The capital of Bengal and one of the world's biggest cities, visiting Kolkata is an experience like no other. Known under British rule as Calcutta, it developed into one of the most beautiful cities in the British Empire, and since independence in 1947 it has served as modern India's cultural hub. In fact, books, film and music are inseparable from Kolkata. Wander down College Street and you'll be amazed by the sheer number of booksellers. Or watch some of the films of local hero Satyajit Ray, one of the world's greatest film-makers. But there's plenty to see beyond films and bookshops in this dazzling Indian metropolis. You could tour the superb art collection in the Marble Palace or find out about the vast riches of the nation's culture at the Indian Museum. Watch a cricket match at Eden Gardens or take a tour of the city's array of holy sites: from the Kalighat Kali temple to St Paul's Cathedral, Belur Math and the Nakhota Masjid, Kolkata hosts gorgeous places of worship from almost every world religion. Families are also in luck thanks to attractions like the Nehru Children's Museum, Alipore Zoo and the rides in Nicco Park. Then again, if the energy and heat of the city becomes too much, you can take boat tours of the Sundarban Islands which are a UNESCO-listed wilderness where Bengal tigers can still be glimpsed. Or you could head to the Botanical Gardens, with their giant lily pads, cactus houses and ancient banyan tree. There are attractions for everyone in Bengal's capital. Add in superb Bengali cuisine and a friendly population and you have one of the world's most intoxicating urban destinations.
Things to Do
So you've arrived in the capital of Bengal. Now, the obvious question is where to start? In a city so vast and historic, with so many cultural riches and places to visit, establishing an itinerary can be tricky. But there are some musts for anyone who visits Kolkata, and here are our suggestions:
The Victoria Memorial: A Marble Masterpiece
Built as a tribute to Britain's Queen Victoria and constructed from brilliant white marble, the Victoria Memorial isn't just a column or an arch: it's a stunning palace. Inside, you'll discover exhibits tracing the history of Kolkata and the soaring central gallery, but the exterior is surely the star. Be sure to take some snaps over the reflecting ponds of this extraordinary building.
Pick Up a Hand-made idol in Kumartuli
Hand-carved clay idols are a key part of many Hindu rituals, and a whole class of artisans known as kumars exists to create them. In Kolkata, these incredible craftspeople are congregated in Kumartuli (particularly Banamali Sarkar St) where they run small workshops. The lanes of the area are crammed with lifelike clay figurines and animal statues, all destined to be submerged in the river Hooghly (although you can probably haggle for one to take home if you like). There's nowhere like it.
Visit Belur Math: A unique religious construction
Belur Math could be unique in the world's religions. With the size and beauty of a major cathedral, this temple was erected in the 19th century as a memorial to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa -- a mystic who believed that all religions were equally sacred. Head to the site museum to find out about this remarkable character and be there during Durga Puja if you can, as the complex becomes a feast of colour and energy.
A once-in-a-lifetime chance for sports fans
Eden Gardens is one of the world's greatest cricket arenas. With a capacity of over 66,000, the atmosphere inside is unbelievable, particularly when India are batting in a crucial test match. Be there when the national side take the field, or make a date to watch an Indian Premier League game featuring the Kolkata Knightriders (the season lasts from early April to late May).
A paradise for foodies
When you are in Kolkata, make your holiday a feast for your taste buds as much as your eyes and mind by checking out the city's fantastic dining scene. Don't expect anything like your local curry house. Real Bengali cuisine is much more diverse. You'll encounter sumptuous seafood dishes like smoked bhetki (barramundi), delicately spiced mutton curries and the finest biryanis you will ever have tasted. Wash it down with a local beer like Bangla and finish with some ultra-sweet jaggery to round-off a classic Bengali banquet.
Calendar of Events
Kolkata likes to think of itself as India's cultural capital, and it certainly has the events to back this up. Whether you love music, literature or religious spectacles, there's plenty to see.
Durga Puja. Probably the city's most visually spectacular event, Durga Puja generally takes place in September or October and honours the goddess Durga. 10 days of dancing, drumming, feasting and rituals involving the clay creations of Kolkata's kumar artisans provide plenty of excitement for visitors.
The International Book Fair. Bengal's capital is one of the world's great literary cities, and the centrepiece of the annual calendar is the International Book Fair, the largest of its type in the world. Scheduled for late January, the fair features talks, music performances and food markets, generating a party atmosphere.
Sur Jahan. One of Asia's biggest World Music festivals, Sur Jahan attracts folk musicians from all over the world. With a relaxed, friendly vibe, it takes place annually, usually in early February in the grounds of the stunning Victoria Memorial, conjuring up a magical atmosphere in the process.
The Kolkata International Cinema Festival. Founded in 1995, Kolkata's Film Festival is the largest in India and takes place in mid-November every year. Each year it takes a different theme, as over 250 films compete for the Golden Royal Bengal Tiger. It's a great chance for world cinema fans to find out about Asia's most exciting film makers.