The Complete Guide to Lucknow

Those who think that the age of chivalry and gracious living is past, and complain of the monotony of modern life, will do well to visit Lucknow. Dotted with grand monuments and famed throughout India for its cuisine, the capital of Uttar Pradesh is often unfairly overlooked by travellers. They should know that locals tend to be welcoming, and the city manages to transport you back in time.

Lucknow was once home to the great Nawabs of Awadh, a dynasty famously known for its pursuit of pleasure, most of it culinary. Undeniably more graceful and refined than the rest of India, the city where Umrao Jaan is based has absorbed all faiths with grace and tolerance, a mark of the Sufis and their influence in the region. What’s the best time to visit you ask. Lucknow is at its sunny best between October and early April, but be prepared for chilly nights.


What to See and Do in Lucknow

There are few cities off the Indian tourist circuit that are so rich in unexpected architecture and atmosphere. And the best way to see it through a local’s eyes is to go off on an impromptu wander. However, carrying a Lucknow map is advisable so that you can refer to it, whenever needed.

There are many places to visit in Lucknow. Begin your trip with a stroll through the Bara Imambara (assembly hall), the largest arched hall in the world. The central hall of Bara Imambara has no beams supporting the ceiling even though it’s 15 metres tall—an architectural feat that has drawn many to Lucknow. After you’ve seen every detail in this historical heart of the city, don’t leave. There’s more which includes many historical places in Lucknow. Your ticket to the Imambara lets you immerse yourself in the magnificence of the Chota Imambara, the clock tower and the Hussainabad Picture Gallery, all of which are steps away.

Also visible from the Bara Imambara is a 19th-century clock tower which was modelled after London’s Big Ben. This is also one of the most important tourist places in Lucknow.

The story of Lucknow is not all pleasure—it does include some very dark chapters. You could and should lose a whole day visiting the British Residency—a haunting reminder of the 1857 Indian Mutiny (India’s first revolt against the British for independence). This awe-inspiring cluster of gardens and ruins offer a look into the fall of the British Raj; the Residency was the only refuge for the British during the uprising. The main building hosts a museum which is devoted to keeping alive the story of 1857—in a chronological order making it even more haunting. Here, history buffs will find original photographs and lithographs, paintings and portraits of local bravehearts, though the museum’s tone darkens as you venture down to the basement wing where you’ll find terracotta figurines, a loaded revolver and cannon balls.

To learn more, walk to the cemetery behind the nearby dilapidated church to ruminate by the graves of the dead. And end the day by bagging a front row seat at the light and sound show that dramatises the history of the Residency every evening.

It’s another splendid day in Lucknow so park your cynicism at the gate before visiting La Martiniere School, situated on the marg named after it. Originally built by Frenchman Major General Claude Martin as a palatial home, it’s a distinguished boarding school where pop legend Sir Cliff Richard and many other famous personalities studied. The eccentric facade is a sensory overload: with its throwback to colonial architecture and its many turrets and gargoyles grinning in appreciation at students rushing by. All of which can be a bit of a shock to the system in the evenings—so best to gape at it in the afternoon.

There are also many tourist places to visit near Lucknow in case you wish to extend your trip.


Where to Eat

The most splendid places to dine in are on the streets in Lucknow. If the city’s erstwhile Nawabs were to eat dinner today, the bylanes are where you’ll find them. Of course, there are fine dining options and restaurants in Lucknow for those with deep pockets. Go forth and plunder the city’s culinary treasures:

For the seriously uninitiated, Tunday Kebabi, in the busy Aminabad bazaar, is run by the grandson of the one-armed Tunday, creator of the galouti kebab. You can also feast on a spread of pulaos, Awadhi kheer and saffron-coloured sheermals. But it is the smoothness of the kebabs that everyone queues up for—with diners travelling from afar. Bargain prices, attentive service and a market atmosphere add to the draw.

Falaknuma, a posh, rooftop restaurant located in Hotel Clarks Avadh, serves authentic Awadhi food. Perfect for winter afternoons, their signature butter chicken is the perfect accompaniment to their pillowy naans. There’s a small bar where you can enjoy brews and views as well.

As is your right, queue up the next afternoon for the local treasure that is the Royal Cafe at Hazratganj. Even if you don’t chose to dine here, try the chaat stand outside, the best of which is the potato basket chaat—stuffed with tikkis, fresh peas, yoghurt and chutney.

To combat a heavy meal, a well-made Lakhnavi paan is the best antidote. Founded in 1805, make your way to Ram Asrey for freshly made samosas and finish with the malai paan.

