Sixty-ﬁve years ago, Mysore passed on the mantle of state capital to Bangalore. With the swap, the two cities traded destinies and economic fortunes. Bangalore, a placid cantonment town, morphed into a metropolis. Mysore bowed out of the spotlight. But it was perhaps a happy trade-off for the former capital. Without the burden of being Karnataka’s political and ﬁnancial hub, Mysore is now coming into its own.
Mysore is Karnataka’s second-largest city and, in recent years, has caught some of its affluent neighbour’s growth frenzy. But rather than playing catch-up with Bengaluru, the city is cementing its identity as a cultural hub. It’s not outsourcing that has put Mysore on the world map—it’s Ashtanga yoga. That’s an apt metaphor for a city that revels in its own genteel past.
No visit to Mysore is complete without doing the mandatory zoo-hill-church-garden circuit. First-time visitors can set aside a day or two to visit these big-ticket sights that tell stories from the glory days of the Wodeyar kings. But the city saves its real treasures for those willing to look beyond coach-tour destinations and rewards both ardent sightseers as well as reluctant tourists.
Start the morning the way Mysoreans do, with a stroll around Kukkarahalli Kere, a shimmering, tree-rimmed lake with a 5-km walking path along its shores and stunning views of Chamundi Hill. Occupying the centre of the city but still isolated from tourist hordes, the lake and the sun-dappled wooded area that surround it are home to 176 species of birds. Go for a walk, get camera happy, or ﬁnd a stone bench to watch ﬂocks of graceful spot-billed pelicans, black-headed ibises, darters, little cormorants, storks, and herons on their early morning feeding ﬂights (open 6 a.m., 6 p.m. on all days. Entry free).
Head indoors when the sun is high: 500 metres west of the lake’s Senate Bhavan Gate, the museums in the Jayalakshmi Vilas Mansion offer respite from both the heat and crowds. The 125-room mansion was once a Wodeyar princess’s jaw-droppingly large residence and is now part of the Mysore University grounds. The three museums—folklore, archaeology, and antiquities—are extensive and well-maintained, despite the vaguely forlorn air that is endemic to government-run museums. A tiny dog cemetery is located outside the main entrance. Little headstones pay homage to Mitzi, Mimmi, Tom, Fifi, Babi, and Koki, royal canines that lived in the 1940s (open 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3-5 p.m., except Sunday.).
Green Hotel on Vinobha Road, located 1.5 km northwest of the museum, makes for a great lunch pitstop. Once a princess’s palace, then a film studio, the structure is now an elegant two-star heritage hotel. A UK-based charity runs this eco-hotel and funds local charities and environmental groups with the profits. Feel like a burra sahib while dining at the hotel’s restaurant set in a large garden with formal lawns, shaded pergolas, victorian-style flower beds of zinnias and asters, and white wooden furniture (₹1,000 for a meal for two). There’s also a cheery, sunlit café that serves coffee and baked goodies, which is run by Dalit girls, who have been trained by French bakers. These Balmiki girls from nearby towns make a statement in their red and yellow langa-davani uniforms.
For the evening, plan a visit to the Amba Vilas palace complex and en route, explore the heart of the city. Start at the pink-domed railway building and walk east on Irvin Road, past the historic Mysore Medical College, among the country’s earliest institutions. Walk south into Sayyaji Rao road, Mysore’s main artery, with turn-of-the-century buildings and markets on either side. This is the city’s commercial hub and also the route taken by Goddess Durga’s royal entourage on Vijaya Dashami day—the vibrant, clamorous finale of Mysore’s 10-day-long Dassera festivities.
At the corner of Devaraja market, stop at the iconic Guru Sweets, a hole-in-the-wall shop credited with inventing the fudgy, ghee-dripping Mysore pak. If bright yellow sweets are your thing, sample the real deal here (served on newsprint) and find a bench surrounding the Dufferin Clock Tower for a breather. This town square, a rarity in our cities, is perfect for people-watching.
Just past the clock square, turn east at K.R. Circle into Albert Victor Road and onward to Chamaraja Circle. Both these city-centre roundabouts house stunningly detailed marble statutes of Wodeyar kings, set inside elaborate domed arches. At the palace gate opposite the gilt-domed Chamaraja Circle, hire a horse-drawn tonga and ride in style to the palace’s southern entrance, the Varaha Gate.
After the palace shuts at 5.30 p.m. and the tour groups depart, the magnificent palace complex quietens down and it is possible to amble about the grounds without jostling crowds. The complex is open to public till 8 p.m. and entry is free. Explore centuries-old Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi temples scattered along the palace’s periphery (known mostly to a handful of local worshippers) and stay on for the evening sound and light show with Kannada commentary (7-8 p.m; ₹40). it is worth watching—if only for the brief, full-blown palace illumination that comes as an end treat.
Mysore has dining options that are affordable and upscale. Hotel Metropole, a heritage hotel in the city-centre, is perfect for an al fresco barbecue dinner served under a wide canopied mango tree, in the hotel’s candlelit courtyard restaurant (approx. ₹2,000 for two, with drinks). Another option is the poolside restaurant at Hotel Regaalis next door.
