Delhi may be the capital city, but it's Mumbai that encapsulates all the dynamic, chaotic parts that make up modern India. This is where you'll find everything from succulent street food to haute cuisine, bargain-basement bazaars to the finest haute couture, humbling poverty to staggering wealth, sacred temples to hedonist nightclubs. Mumbai is India—vibrant,
hectic, frustrating, enervating, and exhilarating, warts and all.
Mumbai is a city of extremes, where slum-dwelling strivers making dollars a day serve Bollywood stars and industrial billionaires. It's a 24-hour city stocked with some of the best late-night street food in the world, as well as fine-dining restaurants of renowned chefs. It's a cosmopolitan city of people from all over India that's nonetheless home to strident parochialism. It's a city of dreams for millions of Indians that, at the same time, affords so few any measure of comfort. And it's a beautiful city of silver towers when viewed by twilight from the new Bandra-Worli Sea Link bridge over the Arabian Sea that connects the Western suburbs to the city, but which quickly descends into a maze of winding—often dirty—streets and alleys when viewed up close.
This walk is not for the timid: It will be harried, the traffic is usually crazy, and the streets are dirty, but this is Mumbai, and the experience can't be beat.
Start off at grand, Victorian CST, then head north, just past the station, to Crawford Market (renamed Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, which no one ever uses). This is one of Mumbai's biggest wholesale fruit, poultry, and vegetable markets—though you can also buy retail—and it teems with traders and local buyers. To get around, it's best to just ask a local to point you in the direction of what you're looking for (or a good landmark), because street names mean almost nothing in Mumbai, and the roads here are winding and confusing. You're about to enter the belly of the bazaar beast, so keep an eye on your wallet, and it's a good idea not to carry anything of great value with you. Head north and you'll end up on Muhammad Ali Road, the city's great Muslim ghetto, though its ragged appearance and, frankly, filthy streets make it not for the faint of heart. Muhammad Ali Road begins to blend with Bhendi Bazaar, which, in turn, blends into Zaveri Bazaar, and these two bazaars contain all of Mumbai's best goldsmiths, as well as the city's not-so-secret money-laundering industry. Grab lunch in the air-conditioned confines of Shalimar Restaurant (Bhindi Bazar Corner, Masjid Bunder Sind Harsh Road 022/2345–6630) in Bhendi (order the rand biryani, a spicy rice dish made with goat leg), then hang a left to Chor Bazaar, where you'll dodge wooden carts piled high with goods and wind through the labyrinth of alleys, picking through thousands of shops and stalls for dirt-cheap antiques, vintage Bollywood posters, and furniture. If you can, bring a local with you and, after making a round together, have them go back and do the bargaining and purchasing for you, with you out of sight—they'll get much better deals without a foreigner around. Next, head back toward Muhammad Ali Road and Bhendi Bazaar for some of the best Muslim street food Mumbai has to offer. If you're strong of stomach, go to Haji Tikha Wali (ask a local, he's well known) for kheeri tikka, marinated cow udders grilled right in front of you. Or, if it's late at night, to Walliji Paayawala, for cooked, spicy goat hooves with coarse Irani bread. During the day, you can get chana bateta, chickpeas cooked with spleen (yes, we know how terrible all of this sounds, but there's no honest way to prettify it and this is seriously tasty food if you can keep yourself from thinking about what you're eating); there's a whole row of stalls—just go for the one with the longest line. If you're adventurous, and relish food from regions far and wide, you won't be disappointed. And, on the honestly off chance you end up spending the night on the toilet, at least you'll do so knowing you tried the best there is.
Timing: This walk will take a full day, and, again, it's not for the faint of heart—or those unwilling to experience India on its own chaotic, messy terms. Note that Crawford Market is closed Sunday, and Muhammad Ali Road, Bhendi Bazaar, and Chor Bazaar are essentially closed—that is, completely empty of the Muslims who make up their majority—on Friday, the holy day.