This time last year I was spending my last few days in India, a country that means so much to me. I spent the first four weeks of my trip in Bangalore and fell in love immediately with the food, the people, and the chaos. My last two weeks in India, in Goa, were different and more challenging for a few reasons, but my time in Bangalore remains one of my favorite experiences of my gap year (and a half). Bangalore also happens to be where I’ve spent the most time aside from NJ and NYC in a number of years.
Bangalore is sometimes called the Silicon Valley of India and is the capital of the south Indian state of Karnataka. It’s a good introduction to the country of India because it is a unique mix of modern (free outdoor concerts and malls-a-plenty) and traditional (flower markets, rickshaws, and a dosa place on every corner).
One of the things I loved the most about India was that something that would cause a major issue elsewhere (can you imagine a cow standing in the middle of the sidewalk in Times Square?) was no big deal in India. If a city bus wasn’t working, it was everyone’s instinct to hop off the bus, push it until it ran, and hop back on. This is a lesson I tried to take back home with me, that just because things aren’t perfect doesn’t mean you can’t handle them, and while of course, everyone gets annoyed at little things sometimes, it’s a lot less than it used to be for me.
Here’s what I did to help me fall in love with Bangalore, though it was pretty darn easy:
Volunteer or Intern with Escape to…by Fairkonnect
Escape to…by Fairkonnect is an awesome social enterprise with whom you can volunteer with local organizations on the ground or intern with established businesses. I spent my first two weeks with the organization’s predecessor, working with an ayurvedic health center (and learned tips for staying healthy when you travel, as I wrote about here) and spent time in a home for girls during my final two weeks. Housing was provided for their volunteers and interns, as well as the best Indian dinners you’ll ever have, and a community leader who helped everyone become acquainted to Bangalore and feel at home.
Bargain with a Rickshaw Driver
If there’s anything I can do to get the city of New York to switch from yellow taxis to green and yellow auto-rickshaws, let me know. The open-air vehicles are *the* way to get around Bangalore and they’re also responsible for the majority of the sound pollution as it seems like you’re not allowed to drive one without honking the horn every 15 seconds. State where you want to go and say “meter” confidently, not “meter” with a question mark in your voice. Sometimes you’ll get rejected by the first few, but stand your ground, unless you are willing to pay more just to ensure you’re not left on the sidewalk.
Get a Henna Application
In its simplest explanation, henna is a plant that is ground up to make a dye that stains the skin (and can also be used for hair). I loved getting henna (or mehndi) applied to both my hands and wrists while I was in Bangalore. Though often applied for special occasions, like weddings, I thought the special occasion of me being in India was worthy of the process. After it is applied, you are not supposed to get your hands wet for a few hours, which was more difficult than I anticipated, but then you can pick off the top layer. The design left on your skin actually gets darker as the days go on, though my fellow volunteer’s became much darker, stayed more pristine, and remained longer than mine did. Mine lasted for almost two weeks. Ask around and try to go to a more local spot than a touristy one, as I’ve seen some henna on friends who have traveled throughout India that look way more cartoonish than traditional.
Take a Yoga Class
Where better to practice yoga than in the region where it originated? I took a few classes at Yogi-sthaan Cafe and loved them, though I frequented the cafe even more than I frequented the associated yoga studio. The food was all vegetarian and super healthy and there was free wifi, which I had trouble finding elsewhere.
Eat as Much Dosa as Possible
My fellow volunteer Lauren and I could not get enough dosa (specifically masala dosa) while we were in Bangalore. While we tried it at at least a dozen spots in town, the place we kept going back to was CTR, aka Central Tiffin Room. If you’re unfamiliar with masala dosa, picture a huge thin pancake rolled up with a spicy potato and chickpea mixture inside, served with a red sauce (sambar) and a coconut chutney. It’s seriously the best. I even brought back dosa mix with me and made it with my family for Christmas Eve breakfast last year.
