Places to visit in Ahmedabad: what to see, do & eat in India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City

Drawing of Ahmedabad by Dutch missionary Philippus Baldaeus in 1672
Drawing of Ahmedabad by Dutch missionary Philippus Baldaeus in 1672

Although the largest city in the state of Gujarat is not frequently part of a traveler’s plans in India, Ahmedabad is not a travel destination you should overlook. If you’ve been skipping to visit Ahmedabad, you are missing out, and you’ll soon see why in this post on top places to visit in Ahmedabad (including insider’s tips on where to stay and what and where to eat and drink).

The six-hundred-year-old city was ranked as third in Forbes’ list of fastest growing cities of the decade in 2010.

In 2012 it was voted as the best city to live in India by The Times of India and in 2014, Ahmedabad was selected as one of the cities to be developed as a smart city under the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Smart Cities Mission project.

More recently, in July 2017, Ahmedabad has become India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City.

Top places to visit in Ahmedabad

Ahmedabad’s old buildings have a visible Islamic influence in its architecture; in the early 17th Century the Dutch entered the Indian market, establishing factories and dealing with spices, sugar, indigo, and saltpeter (also known as potassium nitrate); Mahatma Gandhi lived here and started his famous Salt March in 1930 from the Dandi bridge just outside his Ashram by the Sabarmati river.

To say that these must-see historical places in Ahmedabad will tell you the city’s full story is, of course, an understatement. However, it helps to give you an understanding of this Gujarati city’s heritage.

On a dedicated post, you can read about the, approximately, three-hour Heritage Walk in Ahmedabad, a walking guided tour that leads you through the old walled city and its landmarks of Indian Islamic monuments and Hindu and Jain temples.

Sarkhej Roza

Sarkhej Roza in Ahmedabad

Sarkhej Roza (or Sarkhej Roja, I’ve seen it written with both spellings) is the home of Ahmed Kattu Ganj Baksh, the Muslim religious leader and the spiritual leader of Sultan Ahmed Shah (the founder of Ahmedabad and who the city is named after). This cluster of monuments, built in 1451, is located in the (mainly) Muslim village of Makarba, about 8 Km (approximately 5 miles) from the city center. Locals advise women to pay attention to the dress code here, specifically covering their shoulders and legs.

With its intricate stonework, these monuments of Islamic architecture (the tombs of the religious leader, of the founder Ahmed Shah and of his queen, the mosque, the palace, and pavilions) are grouped around a stepped tank: it was referred by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier (whose work is now listed as part of UNESCO’s World Heritage) as the Ahmedabad’s Acropolis for the similarities of design with the one in Athens.

 

Adalaj ni vav

Inside Adalaj stepwell, one of the top places to visit in Ahmedabad

This is a gorgeous work of architecture and one of the most popular tourist places in Ahmedabad. If you visit during the weekend, expect it to be slightly crowded.

Vav is the Gujarati word for stepwell and Adalaj is a village close to Ahmedabad, in the Gandhinagar district about 19 Km (11 miles) from Thaltej circle – Adalaj ni vav means Adalaj stepwell, which is probably how the landmark is best known.

The detailed sandstone carvings are beautiful and unique, mixing the floral elements of Islamic architecture with the mythological scenes typical of Hindu architecture. In 1499, this five-stories deep stepwell was built to collect the rainwater from the monsoons, as many others in dry areas like these in the west of India.

Gandhi Ashram

Gandhi's legendary spinning wheel at Sabarmati Ashram

Also known as Sabarmati Ashram, this is probably Ahmedabad’s most popular place among foreign tourists.

When Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915, he first established himself in the Kochrab area of Ahmedabad. Later, in 1917, the Ashram was shifted to the banks of the Sabarmati river (hence the name) where it now still stands and where he lived until 1933.

Ashram means a place of religious retreat, of privacy. You can visit each of the houses and a fully detailed exhibition about Gandhi’s life and work.

Outside the Ashram, to your left, about 5-minutes walking distance, you’ll see the bright-red Dandi bridge, recently restored, from where he led the famous Salt March in 1930 that was considered the first step of the Indian Independence movement through nonviolence and civil disobedience.

