Mumbai at night, as seen from Colaba. (photo: Corbis)
You could airdrop me into a random village in Slovenia, Chile, or Vietnam with my passport, cash, and some clothes, and I’d be happy to try to figure my way around. After all, as a travel writer I’m no stranger to solo trips. But there’s something about being in India that immediately strips me of any illusions I might have of being a worldly 30-something journalist.
A view from the top of the Charminar overlooking Hyderabad, India. (photo: Charlton Clemens/Flickr)
I grew up visiting my grandparents in Hyderabad every year, and my family babies me when I’m there: I’m constantly surrounded by relatives and ferried from place to place. My grandmother doesn’t even let me walk unaccompanied to the grocery store two doors down from our house. No matter how independent I am anywhere else in the world, in India I become a coddled kid again — for better or for worse.
In my most recent visit to the country, I was determined to break free of that pattern and do some solo exploring. This decision didn’t come without concerns: After all, India has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, thanks to high-profile rape cases making headlines across the country. While those incidents did not involve tourists, they still give a woman traveling the country on her own a small amount of concern.
Mumbai was my solo travel destination. Not only is it heralded as the country’s safest, most cosmopolitan destination, but also I hadn’t been there in more than 15 years. I cast my nervousness aside and carefully planned where I would stay and how I would get around. To my surprise, I wound up having one of my best trips to date.
Here are the tips I learned that can make a solo trip to Mumbai particularly rewarding:
Taj Mahal Palace hotel. (photo: Corbis)
Pick reputable, well-located hotels¢›
In India, Taj hotels are no-brainers — they’re renowned for their beautiful properties and sumptuous service. In Mumbai, I was keen on staying at the iconic Taj Mahal Palace in the heart of lively Colaba for a night. I also wanted to split my time between historic South Mumbai and the hip suburb of Bandra (often called the Beverly Hills of Mumbai, thanks to its high density of Bollywood stars), so I spent part of my trip at Taj Lands End. Both hotels are secure and have great staff who are more than happy to help you plan your itinerary, and they’re also both located within a stone’s throw of some of the city’s best restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. For a less expensive option, I loved the charming new Abode Bombay, around the corner from the Taj in Colaba. The intimate boutique hotel is full of vintage Mumbai artifacts, and the British owner and Italian general manager love chatting with guests in the lobby café to share their favorite local gems. My blogger friend Natalie Roos recently spent a few weeks traveling in India by herself and was more adventurous than me. She got herself an Airbnb rental staying with a couple in Bandra and can’t stop raving about how she got to immerse herself in the local culture, thanks to her fun hosts.
Share a mint lemonade with a friend in Mumbai, tastes of sweet friendship. (photo: Getty Images)
Make new friends
Before I left for Mumbai, I cast a wide net and set about connecting with friends of friends, Twitter “buddies,” and long-lost acquaintances who would be in India while I was there.
I was surprised by how many people I was able to connect with. Before I knew it, I had lunch meetings, dinner plans, and literary-festival dates with a whole host of fun locals. In fact, I wound up having only one meal by myself the entire trip. I met all sorts of cool new people — from writers to architects to rising Bollywood starlets — that I most certainly wouldn’t have thought to seek out had I been traveling with someone else. The Internet, of course, is also a gold mine. Sign up for sites like Mingle Trips, Trabblr, and Meetup, or reach out to a cool blogger you follow on Twitter.
My blogger friend Natalie recommended finding a female tour guide to help you ease into the first few days (she loved Lakshmi Kishore, whom she found through GoIndia; Lakshmi took her under her wing and introduced her to a whole mix of interesting people). She also had amazing experiences courtesy of her Airbnb hosts, including tagging along to a wedding on her first night. Mumbaikars are really warm, and before you know it you’ll have your own circle of pals.
The Vile Parle Station market area is a hive of activity, a delight for the shopper in search of anything at all. (Melinda and Jim Erickson/Flickr)
Know where you’re going
Mumbai is massive. If you’re in town for a short stay, it’s best to pick a few neighborhoods and focus on them; otherwise, you could be sitting in traffic for hours.
Make sure you stick to crowded, bustling areas, and always let someone know about your plans. For first-timers, it’s always best to start out in Colaba, where many of the iconic landmarks are. It’s a busy district, with plenty of other tourists around. Many commuters to South Mumbai prefer to live in the lively suburbs of Bandra and Juhu, so that’s where you’ll find the hip cafés and boutiques frequented almost exclusively by locals.
Lower Parel is another buzzing neighborhood filled with clubs and malls, many in former textile mills. My go-to sites for figuring out what to do and where to go were Mumbai Boss and Brown Paper Bag. They report on all the latest happenings in every corner of the city, from pop-up restaurants to funky gallery exhibitions to under-the-radar concerts.
One of Mumbai’s famous taxis displays its fancy rear-end. (photo: Meena Kadri/Flickr)
Be smart about transportation
A car is the best way to get around, even though Mumbai has an extensive train network. For a newbie, the trains can be overwhelming.
Everyone assured me that the ubiquitous black-and-yellow taxis were completely safe, but I was paranoid at first, so I hired a car and driver for the first few days. No, it’s not as extravagant as it sounds: I paid about $20 a day for a very nice, reliable, English-speaking driver with an air-conditioned car. If you’re planning on going long distances or squeezing in a lot of sightseeing, or you just want to do a lot of shopping in different neighborhoods, you might want to look into hiring your own driver. Otherwise, taxi services like Uber and Meru Cabs are popular and safe. On my last night, I finally worked up the courage to hail a taxi off the street. It was totally fine, of course, but I’m not so sure I’d recommend it if you don’t speak at least a little Hindi.
Related: Out-of-the-Ordinary Safaris in India
One of India’s top eateries, The Table, Mumbai (photo: The Table/Facebook)
Color powder for sale in one of Mumbai’s many markets. (photo: Corbis)
My apprehensions faded away as soon as I stepped into Mumbai’s wonderful chaos, and I loved every second of my short visit. Flying solo gives you an opportunity to explore a destination on your own terms. When I ate a leisurely dinner by myself at The Table, one of Mumbai’s top restaurants, opened by a San Francisco chef and focusing on fresh West Coast-inspired dishes, I struck up conversations with fellow diners. In turn, they gave me more ideas on what to see and do. I lingered in quaint bookshops in Bandra, took my time haggling for kolhapuri slippers on the Colaba Causeway, and did plenty of people watching at cafés in artsy Kala Ghoda. I stumbled upon a session by my favorite author at a literary festival, and since I had all the time in the world, I waited patiently in a long line to say hello after his talk. That led to an invitation out to drinks with him and his friends at a rooftop bar overlooking the sea. I’m already planning my next trip back — whether or not I find someone to go with me!