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 it, you are missing out.
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 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.
Must-See Landmarks 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; Mahatma Gandhi lived here and started his famous Salt March in 1930 from the Dandi bridge just outside his Ashram.
To say that these must-see monuments will tell you the city’s 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, two hours and a half Heritage Walk, a walking guided tour that leads you through the old walled city and its landmarks of Indian Islamic monuments and Hindu and Jain temples.
The home of Ahmed Kattu Ganj Baksh the Muslim religious leader and the spiritual leader of Sultan Ahmed Shah (founder of Ahmedabad and whose name the city is named after). This 1451 cluster of monuments is located in the (mainly) Muslim Makarba village, about 8 Km from the city — attention to the dress code is therefore advised. 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 french architect Le Corbusier as the Ahmedabad’s Acropolis for the similarities of design with the one in Athens.
Adalaj ni vav
Vav is the Gujarati word for step well. Adalaj is a village close to Ahmedabad, in the Gandhinagar district about 19 Km from Thaltej circle. 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 step well was built to collect the rainwater from the monsoons, as many others in dry areas like these in the west of India. I am always amazed and overwhelmed with how even such a necessary survival tool, to take full advantage of a scarce element as water, can be built with such detailed beauty.
Also known as Sabarmati Ashram. When Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915, he first established 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 a few meters to your left you’ll see the Dandi bridge, recently restored, from where he lead the famous Salt march in 1930 that was considered the first step of the Indian Independence movement through nonviolence and civil disobedience.
Many people in Ahmedabad haven’t heard about them and it’s 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 symbols like crosses 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.
Sun Temple in Modhera
Consider the Sun Temple in the Gujarat village of Modhera as the detour you should take. This temple was built in 1026 AD dedicated to Surya, the Hindu Sun God. No longer a place for prayer, the temple is about 100Km 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.
Where to Go for Street Shopping (and the Best Deals)
This city has plenty of shopping malls to choose from, but if there is one thing the locals know how to is to spot the places with the best shopping deals.
And the best bargains happen while street shopping.
Every Sunday, from morning to dawn, the vendors spread their tents and blankets on the shore 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 improvements started to be made on the riverfront, building pedestrian walks, the market today is significantly smaller.
In spite of the change, 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.
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 would they pay for an item — trust me, if I had done that before I started haggling, I would have saved about four hundred rupees (six bucks might not seem like much but in India they go a long way).
The locals explain that whatever price the vendor is asking for, you lower your offer by sixty percent; when they don’t bulge, use the “walking away to buy elsewhere” move.
Places for Relaxing and Family Time
Built in 1451, this artificial lake in Ahmedabad is located in the southern part of the city. It is gated and with a large lakefront built around it, great for early morning or evening strolls, running and 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.
Good to know:
Free entrance from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.
Opens again from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. for twenty rupees each adult.
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 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, for a deep breath from the humid heat and dusty air.
Mouth-Watering Street Food: What Not to Miss
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 he asked me.
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 you what type of spread did I want “butter or cheese?”
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.
It might not fall into the “street food” category, but chai is an important part of Ahmedabad’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 swallow, I immediately felt the spark of ginger. Ultimately it was like a little dose of reinvigorating energy.
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.
The small crisp puris are stuffed with a paste made of potatoes and chickpeas and crunchy onions, seasoned with the unmistakable scent of coriander.
They serve these to you on a small plate and pour the flavored water (pani) of your choice — sweet, salty, spicy — filling the puri.
With a gesture the vendor explained 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
As we were returning from Modhera’s Sun Temple, we stopped for a break next to the roadside food stalls.
“Do you want some?” – I was asked – “It’s sugar cane juice.”
I have always had a sweet tooth so my first reaction was “yes, of course, I want some”.
But then I thought maybe it would be too sweet in this 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 was dismissed.
It was fruity, mildly sweet and fresh, and it made more wonders for my thirst than I expected.
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.
Where to Eat Out: Locals’ Recommendations
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 (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 chick peas stir-fried in a mouth-watering mix of spices, served with puris (a small, round piece of bread made of unleavened wheat flour, deep-fried).
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 and you have found heaven.
Iris Foods Take Aways
They do mostly take away meals and to me, it is the place where I have had the best chicken biryani in the city.
My taste buds are not (at all) ready yet 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.
Before there were shopping malls and fast food chains in Ahmedabad, the Municipal Market was one of the spots where to eat and shop.
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.
We 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: Our Personal Recommendation
Life in the pols of the old walled city of Ahmedabad is as authentic as you can expect.
When we were visiting these closed communities in the summer of 2014, we were guided through their narrow streets, well-kept secrets (and not all of them were revealed) and impressive architecture.
The ancient houses we have encountered (and stopped to admire) are testimonies of Ahmedabad’s History and Heritage. We visited one of them, in particular, that was going through a laborious and skillful art of restoration*.
Cultural Habits to Watch Out for in Ahmedabad
Consuming Alcohol and Liquor Permit
Gujarat is a dry state, which means purchasing or consuming any alcoholic drinks is illegal for locals.
Although you have so much to visit and experience I am sure you won’t have time to miss the occasional beer or glass of wine.
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 each ten days you can buy two units of alcohol (one unit equals ten bottles of beer or one bottle of hard liquor).
Consuming alcohol in the streets or any other public space is strictly prohibited.
Where to get your license and buy alcohol: Hotel President and Cama Hotels. It was announced over one year ago that to avoid complaints on corruption, the temporary permits would be processed online. If that becomes a reality soon, it will only make the process easier for the tourists.
Documents you will need: copies of your passport — personal data page, visa page, and arrival stamp page; address proof of place at which you are staying or hotel details.
Kitli is the Hindi word for kettlei. People sit (and easily a turned over can or bucket make a convenient seat) or stand at the tea stalls, around small glass chai cups (it’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; 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. Stopping at a tea stall becomes an excuse for meeting people.
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