Admission is free (and includes free parking)
Opening hours: 8.30am-6.30pm every day (including holidays)
For detailed information about expected behavior and dress code, click here

The Dutch tombs

The Dutch tombs in Ahmedabad

Some of our friends in Ahmedabad hadn’t heard about the Dutch tombs and, as far as I could tell, it’s still a little off the typical guided tour.

Just outside Kankaria lake, in a smaller park with a playground for children called One Tree Hill garden, lie the tombs of some of the Dutch who traded in cotton, indigo, and yarn in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The inscriptions on the graves are faded, but you can still make out a few religious symbols like crucifixes and a few words (some in Latin and some in what I believe is Dutch). After the big earthquake in 2001 these tombs and the structure around them were highly damaged; what you now see is what was left standing.

There isn’t much to see here beyond, well, tombs and the occasional stray cat outnumbered by squirrels fighting for leftovers. But I believe it’s an important landmark that showcases Ahmedabad’s diversity of cultural and historical influences over the years, despite most of them showing signs of vandalism.

Sun Temple in Modhera

Sun temple in Modhera, a village near Ahmedabad

Consider the Sun Temple in the Gujarat village of Modhera as that detour you should take.

This temple was built in 1026 AD in honor of Surya, the Hindu Sun God. No longer a place for prayer, the temple is about 100Km (62 miles) away from Ahmedabad and it’s famous for its unique architecture, attracting many tourists and visitors throughout the year.

The mythological history behind this place explains the importance of this area as sacred ground: according to the old Hindu texts, Lord Ram needed a place of pilgrimage to purify himself, and Modhera was shown to him. This Sun Temple is built in a way that the first rays of sun fall upon the image of Surya, the Sun God.

Opening hours: 7am-6pm every day

Popular places in Ahmedabad for street shopping

Ahmedabad has plenty of shopping malls to choose from (it has probably more shopping malls than any other city I’ve been to), but if there is one thing the locals know how to do is to spot the places with the best shopping deals.

And the best bargains happen while street shopping.

Ravivari Market (Sunday Market)

Mirrors for sale at the Ravivari Market, one of the best places for street shopping in Ahmedabad

Every Sunday, from morning to dawn, the vendors spread their tents and blankets on the bank of the Sabarmati river, under the Ellis Bridge – the first bridge built to connect the old Ahmedabad to the other side of the river, to where it eventually expanded.

Since local authorities began to make improvements on the Sabarmati riverfront, building the new River Promenade, the market today is significantly smaller.

In spite of these changes at the Riverfront Market, it is still a hustle of food stalls, auctioneers, and sellers of anything from plastic combs to rat traps, from tools to jewelry, from cots to poultry and goats.

Opening hours: 8am-4pm Sundays
(During the week, you can visit other seasonal and organized markets on the same location)

Law Garden

Law Garden, one of the best street shopping places to visit in Ahmedabad

After dusk, this street changes into a colorful market for traditional sarees, sparkly bangles, and bright chaniya cholis.

If you are looking for a reasonably priced and original souvenir to bring back home, this is the right place.

Haggle your way to the fairest price and when in doubt, ask the locals how much they would pay for an item — trust me, if I had done that before I started haggling, I would have saved about 400 rupees (six bucks might not seem like much but in India they go a long way), according to my Indian family.

The formula the women in my family use is something like this: whatever price the vendor is asking for, you lower your offer by sixty percent; when they don’t budge, use the “walking away to buy elsewhere” move (which usually works like a charm). However, if you don’t feel comfortable haggling, don’t feel like you have to.

Opening hours: dusk-11pm

Nature and outdoors spots

According to the last census, the Ahmedabad population in 2011 was around 5.5 million people. Can you imagine the crowds, the chaos, and the constant traffic? It’s a neverending, energy-sucking, overwhelming whirlwind of people and vehicles. But Ahmedabad has spacious nature and outdoors spots that work like little pockets of refuge from the noise and the confusion, in and outside the city.

