Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) is India’s biggest city and best known as the home of the Bollywood movie industry. Several highly acclaimed Hollywood movies have been filmed here, including Slumdog Millionaire and The Lunchbox.
It is also well-known for its chaotic streets, local markets, the famous dabbawala lunch deliverymen, and of course its railway station that’s a UNESCO heritage site.
After my weeklong trip in The Golden Chariot (where I met the gorgeous Bollywood actress Shenaz Treasurywala) I made sure to visit Mumbai. It’s a huge metropolis, it’s overcrowded, polluted, and the traffic is bad, but after a week of guided tours on the luxury train, I was very much looking forward to traveling on my own in the so-called City of Dreams.
Arriving in Mumbai
There are several ways to reach Mumbai from Bangalore (Bengaluru). There are daily flights and lots of trains. You can also go by bus or private transport. I chose the most comfortable: a 2-hour flight via Air India (cost: $35). In comparison, if I took the train, it would have taken me 23 hours to arrive in Mumbai and cost me $30.
Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport Mumbai (BOM) is the second busiest airport in India (after Delhi). It takes around 1.5 to 2 hours to go to downtown Mumbai from there, depending on the time of day you arrive.
The easiest way to get to your hotel in the city is by taking a prepaid taxi (use “Cool Cab”). You can find them near the exit of the arrivals area. Alternatively (which is what I did), you can book a private airport transfer via Delhi Airport Service. Their drivers spoke English well and made sure I found my hotel.
You can also use Uber or Ola. There is no metro that goes directly to the airport.
Where to Stay in Mumbai
When I booked my hotel, I didn’t know much about the geography of Mumbai, so I just used Booking.com to look for a hotel within my budget. I also filtered based on location.
I ended up in Chembur, which is a suburb of Mumbai and not that close to the center. While the hotel was fine (big rooms, fast Wifi, free breakfast), I won’t recommend it. It’s by the road (noisy!) and a bit far from the center.
In general, if you want convenience, choose a hotel in Colaba area, near the Gate of India. Based on my friends’ experience, here are some places I can recommend.
Luxury Hotels in Mumbai
Nothing spells luxury more than the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Its colonial style structure faces the sea, and provides an excellent view of the Gate of India. According to one review:
“I do not know any place/anybody on earth after my parents that has pampered me this much. Hotel is a piece of heaven. Starting from the entrance to the hotel room, I felt like I am a princess. Everybody is so kind and helpful. It was an amazing trip for us.”
The best thing about the Taj Mahal? A luxury room good for 2 people costs only $214! Click here to find great deals.
Another grand hotel that comes highly recommended is the Trident Nariman Point Hotel. Guests rave about their location (great views of the sea), their facilities, and food. Their staff, in particular, seem very well trained. A common thread in reviews is how the staff go out of their way to make the guests feel welcome.
And yes, you can stay in this top-rated, luxury hotel for only US$130 per day!
Budget Hotels in Mumbai
If you prefer budget accommodation, I can recommend Backpacker Panda in Colaba. It is a few minutes walk from the Gate of India and have friendly and helpful staff that are full of advice on where to go and what to do. Dorm rooms are clean (US$13) and the atmosphere is great.
They also arrange activities for special occasions; it was Holi when we were there and they organized the celebration by providing the colors and some food. I can’t recommend them enough.
Things To Do in Mumbai for Solo Travelers
Mumbai is huge and there’s a lot to see and experience. To maximize my time, I booked a half-day tour of Mumbai with W Travels. I also walked around a lot on my own, taking the local train, the auto rickshaw, and Uber.
I didn’t have any bad experience while going around on my own; at one point, I even went back to my hotel late at night. However, it still pays to observe safety precautions when you travel, especially if you’re traveling solo (see some safety tips below).
Here are the must-sees in Mumbai that you can cover in a day or two.
Check out the historic architecture in Mumbai
Also known as Victoria Terminus (tip: to sound like a local, refer to it as VT), the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST, featured photo) is Mumbai’s only UNESCO world heritage site. I got to see it at sunset, and the soft light made it all the more beautiful.
The historic railway station, probably Asia’s busiest with three million passengers using it daily, was built in 1887 and heavily influenced by British Victorian, Hindu, and Islamic styles. While the exterior is magnificent, you won’t find the interior the same way. Still, it seems efficient. I’ve taken the local train here everyday back to my hotel and never had a problem whether in the ticket booth or with the trains themselves.
Just across the CST is the Municipal Corporation Building, another beautiful Gothic structure built in late 1890s. It has a beautiful central dome, ornamental arches, intricate carvings, and elaborately domed corner towers.
Go to the Gateway of India
While shorter than the Gateway of India in Delhi, Mumbai’s gate is just as imposing. It’s a grand colonial arch built in 1924 to commemorate the visit of King George V in 1911. When India became independent in 1947, it was through here that the last British regiment left.
Hordes of people come here, as it is Mumbai’s most popular attraction. If you plan on going to Elephanta Caves, you’d also have to take the ferry from here. Make sure to buy the ferry tickets beforehand, the ticket booths are by the gate just before the security point.
