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An onslaught on the senses

Take a boat ride, walk between dusty, old books, or hop on a tram to find the true Kolkata

The Maidan is the largest park in West Bengal owned by the Indian Army, Kolkata, September 21, 2010

The Maidan: home to the Eden Gardens © Dipanjan Mitra

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Kolkata doesn't believe in half-measures: You'll either love the city or hate it, but be prepared for it to get under your skin - and unlike the inevitable grime that'll wash off at the end of the day, this extreme relationship will be a lot harder to get rid of. From the raucous cawing of the crow - the city's most prominent bird - to the constant cacophony of car horns, and from the sprawling slums to the man-drawn rickshaws (still being slowly phased out), Kolkata is an onslaught on the senses. To get a true idea of the city's core, one has to go beyond the obvious.

Try venturing out at the crack of dawn, when the city stretches itself to the grey skies and the emerging sun: head to the banks of the Hooghly river, a tributary as venerated - and as polluted - as the holy Ganga, where life quietly beats to a centuries-old rhythm. Or make time at twilight to linger in the Maidan (home to the Eden Gardens), the sprawling green expanse in the heart of the city that evokes almost more passion among residents than art and literature. Almost, we said - for it takes just a visit to the ramshackle College Street, lined with decrepit bookstalls and ancient coffeehouses, to decide this is where you feel the city's true pulse. It's easy to lose oneself in Kolkata - but if you do, ask a passerby: chances are, he won't give you directions back, he will escort you home.

Weather

April and May are the hottest months in Kolkata (average temperatures between 32-42° C). Wear cottons. It's a conservative but casual city: Shorts won't raise eyebrows but singlets will.

Getting around

With multiple levels of bus services, trams, a Metro (India's first), yellow cabs, radio taxis, rickshaws and auto-rickshaws - Kolkata is well provided for public transport. But buses, trams and the Metro can get very crowded during rush hours and ahead of big-ticket events like cricket matches.

The Metro follows a north-south route, with each of the 20 stations well-connected with their catchment areas. Fares start at Rs 4 and go up to Rs 12 for a single ride. Pick up a 12-ride or 40-ride ticket if you plan to use it extensively. For Eden Gardens, ride till the Esplanade station and walk the rest of the way, about 15 minutes.

Or hail a yellow cab. Fares start at Rs 22 and most cabbies are willing to go anywhere - including your designated gate at Eden. Alternatively, call a taxi. Kolkata Cabs (Tel 91-33-44333222) and Mega Cabs (Tel 91-33-41414141) ply 24x7, provide chauffeurs with cellphones and prompt and pleasant service.

Where to stay

Choose your accommodation according to your budget. All these places are within a 3.5km radius of Eden Gardens.

High-end The Taj Bengal (from Rs 10,800) is a modern luxury hotel with all the trappings. More centrally located is the Oberoi Grand (from Rs 9600), housed in a magnificent colonial structure. The Park Hotel (from Rs 7000) is a boutique five-star hotel on Park Street, the nightlife headquarters. The teams will be housed in the ITC Sonar, rather far away, especially when you don't have a police escort clearing your way through traffic.

Park Street, Kolkata, September 21, 2010

Some of the best restaurants and clubs in the city are on Park Street © Dipanjan Mitra

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Mid-level The three-star Astor (from Rs 6000) boasts one of the best kebab restaurants in town in Kebab-e-que. The Floatel (from Rs 4200) is a unique floating hotel on the Hooghly, stationed very close to Eden Gardens, with great discounts for internet bookings. Peerless Inn (from Rs 6300) is also excellently located for the stadium.

Budget Try Hotel Rose Valley (from Rs 2800), which offers air-conditioned rooms and breakfast. Hotel Aston is a good bet for business travellers (from Rs 1600). There's also Sunflower Guest House (Rs 1000), which offers a convenient location and decent rooms.

Where to eat

From street food to five-star restaurants, you're likely to be spoilt for choice. A full-on Bengali meal is a must if you enjoy experimenting with cuisines; alternatively, there are plenty of places offering European/Chinese/South Asian food.

High-end The Sunday brunch buffet at La Terrasse, the Oberoi Grand, is to die for. Pan-Asian at the ITC Sonar has the city's best line-up of Asian dishes. At standalone Zaranj, you can sample excellent North Indian cuisine.

Mid-level Oh! Calcutta at Forum Mall has a choice of Anglo-Indian and Bengali food. Visit Kewpie's, at 2, Elgin Lane (Tel 91-33-24759880), for authentic home-style Bengali food. Mocambo, off Park Street (Tel 91-33-22172934) is a culinary throwback to the 1960s, with prawn cocktails and sizzlers on the menu.

Budget Arsalan is a tiny hole in the wall serving some of the best biryani in Kolkata. Bijoli Grill Food World is a true son of the soil, serving fresh, hot fast food. Eau Chew (Tel 91-33-22378260) is a New York Times-reviewed restaurant serving superb Chinese food out of a home.

Where to party

Kolkata is liberal with its deadlines, especially over the weekend.

High-end Roxy and Tantra, both at the Park Hotel, are the city's glitziest party places.

Mid-level Sheesha, located atop a shopping mall on Camac Street, is a bar, lounge and outdoor deck rolled into one.

Budget Most of the many bars dotting Park Street will offer you a tipple and a snack at prices that will not pinch.

Must-Dos

Experience a country boat-ride on the Hooghly. Go to Princep Ghat or Babu Ghat, fix a price with a boatman (between Rs 50-100), and cruise down the river the way it's been done for millennia.

Amble through New Market, a century-old market that's hard to beat for ambience. The better shopping has shifted to boutiques and malls, but look out for kitschy bargains.

The Stuart Hogg Market, also known as New Market, was established in 1874, Kolkata, September 21, 2010

You'll find both boutiques and bargains in New Market © Dipanjan Mitra

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Sink your teeth into a rossogolla or a sandesh from KC Das. Made out of milk solids - the roshogolla in a sugar syrup, the sandesh its dry counterpart - they can be very, very sweet.

Take an organised walk through Chowringhee or a three-hour river cruise. You'll get a glimpse of everything from the colonial heritage to Park Street razzmatazz and Kolkata aristocracy. Contact www.calcuttawalks.com for details. Costs from Rs 1250 per person.

Visit Belur Math, headquarters of the spiritual movement founded on the principles of the Vedanta. A serene 40-acre property on the outskirts of the city, it has temples and the main monastery of the Ramakrishna monastic order.

Taste a kathi roll - kebabs wrapped in grilled unleavened bread. If the hygiene levels at the numerous street eateries bother you, ask for one at any upscale multi-cuisine restaurant. You can't leave the city without eating at least one.

All information is accurate to the best of our knowledge at the time of publication, but please make sure and confirm it independently as required. All prices mentioned are in Indian rupees. Hotel prices are for double rooms. Prices are indicative and subject to change.