Kankaria Lake

A view of the Kankaria lake and the lakefront promenade in Ahmedabad (India)

Built in 1451, this artificial lake in Ahmedabad is located in the southern part of the city. It’s gated and has a large lakefront walkway built around it, great for early morning or evening strolls, or running, and it’s an excellent place for kids (it has a zoo, a toy train that rides around the lake, an amusement park, and a kids city).

In the evening, it tends to become a bit more crowded as people go out to the lake for its waterfront restaurants and cafes and for the rides in the amusement park.

Free entrance from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.
Opens again from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. for twenty rupees (US $0.30) each adult.

Thol Lake

Sunset at Thol Lake near Ahmedabad

Named after the village where it is located, this man-made lake is most commonly known for being a bird sanctuary in the Winter for the migratory Great White Pelicans and Flamingos, among other species.

Although it is about 40 Km (around 25 miles) Northwest of Ahmedabad, the ride to the countryside is still worth it for the peace and quiet, the sunrise or the sunset, and if you happen to be here during the months of Winter, for gazing at the birds going about their business, and a nice break from the humid heat and dusty air.

Admission fee: 20 INR (US $0.30) per person
Opening hours: 6am-5.30pm Every day

Sabarmati Riverfront

The newest outdoors gem in Ahmedabad is the renovated and improved Sabarmati Riverfront. A complex of parks, plazas, gardens, and even an urban forest welcome locals for late afternoon walks and cultural events happening throughout the year.

The River Promenade built along Sabarmati stretches for almost 12km (7 miles) and it’s the perfect spot for runners and cyclists (or for enthusiasts of a long walk by the river).

Street food in Ahmedabad: What to eat & drink

Please note that this is not an attempt at an Ahmedabad food guide. Most of the times, we ate delicious homecooked Gujarati sabzis at home (and the occasional takeout from Havmor’s). That said, the following list sums up my experiences with street food in Ahmedabad.

Corn on the cob

At first, I wouldn’t consider corn on the cob as an Indian street food, but then the experience made me look at it differently:

“Boiled or grilled?” That was the first question the vendor asked me.

“Grilled please”, I replied.

The man peeled the corn cob and stirred the cinders to a bright red. As he turned the cob on the charcoal, you heard some of the corn popping, which seemed like the perfect time to ask me what type of spread did I want, “butter or cheese?”

I was puzzled at first because no one had ever asked me about spreads to put on corn before, but I went with the butter.

The corn was done and, as I paid the twenty rupees, the steamy cob was handed to me, and the smell of the rich and thick butter was the first thing that hit me.

The corn, not so glamorously, stuck to my teeth at every bite but I was focusing all the attention on the mix of flavors: salty and sweet and the mild bitterness of the pieces that were scorched.

Chai

Sandra Henriques Gajjar drinking chai for the first time in Ahmedabad

“So, how do I drink this?”

It might not fall into the “street food” category, but chai is an important part of Ahmedabad’s (and India’s) culture and there are chai stalls at every corner (literally).

At Dayabhai at Vastrapur, the caramel color chai felt smooth and fresh from the first sip to the last and that was exactly what I wanted it to taste like.

I wanted to try to guess the mix of spices from the first smell of the steaming hot cup and with the first sip, I immediately felt the spark of ginger. Ultimately it was like a little dose of reinvigorating energy in the hot and humid air of Ahmedabad, that I gladly took almost every day.

Pani Puri

A pile of puris in Ahmedabad (India)

On my first trip to India, the pani puris were my very first experience with street food in Ahmedabad, right outside the shops in Gurukul Road. My mother-and-law and I had just been on a shopping spree for my wedding dress, so stopping for a snack seemed like a great idea.

The small crisp puris are stuffed with a paste made of potatoes and chickpeas and crunchy onions, seasoned with plenty of coriander.

They serve these to you on a small plate and pour the flavored water (pani) of your choice — sweet, salty, spicy — on the puri, filling it.

With a gesture, the vendor explained to me I had to eat it all in one bite and yes that is the only way to properly experience it: the mix of textures and the mix of flavors are, literally, a mouthful.

