Lucknow, the city of Nawabs and Kebabs, has a charm to it that is hard to resist. Other than the famed Bhool Bhulaiya inside the Bada Imambada, the most distinctive feature of Lucknow’s culture is ‘Tehzeeb’ or the etiquette that the people here have imbibed in them. Do not be surprised when a Lucknowite holds the door open for you and says, ‘Pehle Aap’ (You first); it is but natural for them to do so, having been brought up in a city with a rich heritage and plenty of points of interest. For those who wish to travel Lucknow, from a slice of colonial history to modern museums, the city has much to offer and those who want to merely eat, the city welcomes them with Kebabs and Biriyani. Here we have listed the top things to do and places to see starting with the famous Bhool Bhulaiya. Lucknow is very similar to the Deccan city of Hyderabad when it comes to food, etiquette and architecture, you can read our post about top things to do in Hyderabad here.
Top 15 things to do in Lucknow:
1. Lose yourself in the Bhool Bhulaiya maze at Bada Imambada, literally:
With 489 similar-looking doors and nearly a thousand passageways connected by flights of stairs, the ‘Bhool Bhulaiya’ at the iconic Bada Imambada is a complex labyrinth designed to leave a tourist confused. Go here with a guide, lest you get stranded in its dark, narrow passages that are each so similar.The maze is built around a hall called the Persian Hall which has amazing acoustic properties. You will see many guides flapping a piece of paper on one corner to be heard by a person on the other end of the hall some 100 feet away. There is also a secret passage in here that is rumoured to lead to other cities such as Faizabad and Agra. This piece of architectural brilliance is built atop another architectural marvel- a large hall built without any pillars or beams supporting the ceiling. We will reveal the secret to navigating this maze in our Travelogue.
2. Revel in the architectural brilliance of the Shahi Baoli stepwell:
Stepwells have always fascinated travellers and Shahi Baoli, situated right next to the Bada Imambada, is no exception. Built in a fusion of Indo-Islamic architecture by Khifayat-Ullah, this five-level stepwell stands testament to the harmony between cultures that Lucknow enjoys. Urban legend has it that a map containing the treasures of Awadh is hidden somewhere inside the well. The remarkable feature of this structure is that one can spot the visitors at the entrance from inside through a reflection in a puddle of water – a novel technique to detect potential intruders. Be sure to try this fun feature when you visit.
3. Take in a slice of Indian History at The Residency:
The British Residency at Lucknow is a preserved artefact of the 1857 Struggle for Indian Independence. This was the site that saw many clashes during the siege of Lucknow between the British residents and the Indian Independence forces. The cannon-marks on the walls and bullet holes remain to this day as a reminder of the war that shook the city. The complex contains many buildings that have been excavated and preserved; these were used to sustain the British army for five whole months. One can find the Treasury, Banquet Hall, Church, Cemetery, Post Office, Slaughter House, Mess, Jail and Battery as one explores the complex, a task which could easily take 5-6 hours. Do also visit the Residency Museum which houses artefacts from the uprising including original photos and paintings.
4. Pass through the famed archways of the city:
The palaces they were guarding may not exist anymore, but the gates and archways stand tall even today. One such example of a gateway are the surviving Kaiserbagh gateways of the erstwhile Kaiserbagh palace which was mostly destroyed after the 1857 Struggle for Independence. The four directional gates are also known as the Lakhi Darwaza as an amount of One Lakh rupees was spent in building them. Unaware of the historical importance, people and vehicles ply down the roads next to it as it stands neglected, but proud. Another famed gateway is the Rumi Darwaza which is right next to the Bada Imambada. It is named so because its construction was modelled after the Roman gateways of then Constantinople. This structure is considered a ‘Gateway to Lucknow’ and when you pass through it, you will understand why. The best time to capture the beauty of these structures is at night where you can have the road to yourself as you click away at the lit-up structures.
5. Stroll through the Victorian-era styled streets at Hazratganj:
If you chance upon a number of buildings styled in Victorian architecture, then you are in Hazratganj. The buildings here have a colonial touch to them with their balconies and porches. Shops here have black name-boards with white lettering that kind of blends in with the architecture around. Strolling around here is commonly referred to by the locals as ‘Ganjing’. Have your pick here, as you could find cheap accessories, being sold right next to chic fashion outlets featuring high-end brands. Do remember to munch on local delicacies that you find here and there when shopping, such as sweetmeats at Moti Mahal, Pav Bhaji at Bombay Pav Bhaji, sandwiches at Marksmen and tea at Sharma Tea Stall (Lalbagh).
