The sea, the architecture, the food—there’s so much to love about Mumbai. But with the endlessly snarled traffic, the overwhelming crowds, and the constant sensory saturation, there’s also a lot not to love. Getting out, even just for a day, even if you’re only visiting, is sometimes necessary, not just for pleasure, but to maintain your sanity. While the city’s sheer density can make it feel as inescapable as a black hole, the metro area is actually fairly compact and surrounded by historic cities, lush hills, and sun-soaked beaches, all within easy reach. Whenever I need to recharge myself, these are my favorite jaunts.
Udvada: History, Architecture, Food
On the coast of Gujarat, the coastal state directly north of Mumbai, Udvada is a sleepy town suspended in time. Narrow, leafy lanes are lined by old homes with double otlas (porches) and typical wooden katera (railings), all built by the Parsi merchant community, descendants of Zoroastrians who first arrived in South Asia from Iran some 1,300 years ago. In the last half millennium, famously eccentric Parsis have played an outsize role in shaping the great city to the south, a miniscule minority in an immense metropolis that punches well above its cultural weight.
Udvada is also home to the Iranshah Atash Behram, the most sacred Zoroastrian fire temple in India. Though the temple structure is only 276 years old, it is believed that the holy fire in the sanctum has been burning for over 1,290 years. And though the shrine itself, like all Zoroastrian holy places, is out of bounds for non-Parsis, Udvada is also a site of pilgrimage for anyone who loves the community’s subtle, elegantly spiced food.
To do Udvada in a day, you’ll need to leave Mumbai early, aiming to get there by mid-morning (locals are very particular about their siesta). You could board a Gujarat Express from Mumbai Central station to Udvada station or hop into a State Transportation (ST) bus from Mumbai Central to Vapi and take a taxi from there.
But the best way to maximize your Parsi food experience is to drive (or, if you’re visiting, hire a driver; getting behind the wheel in this city is not for the faint of heart). Make a pit-stop for breakfast at Hotel Ahura on NH48 a couple of hours out of Mumbai. Ease into your day of Parsi feasting with some paro (Parsi masala omelet) or salli par eedu (fried eggs on potato wafers) with bun maska (sweet bun slathered with butter), all washed down with a cup of fudino chai (Mint tea).
Once in Udvada, head to the restaurants at any of the three Parsi-run hotels in town: Globe, Iranshah Apartments, and Ashishvang Hotel, the best (and only) options around. There are no set menus and the dishes change daily but on offer through the year are favorites like dhansak (thick lentil gravy cooked with vegetables and goat meat or chicken), sali murgi (delicately spiced chicken garnished with deep fried potato straws; order sali gosht if you prefer goat), chicken masala (chicken curry topped with French fries), chicken farcha (deep fried chicken legs), mutton keema (spicy goat mince curry), fried boi (deep fried white mullet), pulao dar (pilaf rice with meat and lentils) and chicken Russian cutlet (chicken, potato, and vegetable croquettes). If you’re a vegetarian, you might struggle.
Once fortified, visit the very informative Zoroastrian Information Center (closed Tuesdays), stop by the Irani bakery to sample and buy nankhatai (buttery biscuits), khari (long, wispy, phyllo-like crisps), and bite-sized mawa cakes made with milk curds. Look out for auto-rickshaws that double up as vendors of hand-churned, seasonal ice creams.
You can catch a bus, train, or drive back to the city in the same day, but once in Udvada, you might as well stick around for another scrumptious meal. If you do decide to spend the night, ask around for dudh na puff (milk froth topped with nutmeg and cardamom).
Jawhar: History, Art, Biking, Easy Hikes
Ever since Mumbai’s colonial heyday, when the spring heat and monsoon rains roll in, the city’s well-to-do run for the nearby hills east across the harbor. They go to escape the thick malarial heat and bask, for a short time, in the brisk, misty-air that comes with the rains to settle over the pretty towns known across India as Hill Stations. Many of these are still popular—often too popular—weekend getaways for Mumbaikars, but for those seeking a relatively off-the-radar escape, this erstwhile capital of the Warli kingdom fits the bill.
Like most other hill stations around Mumbai, Jawhar is at it’s prettiest during the monsoon months, but compared to places like Matheran and Lonavala, it’s small and relatively undeveloped, which is precisely the source of its allure. There are mountains to climb, villages to visit, waterfalls to gawk at—all far away from the hordes of visitors that can sap other hill stations of their charm.
Once you turn off at Manor from the nondescript NH48 highway towards Jawhar, the road winds through thick greenery and past rushing seasonal streams. Multiple viewpoints around Jawhar—namely Hanuman Point, Sunset Point, and Shirpamal—offer breathtaking vistas of the Western Ghats, the spine of mountains that separate India’s tropical western coast from the central Deccan Plateau. If you’ve traveled by ST bus, you can hire auto rickshaws for the day from right outside the bus stand.