Sugar cane juice

Sugar cane juice at Ravivari Market in Ahmedabad

I had my first glass of sugar cane juice when we were returning from Modhera’s Sun Temple, and stopped for a break next to the roadside food stalls.

I have always had a sweet tooth so my first reaction was to say “yes, of course, I want to try some sugar cane juice”.

But then I thought maybe it would be too sweet in that heat and make me more harm than good. By then I already had the glass in my hand, filled with a cloudy, pale, lime green liquid.

I must say it probably isn’t the most attractive looking beverage you will run to get to quench your thirst in the dry heat. Nor is the description of it as “sugar cane juice”. Yet when I took the first taste everything I thought about it vanished.

It was fruity, mildly sweet and fresh, and it made more wonders for my thirst than I expected.

Dal vada

A close up of dal vadas

They seem particularly famous in Ahmedabad during the Monsoon and the main ingredient to these snacks is a pulse I had never seen before called chana dal. Roughly I can compare it to small yellow split peas.

Although deep-fried, the dal vadas were light and close to what I would call comfort food: not presumptuous, ringing all the bells and whistles on your taste buds and giving you that overall feel-good sensation.

Suggested restaurants in Ahmedabad

India has such a rich and varied cuisine and you can find the best of the best in many restaurants in Ahmedabad. The art of mixing the right spices to create unique flavors is not one you can easily master because most recipes aren’t written — they pass on from generation to generation.

These are some of the places in Ahmedabad where the locals go to and where you can experience the local cuisine. The best food for the best price, guaranteed.

Havmor

The famous chana puri from Havmor's in Ahmedabad

Havmor (that literally means “have more”) is a seventy-year-old restaurant that began as an ice-cream company and that later started a restaurant chain, becoming famous for its North Indian cuisine and for its signature recipe of chana puri.

This dish is no more than chickpeas stir-fried with a mouth-watering mix of spices, served with puris (a small, round piece of bread made of unleavened wheat flour, deep-fried).

Definitely, start your meal with the karari roomali (a kind of very thin roti baked until very crisp, seasoned with ghee, powder red chili and coriander) and the Assorted Havmor Platter (it’s vegetarian foodie paradise on a platter: hara kebab, bharwan papad, paneer pudina tikka and kathi kebab).

If you have any room left after these starters, you must, of course, try their famous chana puri or the alli malli subzi and finish your meal with a scoop of their rich, velvety-smooth chocolate chip ice cream.

Iris Foods takeaways

They do mostly take away meals and to me, it is the place where I have had the best chicken biryani in the city (I haven’t been able to find a great chicken biryani ever since).

My taste buds weren’t ready at the time for the spicy complexity of Indian cuisine, however, they cook this typical North Indian dish with such a twist (that I can’t figure out) that makes it my favorite dish.

Their butter chicken is also spot on if you are looking for another non-vegetarian option.

Municipal Market

Different snacks at the Municipal Market in Ahmedabad

Before there were shopping malls and fast food chains in Ahmedabad, the Municipal Market was one of the spots for eating and shopping.

This C-shaped complex of small shops and food stalls, surrounding a parking lot, is a must-stop for a full meal, for snacks or for treats with the family.

Start your snacking feast at Wah with bhel puri, Italian-style pizza with onions and green capsicum (I beg to differ about the Italian style, but it was still very tasty) and a side of french fries seasoned with black pepper.

To top that off, make room for ice cream at Cheers.

I suggest the Choco Chips Dip (Dhanish’s childhood favorite and I never say no to chocolate… ) – soft chocolate chip and vanilla ice cream swirl, dipped in chocolate that is frozen into a hard shell at the spot, served in a light waffle cone (and yes it tastes as great as it sounds).

The combination of textures and taste made me forget all about the I-don’t-know-how-many-years on the hips.

Where to Stay in Ahmedabad

The French Haveli Boutique Heritage Home is a personal favorite for a couple of reasons (and one hotel I’ve reviewed on the blog already).