Set aside the day to unearth the authentic city: markets, dosas, silks, and sandalwood.
Get an early start to visit the 150-year-old Devaraja covered market and brace yourself for the sensory punch from its 700-odd stalls. Shop, bargain-hunt, or spend the morning inhaling heady aromas of flowers, spices, coffee, and incense.
The market is oriented along Sayyaji Rao road and the main entrance faces the Dufferin Clock Tower. The by-lanes are crowded with stalls selling mountains of fresh fruit, veggies, greens, paan-leaves, and claw-like bunches of banana strung from ceilings. There are lanes dedicated to heaps of flowers—snowy Mysore jasmine, truck-tyre-sized bunches of yellow chrysanthemum, rose, marigold, tuberose—and chatty flower sellers continuously string garlands.
The bazaar also has the sort of quaint businesses fast disappearing from our cities—cramped kirana shops that sell loose groceries, pungent whole spices, and neatly arranged cubes of jaggery; snuff shops, old-fashioned coffee mills, blacksmiths hunched over anvils, knife and scissor sharpeners at work, glass bangle stalls, and attar specialists.
Grab breakfast at Indra Café Paras across the market. If you have a weakness for boxy 1980s-style tourist hotels, walk up to the popular Hotel Dasaprakash for thindi (thali) served on Formica top tables by Gandhi topi-clad waiters.
To burn off breakfast excesses, make your way to Karanji Lake and Nature Park for a mid-morning stroll. The park has a walk-through aviary that will have kids squealing. The Regional Museum of Natural History is located on the banks of the lake. Tip: Walk a short distance past the aviary till a grassy area with lake-front granite picnic tables. There’s a barely visited watchtower further down, with spectacular sweeping views of the lake, the tree tops, and the water birds that swoop down for prey (open 8.30 a.m.-5.30 p.m., except Tuesday. Entry fee ₹50; ₹60 on weekends and government holidays).
Gear up for a day of shopping for Mysore’s signature specialties. For rosewood inlay work, Ganjifa playing cards, stoneware, sandalwood figurines, and intricate Mysore-style paintings, the government-run Cauvery Arts and Crafts Emporium on Sayyaji Rao Road is the best bet. For authentic GI-tagged Mysore silk, steer clear of market rip-offs and head to one of many Karnataka Silk Industries Corporation outlets (www.ksicsilk.com). Or better still, visit the Government Silk Factory on Manadawadi Road. Go on a tour of the factory and watch workers produce the coveted fabric with real gold and silver zari. You can also buy sarees and fabric at the adjoining store.
For real Mysore sandalwood, go on a tour of the divine-smelling Government Sandalwood Factory. Buy eye-poppingly expensive vials of pure sandalwood oil, or the more modestly priced incense. Take home Mysore Sandal Millennium, India’s most expensive soap that costs ₹750 a piece (store timings 9 a.m.-7.30 p.m., Monday-Saturday).
Post shopping, lunch at Hotel Siddhartha’s Om Shanti restaurant and order their delicious South Indian thali (₹100). This simple, no-fuss place is popular with locals and tourists.
Spend the last evening exploring the tiny Rail Museum, adjacent to the railway station. Steam engine buffs will delight in the outdoor exhibits that include vintage locomotives, iconic engines, and model carriages. The museum’s highlight is a luxurious royal coach—called the Maharani’s Saloon—which has its own wood-panelled bedroom, en suite bathroom, kitchen and dining car.
History and trivia buff Vinay Parmeswarappa runs Royal Mysore Walks and offers thematic offbeat walking and cycling tours of the city, with a focus on quirky historic tidbits and engaging story-telling, rather than pedantic facts. On a walk with Vinay, discover Mysore’s connection with the Battle of Waterloo and the Boston Tea Party, see the building where the Freemasons Society meets, hear about the local elephant boy who became a Hollywood star, discover what it meant if Rolls Royce executives said that you were “doing a mysore” (96320-44188; royalmysorewalks.com; ₹600 per person; duration 2 hours).
Mysoreans get prickly when quizzed about the city’s best masala dosa. Some swear by Hotel Mylari, while others sneer that Mylari is best left to weekenders from Bengaluru. Gayathri Tiffin Room has its die-hard regulars as does Vishnu Bhavan. Every old establishment worth its batter has its own signature dosa and none will concede that they are anything but authentic. If you opt for Mylari, choose between two establishments that go by the same name, 50 metres apart on either side of Nazarbad Main Road. Both claim to be the original and say they have no branches. Thankfully, the feuding siblings don’t mar the experience. The dosas (around ₹20) in both places are finger-licking good and are served in a non-stop stream. Tables are limited, so be prepared to wait.
Appeared in the April 2013 issue as “Culture Conscious City”.
Hema Ramaprasad is a writer, hobby photographer, slow traveller, vegetarian, breakfast enthusiast, and a lover of all things beautiful and hand-made. She lives in Mysore and tweets as @writeclcktravel. She creates content for a living and travels for the joy of it.