x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Marvellous Mumbai

Four hours from Abu Dhabi India's entertainment capital has a colourful and chaotic atmosphere.

Mumbai's waterfront boasts the Gateway of India.
Mumbai's waterfront boasts the Gateway of India.

In some ways, Mumbai is just a bigger, smellier, dirtier version of London: the trains are packed, people spit in the street and property prices have gone through the roof. But this city of 16 million people - India's largest - is much more chaotic, cosmopolitan and exciting than that. Having shed its colonial name of Bombay in 1995, Mumbai is now the fun capital of India. The home of the country's commercial, media and entertainment industries, Mumbai is host to the Bombay Stock Exchange, the Reserve Bank of India and, most famously, Bollywood, India's Hindustani film and television industry.

Bollywood releases twice as many movies as Hollywood and sought-after stars can be in such demand that they're working on up to 10 films at once. Tourists, too, are not immune from the film scene, with many taking the opportunity to act as impromptu "extras", highly sought-after by film scouts to spice up Indian films and make locations seem more exotic to the country's movie-mad population. Seeing a film - usually three or four hours long and packed with dancing, singing and all kinds of action - at one of Mumbai's 250 film theatres is one way of taking the city's pulse.

The Mani Bhavan Museuem on Malabar Hill, dedicated to Mahatma Ghandi, who lived in the house from 1917 to 1934, is worth a visit, as is the Gate of India near the port in Colaba, although, by and large, Mumbai is a city of experiences rather than sights. Chief among these are shopping and eating. Shopping, first, grants you instant access to the essence of the city, with all its colour, excitement, noise and smells. Everything is available, with exclusive boutiques, ethnic markets and bazaars galore selling clothes, material, diamonds, gold, silver and antiques. Crawford Market - known officially as Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market - is the city's main produce market; Chor Bazaar (Thieves' Market) is dedicated to antiques and Zaveri Bazar specialises in jewellery.

The street food, though, is the true star - I like packing in the street food snacks such as bhel puri, a divine mix of puffed rice, potato, chilli, onions, coriander, vermicelli and tamarind juice, and pani puri, a round, hollow fried crisp filled with a watery mixture of tamarind, chilli, chickpeas and potato eaten whole and creating a taste explosion of sweet, spicy and sour - both available for around Dh2 a serving.

And despite Mumbai's chaos - it isn't an easy destination by any means - there are pockets of civility and gentility that make for unexpected moments of relaxation. Women-only carriages on trains, marked by signs reading "Ladies only for all the 24 hours" make rush-hour transport a breeze, and the vendors at Chowpatty Beach, where you can snack while watching the sunset, are laid-back and kindly - but choose ones with a fast turnover of customers to ensure hygiene.

Budget Clean, bright, and in an excellent location on Marine Drive, the Sea Green Hotel (www.seagreenhotel.com) offers air-conditioned double rooms from Dh250 per night. A relatively compact place, with 34 rooms, some of which have good views across the bay, the hotel is also within walking distance of Mumbai Fort, Churchgate train station and the Gate of India.

Mid-range The Sun and Sand Hotel (www.sunnsandhotel.com) in the wealthy suburb of Juhu Beach is a slick, comfortable beachside hotel with landscaped gardens and a swimming pool, a spa and several restaurants. Doubles from Dh700. Luxury Ever since it opened in 1903, the Taj Hotel (www.tajhotels.com) has become synonymous with luxury in the city. A magnificent blend of Moorish, oriental and Florentine building styles, the Taj fronts onto the Arabian Sea and the Gateway of India, but houses a cloistered courtyard within. The interiors are a graceful blend of hand-woven silk carpets, stone arches, vaulted alabaster ceilings, sweeping stairways and a magnificent art collection. A new tower, however, was added in 1973 - for proper luxury, make sure you get a room in the Palace wing. Double rooms from Dh1,365.

For great local food in a relatively luxurious setting, visit Viva Paschim (City View, Dr Annie Besant Road, Worli, +91 22 2498 3636), which specialises in Gujarati, Goan and Mangalorean dishes. As well as the 90-plus dishes on the menu, which is heavily weighted in favour of seafood, the restaurant holds regular food festivals to showcase niche cuisines like Kolhapuri, Puneri, Saraswat and Parsi. Mains from Dh14.

Etihad Airways (Etihad Airways) flies daily from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai; return flights from Dh2,000 return including taxes.