From the Gateway of India, you can also see the very impressive and iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
Meet the dabbawala of Mumbai
If you’d seen the movie The Lunchbox, or read business stories, you’d have heard of the dabbawala, Mumbai’s famed lunch delivery men.
These thousands of men deliver lunch to 200,000 workers all over the city by foot or bike, making very few mistakes (reportedly only one error for every six million deliveries) and relying only on a system of symbols and colors for the past 125 years to identify which lunchbox is delivered where.
International newspapers call the dabbawala the world’s best food delivery company; they have met with Prince Charles and Richard Branson, and academics have studied them and their system.
Some of the dabbawala now give management lectures at business schools, too, and they’re also developing an app now for those who want to order their lunch online. Find them clustered at lunch time at Churchgate Station where they collect and sort dabbas (the lunchbox).
Take a look at one of the world’s largest open air laundromats
While there’s nothing much to see here except clothes, it’s very interesting nevertheless to see how a whole community turned washing laundry into a business (and incidentally, a tourist attraction).
At the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, the famous and one of the biggest open air laundry facilities in the world, there is only one job that thousands of men do: wash clothes. Around 7,000 dhobi (the washers) scrub, flog, or bleach clothes on individual wash pens, dry them on laundry lines, press them, and deliver them to hotels, restaurants, hospitals, clubs, and houses all over the city.
Over 100,000 clothes are reportedly washed in the Dhobi Ghat every day, and while some dhobi now use washing machines and dryers, a vast majority are still washing clothes manually.
The Dhobi Ghat was started in 1890. Get off at the Mahalaxmi station if you’re going there by local train.
Go shopping in the local markets
Definitely check out the local markets when you’re in Mumbai. I had no plans on buying anything given how small my luggage was, but I couldn’t resist when I saw how cheap (and how lovely) the local dresses cost.
I bought a beautiful kurta for less than $10, and my friend Leticia from Argentina bought a whole lot more, given how expensive clothes are in Buenos Aires. Check out Crawford Market (local name is Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Mandai) when you have the time. It’s pretty close to the CST.
And while you’re there for shopping, know that the building — a blend of Norman and Flemish architectural styles — was designed by British architect William Emerson while the wall decor outside was designed by Rudyard Kipling’s father, Lockwood Kipling.
You can also check out Fashion Street near Churchgate. It has almost 400 shops offering a variety of trendy and designer clothes, denims, scarves, and other accessories. Remember to bargain, the locals expect it!
Learn about Gandhi’s life at the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum
The Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum is a small and unassuming museum dedicated to the life of Mahatma Gandhi. It will only take you 30 minutes or so to check out its collection. It used to be Gandhi’s headquarters from 1917 to 1934, and a place where he made historic decisions.
Do take the time to visit. You will learn a lot about Gandhi’s life in the 3-storey house. My favorite are the scale models on the second floor representing key moments in Gandhi’s life.
Walk around Colaba Causeway
If you love shopping, bargain hunting, people watching, or all of the above, walk the whole length of Colaba Causeway. The street market has everything from clothes and shoes, to fashion accessories, gadgets, furniture, and food. I bought several pairs of earrings here; at 100 rupees a pair (US$1.50), it’s certainly a bargain!
When you get tired, grab a table at either Leopold Cafe or (my preference) Café Mondegar. There are nice wall murals and the food is great.
Mumbai Solo Travel Tips
Unlike my experience in Varanasi, I felt safe in Mumbai. I used local trains, I booked Uber, and I walked around on my own, and I had never been ripped off nor felt unsafe (except when I was attacked once by 4 dogs. It was a good thing I had my water bottle; when a dog came too close, I would douse it with water).
That said, make sure to observe the usual solo travel precautions that you would observe elsewhere. Avoid walking around late at night, don’t walk around wearing expensive jewelry, keep your valuables with you, and make sure the meter of the auto-rickshaws or cabs are turned on.
Here are also some more Mumbai solo travel tips to help make your trip uneventful (safety wise).
Board the ladies-only car on local trains. On all local trains in Mumbai, there are cars devoted to women and children only. They’re located at either ends of the train; use it to keep safe. Avoid taking the train as well from 8am to 11am and 5pm to 8pm. These are peak hours and local trains can get really crowded.
Download Maps.me. While walking around Mumbai is generally safe, make sure to download the city map from Maps.me before you head out. It is invaluable for when you lose your way, just make sure you familiarize yourself with it before using it.
Buy a local SIM card. It’s not easy to buy a SIM card in India so I don’t recommend it if you’re only going there for a few days. If you’re staying over a week though, it can be worth it. Some services need a local SIM, and it’s cheap (US$4 with 1GB of data daily for 21 days). Head to an Airtel office when you arrive, bring your passport, visa, and a passport photo. Expect the process to take at least 1 hour.
I have traveled around India for a total of 5 weeks, and Mumbai is by far the safest place I’ve been to — it’s easy to go around, it’s safe for women, and the locals are pretty friendly. (They thought I was Indian, but spoke to me in English. I asked a local friend about this and she said that India is so big, and they must have thought I came from the north.)
All in all, I enjoyed my time in Mumbai very much, and I can highly recommend it to solo travelers!
Have you been to the City of Dreams? What other Mumbai solo travel tips can you add?