba). Walk back along Marine Drive, the promenade that curves around the bay and winds up Malabar Hill at the other end. The stone embankments are one of Mumbai’s best people-watching spots – lovers, elderly residents, shoeshine boys, chatty housewives, urchins et al. As dusk falls, street lights wink into a dazzling arc along the promenade. This is the Queen’s Necklace – Mumbai at her seductive best!
Banganga Tank, Walkeshwar, is Mumbai’s oldest pilgrimage site. The tank is surrounded by temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. The complex was destroyed by Portuguese invaders who ruled Mumbai between 810 AD and 1240 AD. and became a popular pirate haunt during the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1715, Banganga was rebuilt by Rama Kamath, a local businessman-cum-philanthropist.
On the tank embankments, visitors relax in the cool of the evening, watching ducks glide on the still, green waters. In January/February every year, Banganga hosts a festival of classical Hindustani music.
Mumbai gets its name from Mumbadevi, guardian deity of the Kolis, the city’s original inhabitants. Mumbadevi’s ancient temple is in Bhuleshwar, near the crowded lanes of Mumbai’s jewellery market, Zaveri Bazaar. Look out for its elaborate silver doors. Push in a few coins through the railings and make a wish – Mumbadevi is famed for fulfilling the dreams of millions. Outside, Bhuleshwar’s narrow streets are jammed with tiny shops selling shiny bangles, saris and sweets in fluorescent colours, a vegetable market and more – look out for great photo ops.
Haji Ali Dargah, about 500 yards from the coast in Worli Bay, was built by a pious Muslim businessman of the same name in 1431. During low tide on Thursdays and Fridays, long lines of pilgrims stream down the causeway from the mainland to pray at the dargah. Visit Haji Ali on Sunday, Monday, Thursday or Friday between 4 pm and 8.30 pm to catch a mesmerizing qawwali performance by Sikandar Shad, who’s been singing here for 50 years.
Skyscrapers and slum colonies apart, Mumbai is an architectural treasure trove. The state tourism development corporation runs reasonably priced open-deck bus tours around historical landmarks. Heritage societies conduct walking and bicycling tours; they are relatively more expensive, but qualitatively speaking, value for money. You could of course, arm yourself with a map and set out to explore old Mumbai’s incredibly varied buildings. For samplers, there’s CST railway station, still called by its old name Victoria Terminus (VT), an extravaganza in Victorian Gothic . The madly crowded Crawford Market, where you can buy veggies, fruits, attar and imported cheese, is a blend of Norman and Flemish building styles while Bombay University’s 260-foot Venetian Gothic clock tower plays Big Ben’s chimes!
Eating out in Mumbai has a fun element that few Indian cities can match. Easy-on-the-pocket meals and snacks are drawn from varied Indian regional cuisines. For a divine and filling vegetarian thali at less than Rs.100, head to Friends Union Joshi Club at Kalbadevi. Located on the first floor of an old building, these folks have been dishing up delicious Gujarati-Marwari fare since the 1940s.
Mumbaikars of every stripe have a longstanding love affair with its street food. City tycoons are known to drive up to humble wayside stalls for a plate of tongue-tingling chaat or bhelpuri. On a rushed day, grab a wada pao for lunch off a roadside vendor. This filling snack-on-the-go is Mumbai’s spicy, vegetarian answer to the Big Mac. Another inexpensive option – Udipi restaurants across Mumbai that dish up wholesome South Indian food. For dinner, try medium budget restaurants in the Kala Ghoda art district of South Mumbai. Any time of the day, slake your thirst with big glasses of fresh fruit juice, tender coconut water or sugarcane juice, sold on busy street corners (avoid ice-cubes or you could wreck your trip with Bombay Belly).
Looking for bargains? Check out Motton Street in Chor Bazaar (“Thieves Market”). From Victorian-era furniture to gramophones, Murano glass and old film posters, the musty shops brim with eye-popping wares. Whether or not you buy, it’s a great place to browse.
Fashion Street, near Cross Maidan in south Mumbai has stalls selling “export surplus” clothing. Famous European and American brands retail for laughably rock bottom prices. Barring the odd missing button or torn seam, most of the trendy wear on display is of reasonably good quality. Haggling is the norm – simply halve the asking price and negotiate until you arrive at a mutually acceptable figure.
Mumbai’s city beaches may not score points for cleanliness, pretty, white sand or serenity, but they more than make up in atmospherics. Virtually deserted during the day, Chowpatty Beach, at the end of Marine Drive bursts into activity after sunset. The tiny strip of sand is packed with families out for an evening’s entertainment. Ferris wheels, snake-charmers, astrologers and masseurs do business even as large family groups chow down plates of bhelpuri, pani-puri and creamy kulfi-falooda. At the other end of the city, the relatively larger stretch of Juhu Beach offers more along the same lines. If all you crave is a quiet walk, try Versova beach further along the coast.
You can’t escape Mumbai’s film stars. Helpful cabbies will point out their residences to the curious visitor. For the complete Bolly experience, watch an archetypal romance, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, running at Maratha Mandir theatre for – hold your breath – 15 years! The movie’s single daily show, priced way below prevailing rates, is always sold out to a repeat audience of Mumbai’s humblest citizens; even as some snooze comfortably in the air-conditioning, others mouth virtually every line of the dialogue. Watch this audience and you’ll understand the depth of Mumbai’s love affair with the movies.
Mumbai’s seven islands hold many worlds within them. From the indigenous Koli colonies, the now world famous Dharavi slums to booming business districts, all you need is a can-do spirit to enjoy the city’s many surprises.