If I’ve learned anything after 9 months in Santiniketan, it’s this: most everything worth seeing/visiting/frequenting is kept secret. It takes a lot of sleuthing and exploration to find Santiniketan’s sweet little cafes and charming boutiques—most a bit off the tourist track. I’ve compiled a list of my favorites as a resource for those who don’t have months to discover all the hidden gems in this quaint little town.
Aarhani: Aarhani is one of the best lunch spots in Santi. If you want some amazing home-cooked Bengali food, there’s no better place to go—you can eat as much as you want for a very reasonable fixed rate—Aarhani is a great place to hold gatherings as well, since they have a large outdoor eating space. You have to make a reservation a day in advance by giving Rini a call—and if you’re lucky, she might make her okra or eggplant curry. (Everything I’ve ever had though is absolutely delicious)
Alcha: One of the trendiest places in Santiniketan, Alcha is a sustainable fair-trade certified boutique located right in Ratanpally. (It’s a bit hidden, but is pretty navigable from the main market—ask anyone who works in the area) You can buy handmade clothes, jewelry, bags, and home items—and feel good while doing it. At Alcha, every piece is one-of-a-kind and the quality is second-to-none. (They also have a well-received café out by Santiniketan Tourist Lodge but I’ve never tried it myself)
Bonolakshmi/Barashaler Ranna Ghor: Bonolakshmi and Barashaler Ranna Ghor are run by the same family and are located opposite each other in Sriniketan (toward Ilaambazar). It’s a bit of a hike to get out here (around 10 km) so either hire a toto for the afternoon or take the bus down. The restaurants are adjacent to a hotel, organic farm, and gardens, with many of the vegetables sourced on site. There are also a lot of great eatables available for sale (jams, honey, sweets, etc.) The place is especially popular with holidaying Bengali families so you need to make a reservation in advance, preferably by 9 AM, to guarantee a spot for lunch.
The Chhayaghar Café: Located just a few steps from Alcha in Ratanpally, the Chayyaghar café has all the requirements of a wholesome evening hang out spot: economical and tasty eats, a cool space, and even a rotating art gallery in the main hall. The cold coffee here is one of my favorites—not too sweet, and very affordable at just 20 Rs. a glass.
Ocampo: Ocampo is a café/boutique located in Shyambati. The food is decent—and the rooftop view at sunset makes the café a must-visit. I haven’t purchased any clothing here but the cuts and styles are unique and modern. Right beside Ocampo is Sonar Beni, a cute little jute-products shop and on the lower level of the shop, is one of my favorite hidden spots: Bachu-da’s yoga studio. Open every weekday from 6:30-9:00 PM, it’s a lovely space where members of the community gather to practice yoga, chat, and more than often, enjoy some mishti.
Park Guest House: Park Guest House is probably the finest dining that you can find in Santiniketan proper. The North Indian food is delicious—the garlic naans, paneer butter masala, mushroom matar, etc. are really fabulous and the other items have a good reputation as well. Park Guest House is located by Deer Park, and is a bit hidden: to get there—you can either follow the signs by Siksha Bhavan, or take a dirt path from Shyambati (the path begins beside Nataraj Lodge). I like to go and work there, when possible, as their wifi is amazing.
Tanzil: Located right beside the Santiniketan Residency in Shyambati, Tanzil has a cute little outdoor café (the brownies are undoubtedly the best—and perhaps only—in Santiniketan). They also have a great collection of home décor and clothing, but it isn’t Santi-specific and pieces come from all over India. (The café is only open in the evenings)
Sonajhuri Haath: Haath is definitely not off the beaten path—it’s probably the most popular tourist attraction in Santiniketan. I do have a couple tips though: go all the way down by Shakuntala Hotel—it’s the original Saturday market and is the most charming part as well. When you’re there, try the momos right in front of the Ram Shyam Hotel gate—they’re easily the best in Santi. Many weekends, I cycle all the way out just to eat the momos before heading back to the department. And whenever you’re at haath, just keep in mind that the entire place, though aesthetically pleasing, is a complete tourist trap–so haggle accordingly.