6. Pay homage to the brave women fighters of the 1857 Struggle for Independence:
The struggle for Independence saw some of the bravest women fighters ever who took over the reins of war from their male counterparts. While Queen Lakshmibai of Jhansi is the celebrated icon, Lucknow found its own leader in Begum Hazrat Mahal, the wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. When the Nawab was unlawfully exiled, Begum, even though she was divorced, seized control of Awadh and joined the rebellion against the British East India Company. She ruled over the Awadh province for a short period of time before being driven out by the forces of the British and was forced to retreat to Nepal where she spent the rest of her days. In honour of this great fighter, the Victoria Park at Lucknow was renamed to Begum Hazrat Mahal Park. Another woman fighter who was not so high up the ranks of Begum’s army was Uda Devi Pasi. It is said that before she was martyred, she single-handedly killed more than 30 British soldiers hiding atop a peepal tree at the palace of Sikandarbagh. When the soldiers came to drink water from beneath the tree, she shot them dead, one at a time, until a pile of corpses lay scattered around the tree. A bust of this great fighter exists at Sikandarbagh.
7. Explore the ruins of Musa Bagh:
Musa Bagh or Monsieur Garden was originally built as a country retreat for Nawab Saadat Ali Khan and featured fighting pits that housed showdowns between animals such as elephants, rhinos and tigers. Only an ounce of its former glory is left as this building lies dilapidated and occupied by locals. The palace is octagonal in shape and one can make out what remains of the grand arched entrances that they once were. You may have some difficulty finding this offbeat place that is somewhat away from the city and this marker should help you. Do remember to go here only with someone who knows the place well.
8. Walk amidst elephants at the Ambedkar Park:
Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Prateek Sthal or Ambedkar Park, as it is called, is a controversial structure constructed by the Mayawati Government in memory of Bhimrao Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and various other members of a political party. Located in Gomti Nagar, the largest planned residential colony in India, the memorial is estimated to have been built with a whooping budget of 7 billion rupees and is a colossal unit featuring pillars, stones, elephants and statues which are spread over a stretch of 107 acres of land. The entire memorial being built up of red sandstone from Rajasthan, features attractions such as the Ambedkar Stupa (sanctum), Sangrahalaya (museum), Gallery, Pratibimb Sthal (entrance) and Drishya Sthal (vantage point). The park ironically has no trees and boasts of shooting points of a few movies.
9. Understand the origin and struggle of the Socialist Movement of India:
Jayaprakash Narayan is credited with introducing a new form of socialism to India and was instrumental in setting up a socialist party too. The architecturally stunning Museum Of Socialism: Jayaprakash Narayan Centre is built as a tribute to him. It depicts the events of his life through various audio-visual exhibits and helps one understand the course of events. There are two zones – one of absorption, for learning and one of reflection, for assimilation. For anyone interested in understanding the socialist movement of India, this museum is the perfect place to begin with. Even though this museum is opposite the Ambedkar Park, very few people are actually aware of this museum, hence you can expect the place to be peaceful.
10. Shop for Chikankari embroidery:
The narrow lanes of Chowk provide many outlets where the famous hand-embroidered Chikankari or Chikan clothes can be purchased. Chikankari work is embroidery done on fine white cotton cloth using white cotton thread. There are at least 40 different types of knots that the artisans use in Chikan, some of them incredibly complex and not replicable by machine. If you are looking for a souvenir from Lucknow, then this would be perfect for you. Alternately, you could head over to Khadra or Aminabad for the same.
Tip: The trick to finding out if Chikankari has indeed been done by hand is to flip the cloth over and check for loose ends – hand-made Chikan has more loose ends.
11. Dab some Ittar behind your ears:
It is said that those who have experienced oil-based Ittar perfume could never be content with alcohol-based perfumes. Ittar pefumes are sandalwood oil-based traditional perfumes that are prepared using a complex hydro-distillation process and can only be prepared during some months of the year; they contain absolutely no chemicals. It is no wonder that Ittar sells at such high prices which was why it was an item of royalty in the olden days, just as dabbing Ittar behind ears was too. Kannauj near Lucknow is famous for Ittar manufacturing and Ittar finds its way to Lucknow as well. It is difficult to detect original Ittar and is recommended that you buy only from recognised outlets to avoid getting duped.
