I’m going to admit that I can be a little ‘inconsistent’ with the car indicator.
Well, it turns out I’m not the only one with such questionable tendencies. I arrive at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport to be met by a driver for the short 14-kilometre trip to my hotel in the city centre. It’s a hair-raising, white-knuckling, hour-long introduction to Indian driving etiquette — where indicators are entirely optional and road rules open to interpretation!
As you explore the two incarnations of India’s frenetic capital — Old and New Delhi — you can’t help but consider the metaphoric highway of life on which the 1.3 billion citizens of this incredible country travel: unspeakably tough for some; lavishly easy for others. It’s a place of extreme contrasts, even here in the capital. It will grip your guts one moment as you gaze on abject poverty, and then treat you to unspeakable ecstasy at the sight of the next exquisite monument. It doesn’t let up — not even for a second.
Enjoy this Delhi travel guide.
Delhi for history lovers
For the chance to literally step back in time a century or two, pay a visit to the Chandni Chowk market in Old Delhi.
This is the heart of the medieval city and dates back to the time of the Mughal emperors. The Mughals ruled India for almost three centuries and you’ll come across them a lot during your visit. They left an indelible mark on the soul of India and a wealth of historic monuments to boot.
The narrow streets and laneways of the market are choked with hawkers, hustlers, street vendors and rickshaw drivers, along with tea sellers keeping the entire affair lubricated with steaming cups of sugary chai laced with ginger and cloves. Disabled beggars rub shoulders with wealthy merchants; harried tourists fend off lethal touts left, right and centre. It’s confronting and invigorating at the same time. A guided walking tour is a good way to get the most from your visit.
From the market, you’ll no doubt catch sight of the soaring towers of the World Heritage-listed Red Fort. It was once the Mughals’ main residence. A lesser-known but no less important site is Purana Qila — also known as the Old Fort. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the oldest forts in the city. The site itself has a history dating back as far as 300BC, but the structure you see today was the work of Mughal emperor Humayun. It’s an amazing example of architecture from the period and the imposing ramparts hint at its historical importance.
There are more than twenty museums to visit in Delhi. The Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum is housed in the former home of India’s much-loved and only female prime minister. Inside is an extensive collection of personal items, including letters, books and photographs. Gandhi was assassinated by two bodyguards in her garden in 1984.
Top cultural experiences in Delhi
For cultural things to see and do in Delhi, you are absolutely spoilt for choice.
Start by paying an early morning visit to the ethereal Jama Masjid mosque, which can hold up to twenty-five thousand worshippers. The mosque is open from sunrise to sunset, but closes in the middle of the day for prayers. Conservative dress is required and robes are available for hire at the gates.
Make sure you also include the delightful Lakshmi Narayan Temple on your itinerary. It’s a chocolate-brown and honeycomb-coloured Hindu place of worship, that looks good enough to eat. Visit the local teahouse next door for a delicious, rejuvenating chai. The door is just to the right of the main entrance to the temple. This is the best teahouse in Delhi according to our guide.
The Lotus Temple is one of the city’s most striking examples of contemporary architecture. Curiously reminiscent of the famous Sydney Opera House, this nine-sided structure is a revered site for Bahá’í worship. Set around a central dome, the temple sits within nine corresponding pools of water. In line with the principles of the Bahá’í faith, the temple is open to all nationalities and those of any religious belief.
Great places to eat in Delhi
With its diverse population from across India, Delhi’s food scene understandably incorporates a wide range of regional culinary styles.
You can’t really go wrong if you follow the crowds, but make a point of trying Rajdhani Thali Restaurant — a traditional north-Indian restaurant in New Delhi (just off Connaught Place). It’s entirely vegetarian and absolutely delicious. The flavours are both rich and subtle. Try the salted milk curds!
The juxtaposition of old and new that Delhi embodies is perfectly illustrated at Chor Bizarre. There are two locations in New Delhi, and the quirky interiors (filled with all manner of kitsch) are memorable in themselves, as is the menu of authentic regional Kashmiri cuisine. This is a dining experience that’s not to be missed.
If you’re looking for an upmarket way to tantalise your tastebuds (and do a bit of Indian star spotting in the process), Bukhara, also in New Delhi, is arguably India’s most famous restaurant. It attracts a steady stream of pollies, actors and sporting stars. Named Best Indian Restaurant in the World by Restaurant magazine, you’ll need to dig deep into your holiday food budget, but by all accounts, the experience is well worth it.
For those wanting to delve into Old Delhi’s rich street food scene, a guided food tour is the safest way to go. You’ll get to try a whole range of local specialties, and enjoy a lesson in local culture and history along the way.
For something sweet to round out any meal in the capital, head for the Old Famous Jalebiwala in Old Delhi. This small shop is always packed with locals jostling to get their fill of the deliciously sugary jalebi — a popular deep-fried delicacy.
Where to shop in Delhi
Connaught Place in New Delhi offers several shopping options for an after-lunch stroll, including an open air clothing market, and the Shankar Market for fabrics.
Be aware of the ‘shoe-poo’ scam that operates here — where you suddenly find yourself with a gloop of foul-smelling goo on your shoes. A handy shoe cleaner swoops in to remedy the situation for a price.
Other shopping highlights around town include the Dilli Haat market for handicrafts from across India, the Sundar Nagar market for art and antiques (a mix of real and replica), and Matka Market for pottery and ceramics.
Ways to relax in Delhi
Escape the hectic pace of the city by taking a stroll around some of its fascinating monuments.
Humayun’s Tomb — a Mughal mausoleum of divine proportions and exquisite Persian-inspired design — is said to have been the inspiration for the Taj Mahal itself. These monuments to deceased rulers grew grander and more opulent over the centuries, as each generation sought to outdo the one before.
Today the peaceful grounds are popular with tourists and locals alike for an evening stroll. Indian women in their colourful saris offer shy smiles as they pass by. Fountains dance and children play. It’s a welcome hiatus from the constant hubbub of life outside the high stone walls.
India has long been known for its ancient Ayurvedic healing system. Treat yourself to an Ayurvedic spa experience during your time in Delhi. It’s the ultimate indulgence.
Do you have any tips to add to our Delhi travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.
About the writer
Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel and feature writer. Originally planning to visit London for six months, she ended up staying for ten years and now divides her time between her home in Australia and several months of the year in the UK, Italy and France. Julietta has travelled extensively through Europe, North America, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and Russia, and believes the keys to a great travel experience are an open heart, an open mind and an open-ended ticket.