Mumbai may have been rocked by a terrorist attack in 2008, but that tragedy has done nothing to diminish the exuberance, energy and sheer madness of this city of 16 million people. Chaos does not even begin to describe Mumbai, where people do daily battle with goodness knows how many cars for their own bit of space.
Indeed, Mumbai is a place where crossing the road is something of an art form, where your ears are constantly assaulted by the hooting of horns, where you'll find knife grinders or food sellers plying their trade on the crowded pavements. It's lively, fun and exciting -- and it's hard not to fall in love in an instant.
Mumbai is also a city of huge contrasts, with great wealth in some areas and unbelievable poverty in others. This is where the slumdog in the hit film "Slumdog Millionaire" came from -- and as your taxi takes you through the city, you can't avoid seeing the squalid shacks, cheek by jowl, that millions call home.
Where Mumbai stands now there were once seven islands that formed part of the kingdom of the Emperor Ashoka. They passed into the hands of various Hindu and Muslim rulers and in 1534 were seized by the Portuguese, who named them Bom Baia, meaning "Good Bay." They became British in 1661, when they were given to Charles II of England in 1661 as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal, and the name was corrupted to Bombay. In 1668, Bombay was leased to the East India Company, the islands were joined through land reclamation projects and the city became an important trading port under the British Raj.
The region gained independence from Britain with the rest of India in 1947. The city's name was changed to Mumbai in 1996. Some claim that was its name before the British arrived, others that it's derived from "Mumbadevi," the patron goddess of the Koli fishermen, who were the islands' earliest known inhabitants. Whatever the truth, you'll find many locals still call it by its British name.
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The British did not waste their years here, but spent them building grandiose buildings that would turn the city into a little England. There's the Victoria and Albert Museum, built in 1872; Crawford Market, completed in 1869; and its Victorian-styled clock tower, the Victoria Terminus, so reminiscent of St. Pancras station in London. The first train in India departed from this station in 1853; these days half a million commuters use it each day.
All these places are must-see sights for visitors, along with Mumbai's numerous ornate temples, its bustling bazaars, its instructive museums and, yes, even its slums. And of course you cannot miss the Gateway of India, actually a quite small edifice by today's standards but the jewel in Mumbai's sightseeing crown for many people.
A note of warning: People hassling for money is an unfortunate fact of life in Mumbai, especially around the Gateway of India. Many are just selling things, so it's up to you if you decide to buy, but there are also a lot of beggars and others who will ask for money for a good cause -- an orphanage or elderly people, for instance. It all looks kosher, but it is just a more upmarket begging scam, so steer clear.
--written by Jane Archer