Mumbai, India for 3 days
Accommodation: Hotel Lawrence in Fort, Mumbai
To make reservations: No website, call 22843618 (+91 country code, 022 city code).
I've stayed at Hotel Lawrence half a dozen times over the last year, and I've always enjoyed it. There are only 9 rooms, and the staff is incredibly nice. While traveling alone, I invited the owner to dinner twice, and each time he dropped what he was doing and joined me. He was a great man who, over an excellent seafood meal, told me about his life and about Mumbai. Single rooms at 700 Rupees, Doubles 800 Rupees, and Triples 1000 Rupees. There are some things to know beforehand to make your stay as comfortable as possible: bring your own toilet paper, your own bed sheet (clothing, towels, or sleeping bag liners work great), and, depending on the day of the week and which direction your room faces, earplugs if you go to bed before 1 or 2 am. They provide drinking water, breakfast and tea, and all the help you could want. The bathrooms are not attached to the rooms, but there is warm water (which you won't need in humid Mumbai) and privacy. The location can't really be beaten if you want to be in the more touristy section of town. On the border between Colaba and Fort, Hotel Lawrence is close to some of the best restaurants and sights in Mumbai's popular south side.
What I did in Mumbai
No one has been able to adequately summarize India's biggest city, but I'll do my best. The Colaba, Fort, and Churchgate areas on the south peninsula are most popular among Western (and Eastern) travelers. There is no shortage of great cafés, restaurants of all kinds (seafood, Italian, Arab, Indian, delis), and streetside shopping. Leopold's Café and Bar in Colaba is where you will find the most Westerners eating and drinking. I recommend branching out to the local restaurants, although Leopold's is one of the only place open for coffee and breakfast before 9:00am. Café Mondegar is better than Leopold's for a sit down meal with great service, and it's only a few blocks away. For an awesome meal streetside in Mumbai, check out Bademiya in Colaba – a safe street stall serving kebabs. It closes during the middle of the day, but there are plenty of delicious (and cheap) backup meals nearby. You're never more than a minute or two from a place to eat in Colaba, Fort, and Churchgate.
You can't go to the south side of Mumbai and not see the Gate of India, where hundreds of people go to enjoy the open air and people-watching, and the famous Taj hotel, arguably the nicest hotel in India. From the Gate of India, take a boat to Elephant Island. It's about 1 hour, and for about 250 Rupees you get to see a huge chunk of Mumbai's harbor and skyline from the water. Once on the island, you will be tempted with lots of Indian trinkets and snack foods as you walk the half mile up the hill. At the top, for 500 Rupees you can see a number of caves that have been carved into Hindu sculptures. In my opinion, it was way overpriced and the caves were nothing too special. I would possibly pay again for the view of the water below and to see the monkeys running around everywhere. There are a ton of better caves in India, so if you're on a tighter budget, I'd skip the caves and still hike up the hill and grab a Coke and watch the boats go by. The best part of going to Elephant Island, in my opinion, is the boat ride there and back. Back on the main land, you can walk the long, beautiful, exciting boardwalk known as Marine Drive from the south peninsula up to downtown. Or you can walk to the Oval Park in Fort and watch everyone from children to professionals play cricket on the red clay in the shadows of palm trees and beautiful British-style university buildings.
My last (and strongest) recommendation for visiting Mumbai is to get out of the touristy part of town and head to Dharavi. I took the train (25 rupees round trip) from Churchgate to Mahim (about 30 minutes) – the trains can be hectic and exciting. Women should probably not travel alone (although there are women-only cars), but I enjoyed watching the city fly by and feeling like a Mumbai resident. Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia, with about a million people in 1.75 square kilometers. It sounds intimidating, but I haven't found a more communal, engaging place in my 6 months in India. I spent a few hours walking the streets of outer Dharavi (just across from the Mahim train station) with one other person, and we had a blast. No one asked us for money, countless children involved us in their games, and shopkeepers called us over to talk and offer us tea. If you go, keep your cameras in your bag and simply open your eyes to what is going on. I wish I could have spent more time there, because there are undoubtedly countless cultural lessons and truths to learn from Dharavi. Yes, it's a slum, and yes, there is massive poverty and divisions I ignorantly couldn't decipher right away, but it's a hopeful, colorful, engaging place where people (at least the ones we met) are friendly and joyful. I highly recommend spending some time in Dharavi. You won't forget it. I just walked there by ourselves and kept a good idea of where I walked, because it can become a maze (people are helpful if you get lost). You'll find organized (and unorganized for that matter) tourism to be a controversial subject, so it might not be for everyone, but if you'd rather have an organized group, there are socially-responsible tours offered by Reality Tours. I'd say just go to Dharavi, walk and shop around, meet people, and keep an open mind. I think your preconceived notions of Mumbai slum life will be challenged for the better.