Kolkata is swaddled in multiple histories—19th century colonial grandeur, glamorous swinging sixties, violent Naxalite years, communist decades, and the slow arrival of 21st century glitter. It is a city of migrants and each community has imprinted its own culture onto a particular corner. Begin the weekend with a walk to understand the city’s multicultural past. Calcutta Walksoffers a tour through old neighbourhoods of Central Kolkata inhabited by Chinese, Anglo Indians, Parsis, Jews, and Armenians respectively. One of the highlights of this walk is the hearty Chinese breakfast at Tiretta Bazaar, one of the stops along the tour. This is a true breakfast of champions as stalls offer assorted treats including fish ball soup and pork dumplings cooked by old Chinese mamas (www.calcuttawalks.com; ₹2,000 per person; duration 3 hours; begins 7 a.m. outside Indian Airlines building on C.R. Avenue).
After this sampler, focus your attention on central Kolkata. No visit to the city is complete without a jaunt through Chowringhee, the erstwhile White Town of the British Raj. It’s also the name of an arterial road passing through the city centre, skirted by the sprawling green area called the Maidan on one side and magnificent colonial-era buildings on the other. Adorned in stucco-covered brick, many of these grand structures were residences of English officials and earned Kolkata the sobriquet of “City of Palaces.” A good point to begin any walk through Chowringhee is at the Esplanade Metro Station. It opens out into the hustle and bustle of shops lining the arcade leading up to The Oberoi Grand hotel or simply The Grand, the undisputed Grande Dame of the neighbourhood. Walk in through its gates to admire its elegant interiors and have a cup of tea or a glass of bubbly at their stylish coffee shop La Terrasse (15, Jawaharlal Nehru Road; 033 2249 2323; glass of wine from ₹700).
Chaotic and colourful New Market is a five-minute walk southeast of The Grand. Officially named Sir Stuart Hogg Market, it was “new” over a century ago when it opened in 1874, but the name has stuck around. It is possible to find the most obscure things within the profusion of shops inside the market’s cheerful red Gothic-era facade. There are some items that every traveller must buy and these include silver jewellery from Tibetan-owned Chamba Lama, dense plum cake and chocolate brownies from legendary Jewish bakery Nahoum & Sons, and exquisite shawls from Pumposh Kashmir Shawl Emporium.
From here, continue east for half a kilometre to Mirza Ghalib Street, also known as Free School Street, a place with a character as diverse as the people who live here. Novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was born here, in 1811, at house number 56B. Since 1884, the building has housed the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, founded to educate the children of Armenians who settled in the city. Historical value aside, Mirza Ghalib Street is a hub for budget travellers to the city with a higgledy-piggledy assortment of backpacker hotels, cheap lunch homes, and shops festooned with Christmas tinsel all year round. It has a myriad biryani joints including the absolutely unmissable Arsalan (119A, Intersection of Ripon Street and Mirza Ghalib Street; 033-30990567; special mutton biryani costs ₹260). The street is lined with second-hand book shops and roadside stalls with an eclectic collection. There are rare editions or personal notes, bookends, and inscriptions that make each book a collector’s item.
Mirza Ghalib Street is also great hunting ground for music lovers and collectors, with rare cassette tapes and piles of vinyl hoarded in street stalls. The records may not always be in mint condition, but it is thrilling to go through boxes and discover rare singles by Jimi Hendrix, bootlegs of Grateful Dead, or albums by the Allman Brothers Band. The key to a good bargain here is the ability to haggle. Among the many makeshift shops, Record Prince near Lindsay Street is a good place to dig up treasures. For those who want to do more than just listen, stroll into Braganza & Co. (56C, Mirza Ghalib Street) or J. Reynold & Co. (15, Mirza Ghalib Street). These music shops stock an enviable collection of guitars, drums, electric pianos, and more. Friendly, knowledgeable shop attendants can suggest an instrument that fits your level and encourage you to try them out. If you are lucky you might witness an impromptu jam session by musicians testing out the equipment.