Walking through the streets of Goa’s capital city, you’d be excused for thinking you’d accidentally stepped into a teleportal and been transported straight to continental Europe.
Panaji (also known as Panjim) is the largest city in Goa, and also it’s finest, with colonial Portuguese architecture at every corner. Houses and official government buildings alike are painted in bright hues of yellow, orange and blue, and people proudly maintain their Portuguese heritage.
If you’re thinking of visiting this beautiful city, then allow me to help with this ultimate guide to Panaji.
A cosmopolitan flavour
Catholics, Hindus and Muslims share the ground in Panaji, with an interesting mix of people of Indian and Portuguese descent. Just like their continental ancestors, the residents of Panaji even take their daily siesta to escape the blazing midday heat.
This unique blend of people makes Panaji one of the best cities in India for people-watching, as there is always a festival, holiday or celebration in full swing. Keep a look out for one of the many Hindu festivals, which are an explosion of colour.
It’s a crazy thing to notice, but thanks to Panaji’s Portuguese ancestors, it’s a particularly well paved city. This is something you grow to miss when travelling through India, and it’s a relief to be able to walk safely without fear of being imminently mown down by a passing moped, rickshaw or rattly 35 tonne bus!
Goa’s party playground
Not only is Panaji architecturally and culturally so different from the rest of India, but it’s also home to a handful of cruise ships which act as ‘floating casinos’ on the Mandovi River. It’s still technically illegal to gamble in Goa, but by docking the casinos in the river and accessing them by smaller boats, this law is simply a technicality. India’s rich flock to Panaji to let their hair down, and party boats are ten a penny as people pay good money to outdance each other to thumping Bangra music.
The real show-stealer is the central Catholic church, named ‘The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception‘ (try saying that 5 times fast). Painted in gleaming white with blue touches, and with a characteristic zig-zag staircase, it’s one of the most unique churches I’ve seen (even counting Central and South America, where they love a good church!).
It’s the focal point for all of the Christian ceremonies and processions within the city, and I was lucky enough to witness the sombre Palm Sunday procession, with thousands of the city’s Catholics taking to the streets the week before Easter Sunday.
As it’s a Catholic city, be warned that almost everything shuts down on Sundays, including shops, bars, restaurants and even ATMs, so make sure you have plenty of cash and are willing to walk around a little to find food.
Speaking of walking, Panaji is a wonderfully walkable city. Depending on the heat and humidity, (which can get unbearable from March to June before the monsoon rains hit), you can cross off the main sights on foot in a day or so. The churches, parks and gardens are great to wander around, take a stroll along the river or head to hight ground for sweeping views over the city.
Below is an interactive walking tour map of Panjim / Panaji city, which can be done in a day.
Don’t miss the famous Azad Maidan Monument, which is the symbol of India’s struggle for independence and today is the location for Goa’s social change groups. People camp out for weeks on end at this monument, protesting about injustices in India’s legal system. Whilst I was there, a hunger strike to provide more ambulances for the city was 10 days into its 31 day course.
Panaji is only 2km from the beach too, with the nearest one being Miramar. It’s not bad, but for just a few rupees you can get a bus to Anjuna (bus connects in Mapusa and costs about 15 rupees per leg, so 30 rupees per person total), or one of the other gorgeous stretches of sand in North Goa.
The Maruti temple (see number 3 on the map) is a bit of a climb (up 160 steps to be exact), but it’s a beautiful building, and commands a top spot for gazing out over the city. Click below for a 360 degree interactive view of the Maruti temple.
As with most capital cities, things are a little more expensive here than in the smaller towns and coastal areas, but if you know where to look, a bargain can still be had. Head to the New Municipal Market (marked as number 9 on the map above) to sniff out bargains on electricals, fresh food and cheap clothing, and if you want to fill up your hard drive with English movies, this is the place to do it!
Ask around for Ali’s movie store and obliging Ali will give you any movie your heart desires for just 50 rupees (50p), or stock entire TV series on your memory card. I got the full seasons of The Walking Dead, The Wire and Atlantis, but he has everything from Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones.
The best places to eat & drink
Restaurants make use of wrought iron balconies overlooking manicured parks and public spaces, and serve some of the best Goan dishes; richly spiced Xacuti, lethal vinegar-based Vindaloo, the simply named ‘Fish Curry Rice’, and the mouth-watering Sausage Chilli Fry (a personal favourite).
Goan food is some of the spiciest I’ve had on my travels through the south of India so far, but the locals warn that there’s more of that to come as I travel north! Here are some of my favourite places to eat in Panaji.
George Restaurant – This is about as Portuguese as it comes. Tiny wooden tables squished up close together, chaotic service, but one of the most delicious spicy sausage dishes I’ve ever tasted. It’s also right by the church, so if you get a seat near the front, you’ll get a great view.
Upper House – Upmarket restaurant overlooking Jardim Garcia de Orta and serving incredibly good, delicate food. It’s a little pricey but it’s worth it.
Quarterdeck – Situated on the river, close to the boat jetty to Betim, this place specialises in seafood and local Goan fare. Go at night to watch people get transferred over to the casinos in smaller boats.
Vihar – Fresh, cheap and local. Packed to the brim with locals enjoying crispy dosas fried to perfection, and breakfast idli and sheera. Service hit and miss, but food amazing.
Hotel Venite – In the old town, it’s incredibly quaint and has balconies you can sit on (if you’re narrow enough!). Food is good and it specialises in local Goan food.
Cafe Mojo – Fill up a card with credit, find a table and pour your own beers from your table’s very own tap. The screen keeps a tally on how much you’ve poured and how much money / beer you have left to get through! Food is a little pricey.
If you’re into religious history then take a bus from the main bus station (near the ferry port) to Old Goa for 10 rupees (10p) apiece. It takes about 20 minutes and there are a handful of interesting churches and cathedrals within a 1km radius, the most famous of which is the Church of Born Jesus, where people flock to pray and bask in its peaceful glory.
I hope you’ve found my guide to Panaji useful. If you’ve enjoyed this, why not subscribe to my newsletter to get travel inspiration and detailed guides directly to your inbox once a month, or join me on Facebook or Twitter?