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Maelstrom on the coast

Mumbai's predominant colour may be grey, but dull is the last thing it is

The Mumbai skyline, December 17, 2005

The south Mumbai skyline © Getty Images

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If there's a colour that defines Mumbai, it's grey. Glimpse it from the air in the daytime and you'll see a grey coastline and a grey ocean. As you touch down, you'll note the concrete and chrome towers, the shanty towns, the creeks and the roads - all grey.

But don't be fooled into believing the grey signifies dullness. On the contrary, the monochrome is the perfect foil to the city's colourful character. From the delicate pink flamingoes that visit the Sewri mud flats in the first half of the year to the fuchsia of a Bollywood actress's garb. The sandstone colonial buildings to the blazing red flame-of-the-forest blooms. The haphazard, honking traffic to the precision of commuter trains and lunch-delivering dabbawallahs. The plushest of hotels to the most rickety of hovels. From the cosmopolitan cacophony of dialects to the rich notes of a single musical instrument at the National Centre for Performing Arts. The fanfare of the Ganesha festival to the soft prayers in the Parsi fire temples. From hungry leopards spilling out of the Borivali National Park to much-loved stray dogs. From a slow-cooked biryani to a speedily crafted vada pao. From the single bulbs of the tiny fishing boats that go out to sea in the wee hours to the flashing strobelights of the nightclubs.

To savour every part of the city, you'd have to live in Mumbai for many lifetimes. But to get a glimpse into its soul, you only need a few days and an open mind.

Weather

The months of April and May are hot and very humid in Mumbai. Temperatures go up to 40 °C, and it is best to be dressed in cottons. Bring comfortable shoes, a hat or cap, and high SPF sunscreen. Drink lots of water if you plan to visit the city in these months.

Getting around

The black-and-yellow cabs are the most convenient option. You need to merely flag them down and specify the destination. Insist on paying by the meter always. The fare from Colaba (where many hotels and street shops are) to Churchgate (where the train station, Wankhede stadium and Marine Drive are) should not exceed Rs 40. Check approximate distances, time taken to traverse them, and the likely fare with your hotel desk before you set out.

You can also call for a cab or book one online: Try Meru Cabs, Mega Cabs, Mumbai Gold Cabs and For-She (only for female passengers; Tel 022-44333222).

Local trains go north from two hub stations (the Western line from Churchgate and the Central and Harbour lines from Mumbai CST). Ticket booking is simple, although queues may be long. Avoid travelling by train during peak hours (north to south between 7.30-11 am and the other way between 5-9pm) as they can get extremely crowded.

The dome of the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, December 31, 2008

The dome of the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel © AFP

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Buses are convenient and comfortable and ply over a large area. Inquire at your hotel or the local bus depot - the nearest ones would be the one at Electric House and the Colaba Bus Depot - for specific bus routes.

Where to stay

All these places are in South Mumbai, comfortably close to the Wankhede Stadium, where the matches will be played.

High-end The Oberoi (from Rs 11,000) and The Trident (from Rs 9000) next to it boast the most stunning ocean views. The legendary Taj Mahal Palace and Tower (from Rs 12,000), newly reopened, is a Mumbai institution. The InterContinental (from Rs 10,000) and Marine Plaza (from Rs 9000) also enjoy a superb sea-facing location and are just five minutes' walk from the stadium.

Mid-level In the Churchgate area, where the stadium is, try the Ritz (from Rs 4500) or the Chateau Windsor (from Rs 4500). There's also the Sea Green Hotel on Marine Drive (from Rs 4000).

Budget Bentley's Hotel (from Rs 1830) in touristy Colaba is basic but clean. The YMCA, also in Colaba (from Rs 1500) is a good option, but needs to be booked at least a month or two in advance.

Where to eat

Like all of India's larger cities, Mumbai is a smorgasbord of tastes and cuisines, whatever your budget may be.

High-end Ziya at the Oberoi has some authentic North-West frontier and Indian food. If you're seeking superlative European fare, visit the standalone Indigo, in Colaba. Olive Bar & Kitchen at the Mahalaxmi Race Course may primarily be seen as a watering hole, but the food is not bad either. The best Thai is at the Thai Pavilion at the Taj President in Cuffe Parade.

Mid-level In the Kala Ghoda precinct, just north of Colaba, Khyber is good for north Indian fare, especially meat. Trishna (Tel 91-22-22703214‎), a stone's throw away, is a prime seafood destination, especially rated for its crab. The best value-for-money sushi in South Mumbai can be had at Joss. For casual continental dining, try Cafe Basilico. Moshe's has three cafes and a restaurant in South Mumbai serving cuisine from the Mediterranean rim and fine desserts from all over.

Budget Italian at Café Churchill, snacks and desserts at Theobroma, dosas at Kamat's (tel: 022-22874734), vada-pav at Araam (opposite CST station and next to Capitol cinema) are highly recommended.

Where to party

High-end Rooftop spaces with a view that offer a sophisticated drink are Aer at the Four Seasons and Dome at the InterContinental. Wink at the Taj President has a stylish vibe, sushi and a mean wasabi martini. Tote at the race course is a great place for drinks and dinner.

A game of cricket at Azad maidan, Mumbai, September 27, 2010

Tourists get into the spirit of things by joining in in a game at Azad maidan © AFP

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Mid-level Hard Rock Café has live music some days; The Blue Frog on most. Shiro is a sophisticated lounge, except on Fridays when it grooves to retro music. Polly Esther's in the Gordon House Hotel is a nightclub with a great vibe and a decent dance floor. Sports buffs will enjoy having a drink at the Manchester United Café Bar in the Palladium Mall at High Street Phoenix, Lower Parel.

Budget Bay View (Tel 022-22821089) is great for beer and wine on an open terrace overlooking the Gateway of India. Café Mondegar has an easy vibe and a CD jukebox. The Ivy Wine Café & Bistro in Worli, a 20-odd-minute drive north out of downtown, offers some super discounts on Indian wines.

Must-Dos

Take an evening walk down the 4km promenade on Marine Drive. It's a great chance for people-watching, enjoying the cool breeze, eating roasted peanuts bought from a street vendor (if you dare!) and watching the sun set. Avoid this on a weekend, though, unless you want to be in a sea of people.

Shop for gifts on Colaba Causeway: trendy junk jewellery, cheap clothes and shoes, faux pashminas, sequinned bags, "I Love Mumbai" t-shirts, "antique" brass gramophones, even replicas of the Taj Mahal. You just might land up finding a good deal for yourself on Levi's jeans or Adidas gear too. Alternatively, max out your credit card at High Street Phoenix in Lower Parel.

Explore the beautiful heritage precincts of the city on foot with an expert guide who can point out the landmarks and their history. Details here.

Wangle an invite to one of the old club gymkhanas. Or check if your club offers affiliate membership. Bombay Gymkhana, Willingdon Club, Turf Club, Yacht Club, United Services Club, the Cricket Club of India - they all still have old-world charm that dates back to the days of the Raj, superb food and drink, and possibly an interesting sporting legend or two slouched in a wicker chair somewhere.

Play a game of cricket at the Oval. Or the Cross Maidan. All you need is your own team. Or just charm your way into joining one of the dozens that play on these grounds every Sunday.

Try some of Mumbai's street food. It is legendary, centred chiefly around two dishes: the pani-puri (stuffed crisp balls served with tamarind water) and the pao-bhaji (bread and a veggie mash). Have the perfect pani-puri made with mineral water at Kailash Parbat in Colaba. Or a butter-drenched pao-bhaji at Sardar in Tardeo.

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