Firstly, it’s a combination of tasteful restoration work, preserving most of the original’s building cultural identity and character, with a slightly offbeat location (right in the heart of the old city).

Secondly, the architect in Ahmedabad responsible for the restoration project is a talented and dear friend of ours – he always brings some of the old into the new.

I’m not in the position to list all the best hotels in Ahmedabad, but I can suggest you look for accommodation either in the Lal Darwaja area (right in the heart of the old city where you can experience local life and culture in the pols, and where most of the restored havelis are) or at Ashram Rd (right across the river from the old city).

However, this is always a matter of personal preference (and available budget), feel free to browse more hotels in Ahmedabad before making your final decision.



Booking.com

Some notes on local cultural habits

Ahmedabad is a pretty modern city but it has its own set of quirks when it comes to local culture and expected behavior. I’ll be focusing on two main aspects of what makes Ahmedabad different from other cities in India and, well, unique in its own way.

Drinking and buying alcohol

Gujarat is a dry state, which means purchasing or consuming any alcoholic drinks is illegal for locals.

You’ll have so much to visit and experience that I am sure you won’t have time to miss the occasional beer or glass of wine, however, drinking and buying alcohol in Ahmedabad needs to follow a basic set of rules.

Foreigners are allowed to consume and purchase alcohol via a temporary liquor permit, free of charge, that you can get within one month of your arrival and that is valid for as long as you stay.

The number of units that you can buy depends on how long you are staying — for every ten days, you can buy two units of alcohol (one unit equals to ten bottles of beer or one bottle of hard liquor).

Please, keep in mind that consuming alcohol in the streets or any other public space is strictly prohibited.

The Government of Gujarat has made it simpler for tourists to apply for a liquor permit online (you must be 21 years old or older to apply). Click here to apply for your license to buy alcohol in Ahmedabad (valid for tourists from India and outside of India).

According to their website, applying and getting your permit is as simple as the image below. However, I haven’t tested it yet myself (when I traveled in India the applications were done in person at certain appointed locations) and the bureaucracy in India can drive anyone insane. If you try it, please tell me how it went. I’d love to hear about it.

Liquor permit in Ahmedabad (registration cycle)

Kitli culture

People gather around a tea stall in the streets of Ahmedabad to drink chai

Kitli is the Hindi word for kettle. People sit (and easily a turned-over can or a bucket make up for a convenient seat) or stand at the tea stalls, with small glass chai cups in hand (what’s called “cutting chai”, which means half tea), and discuss anything from politics to work, to the latest cricket or football match.

Now that I think of it, it’s not that different from the Portuguese tradition to hang out at cafes for long hours and discuss anything, except cricket. We’re all about football.

This social phenomenon is mainly typical of Gujarat (or at least I’ve been told by locals). In any city or any village in this Indian state, you will easily find a tea stall to catch up on latest discussion topics or simply have a quick chai break.

Living in a dry state means that people in Gujarat can’t go out to a bar for drinks, so gathering at street tea stalls becomes one of the ways for catching up with friends.

What you need to know before traveling to Ahmedabad

Covering all the possible questions people might ask me about Ahmedabad is always a hard (and often incomplete) task. I’m listing the top eight that come to mind regarding mobility, location, weather, safety, health, and dress code. If you need to know something more specific that I failed to cover here, feel free to send me an email and I’ll do my best to help you out.

Where is Ahmedabad?

Ahmedabad is the largest city in the state of Gujarat (and its former capital city), in the Northwest of India. The state of Gujarat borders with the Arabian Sea (West), Pakistan (North), and the Indian states of Rajasthan (North), Madhya Pradesh (East), and Maharashtra (Southeast).

Do you need to take health precautions before traveling?

I was advised to do prophylaxis for malaria and hepatitis (which I did, for both) and I took a precautionary tetanus shot (in Portugal, tetanus shots are mandatory every 10 years or whenever an unusual situation comes up).

Although none of these are required for you to entry or exit India, it’s strongly recommended that you seek medical advice a few months before your trip and prepare accordingly.

What’s the best way to reach?