12. Experience rural India at Kala Gaon:
Step into Kala Gaon and you will forget that you are in a city. Suddenly, a grove of trees and a whiff of fresh air welcome you to a rather traditional village setup. This model of a traditional Awadhi village encompasses all aspects of rural life such as the style of houses, the types of dresses that people wear, their forms of entertainment and sport, in addition to their farms and livestock breeding and to top it off, a traditional meal prepared from the scratch with ingredients from their own farms. Entertain yourself by listening to some folk music played on the authentic Dolak (Indian Drum) accompanied by cymbals. Or get a taste of exotic adventure by riding on a Bullock Cart, an eco-friendly source of transport to this day in Indian villages. You will find many such activities to do here.
13. Visit the Constantia House:
The largest European funeral memorial in India, the Constantia House, is now a part of the campus of the La Martiniere College, one of the premier schools of the city. This mansion was built by an officer of the British Army, Claude Martin, in 1785 and served as a fortress and as well, with its cannons and loopholes and turrets. In fact, during the 1857 struggle, this was one of the strongholds of the British army; garrisoned students and teachers of the institution fought against the Indian fighters. Architecturally, this is a thorough fusion of various styles; with Mughal cupolas at the corners and figures of Greek gods and goddesses atop the ramparts and the lions which are symbolic of the East India Company. The basement, cooled by vents from the top, contains the grave of its founder-builder. The campus also contains residential quarters for the students and teachers all of which are historical buildings.
14. Go on a food trail and munch on authentic Tunday Kebabs:
The Chowk market is the oldest market of Lucknow and features many authentic and age-old eateries of Lucknow. Be it vegetarian dishes or meat, Chowk has something delicious to offer. One of these eateries is the authentic Tunday Kebabi, which is one of the most famous destinations for meat-lovers who come to Lucknow in search of Kebabs. But, there is more to Chowk than this, try the places near Akbari Gate, such as Rahim’s for Nihari and Mubeen’s for Pasinda. If you head out further, you could enjoy the mouth-watering Malai Paan at Ram Asrey Sweets or Rabdi at Parampara Sweets. A glass of legally-consumable Bhaang at any of the Thandai Stalls to wash it all down is a great idea to end your Chowk food trail. Nazirabad at Aminabad is one of the most famous destinations for meat-lovers who come to Lucknow in search of Kebabs. A food trail here could be started off with Galawati Kebabs or Kakori Kebabs as starters at Tunday Kebabi (the second outlet), Lucknowi Biriyani at Wahid’s and Prakash Kulfi for dessert. The Aminabad Tunday Kebabi is actually the second outlet and not the original one as most people mistake it to be. We personally are not fans of the Kulfi and would prefer sweetmeats at Madhur Milan instead, but Prakash Kulfi is quite famous here and worth a visit.
Note: Bhaang is made of the leaves of the Cannabis plant and may cause hallucinogenic effects if consumed in excess. Do avoid or exercise caution before consuming Bhaang.
15. Take a trip to nearby places:
Lucknow is a stopover for many wanting to explore the Himalayas and also for those travelling to Varanasi, Ayodhya and Allahabad. It has its own share of tourist spots and if they should not suffice, there are a number of one-day trips that one could take from here. Some of the most popular spots are Parijaat Tree which is a one-of-its-kind unisex tree, Chandrika Devi temple, Naimisaranya (Neemsar), Nawab Ganj Bird Sanctuary, Dewa Sharif and Dudhwa National Park. Alternatively, if you are looking for a road-trip lasting a couple of days, you can head over to Khajuraho, Orchha, Lumbini and Gwalior as well. Don’t forget to check out our travelogue about these places.
And, lastly, at the time of publishing, we are in Lucknow, so do say hello to us when you visit Lucknow.
Most people who get to Lucknow, merely visit the Bada Imambada and its famous Bhool Bhulaiya before heading back. With this list, we hope the notions of Lucknow travel and its limited points of interest have been changed.