You will be offered tours of various descriptions by at least half the people you meet on the streets of Mumbai; everyone from your taxi driver to the man who asks you for the time will have a contact in the tourism industry who'll be more than happy to take you "sightseeing." Use your discretion, watch your wallet, and remember that Mumbai's traffic makes it impossible to see everything in 1 day.
To arrange a legitimate tour of the city, set it up through your hotel, which should have access to the best guides (meaning those with the best English and best knowledge); better still, check out some of our favorite tours and specialist guides.
Into the Belly of the Beast: Getting Beneath Mumbai's Skin
For all its chaos and controversy, Mumbai's diversity, along with its fascinating history as a cultural melting pot, makes it an incredibly nuanced destination, well worth investing a little time getting to know beyond the obvious and touristy confines of the Colaba-Fort precinct; these days, it's also possible to venture into Dharavi -- the largest slum in Asia, colorfully documented and dramatized in the hugely popular Slumdog Millionaire -- where you discover, instead of misery, an extremely industrious and vibrant community. Several exceptionally enthusiastic people offer an assortment of escorted tours, and we highly recommend that you sign up for at least one such outing. While most companies do offer standard sightseeing excursions, the best trips tend to be specialist tours themed around a specific aspect of Mumbai's dynamic personality; you can also ask most of these companies to design a tailor-made tour based on any specific interests.
The most in-depth slum tour offered in Mumbai is by good-value, community-oriented Reality Tours & Travel (1/26 Akber House, Nowroji Fardoni Rd., Colaba; tel. 022/2283-3872 or 98-2082-2253; www.realitytoursandtravel.com). After stopping at the famous Mahalaxmi dhobi ghat (apparently the world's largest open-air laundry) and driving through the city's red-light district (where you'll hear harrowing stories about some of the girls who find themselves imprisoned here), you arrive at the edge of the slum and set off on foot to meet some of the people who live and work there. You'll see a plastic recycling operation, visit inside a tiny, one-room family home, explore a variety of neighborhoods, and see one or two schools run by charitable trusts (including a kindergarten started by Reality Tours). It's one of the most riveting tours we've been on anywhere in the world -- you can either join a group (never more than five people; Rs 800) or opt for a private tour (Rs 3,200). Try to specify that you want Krishna, one of the cofounders of the organization, as your guide -- he's utterly charming, filled with insights, and has a magnificent rapport with the people in the slum. Krishna also arranges market tours, village tours, and more traditional sightseeing tours.
Doing it in style and offering a very wide array of well-packaged and impeccably delivered tours (from sightseeing walks through historic Fort to tours of the bazaars, and visits to Worli fishing village) is Mumbai Magic (tel. 98-6770-7414; www.mumbaimagic.com), a true labor of love from the multitalented, super-sophisticated Deepa Krishnan. She aims to single-handedly transform the face of tourism in India -- city by city, she's launching her own brand of high-grade guiding services throughout the country. Not only that, but she's probably the single biggest authority on what's hip, happening, and worthwhile in this, her home city, with delicious opinions and well-researched knowledge on just about everything that's going on here -- she's even serves as TripAdvisor's resident expert on Mumbai. Using only expert "Deepa-certified" guides (all women), she puts together highly specialized escorted sightseeing trips, many of them themed in unusual and interesting ways, such as her Jewish heritage tour. Deepa offers a Spirit of Dharavi tour, but it is not a walking tour through the slum, but rather a chance to see Dharavi in its wider context as a part of the rapidly evolving city -- for example, you'll see a gold market in the slum and compare this to a nearby middle-class South Indian market in Matunga. If you have time for just one of Deepa's experiences, though, make it the Mumbai Local, an ingenious tour where you spend 4 hours with a couple of English-speaking youngsters who take you around the city using standard-issue public transport -- a red double-decker bus, a black and yellow taxi, and a local train -- explaining how it all works, and the city is experienced by ordinary citizens. It's a marvelous day out, and a far cry from any typical sightseeing excursion. Deepa's prices start at Rs 1,500 per person for a 2-hour walking tour, and from around Rs 4,000 per person for a personalized tour in a car. The Mumbai Local tour is Rs 2,000, including tea, snacks, and lunch.
If you fancy dipping into the city from a literary point of view, or want to understand its art in more depth, contact Shriti Tyagi of Beyond Bombay (tel. 98-6776-4409; email@example.com). She's put together clever concept-driven tours that, in the case of her lively bookworming tours, evolve out of the plots and characters from popular books set in Mumbai -- her Shantaram tour is very popular, but she also brings to life relevant episodes from Suketu Metha's Maximum City, and will happily research other pertinent books and prepare an exclusive tour for you based on that. Also available are other ingeniously themed tours -- thali tripping for foodies, Bollywood tours for film buffs, and rasta shopping excursions for shopaholics. Shriti is the former editor of a prominent Indian art journal, so she's probably the best person in the city with whom to discover its art; she'll enlist a textile designer to accompany you on a market tour, and perhaps a journalist to take you through some social history. A typical 3-hour walking tour costs around Rs 3,000, and driving tours run Rs 5,000, with no more than six people on a tour.
Shriti's landmark-oriented tours are good for getting a sense of the city, but if you like building design, a group of young architects conducts Bombay Heritage Walks (tel. 022/2369-0992; www.bombayheritagewalks.com), usually on Sundays mid-September to early May, with special monsoon walks June to September. If you have any interest in architecture, they're quite a gripping way to take in various fascinating parts of the city.
Finally, you could see the city on one of the invigorating full-morning South Mumbai Cycle Tours that happen every Sunday (Sept-June), when the streets are relatively free of traffic. The tour starts at 7am from Eros Theatre opposite Churchgate Station, and culminates with lunch at Café Mondegar in Colaba. You'll take in Marine Drive's Art Deco buildings, and check out the diversity of Classical, Gothic, Neo-Gothic, and Indo-Saracenic buildings and landmarks in both well-known and undiscovered parts of south Mumbai; there's some commentary on the history, too. The tour costs Rs 1,250 per person for a minimum of six participants, and includes the cycle, guide, breakfast, and lunch; check out www.odati.com for more information.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.