Drink Filter Coffee
When I worked in an office in NYC, I loved the day when it was warm enough outside to switch to iced coffee from my normal hot coffee. Before India, I would never drink a hot beverage on a hot day, but in Bangalore I loved it. I’d order a hot filter coffee in a silver cup the size of a large shotglass and sip it slowly in front of the coffee stand as rickshaws whizzed by. If you’re at a table, the coffee will often be served with the silver cup placed inside of a larger cup. On my first day, the gentlemen next to me told me to pour just a sip at a time out of the smaller cup into the larger cup to cool it down and drink it from there. Not sure if I would have come up with that on my own so I appreciated the advice. For something special, head to Koshy’s, a popular historical establishment which has won an MTV award for the most stylish place in Bangalore.
As good as the filter coffee is, you also can’t deny how good Indian chai (tea) is. Often I would order one of each since the serving sizes were so small. You can get chai in a silver shot-glass cup almost anywhere, but if you’re looking for something different in the tea world, try Infinitea. It’s a restaurant so stylish that you’ll think you’re in Brooklyn where you can get a wide variety of teas that come in vessels perfect for Instagram. I had a flower blooming in the one I got that became wider as the tea steeped more.
Sample Everything on Food Street
One of my favorite nights in Bangalore was spent with the other volunteers and a few of our local friends on Food Street. Everything on the street is fresh, vegetarian, and under a dollar in price, which means you can try a lot of different things without breaking the bank, especially if you are sharing. You can try savory dishes like dosa (described above), idli, roti, and specialties from the Maharashtra and Rajasthan states of India, as well as sweet dishes like holige, rose petals, and vermicelli pudding. I wrote a full post about that glorious night here.
Browse the Collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art
Set up in an old colonial home, the Manikyavelu Mansion, the National Gallery of Modern Art shows Indian art from the 1800s to today including many large-scale pieces. My favorite piece was Yellow Butterflies and Blue Lotus by A. Ramachandran. It might have been a temporary exhibition, so I’m not sure if it’s still there. If you’re traveling elsewhere in India, there are two other National Galleries of Modern Art in Mumbai and Delhi. It’s worth noting that the best aloo paratha (a potato flatbread) I had in all of Bangalore was at the gallery’s food stand.
Stroll Through Cubbon Park
As Central Park is to New York, Cubbon Park is to Bangalore, a peaceful retreat with walkways, historical monuments, and thousands of plants and trees in the middle of the loud, hectic city. My friend Taylor and I visited one afternoon and felt completely removed from the rest of Bangalore.
Find the Butterflies in Lalbagh Botanical Gardens
Another place to feel totally removed from Bangalore is the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, whose attractions include a lake, topiary in the shape of different animals, statues of the seven dwarfs, a garden clock, and India’s largest collection of tropical plants. Here you’ll also find one of the oldest rock formations in the world, clocking in at 3000 million years old (no big deal).
Wander Around Bangalore Fort
Bangalore Fort was only used from 1761 to 1791 but is still in great shape. This is yet another place where you feel a little outside of the city, perhaps because of the high thick slightly pink walls surrounding you while walking around the complex. There are lots of doors here, some tiny, some huge, some locked, and some open with passages you can explore because there were no signs saying I couldn’t.
Visit Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace
You’ve gotta love it when someone’s summer home is larger than your actual home. The “Summer Palace” of Tipu Sultan’s (the former ruler of Mysore) is a cool Indo-Islamic construction (think ridged archways and columns) from the late 1700s, all made of teak.
Tour Bangalore Palace
For an even larger palace, visit the Bangalore Palace complex, said to resemble Windsor. You’ll find beautiful gardens, tiled floors, historical photographs, and courtyards you wish you could have in your own home. It’s best visited while listening to the detailed audio tour and keeping an open mind. There are some disturbing but innovative pieces of furniture with different parts of animals that you didn’t think could be made into anything. I’m not revealing what they are lest Donald Jr. get any ideas, but message me if you’re interested.
