By Nina Osswald
This short guide is my personal view of things that might be worth knowing and doing on your visit to this crazy, beautiful city. It includes where to buy organic food and handloom garments, and some of the less touristy things to do for leisure. It iss based on my experience of approximately five years of living in Hyderabad between 2009 and 2016. Things change fast so bear with me if some info is outdated, and other points missing. For usual travel advice, consult a travel guidebook and the internet.
Before you go on reading, I suggest you get in the mood with this lovely 3-minute video.
Samosa vendor in the old city of Hyderabad. Photography: Nina Osswald
1. Getting Around
Buses & local trains
The best way to get into town from the airport is the Pushpak airport liner shuttle bus service. It has several lines that go at regular intervals and are cheaper than a taxi.
Generally, the most reliable and ecologically sound way for getting around outside of rush hours is by bus. Of course, this might change soon because a new metro rail has been in the making in Hyderabad, which was supposed to be inaugurated in 2017. I’m not sure if it’s operational yet, but it should make a big difference to the speed and convenience of getting around.
Until then, although most bus routes don’t have air-conditioned services, you’re still more likely to have a comfortable, safer ride on a bus than in an auto-rickshaw. I always liked buses because of their predictability (not necessarily the arrival times… but at least you know where they go, and they don’t take you round in circles with the meter running!), because you’re somewhat higher above the pollution than in an auto, and often you’ll even get a seat, at least outside of rush hours. You can usually recognize a bus stop by a crowd of waiting people; don’t be fooled by the bus shelters, these do not necessarily mean that a bus will ever stop there, unless you see people waiting and, well, buses stopping. (This oddity seems to me to have come about because the bus stop planners did not observe where people are actually wanting to get on and off, so the bus drivers adapted and invented their own stops.)
If you don’t have a clue about the bus numbers, don’t worry: Just ask people at the bus stop for your destination and someone will put you on the right bus. Make sure you know how to pronounce your destination, and bring some patience, as bus schedules vary from every few minutes to less than hourly depending on the route. If you’d like to get an idea of the bus line numbers beforehand, try this useful list.
For certain routes, the local MMTS trains are great, but the network is sadly limited to a few parts of the city, and if you’re not near a station, it might not be worth the effort going there. Taking buses and trains usually involves a fair bit of last-mile distance left to cover. If you have time, walking works well especially in times with less traffic, and if you have a pollution mask and good sun protection (umbrelllas are ideal). If you’re in a rush, you’ll most likely try to catch an autorickshaw from the station or bus stop.
Autos (short for auto-rickshaws)
In Hyderabad, autowalas – the people driving the autos – generally fall into one of three categories:
- a) They can’t be bothered to go where you’re going, so either just shake their head or quote a ridiculous price when you tell them your destination. Advice: Don’t agree to ridiculous prices unless you’re absolutely desperate. You’ll usually have better luck flagging down a driving auto than with the ones lurking on street corners till a big catch lands right in their lap.
- b) They quote a high price but with a little (or a lot) of perseverance and an idea of what would be a reasonable fare (ask a few locals when you arrive, and check the official auto fare on this website) you can bring it down. What worked well for me is to just laugh, tell him the fare I thought appropriate, and walk off to flag down the next auto; either the last guy won’t care and drive off, or he’ll quickly adjust his quote and you agree. If you had an honest driver, do tip well (anywhere between 5-50 Rs. depending on the distance).
- c) They readily (sometimes suspiciously readily) agree to use the meter because they have tampered with it and it will show a multiple of the actual distance and rate. You might notice that too late to do anything about it, so if you go by the meter try to monitor the distance with your GPS running and stop the driver if it seems fishy.
The exception to these three are the occasional honest autowalas, who of course do exist, as well as the shared autos, which go along fixed routes usually on the big main roads, often in parallel to buses but more frequently and faster. They are very affordable and start from 5 Rs for a short ride.
Auto-rickshaws lined up in front of a church in Abids, the old commercial centre of Hyderabad. Photography: Nina Osswald
Even though the streets of urban India are already sufficiently blocked and polluted, and you’ll probably not want to add any more to it, sometimes cabs are simply the fastest, easiest and most comfortable way of getting somewhere. Since the advent of taxi apps like Uber and Ola, taxis are at times – though not always – even cheaper than autos, and they save you the bargaining. Along with the growing popularity of these services, the number of newbie drivers has also increased, and many of them are migrants who are as unfamiliar with the city as you are. So be patient, understanding, friendly and prepared: Be sure where you’re going and have your local landmarks (including their accurate pronunciation!) and your GPS and (offline) maps ready. If you don’t know how to pronounce the place you’re going, write it down on a piece of paper along with any well-known landmarks beforehand.
