This page is aimed at western people who find themselves in Pune, probably on business. Pune is great city. It is one of India's most advanced cities, currently the number one in software export in India. It is less touristic, which means you find less beggars and touts. People are kind and helpful, and it is a very safe place in general.
My main message is: give it a shot, get out of the hotel and onto the streets. Why should you?
- The people. It's something different than what most of us know. Not a little different, it's just something else. This makes it a great opportunity to learn something new about culture, religion, ways of living, etc.
- The food. Indians are the masters of spices. Unlike the classical European cuisine, which celebrates the finest ingredients, Indians have to make do with what's in stock, which is not always prime. The solution is a blend of spices which over-powers the ingredients and creates a perfect harmony of flavors. And, it's not always hot as hell.
- The adventure. No matter what you do, it will be a great story later... Telling people you were hiding in your hotel for two weeks makes a very short story ;-)
There are many guides to Pune, this one is not a guide, just a bunch of tips based mostly on my personal experience. Some apply to other Indian cities. Naturally, comments are welcome.
- You say Poona.
- According to Lonely Planet from 2002, there are 2.8 million people in Pune. I would assume it's much more now.
- Change money as soon as you can or get it from an ATM (there are plenty, not all accept all cards). Most places don't take dollars, at least not at a reasonable rate.
- Get the business card or your hotel and keep it on you at all times, handy for finding your way back.
- It's usually easy to find a helpful guy speaking English. However, if you don't, it is important to pronounce names (e.g. of places) in local accent, as people will not understand you otherwise. Try to mimic the accent of locals when you do that.
- Accept. That's the one rule to follow. Then you will discover that the streets actually smell of incense... :-)
- Time to visit: I was there in January-February and it was perfect. Nice weather, no rain. Not too hot and the air is clear. This is the best time of the year. Around July is the Monsoon, so it's very rainy. In between, it becomes hot and dusty.
- Maps can be misleading. Don't put too much faith in online maps like Google or Yahoo. There are many inaccuracies, mostly in the names of streets, so be careful.
- There are many good hotels and new ones are popping up as you're reading these lines. If you're in town for business, it is likely that your business is around Magarpatta City (it's the hi-tech industrial area). Since traffic is terrible, try to find a hotel which is as close as possible, otherwise, expect an hour of commute, especially in the evenings.
There are two suggested areas for that matter:
- Around Koregon park - there's a western atmosphere here. Many tourists come here for the Oshu ashram.
- Around MG Road, area know as Pune Camp. There are many local places here, so this is my favorite place. I stayed at the Sagar Plaza Hotel which has a perfect location. Highly recommended.
- Try to avoid hotels with are in the western part of the city if you're working in Magarpatta. There's also not much to do there.
- You DO NOT want to rent a car and drive on your own. You'll understand once you'll see how people drive.
- No taxis in Pune. There are many transport companies and you can arrange a car with a driver, but you cannot just hail a cab. Instead you have rickshaws.
- Rickshaws - They're a great way to travel.
- They're dirt cheap - 100 Rs means a ride across town, most trips will be much less. Most of the drivers I encountered were very honest. Go with a meter. The actual payment is about 25% below the meter and 50% above that at night (after 10pm).
- Make sure you have some small notes.
- Make sure the driver understands and knows the place you want to go. You can see it in his eyes. Do not trust any head nods. Pune is large and not all drivers know all the hotels.
- In heavy traffic, you will soak a lot of pollution. But, in most cases, you'll get there faster.
- Looking for an English speaking rickshaw driver? Call Aiub Khan at 988-140-8465, at least an hour in advance.
- After-noons to early evenings means heavy congestions in Pune. Late mornings can be hectic as well. In fact, other than late night it's congested.
- Snacks - small meals. Usually comprised of south Indian delicacies. Don't miss the Masala Dosa which is a lentil pancake with little potato stuffing. Like other South Indian snacks it is served with Sambar, red spicy soup, and coconut chutney.
- Full meals -
- Usually you order a curry, bread and/or rice.
- Curry means cooked dish with gravy. It's not an actual sauce like most westerners think. Well, maybe in Thailand, but not in India.
- You can also go for starters, usually includes skewered food cooked in the Tandoori (clay oven). The Chicken/Paneer (cheese, see below) Tikka is a favorite. If you can find Sikh Kebabs (from mutton or lamb), go for it.