Learn About Hinduism at the Iskcon Temple
While very impressive and beautiful (especially when lit up at night), the Iskcon (International Society of Krishna Conciousness) Hindu Temple is also unfortunately very commercial with tons of souvenir stands. Yes, I did cave. I purchased a pretty miniature metal tree with gemstones on it that is supposed to bring good luck and prosperity but now still sits in a box because I don’t yet have my Brooklyn apartment. Maybe if I actually take it out of the box it will *bring* me the good luck of a Brooklyn apartment.
Check out the Street Art on MG Road
I’m a sucker for street art. The largest pieces I found in Bangalore were on MG Road. Aside from this awesome building where the subway station is, you’ll find a tiger, a mermaid, an octopus, some nudes, and some that I think were local political statements that went over my head.
Splurge at Ants Cafe
Ants Cafe was definitely my favorite shop in Bangalore. I spent a decent amount of money here and bought the majority of my Christmas presents (and some for myself), buying fair-trade, high-quality crafts like jewelry, shoes, and clay bells, all made by talented people living in rural northeast India, some in tribal communities. The food here is also good, though it’s less traditional and more western (French toast, pasta, chicken nuggets, etc.) than what you’ll find elsewhere.
Shop Sustainably at Ethic Attic / FairKonnect
My friends at Ethic Attic by FairKonnect invited me to be a part of a fashion shoot for their scarves and earrings and it was one of the most fun days I had in India. You can find more proof of my modeling career on their website linked above. Ethic Attic and FairKonnect connect ethical buyers with artisan groups and promote sustainable and ethical clothing at fashion events around the world. If I’d still had an income at that point, I would have purchased all of their scarves, they were all so beautiful. Luckily I did go home with one.
Get a Bargain on Commercial Street
For souvenirs like keychains, plastic auto-rickshaws, meditation bowls, or inexpensive clothing, head to Commercial Street. In between these stores, you can find some decent antique shops to meander through for something more rare and meaningful. One of the things that happens in Bangalore is that a driver will offer to take you to a few shops for a very low price. He’ll take you to some of his friends’ places which are typically nicer than the streets you see on the main strip. He will get a kickback from the stores if you purchase anything. Use your judgment – I did this with a friend one day, though each time the car started, it required the help of a gentleman or two in the street pushing us forward first. I wouldn’t have done this alone.
See the Sunrise on Nandi Hills
About an hour outside of Bangalore sits Nandi Hills, which many people from Bangalore visit for sunrise. You have to wake up pretty early – for our trip in October, we left at 5 am. It might be worth doing before getting over your jetlag, if you find yourself waking up at 3 every morning like I did for the first week. Get a group together and split the cost of a cab. You will find stray puppies, monkeys, and a large park area on top of the hill in addition to the sunrise. For a full post I wrote about visiting Nandi Hills, follow this link.
Travel Outside of Bangalore
When I was in town, it was important for me to get out of the city a few times as the traffic, honking, and nonstop firework displays during Diwali were a bit overwhelming, even for someone who has lived in NYC for years. The first trip, just half a day, was to Nrityagram (which I wrote about here), the adorable village with some of the best windows and doors I’ve ever seen, where students live and commit themselves to learning the art of Odissi, a classical religious Indian dance. A longer daytrip that could have been an overnight was to Mysore (which I wrote about here) to explore the palace, the market, and to, well, eat more dosa. On our final trip, my fellow volunteer Lauren and I traveled to Yelagiri Hills on a total whim by picking its name out of a hat the night before. We didn’t plan well but instead depended on the kindness of strangers and it was such a special day that I’ll be writing about soon.
Just like Paris and Cape Town, Bangalore is a city I can see myself becoming a regular. Starting in the spring, I’ll have yet another reason to visit. The organization that I volunteered with in Myanmar is opening a soap-recycling workshop in Bangalore. If you’d like to help us raise funds for the workshop and the hygiene initiatives in India and Myanmar, please visit: Sundarafund.org.