Whether you’re travelling on foot, by bus, road or train: Try to avoid the rush hours. They can get intense, both on the road and inside public transport. True story: Imagine getting on a bus at 4:45 pm for a half-hour ride. By 5 pm so many people will flock into the bus you’ll have no chance getting out of that bus at 5:15, at least not until the end of the line….! Rush hours do change over time, and I suppose they tend to worsen with growing numbers of people and vehicles, so best to check with locals what their current recommendations are. My experience before 2016 was that the best times for getting anywhere are before 8 am (and somewhat later on Sundays), and after 10 or 11 pm. There used to be a quieter time between 11 am and 4 pm until a few years ago, but that might have changed these days. Of course it also depends on which part of the city you’re looking at.
Hyderabad has many beautiful parks: KBR Park, Sanjeevaiah Park, Indira Park to name just a few of the bigger ones. There are also some nice-ish green patches along Necklace Road by lake Husainsagar. If you fancy a bike ride along Husainsagar Lake in the early morning (before sunrise is a good time to start!), you can actually rent one for an hour or so at the Hyderabad Cycling Club’s bike station at Sanjevaiah Park MTR station.
If you’re keen to get out a bit further and see some of the amazing natural heritage of the region, try the rock walks organized by the Society to Save Rocks, whose mission it is to preserve the unique granite boulder landscapes of the Deccan Plateau from rampant construction. Or check out one of the tours and treks with Great Hyderabad Adventure Club (GHAC).
Granite boulders – Hyderabad’s natural heritage – versus high-rises. Photography: Jayesh Bagda
Some nice places to hang out and get good food are located in the Banjara Hills and Jubilee Hills area. Terrassen Café serves vegan food, bakery items and drinks, and Sage Organics Farm Restaurant (formerly Hyderabad Goes Green) makes organic cheese in-house. Don’t miss a visit to Lamakaan, an open cultural space and a gem of an address for hanging out, meeting people, attending cultural events as well as food (not organic, but very affordable). The German cultural centre Goethezentrum Hyderabad, located opposite Terrassen Café, organizes many interesting events and exhibitions.
If you fancy a sightseeing tour, the heritage walks organized by Tourism Department are well worth doing and will you show you some of the heritage gems of the old city. Other than that, the usual suspects for sightseeing are Golconda Fort, Qtub Shahi Tombs, Charminar, Chowmahalla Palace, Paigah Tombs, and a little outside of town the Moula Ali Durga.
For a more alternative view of the city, visit the Hyderabad Urban Lab website and check out their projects.
Visitors to Golconda Fort, one of the heritage sites of the city. Photography: Nina Osswald
3. Things to buy
Things to bring
While there are many things that are cheaper bought in India, there are a few others that you’d really better bring along on your trip. A crucial one is earplugs, and not just for night time but also for traffic. I was never able to find them in India even in bigger pharmacies, so make sure you bring as many as you think you might need on your trip.
You’ll also have a hard time finding good organic chocolate (which therefore makes for a nice gift, and very dark chocolate stays well even in hot weather).
Other things, like culturally and climatically appropriate clothing, natural cosmetics, natural as well as chemical mosquito repellents and most medicines are just as available but cheaper to buy once you’re in India.
Natural Products & Souvenirs
A great place for natural products including cosmetics, incense, handicrafts, souvenirs and more is the shop at Sage Organics (cf. restaurants section above). Here’s a very useful list of cruelty-free cosmetics companies in India: Part 1 and Part 2. Carefully check the details though because not all of them are strictly natural cosmetics! A really nice brand with traditional and sustainable products such as hairwashing powder and many more is Nirvaahaa. Don’t get fooled by the many companies that try to lure you with words such as Herbals, Ayurvedic, Pure and the like – even the term Natural is not protected, so check the ingredients and ideally certification.
For handicrafts and souvenirs, you can head to the Lepakshi stores (for instance the one in Abids), the large Kalanjali store near Hyderabad Public Gardens, or – if you don’t mind paying a bit of a tourist premium – to the Shilparamam exhibition in Hitec City. In case you’re around in January, the Numaish expo is also a good place to buy souvenirs (but watch your mobile and wallet!).