In a city where most of the food is a legacy of the Nawabs, Coqina is a small experiential kitchen that specializes in Awadhi cuisine. If you’re lucky, the meal will be prepared by a khansama from the Nawab’s kitchen. For those who want to learn about the city’s rich culinary heritage, this is the booking to snag in advance, since it is only open to those that have made reservations.

Every city has its sweet spot. Lucknow has the Sharmaji ki Chai in Aminabad. Apart from the refreshingly milky teas served with loads of nostalgia, their deceptively simple bun-makhan is a delicious conversation starter.

Located in the lobby at Vivanta by Taj - Gomti Nagar, Oudhyana serves some of the most authentic Awadhi dishes—the kakori kebab, the succulent nihari gosht, warqi paratha, sewain ka muzafar and shahi tukda are all worth ordering. Service is spot-on, and the splendid thandai delivers a kick more pleasurable than the bill.

What to Buy in Lucknow

If you know your chikankari from your chicken curry, Lucknow is the best place to shop for traditional wear. Ever since Judi Dench sashayed up in an exotic Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla creation to receive an Oscar in 2004, chikankari couture has become a fashion staple in the swish set—at home as well as in the international corridors of fashion.

The home of the renowned film-maker and designer Muzaffar Ali (the Raja of Kotwara), Kotwara House is a homage to Nawabi culture. Located within the Qaisarbagh Palace complex, the restored house showcases and revives the traditional craft of Awadh. Here you can spend hours admiring the chikan, zari and mukaish work for the designer’s couture label, Kotwara. Take a curated walk by all means across the palace property. It’s the best way to sample Lucknow heritage without the hordes, though you can only do so by scheduling a walk with Lucknow Walks.

You don’t need to look far or go to the streets when looking for a bargain buy in Lucknow. Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) was peddling exquisite chikankari at reasonable prices long before it became fashionable. So, if you’d like to do your bit for a social cause, shop at their Alamgarh store. Looking good isn’t half as satisfying as feeling good about yourself.

Hooked on hookah? Pick up a pipe or two from Nazirabad-based Bharat Khamira Store in Hukke Wali Gali, play a few ghazals on that vintage turntable back home and go back a few years in time. This addictive haunt satisfies your smoking needs with an array of pipes and intensely flavoured tobaccos.

Lucknow is famous for its bakery products as much as for its womenswear. Burma Bakery, in Hazratganj, is where you can stock up on butter biscuits and cake rusks to take home. Head to Ram Asrey in Chowk for kilos of kaju dalmoth, so that you can leave the city without feeling hungry for more.


Where to Stay

Here are some of the best hotels in Lucknow:

  • Vivanta by Taj-Gomti Nagar

    A 9-km stroll from Bara Imambara, this genteel hotel sits on 10 hectares of gardens in a domed, colonial-style building. Graceful columns, ornate tapestries, and lush lawns conjure up a time gone by, one that’s endearingly preserved here. Served by two restaurants and a bar, which will no doubt leave you in a glorious food coma, you can always recover from the day's activities at the welcoming pool.
  • Fairfield by Marriott, Gomti Nagar

    There’s a lot going for this hotel: a contemporary, central accommodation that offers great value, without compromising on the needs of the business traveller. Situated in the convenient Vibhuti Khand business district and just a short distance from the Indira Gandhi Pratishthan convention centre, guests can take in panoramic city views while working out in the hotel’s rooftop fitness centre.
  • Lebua Lucknow, Mall Avenue

    Had it with soulless hotel rooms? With its artfully designed rooms, the Lebua is all about being less stuffy. This was originally a quaint heritage bungalow built in 1936. The whimsical architecture reflects the art deco style of the early 1920s. All 41 rooms showcase the Nawabi heritage of living spaces flowing into courtyards making the property all the more welcoming. In a city that doesn’t quite throw up many boutique hotel options, staying here is more than delightful.

There are also many resorts in Lucknow that you can choose to stay in.

6E & Cheeky

Lucknow doesn’t go big on molecular cuisine or boho boutiques. But, if you know where to look, the capital is full of curiosities. The Bara Imambara’s Bhool Bhulaiya or the labyrinth is where rulers of the city, in an effort to guard themselves against rebellious soldiers, instructed the artisans to build it in a way that would enable the slightest whisper to travel through several turns and twists of the corridors. Rumour had it that the underground tunnels could take you all the way to Delhi (sadly the tunnels were closed after some mercenary British soldiers went in search of rare diamonds and never surfaced). So if you truly want to lose yourself in the beauty of Lucknow, you know where to go. Is there anything better than a lush picnic spot with crocodiles for company? Make your way to the Kukrail Reserve Forest & Gharial Rehabilitation Centre. Throw down a blanket and while away the afternoon watching black bucks, rare avian species and crocodiles.

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