Considering the large community of Gujaratis living outside India, reaching Ahmedabad isn’t difficult. You can either find a direct flight to Mumbai* and then take a domestic flight to Ahmedabad or, if your hometown has that possibility, you can book a direct international flight to Ahmedabad*.

What’s the weather like?

The Ahmedabad climate is not kind on people who, like me, suffer a fair deal in extreme temperatures. Apart from the three months of the Monsoon season (June to September), the weather is constantly hot and dry in the summer (from March to June, temperatures can be as high or higher than 43°C/109°F). In the winter months, November to February, temperatures are a little milder and bearable, with an average high around 30°C (86°F).

I experienced Ahmedabad in the summer and I can tell you that at certain times of day it’s impossible to be out in the streets (unless you really have to be somewhere).

Is there an expected dress code for women?

Except in places of worship (where women are expected to, at least, cover their shoulders and legs), there isn’t a dress code imposed on women. You will see a mix of styles in the city on a daily basis. Older women usually wear sarees, some middle-aged women and/or married women wear sarees or kurtas over leggings (or what’s called a Punjabi dress, depending on personal taste or occasion), and women from younger generations (or with a higher education) wear jeans and t-shirts or any other style that’s considered more Westernized.

In the summer, women master the art of protecting themselves from the hot sun, by covering every inch of exposed skin (head, face, neck, arms, and hands) with shawls, scarves, and gloves. Since most of them travel on scooters, this is a very ingenious way to protect their skin from sunburn. The only time I needed this level of cover-up (because trust me, sunscreen won’t be enough), I asked a family member to wrap the shawl for me and I still can’t remember how it’s done.

How safe is Ahmedabad?

According to an article on the Times of India, Ahmedabad was considered as one of the safest cities in India. From my own experience, I didn’t feel Ahmedabad was unsafe. I traveled in and around the city either with my husband or with other women, so I can’t state what solo female travelers might feel like.

On that same article, one of the interviewees believes the city is safe because of the alcohol ban (Gujarat is a dry state), while another says it’s because women in Ahmedabad are very conscious and vocal about their rights.

What are the average daily costs?

A meal in an inexpensive restaurant costs an average of 200 INR (US $3) per person and a “cutting chai” can cost around 10 INR (a little under US $0.16). As for transportation, riding the rickshaw costs you 11 INR (around US $0.17) for the first 1.4km (0.86 miles) and then they charge 7.5 INR (US $0.12) per kilometer. So, before getting on a rickshaw, make sure you know the distance from point A to point B to calculate how much you’ll end up spending. Then ask the driver how much it costs to get to your destination and, if needed, negotiate the price.

As for staying connected, you can get a pre-activated SIM card on arrival at a few airports in India (including Ahmedabad), with 50 INR (US $0.78) of credit for calls and 50MB of data. These SIM cards are operated by the Government’s BSNL and you’ll probably won’t have the best service.

If you need a better data plan than this you can always get a SIM card from any retailer. Make sure to ask if the data plan you’re buying gives you nationwide coverage or just limited coverage, in case you’re planning any trips off-state.

What’s the best way to get around?

If you’re used to the typical chaotic traffic in India (it doesn’t change much from city to city) or other Asian cities, renting a car or a scooter is a great option. Preferably a scooter over a car, since they’re easier to drive through the traffic-jammed roads and easier to find a parking spot.

The other option is the rickshaws. It might take a little longer for you to haggle to get the right price but it’s the most comfortable way to get around, for small distances.

For longer distances within Ahmedabad (or to closeby places), I recommend using Uber. The service has been available in Ahmedabad for a while now, but, considering the company’s latest issues with local laws and regulations all over the world, let’s see how much longer it lasts.

For road trips (if you don’t have your own car or, like me, don’t drive), the best is to hire a car and a driver. We went with that option for our weekend trip to Diu and, after splitting the costs among the group, it turned out to be an affordable option (not to mention extremely comfortable).

Do you have questions or more suggestions of things to do in Ahmedabad? Share your tips and impressions with me on the comments below or drop me an email.

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