- Breads are made of the spot. The Naan is the classic favorite. Try the Roomali Roti, which is available at the finest restaurants.
- It's better having neutral breads and rice (without much stuffing or spices) to accompany the flavors of the dishes. However, try a good Biryani, which is rice slowly cooked with a variety of ingredients (I haven't found one in Pune, but it's there, I'm sure).
- Raita is a nice addition to any meal. It is yogurt (originally curd) mixed with vegetables or other stuff. Good for calming "the storm" and dividing different tastes (see Lassi below).
- It's better not to dine alone, since you won't be able to order much. The more people you have, the more flavors you can sample. Try ordering half portions of dishes if you're solo or go for a Thali (see below).
- Thali - a preset meal where you get a number of dishes, bread and rice. It is all you can eat - waiters will keep refilling your place. However, you're eating what everybody else are eating, so you cannot ask to make it less spicy.
- Sizzlers - found in specific places. You get a sizzling pan with some stir-fried vegetables and meat. It's not really Indian food.
- Chinese food is very popular. Most of it is very far from the source and tastes Indian.
- There are many types of Indian cuisines - northern, southern, Punjabi, Gujarati, Hyderabadi, Kashmiri, etc. Each has different flavors and dishes. Experiment and find your favorite.
- Many Hindus are vegetarian, so many restaurants are veg. Some are veg and non-veg. Finding beef is a difficult task. Chicken, lamb and mutton (goat) are common.
- Paneer - the local cheese, sometimes referred to as cottage cheese. In fact, it's more like tofu, almost tasteless and great for absorbing tastes. Great substitute for meat. The Paneer dishes are considered better.
- Beer and alcohol are only sold in specific places. Most simple restaurants are not permitted to serve it. The local Kingfisher is not bad.
- Order Lassi (yogurt drink) with your food. This is the best method for neutralizing flavors (drinking water makes it worse). Make sure you order sweet or plain, but not salted.
- Fresh lime-soda (or lemon-soda) is a great drink. IMHO, lime tastes much better than the lemon we have. Again, make sure you get it plain or sweet, not salted.
- Coffee is to be avoided in most cases. Have some tea (chai) instead. The traditional Chai or Masala-Chai (Masala means mixed) is based on milk (Malai) and made with Elaichi (Cardamon) and Adrak (Ginger). Do not leave India without having it.
- If you like ice-cream, try the Kulfi. It's a home-made ice-cream. You'll find it in most restaurants. I'm a big ice-cream fan and I'll take it over any Hagen-Dazs or Ben&Jerry's every day. The basic is Malai-Kulfi (milk ice-cream), but you can also find Pista (Pistachio), Badam (Almonds), Kesar (Rose) and combination of the three. These are the dominating flavors in Indian sweets.
- Your body may take some time to acclimatise to the new flavors, spices and oils. If you got something on your first meal, it doesn't mean the place was dirty. Just give it a little time and start with non-spicy food. In the mean while, Pudin-Hara can help (see under health).
- The Times of India has a "Times Food Guide" to Pune. The 2007 editing is packed with 600 reviews of restaurants. I haven't tested all of them... but it's probably the most comprehensive guide you can find, even though I doubt its' objectivity. Pick it up in English book stores (like Crossword) for 100 Rs. Well worth it even if you have just a week. One word of caution, though. It is geared towards locals. In a number of occasion I followed the book recommendation and found places I couldn't step into.
- If you need to pick a restaurant, check the crowd. Places packed with families with children are good. Dark places with packs of men are to be avoided.
- Time - the Indians dine late. Dinners start around 19:00 and usually go until 23:00 or more. Before that you'll get mostly snacks. The crowded time is around 21:00.
- The Great Punjab near Koreagon park, lane 6 - nice, fancy with great food.
- Bombai Braseri at City Point, near the end of Dhole Patil road - fancy place. The Butter Chicken is one of the best dishes I ever had, do not miss. If I would go back to Pune just for one dish, this would be it. For sure.
- Mahesh Lunch Home on Moledina - the place to go for fish and sea food. The fish tandoori platter is a great starter for a group of people.
- Koyla on Koreagon park - Hydeabadi resturant. Great decor, somewhat spicy food. The Malai Chicken is divine.
- Ram Krishna near MG road, on Moledina - Amazingly popular veg restaurant. Great food. Killer Malai Kofta here. The Methi dishes are made from local green vegetable which is different and tastes great.
