Original 6ebf0c3efd1e60e2f7d37e0f80dead26.jpg?1462900864?ixlib=rails 0.3

A Guide to Mumbai’s Outdoor Markets

How to navigate the local shopping bazaars of Mumbai.

Having recently braved the sprawling and chaotic outdoor bazaars of Mumbai, foodie and cookbook author Claire Avis Gallam reports back and shares her tips on how to navigate this overwhelming—but exhilarating—experience of the city’s daily life.

Loud, chaotic, colorful, beautiful, confusing, crowded, awe-inspiring, terrifying…overwhelming. All of these words came to mind those first few moments of my initial market visit in Mumbai. It was a hot, sticky morning in November and the humid air was thick with the weirdly tantalizing olfactory mix of exotic street food and car exhaust. As we rode in the back of a cab, weaving through of traffic, past homeless camps and tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws), toward one of Mumbai’s largest outdoor markets, I had absolutely no idea what I was in for.

Linking Road in Bandra is a crowded warren of brightly colored stalls in cross streets and alleyways, so close together you can barely see the highly trafficked street behind it. The stalls here sell everything imaginable—from clothes and paper lanterns to saris stacked four feet high. Throngs of local customers hurry along Linking Road, bartering and arguing with vendors to get the right price. I stood there, people racing past me, and felt a tug on my sleeve. I looked down and saw a sweet little girl, her face covered in grime. She was holding out her hands, begging for something to take home to her mom. I looked up at my local guide, Varun, who was raised in these same crazy streets; he shook his head and shooed her away.

Following Varun, I swam through the madness, down a side street, past clothes and shoe vendors, to a dimly lit alleyway. The smells of street food, slow-roasting curries, and fresh produce welcomed me as I entered.

Once inside, I was excited to see rows of fresh vegetables and fruits. A man sorting through limes looked up and gave me a toothless grin. He then stood up and started to sway, politely talking to my guide in Hindi. Varun laughed and said, “He wants to dance with you.” I blushed and politely declined. The man smiled and went back to sorting his limes. The stalls continued in all directions, with dusty light peeking through gaps in thatched roofs. We dodged puddles of stale water alongside bushels of produce, rich assortments of meat, and overly pungent fruits.

We rushed past the even more pungent fish market, through crowds of families, kids and elders, until we reached a quieter corner, home to a small, albeit very crowded, spice stand. Varun smiled and said, “This is the best spice market here.” He then went over each baggie, noting bright yellow turmeric, bold chili powders, and aromatic fennel seeds. As a food writer and cookbook author, I knew exactly why he took me here. I spent nearly all of my rupees on 10 thick packets of spices, cursing myself because I knew transporting them would be a nightmare.

As we emerged back into the overwhelming heat, traffic, and crowds, I thanked Varun for showing me this hidden gem. I spent the rest of the morning following him to stalls run by family members, where I bought an assortment of saris and jewelry. As we headed back to the serenity and peace of the Grand Hyatt, I tried to find one word to describe the market. Chaotic certainly defines it, but there was more to it than that. Each smell, sound, taste, and sight brought me to one  word: mesmerizing.

Every market in Mumbai is different, and everyone’s responses differ. Some are brought to tears when faced with the extreme poverty or the onslaught of sights and smells, while others are perfectly complacent in the madness. One thing is for certain: You have to enter these markets with reckless abandon. You have to close your eyes, open your heart, and welcome every experience—no matter how overwhelming.  

My days navigating the streets would have been far more dramatic had I not had a local guide, whether I was exploring Linking Road, Fashion Street’s 380+ stalls, or Chor Bazaar’s dazzling collection of antiques. But if you’d rather go it alone, read on for advice I learned along the way.

When in doubt, ask a local. Mumbai’s citizens are generally very hospitable, and English is commonly spoken.

Bring cash. ATMs can be dicey and hard to find. The exchange rate right now is hovering around $1 USD to ₹68 rupees, and even that can go a long way. Bring at least $50 in U.S. dollars.

Don’t be afraid to barter. If someone is asking for $500, offer $250. Never pay full price on anything, from clothes to spices to street food.

Don’t give money to beggars. This was one of the hardest things for me, but giving money only perpetuates the poverty. If you must give something, give food.

Be very careful when crossing the street. Nothing makes sense in the world of Mumbai traffic. Cars zoom through stop signs and tuk-tuks speed past pedestrians. To cross a busy street, simply walk—the traffic, oddly enough, will find its way around you—though it’s best to have a local to guide you.

Be careful with street eats. If you have a strong stomach and want to risk it (you can’t beat the prices and it’s a great way to mingle with locals), stick to a stall that appears to be very clean, heavily trafficked, and recommended by a trusted local.

Visit a variety of markets. Linking Road is just one of the many bazaars in Mumbai. A few other popular ones among locals include Fashion Street, Chor Bazaar, Crawford Market, and Colaba Causeway.

Don’t overlook the brick-and-mortar shops. It can be hard to find them behind the busy stalls, but seek them out and you’ll be rewarded with tiny restaurants, slightly higher-end shops, massage parlors, and other businesses—many of which offer a welcoming blast of cold AC.

>>Next: It's Time to Take a Fresh Look at Colombia