Outdoor & survival gear
If you’re spending any time in the city outside of air-conditioned cars, you’ll definitely want a pollution mask, especially if you walk or cycle anywhere. You can buy good pollution masks in India, but depending on the make you might not save much. Many cyclists like the Totobobo masks, which you can order online if you’re lucky from BOTS Bangalore. An affordable and comfortable alternative to the slightly pricey Totobobo is the Respra; you can’t change the filter though, so the lifespan is limited, but it works great for shorter visits.
For outdoor gear, I found options a bit limited, and your best bet is probably either the smaller Wildcraft shops (for instance in GVK One mall) or the giant Decathlon stores, located a little outside of town (or online shop).
Bookstores & stationary
There are several regular book stores in Hyderabad, but if you’re interested in alternative subjects you’ll want to visit Earthcare Bookstore (based in Calcutta) and Other India Bookstore (based in Mapusa, Goa). Both have online stores and ship books across India. If you’re interested in children’s books, you’ll love Manchi Pustakam in Tarnaka, though their books are predominantly in Telugu. Some of the better stocked regular bookstores are Himalaya Bookworld in Punjagutta (also stocks pretty notebooks that make nice souvenirs) and Walden bookstore in Begumpet/ Greenlands. The smaller shops in General Bazaar in Secunderabad are great for affordable stationary.
Garments & Fabric
Malkha, dāram and Khadi Ecobasket are two addresses not to be missed for locally made handloom cotton products. While buying fabric may not be ideal for a traveller who neither has a local tailor nor the patience to wash the fabrics multiple times first for them to be at their softest, a nice natural-dye handloom fabric is a great souvenir if you know people at home who are into sewing. The organic bazaars (see next section) also have stalls with beautiful handloom fabrics, and there is an occasional handloom bazaar called Chenetha Santha in Ameerpet.
Khadi is the term for handspun and handwoven fabrics; however the bulk of what you will find in “khadi shops” these days is not handmade at all. So if you’re wanting to buy real khadi it’s best to find a local expert to take you shopping, or you might well end up with a beautiful, but entirely machine made “khadi”. (Check out this interesting article if you’d like to know more about the crisis the handloom industry in India. And a bit more about Malkha here.) A quick online search will also give you Indian brands that make organic and fair-trade garments, such as No Nasties, Tula and many more.
Like in every city in India, you’ll find several Fabindia stores of course, and while they have nice and pricey clothes, don’t imagine that all their products are necessarily organic, natural dye or even handloom. For conventional (i.e. not handloom, natural dye or organic) clothing, try the market areas in Secunderabad (General Bazaar) and Abids, among others.
Naturally died yarn. Photography: Nina Osswald
4. Organic food & markets
There are quite a few exciting organic food community and retailing initiatives in Hyderabad that organize organic bazaars on a regular basis. If you happen to be in town on a Sunday, be sure to visit the organic bazaar at Lamakaan, an open community space in Banjara Hills that also hosts many other exciting cultural events, apart from being a friendly space to hangout anytime (except on Mondays when it’s closed). Equally worth visiting are the Good Seeds organic bazaars in Banjara Hills and Jubilee Hills. And if you’re on the Secunderabad side of town, check out Our Sacred Space which also has a Sunday organic bazaar called Adivaram Anagadi. These organic bazaars are great for getting your groceries, fruit and veg as well as natural cosmetics, eco-cleaners, handloom garments and other assorted eco-wares. They are also where locals interested in a sustainable lifestyle meet to enjoy an organic snack under a tree.
The Sage Organics restaurant (mentioned in the Leisure section above) is well worth a visit for organic food as well as its attached organic store. They also sell the beautiful kambha clay composters, which may be a little bulky as souvenirs, but are worth checking out if composting is your thing. For more organic food options, check out this map of organic retailers, delivery services, restaurants, markets and farms.
Hyderabad is a dynamic modern city with a rich historical past that are visible everywhere and often in contrast. An informed and focused investigation of its neighbourhoods, communities and businesses is an experience that can be challenging but is equally rewarding and enriching. Chalo – let’s go exploring!
Sunset view of the south of Hyderabad, seen from Banjara Hills. Photography: Nina Osswald