We’re in Lucknow because of history. It’s because of a lesson many years ago learning about the Siege of Lucknow. That’s just as well, as the Lonely Planet describes the city as having “plenty to keep history buff’s happy”. That generally keeps me happy. It usually means that the number of visitors will be lower and I won’t have to fight my way through the crowds. Lucknow has been in the province of Uttar Pradesh (UP) since January 26th 1950. It receives considerably fewer visitors than UP’s other more famous city, Agra. Here’s the best things to do in Lucknow.
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We have, as usual, a list. There’s a list of historic buildings to see. There’s the magnificent tombs of Bara Imambara and Chota Imambara and the crumbling remains of the British Raj at the Residency complex. We also have a heritage walk planned with UP Tourism, then, as ever, we have a list of things to eat and places to eat them.
Where to Stay in Lucknow
There are a host of places to stay in Lucknow – here’s our pick of the luxury places to stay in Lucknow, mid-range places to stay in Lucknow, and budget accommodation in Lucknow.
Renaissance Lucknow Hotel, Lucknow:The Renaissance Lucknow Hotel is located in the downtown district of Lucknow and is considered the city’s tallest hotel. The hotel provides guests with rooms that have a flat-screen TV, a desk, a private bathroom, a dining area in selected rooms, a seating area, and a magnificent view of the vibrant city. This five-star hotel in Lucknow also offers a fine-dining experience at their on-site restaurant and cafe which not only serve exquisite food but also spectacular views of the city. Have a luxurious and relaxing visit to Lucknow by staying at the Renaissance Lucknow Hotel. See availability of the Renaissance Lucknow here.
Fortune Park BBD, Lucknow: Fortune Park BBD is ideally located at the heart of Lucknow. Each room is equipped with a flat-screen TV, coffee/tea maker, a private bathroom with free toiletries and a hairdryer, iron/iron boards, free WiFi, and a safety deposit box. There’s also a buffet breakfast, access to a gym, and a roof-top swimming pool that overlooks the city. Lucknow’s Fortune Park BBD has 24-hour currency exchange services, in-house laundry, baby-sitting, and a doctor on call. The Fortune Park BBD hotel is an ideal place to stay when visiting Lucknow with its magnificent view and excellent services. Check room rates at the Fortune Park, Lucknow here.
Backpackers Den, Lucknow: The Backpackers Den is located right in the heart of Lucknow. The hostel’s rooms are air-conditioned and there is free WiFi. The hostel has a common room/lounge area and a shared kitchen. The Backpackers Den is a perfect place to stay in Lucknow on a budget, especially if you are looking for self-catering accommodation in Lucknow. Read more reviews of the Backpackers Den and check room rates and availability here.
Heritage Lucknow – with UP Tourism
After the fabulous Heritage Amritsar walk we took with Punjab Tourism we decided to do the same with the UP Tourism team. It’s a 3 hour walk through the history and culture of Lucknow. It’s really, really good. Our walk starts at 8am, as we’re in the November to March time frame. In other months it starts at 0730. It starts early to escape the heat, and, because a lot of the walk is in the Chowk, (the market), it’s to escape the crowds too!
We start from the steps in front of the Tile Wali Masjid. This is spelled in a variety of ways on maps, but our auto rickshaw driver eventually found it. It’s not a long walk by any stretch of the imagination, perhaps 3km, but, it’s a great introduction to Lucknow. There are only 6 of us on the walk. Two from Australia and two fellow budget travellers from South America.
Tile Wali Masjid is a glorious, spectacular little mosque, with the most incredible ceiling.
We also visit a Sufi tomb and then walk to the Rumi gate.
There’s a 5 INR fee to pay as we enter the Bara Imambara grounds, but that’s only because we’re carrying a visible camera. We’ll be visiting the tomb itself later.
The Flower Markets
We then move onto the flower markets – where there’s so much more to see than just skirting round the outside. We’ve all read concerns about pickpockets, but gingerly clutching everything we’re all fine. And it’s well worth the excursion inside.
Finally, we dive into the Chowk, going through the gates to the walled city area. Here we get to see block printing and local chikan embroidery. We see saffron being sold. Spices of all sorts.
Mostly, though the Chowk is a series of tiny interconnected lanes and alleys, with just gorgeous doors and architecture next to crumbling black holes.
There are quite magnificent houses, including one where Gandhi stayed whenever he visited Lucknow. We’re lucky enough to see original telegrams that he sent and enjoy the serenity of this original house right in the middle of the Chowk madness.
I can’t speak highly enough of the UP Tourism guide. We were also taken to a perfume shop, which I would have walked past if we’d been on our own. We were able to try the different oils AND there was NO pressure to buy anything. Our guide even gave each of us on our tour a small free sample, which I have to this day. A reminder of Lucknow other than photos.
Tasting Lucknow with UP Tourism
We tasted Uttar Pradesh kulcha – a gift from the store owner, hot from the tandoor and then headed to the original Tunday Kebabs. There’s more on Tunday and Awadhi cuisine here.
Our snack in the middle of the tour at Tunday was a plate of four small beef kebabs and Mughlai paratha and cost just 19 INR. (USD$0.28, GBP 0.22).
We wrapped up the tour in an embroidery shop, where we paid our 150 INR each for the tour and got onward directions from the UP Tourism guide. It was a GREAT tour and we loved this intro to Lucknow. We didn’t book ahead, just turning up, but you can book by going to the UP tourism offices the day before.
The Residency, Lucknow
The Residency is why we came to Lucknow. It’s where the famous Siege and Defence took place.
The Residency is a compound, built in 1800. It was the location of the Siege of Lucknow during the 1857 First Indian War of Independence. It’s a huge area – combining gardens and ruins that centre around the main Residency building.
