Bangalore cityscape

City of Opportunity

25th November 2016

Olivia Greenway explores Bangalore, the state capital of Kanataka, in the south west of India – and finds a welcoming, bustling metropolis, full of colourful sights and sounds...

As the country’s IT capital, the Garden City is not on many tourists’ itineraries. But for a first timer to India, Bangalore (or to use its official name, Bengaluru) is a gentle introduction. The ‘city of beans’ is reassuringly cosmopolitan and at 3,000 ft above sea level, is pleasantly warm rather than searingly hot. It has sufficient otherworldliness to pique your interest in Indian culture but is not too extreme to overwhelm. It doesn’t have a large catalogue of beautiful buildings, but there are enough to keep you occupied for a few days. Explore bustling markets, enjoy the air-conditioned shopping malls, eat in superb restaurants and enjoy luxury hotels and their facilities at (almost) rock bottom prices. Once you’ve dipped your toe in here, you’ll be wanting more.

People react to Indian cities like they do to Marmite: they either love them or hate them. No-one is on the fence. The haters cite the noise, the dirt, the in-your-face poverty and the overcrowding; lovers wax lyrical about the colour, excitement, fabulous food and an alien culture asking to be explored.

India is a huge country – the state of Karnataka, in the south, is bigger than England. And Bangalore, capital of this state, is our first introduction to this fascinating country. Most people speak English here, and literacy is 89%, far above the national average.

The first thing you’ll notice is that this city of 11 million people is noisy. Very noisy. Drivers honk their horns repeatedly – not in annoyance, but to let other road users know they are there. Unfortunately, there are thousands of them, so the result is cacophonous. The second thing you’ll clock is the temperature – it’s always pleasantly warm and you rarely need a cardigan or jacket, except perhaps in the rainy season. And the third thing that becomes apparent is how gentle the people are, and how modestly they dress: men in long trousers, rarely shorts, with only a few workmen wearing dhoti (a type of loincloth); women in gorgeous saris or tunic with trousers – salwar kameez – or, if in western dress, with legs covered and discreet tops.

Bangalore is expanding at a terrific rate and long time residents bemoan the ‘progress’. People living in appalling poverty rub shoulders with self-made millionaires. This is a city of opportunity and it attracts people from all over India. At times, the city is gridlocked by traffic jams; best to shrug your shoulders and just accept it – but do bear it in mind when you’re making your local travel plans. Driving here has an art to it that most westerners just could not cope with, so don’t even think of it. As you sit in your jam, expect to see a cow wandering around, a family of five on one motorbike (with the driver alone wearing a crash helmet) and street dogs sleeping in the sun.

Apart from the fact that it’s warm and dusty, walking is not always possible except for short distances. Pavements are often broken and crossing the roads is difficult if you are inexperienced. Best to take an auto rick. Agree the fare beforehand, and if the driver claims not to speak English, move on to one that does. Taxis may be ordered from your hotel. They are generally reasonably priced and you’ll need one for most of your excursions. Hotels cars are the most expensive – but you’ll get a liveried chauffeur and luxury car with air-conditioning at a fraction of the price of the same arrangement in the UK. The Metro has finally arrived in Bangalore and is expanding slowly, though it’s quite handy for getting to shopping areas such as the MG Road.

There are many characterful five star hotels, where the high standard of accommodation, excellent service and good housekeeping should surprise you. All have outdoor pools, restaurants and spas. The Oberoi has outdoor spaces for all its rooms and a gorgeous pool; the Leela is a spectacular palace of jaw-dropping splendour; and The ITC Windsor is reassuringly Anglo-British, with an Irish bar.

Do bear in mind that hotel prices online are ex tax, so you will have to add 20% to the quoted figures. The same applies to restaurant prices.

You could spend your whole break visiting temples and silk emporia; choose what you want to see and make sure you spend some time at your hotel for some rest and relaxation, either in the spa or beside the pool. It’s good to visit a mall – plenty have sprung up all over the city – to stock up on cheap books and stationery, fine cotton nightclothes and scarves, with maybe some Indian foodstuffs. Also try the food court – you’ll be able to have your fill for around a £1. In Commercial Street, near the MG Road, you can get a made-to-measure suit in two days; they’ll send it to your hotel when it’s ready. A street market, where the locals shop, is a must if you’re brave: they’re usually crowded and unlikely to be squeaky clean. Wear enclosed shoes to avoid those dubious looking puddles.

If you’d like to sample luxury food shopping, try the Food Hall (www.foodhallonline.com) at 1 MG Mall – near Trinity Metro station, and walking distance from The Oberoi – selling high quality food from all over the world.

There are plenty of standalone restaurants in Bangalore now, some of them very good and much cheaper than those at the hotels. India is a food lover’s delight. The fare is not always spicy and only a fraction of what’s produced is ‘curry’. In fact, Indians are very partial to Italian and Chinese food and these cuisines have sprung up everywhere. Try 100ft Road, east of the city, where a new restaurant seems to open up and one closes down every week. Or try nearer to the centre – Church Street has several restaurants worth a visit.

If you want to see a glimpse of old Bangalore, book a walking or driving tour. Sushma Ajay of www.yourstrulyindia.com took us to visit the 19th century St Mark’s Cathedral. A relatively peaceful sanctuary, this Protestant building may look rather familiar: it’s much smaller, of course, but it was modelled on St Paul’s in London, with a dome and roman arches. Of particular note are the original stained glass windows, hand-crafted in Italy, and almost naive in style. Internally, the cathedral has a great deal of wood (expensive carved teak), which might explain why it has twice suffered devastating fires. The impressive pipe organ was donated by the Cowdrey family of cricketing fame, in 1929.

We then drove to nearby Cubbon Park, named after one of Bangalore’s longest serving commissioners. Its 300 green acres in the city centre make a welcome respite. Finally, we soaked up the grandeur of the imposing Vidhana Soudha, probably the city’s most famous landmark (unfortunately closed to visitors) and home to the state’s legislative chambers. It’s strikingly floodlit at night.

British Airways flies direct, but you may prefer to break your journey by flying via Dubai or Delhi, for example. As with all air travel, the sooner you book, the cheaper the flight. Some say the best time to see Bangalore is in the winter… but you’ll find better hotel deals in the summer. There really isn’t a bad time to visit: just pick a date and go.

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