- Agatya - one of the lanes in the middle of Laxmi road, perfect stop on a shopping day. It's veg and has a tasty Kaju (cashew nuts) Curry. Very busy on weekends.
- Vishaly on FC road - the place to go for south indian snacks. The mango lassi is superb.
- Karachi Sweets on MG road - the place for sweets. Most will keep for 10 days - so you can take them home. They will also let you taste everything and they're very tourist friendly. Try the Ras-Malai (on the spot only), sweet balls soaked in milk and spices.
- Barista - a great coffee shop when you can actually get fair espresso. It's also a great place to escape the hectic street. One at the beginning of MG road.
- 1000 Oaks, near the middle of MG road is great for a beer with the locals. They also have a great restaurant outside. Try the Chocolate Sizzler - a hot brownie served on a hot pan with hot chocolate on top... it's not Indian, but...
- Flags, near the IMax center - is fancy with a menu way too long. Many western dishes here.
- Mayor - the place to go to sample a high-end Thali. This is an experience you do not want to miss. Just sit and do what everybody else does. Very crowded on weekends.
- Shops open late. Usually around 10:00 AM and even later.
- Laxmi road - this is a hectic street, mostly for clothing and jewelry. Around Laxmi there are several streets which become markets and some small Hindu temples. Exploring it can take at least half a day.
- MG Road - very popular among tourists and the rich people of Pune. Lots of fancy shops. Closes early on Saturday.
- There are numerous malls, like Pune Central. Malls are good if you need to escape from the street. Generally, they feel very much like malls everywhere else.
- Western goods - you can find discounts on western clothing.
- Mobile phones are very cheep compared to Europe and US.
What to do on a spare weekend
- The place to go on Saturday and Sunday evening is MG Road. The road is closed for traffic and there are many food stalls and street shows. Everybody is here and there's a great atmosphere.
- Explore Pune - there are some sites and nice markets (see Shopping).
- I visited the Aga Khan palace, which is now the Gandhi Memorial. Gandhi was imprisoned here for some time. His wife and assitant died here and their ashes are there. There's also a stone claiming some of Gandhi's ashes are there, but I found nothing to corroborate this (and found contradicting data). Recommended. I can suggest watching the movie "Gandhi" - it can provide nice background on this great leader.
- The Zoo is surprisingly nice, also known as Katraj Zoo.
- Parvati hill is a nice place to get a glimpse of the city. There's a hike to the top so avoid when it's hot. Also avoid when the visibility is bad.
- Explore the old city (around Laxmi Road) on Sunday morning. People are visiting the templates and give offerings to the gods (Puja).
- Aurangabad - about 4 hours drive from Pune and can be done in one day or two. Sites include:
- Ellora caves - a complex of temples and caves, carved out of the mountain. Known to be the largest monolithic statue (carved from one piece of rock) in the world. The level of detail is quite astonishing. Local guides are there for hire and it's worth it as the story behind it puts this in line with some of the wonders of this world.
- "mini Taj Mahal" or Bibi-ka-Maqbara - as a person who visited the real Taj, this is quite a joke, but worth visiting if you're already there.
- Daulatabad - a fortress near by, quite nice with great views (and monkeys...).
- There are some other sites I haven't visited like Ajanta caves and the shawl factory, but this will probably take more than a day.
- Mumbai (aka Bombai) - there's a lot to see. A day is fine, but two is better. I didn't get to see it enough (it's a long story...). Don't miss the Dhobi Ghat, where hundreds of people come to wash their cloths in the river.
- Go see a movie. Not a western movie. A true Bollywood (the nickname for the Indian film industry) film with locals.
What to Bring Back
- Crafts - a good place to find them is the Bombai Store on MG road.
- Clothing - find them on Laxmi road.
- Do not drink the water unless they come from a well sealed bottles. It's very easy to find and cheap. Crush the bottles after drinking to prevent refilling. Avoid ice as well.
- Pudin Hara - is a life saver when it comes to stomach problems. It's completely herbal and worth taking back home. Pick it up at any local pharmacy for a few cents.
- Tiger Balm - good for treating mosquito bites (and other stuff).
- Uncooked fruits and vegetables can be hazardous to your stomach.
Finally, here's a map with some of the places mentioned here. Again, it is not accurate, but I did my best to identify and mark the places. Good luck finding them.
View Larger Map