Thousands died during the 147 day siege that the city is famed for.
The grounds are amazingly well kept and the maintenance that has gone into the ruins is superb. Our tickets cost 100 INR, as foreigners. It’s just 10 INR for Indians, which probably goes a long way towards why you’ll find a lot of “courting couples” using this area as a park.
The park grounds itself are wonderful to wander round and signage is reasonable.
The Museum at the Residency
However the museum, hosted in the remains of the Residency building itself is a huge disappointment. It may have been described by Lonely Planet a few years ago as a “well thought out museum”, but with the closure of the basement (about a year ago) it’s now no more than a picture gallery with a model of the Residency from prior to 1857.
The basement was where the women and children lived during the 1857 war of independence and during the siege of Lucknow and was what we were most looking forward to visiting. It has been closed, we were told, because of excessive damp and will not be reopening. There are no photo’s available of what it was like. You will need to check your bags by the cloakroom at the Residency building in order to enter the museum. There are individual lockers, where you hold the key and no cameras or ladies purses allowed inside the museum.
The Ruins of St Marys
Leaving the museum and turning right we walk through the ruined St Mary’s church. This is where 2,000 of the defenders of the Residency were buried, including their leader, Sir Henry Lawrence. The inscription on his gravestone says “he tried to do his duty”.
Wikipedia and the Siege of Lucknow
I highly recommend that you use the Wikipedia page on the Siege of Lucknow for background while you wander around the Residency area. It is by far the best coverage and history of the siege, as well as detail on the use of the Residency.
Bara Imambara – Lucknow
Bara means big. an Imambara is a shrine or commemoration hall built by Shia Muslims.
The Bara Imambara is a huge, huge complex.
Our ticket is a foreigner combined ticket for the price of 500 INR and it includes entrance to the Chota Imambara, the Clock Tower (which turns out to be closed) and the summer palace. The entrance is hugely impressive – an enormous gateway and a glorious courtyard.
There’s a gorgeous mosque to our right and a step-well on our left. We wander through the step-well (also known as a bouli, or a place of bathing) and then head into the central hall, which faced us as we came through the gateway.
This is one of the world’s largest vaulted galleries and it is beautiful. From pretty much every angle. Whatever you do, you must look up!
The primary attraction for visitors here at the Bara Imambara is the “Labyrinth”. The entrance is outside the entrance to the main central hall, to the left. There’s no separate entrance fee, but the sign’s say that if you’re a couple you need a guide into the labyrinth, but you don’t.
This is the Bhulbhulaiya. It’s a huge network of passageways. Following them, you eventually work your way up through the tomb to the roof. You’d have to try very hard to get lost, and there wasn’t anyone speaking English when we were there. If you time your visit right, you’ll get some fabulous views (and photos) of this glorious structure.
Take a torch, but you will probably only need it on the stairs. Do NOT follow a large group in, as you’ll just get stuck in the tunnels between the walls for no reason. There’s a glorious balcony inside the roof, great acoustics and lovely views of the ceiling and down below. The roof balconies at the front and back give more superb views of the mosque and surrounding city.
Rules and Guides at Bara Imambara
At each area of the Bara Imambara, the Bouli/stepwell, the imambara itself and at the entrance to the Labyrinth, you’ll be tailed by a guide for a while. They offer their services with a “you are my guest, the cost is at your choice”. We chose not to and stuck with wikipedia and the lonely planet. If you’re western, you’ll only be tailed by someone who can speak reasonable English.
It’s necessary to remove shoes and sandals to go into the Imambara and also the labyrinth. There’s a chappal – sandal stand just before the entrance to the Imambara. We just stuffed them into our backpacks, as there was no rule about checking bags here.
The Picture Gallery, Lucknow
Included in the 500 INR foreigners ticket for the Bara Imambara is the picture gallery. It’s housed in an old red brick (and painted red) palace between the Bara and Chota Imambaras.
Like Indian Palaces? You’ll love Mysore, the palace there is stunning.
As of February 2015, access is via a dusty building site, walking past the (currently closed) Clock Tower. The entrance steps are on the opposite side to what you can see from the road. You’ll have a pretty insistent guide try to convince you to take their services for what is in essence a 15 metre in total walk around a rectangular gallery with paintings of various Nawabs. There’s no photo taking in the gallery, the fluorescent light tubes shining onto the paintings are probably all the light damage that the paintings can take.
Yes, you’ve guessed it, you can probably miss this one out if you’re short on time. You’ll walk past the clock tower to get there.
Chota Imambara – Lucknow
We walked here from the Bara Imambara and it took around 15 minutes along a dusty, no pavement at the side road.
In comparison to the Bara Imambara, this is a peaceful, serene, almost empty Imamabara. The gardens are reminiscent of an English country garden and the city seems far away. It’s worth coming here for this peace alone.
The Chota Imambara was constructed by Mohammed Ali Shah in 1832. He’s buried here, next to his mother.
The original hammam (bathing area) on the left as you enter, is gorgeous.
The two copies of the Taj Mahal, which are the tombs of Shah’s daughter and her husband, are lovely and the water tank leading down to the Chota Imambara makes for a lovely photo.
Inside the Imambara, it’s a mad world of chandeliers of clashing colours and sizes.
You’ll see Shah’s silver and red throne here too and have the ubiquitous guide follow you for a while, but they’re more friendly than bothersome.
Despite staying in our worst hotel for a long time, we’ve loved Lucknow. It’s heritage, some glorious architecture and some amazing awadhi cuisine. We leave here with fond memories as we head off to our next destination – we’re off to the Indian Fort city of Gwalior. Read about how to visit Gwalior Fort here.
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