Ankita Handicrafts: Haath is always one of my must-visits but if you want quality goods at a reasonable price, it’s worth making the trek to Ankita Handicrafts. Located in Amar Kutir, Ankita handicrafts is run out of Sonali Dey’s home and has great prices on saris, scarves, fabric, etc. (If you ask around at the leather factory, someone should point you in the right direction—there are no signs unfortunately). The main shop at Amar Kutir has a great collection of clothing, purses, and décor, as well—it is a fixed price store, which for me is actually a relief.
Studio Boner Pukur Danga: If you like ceramics—or just appreciate well-curated spaces—go by Studio Boner Pukur Danga. Lipi, who graduated from Kala Bhavan, runs the ceramics studio and shop (just down the street from SVAAD) and employs almost 20 locals in her business. There are often international students at the studio who come to learn from her—every piece is handcrafted and beautifully glazed.
Due to my cycling constraint, I tend to stick around Santi but do know a couple of fun spots in Bolpur as well…
Ghare Baire/ Bichitra: Located in the Gitanjali heritage complex (next to the cinema hall), Ghare Baire is an adorable café (indoor/outdoor seating available) that is adjacent to Bichitra, a lovely little boutique that sells ceramics, clothes, and home goods. The gardens are beautiful as well and you could easily spend an afternoon in the complex.
The Green Chilli is located in Bhubandanga, en route to Bolpur. It’s a typical Indian restaurants serving up “continental” cuisine—Chinese and Indian both. The food is solid and reasonable and it’s a popular place for visitors who might be lodging close to Bolpur. The portions are huge so order accordingly!
9X9 is a continental restaurant located right by the Santiniketan Tourist Lodge. The tandoori food and Indian cuisine is pretty good—but I would steer clear of the western dishes. (Fun fact: when I first moved to Santiniketan, I ate at 9X9 everyday for a week—I actually didn’t tire of it, either!) 9X9 also has great wifi and is a good option for solo dining as they have a significant collection of magazines.
SK—I’ve only ever had home delivery from SK but it was absolutely delicious. It’s located near Gitanjali and the parathas and paneer dishes are wonderful. (The chicken is rumored to be tasty too)
While all the places I’ve listed are wonderful, you might be interested in the student scene as well. My most-visited student spot is the shops in Ratanpally that pop up every evening after 5 PM. You can find delicious and inexpensive food and drinks here—from mango lassi to kathi rolls and dosas. If you want a home-cooked lunch and find yourself around Kala Bhavan, drop by Manoj-da’s house—he prepares a number of items right on his front porch and you can pick and choose whichever dishes you’d like to try. (To get to Manoj da’s place from Kala Bhavan, cross Ananda Sadan girls’ hostel, take the first right past the metal gate, and follow the dirt path to his home.) Oroshri Market is also a great place to grab a quick bite in the evenings—my favorite place is Suruchi: the laccha paratha is to die for and the veg chow is fantastic as well. Kasahara is also a popular student spot that is right behind Sangeet Bhavan—the service is incredibly slow (I once waited 45 minutes for a cold coffee), but if you have the time, it has a fun rural ambience with outdoor seating and some colorful mural work outside.
Reading through my recommendations you might be struck by a few things: my love of cold coffees, and my emphasis on wifi and AC–all are luxuries, especially in the humid Bengal summers.
This list is by no means exhaustive—but it is a good start to begin your own journey in Santiniketan. Though I wish that I had a similar list when I first arrived, every new place that I discovered made me feel like an explorer on a worthwhile mission. I’m leaving Santi at the end of this week so my mission I suppose, is finally coming to an end.
Anyway, I hope that you find this resource helpful and I know that you too will grow to love Santiniketan as much as I do.