History (and film) buffs should check out Jai Vilas Palace, which once belonged to a former tribal lord. Surrounded by cashew plantations, the pink stone palace was used as the set for the ‘90s potboiler Khiladi and continues to feature in Marathi-language films and horror shows like Aahat. The palace is not open to visitors but if you beg and plead with the caretaker—and promise to sponsor his next round of chai (Rs. 100 will more than cover it)—he’ll likely give you a tour of the building’s eighty rooms.
One of my favorite things to do in Jawhar is to scout for Warli paintings, intricate geometric patterns depicting village life, wedding rituals, and hunting scenes sketched in white on the wall of a local school, the gate of the local bar, or the crumbling retainers along the highway. In the main market, painter Pandurang Dev Chaudhary runs a cooperative that sells paintings of different sizes on both canvas and paper that are an absolute steal.
Sanjay Gandhi National Park: Hikes, Nature Trails, Cycling, Boating, Toy Train Ride
When you’re in the heart of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP)—a 40-square-mile wilderness populated by the world’s only urban leopards—it’s easy to forget the teeming megalopolis that surrounds it. The couple of million visitors who come through the park every year are peanuts given that this is the sole large green space in one of the world’s most tightly packed cities. Even still, if you want to have it to yourself, the best time to visit is early morning (the park opens at 7:30 am) on a weekday.
The park is easily accessible from the main gate in the suburb of Borivali, just off the Western Express Highway. Once inside, head straight to the Nature Interpretation Center (closed Mondays) to get your bearings and also check if they have any guided nature trails, bird-watching excursions, walks through the butterfly garden, or even overnight camping trips running that day. It’s advisable to book a trek in advance. Mobile connectivity is quite poor through SNGP so don’t venture deep into the park alone.
There are several popular trails inside the park. Gaumukh Trail is popular with bird enthusiast and if you continue up the hill on to the Highest Point trail, you’ll be awarded with sweeping views of SGNP and the Vihar, Tulsi and Powai lakes. Shilonda Trail is a moderate trek though bamboo groves and hilly streams.
One of the most popular sections of the park is the cluster of over a hundred Buddhist monastic cells and prayer halls that form the Kanheri Cave Complex. The centuries-old labyrinth of caves bears close resemblance (though on a smaller scale) to the spectacular UNESCO-protected Buddhist shrines at Ajanta and Ellora in Aurangabad, an overnight train ride away (this, for the record, is easily the most worthwhile weekend trip you can do out of town). Closer to the city, there are the much more crowded rock-cut temples on Elephanta Island, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, easily accessible by boat from the Gateway of India.
If you’re looking for something more sedate, bring a picnic (there are no food stalls inside the park, a welcome change here, and remember to take your garbage with you), walk through the Fragrance Garden (a three-acre spread of fragrant plants like citronella, patchouli, and spider lily), or take a ride on the rickety-but-fun toy train that goes around the Gandhi Tekdi hillock. There are also cycles for hire close to the main gate. Before you’re reunited with the chaos of Mumbai, spend some time at the nursery and take back a green souvenir.
Vasai Fort: Archeological Ruins; Bhujing
It’s hard to fathom Bassein, a city of ruins among the frenzied streets of Vasai, a coastal town 43 miles north of Mumbai that’s long-since been absorbed into the city’s urban footprint. As you reach the place known by locals as Vasai Fort, traffic thins out and buildings give way to coconut groves. Built by the Portuguese about four centuries ago, the fort—its moss-covered walls surrounded by the Arabian Sea on three sides—has also been ruled by the Marathas and the British. At the time it was built, this was a fortified city spread over 110 acres, with multiple chapels, a hospital, a granary, a town hall, and a bustling marketplace. All that remains today is a crumbling citadel, a popular backdrop for young lovers who come here to document their affairs, instructed by amateur photographers to hold hands and gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes.
A lack of information or even basic historic markers adds to the place’s mysterious pull. You could easily spend hours among the ramparts imagining a city into existence. It’s also shockingly easy to reach. Take a local train north on the Western Line to Vasai, then hop a rickshaw for the 20-minute ride to the fort. On your way back to the station, stop at Agashi Bhujing Centre for a taste of one of Mumbai’s oldest, but least-known street foods, bhujing: spicy roasted chicken coated with flattened rice.
The easiest way to get out of Mumbai is to head to the closest State Transportation (ST) stands in the train stations at Mumbai Central, Dadar, Parel, Kurla, Sion, or Chembur. There are also a number of private operators who ply buses to destinations from Mumbai. Both ST and private bus operators offer a variety of options for every budget. If you are traveling close to Mumbai, it’s fine to buy a ticket on the spot but if you’re planning a longer journey, you could book a ticket online. There are also options for outstation cab hires and car rentals. While self-drive options now exist through online portals, it isn’t that much cheaper than hiring a driver. Whatever you save in rupees you may well lose in years off your life from the stress of navigating some of the world’s most notoriously hectic roads.