1. Watch artisans at work around Kumartuli
One of Kolkata’s top tourist draws is Kumartuli, a neighbourhood featuring innumerable pottery studios where sculptors painstakingly create clay idols of gods and goddesses for public veneration throughout the year.
In the run-up to Durga Puja (Kolkata’s biggest public festival held over four days in late September to early October), the sculptors of Kumartuli can be seen creating giant statues of the goddess Durga triumphing in battle over the demon Mahishasura.
Visitors are welcome to drop in and observe the artisans at work (as long as you don’t get in their way). If patience is one of your virtues, you can spend hours – or even days – admiring the images as they slowly come to life in the hands of the master craftsmen. Leave a small tip of appreciation when you leave, or a bunch of compliments in praise of the artisan’s work.
2. Stroll around the city’s green parks
Kolkata is home to some great public parks, none of which charge an entry fee. The vast central expanse of the Maidan comes tops on the list, and provides green space for everyone from cricket players, young lovers and horse riders to budding footballers, karate practitioners and crossword-solving office dodgers.
The placid lakes and forested walks of Rabindra Sarovar, located in the southern boroughs, are a fabulous destination in the early mornings or early evenings, when flurries of joggers run along the manicured trails, aspiring musicians strum their guitars under the trees, and scullers dart through the waters in their competition rowboats. Music lovers take note: free public concerts – featuring the city’s aspiring and professional musicians – are often held here on weekends, especially during the winter months from November to February.
You may also like: Kolkata’s best festivals through the year
3. Poke around Marble Palace
Wouldn’t you be delighted to know that Kolkata’s grandest (and most curious, as some would add) mansion is free to visit? Access to the extravagant Marble Palace can be secured for no charge, as long as you’re game to drop in at the West Bengal Tourism or the India Tourism office in advance and pick up an entry permit.
Remember, though, that the palace remains shut on Monday and Thursday, and that the property’s staff would expect a small tip in return for showing you around the premises, which are home to a plethora of rare Victorian relics, such as marble statues, the first piano imported into India, and original canvases by influential Flemish artist Rubens and celebrated English portrait artist Reynolds. These genuine treasures are made even more intriguing by the way they are displayed; scattered around the place in a casual, hotchpotch manner.
4. Take in the magic of the city’s biggest markets
Some of the best opportunities for street photography in Kolkata await you in its markets. None of them have ticketed entry, so click away all day long while you wind your way through the colourful organised chaos – though take care to not disrupt proceedings and always ask permission if you intend to snap shots of vendors.
Early in the morning, the vibrant Mullik Ghat Flower Market comes to life in a riot of colours as flower vendors bring in huge consignments of blossoms (marigolds, roses, orchids, carnations, chrysanthemums: you name it) from nurseries in the suburbs for sale in the city.
Later, head to the frenzied, atmospheric lanes of Barabazar, Kolkata’s biggest wholesale trading hub, where you can amble around and train your camera at shops busily peddling every form of merchandise known to humankind, while nearby snack stalls pump out endless supplies of tea and samosas to buyers and sellers alike.
You may also like: Best day trips from Kolkata
5. Explore the Hooghly Riverbanks
As long as you’re not planning a boat cruise or ferry ride on the river (which is worth shelling out for if you have a few rupees to spare), the serene Hooghly Riverbanks cost you nothing to visit.
You can walk all day along the promenades strung along the banks, enjoying the tranquil sights and sounds of life on the river, which draws bathers, bodybuilders, card players, worshippers, loiterers, commuters and tea sellers throughout the day. Early mornings and early evenings are the best time to visit the numerous ghats or piers, not least because of the photogenic glow cast by the rising or setting sun on the waters.
6. Cast your eye over some excellent free art exhibitions
Kolkata is a thriving centre of contemporary Indian art, copious amounts of which is shown in leading galleries across the city.
Take your pick from reputed addresses such as Academy of Fine Arts, Birla Academy of Art & Culture, Harrington Street Arts Centre, CIMA, ICCR or Experimenter, each of which presents well-curated exhibitions of emerging and well-known Indian artists throughout the year and, amazingly, are all completely free to visit – though donations are very welcome. You will find the listings in any of the leading local English dailies. So go and feast your eyes on some fabulous art, for no charge at all.