The Indian capital isn’t a place that delivers a gentle introduction. It grabs you by the arm and hauls you into its overwhelming world of swirling sounds and smells. It’s a mighty metropolis of mayhem. Of course, the chaos won’t come as much of a surprise, but what will are the hidden corners of calm and culture that have seen modern Delhi embrace its arty, cosmopolitan side.
Millions visit each year, but relatively few for the city itself. Nearly all make hasty tracks: north to the Himalayas, east to the Ganges, west to the forts and palaces of Rajasthan and south to the tiger reserves and the Taj Mahal. While that’s unlikely to change any time soon, the city itself shouldn’t be lightly dismissed.
Big, bold and brash, this is a city in transition as it seeks to shake off negative international headlines and compete with bohemian Mumbai. Dwell in Delhi for a few days and you’ll discover a city both spiritual and sprawling, home to more than 25 million engaging souls (making it the second most populous in the world after Tokyo) that’s very much divided between old and new. Old Delhi — a swelling blur of cattle-choked streets and labyrinthine alleys where spices sizzle from street-side stalls — offers a taste of the India that everyone imagines, while New Delhi, to the south, is leafy, green and serene, with long avenues lined with mansions built by the British, who made it the capital in 1931.
Of course, Delhi’s history goes back far longer than the days of the Raj. Long before the Brits set up shop in 1858, Delhi spent centuries changing hands. The Mughals enjoyed a stint, as did the bloodthirsty Uzbek warrior Tamerlane in the 1300s. Its illustrious past laid a foundation that remains among the boulevards, flyovers and ornate shrines draped with jasmine garlands and ancient forts and magnificent mosques that have stood the test of time. So stick around and discover what draws travellers to Delhi.
What to see
National Gallery of Modern Art: The perfect starting point for anyone wanting to acquaint themselves with Delhi’s thriving art scene. Its neoclassic home — designed by Edwin Lutyens in the 1920s — is a highlight in itself while the eclectic works on display inside span two centuries. ngmaindia.gov.in
Gandhi Smiriti: Pay your respects to Mahatma at the very spot where he was assassinated on 30 January 1948. Among the items on show in this small house-turned-museum are personal effects such as his walking stick and glasses.
India Gate: Stand under the 138ft-tall archway, inspired by the Arc de Triomphe and built in 1921 to commemorate the lives lost in the Afghan War of 1919. These days, families and courting couples come here to picnic on the surrounding lawns.
Chandni Chowk: Expect a sensory overload along Old Delhi’s busiest street — a marketplace for more than 300 years. Squeeze along the pavements crammed with shoppers stocking up on everything from spices and samosas to saris.
Jama Masjid: Said to be the largest mosque in India (its central courtyard can accommodate 25,000 worshippers), this sacred place of white marble and red sandstone was the handiwork of more than 5,000 labourers.
Rajpath: Take a two-mile stroll down this grand ceremonial boulevard in New Delhi, admiring the president’s pad and the circular parliament building before arriving at India Gate.
Cycling tour: You don’t have to be crazy to cycle on Delhi’s roads but it certainly helps. If you’re feeling brave, join the throngs of rickshaws, lorries, cows and tuk-tuks for a ride to remember, taking in both the main sights and hidden corners.
Humayun’s Tomb: Said to have been the inspiration for the Taj Mahal, this striking Persian-style palace has been the final resting place of the Mughal emperor Humayun since 1572.
Like a local
Hands up: Do as the locals do and eat with your hands — but only use your right hand. The left is, traditionally speaking, used for other things, including toilet duties.
Little extras: Tipping etiquette is different in Delhi. Most upscale restaurants automatically add a service charge to the bill, but tipping taxi drivers isn’t necessary. Most don’t expect it and while it is, of course, gratefully received, it’s actually illegal for them to accept more than the metered fare. Rounding up to the nearest 10 rupees is considered acceptable.
Masha: A cocktail sipped at bar/restaurant Masha, overlooking a lake and park, is a very pleasant way to unwind from the relentless hustle and bustle.
Shiro: Dance the night away among statues of giant Buddhas at lantern-illuminated Shiro. It’s one of the most popular clubs in the city.
Freeze Lounge: What better than an ice bar to help you cope with the sweltering Delhi heat? Guests can don coats and spend up to 20 minutes at a time in the frozen chamber. Great food and a very extensive selection of spirits are on offer, too.
Where to eat
Karim’s Restaurant: A no-frills institution in Delhi. Watch chefs at work in the open-sided kitchen preparing the same stews and spiced kebabs it served when it first opened more than a century ago. Feeling adventurous? Try the fried goat’s brain.
Kashmiri Kitchen: Run by a mother and daughter team, this rustic restaurant specialises in home-cooked grub from the northern Indian state. Think mutton balls in a saffron gravy and stewed aubergine with tamarind and cumin.
Indian Accent: A highly sophisticated curry restaurant, which is currently preparing to open a New York outpost. Under the watchful eye of head chef Manish Mehrotra, the chicken tikka meatballs, stewed Goan pork rib and lamb shank masala are served with a choice of more than eight types of traditional Indian bread.
Moti Bazaar: Pick up pearls or a pashmina at this popular spot near Chandni Chowk.
Kings Park Street: This new cultural centre in west Delhi has a modern flea market offering all manner of trinkets.
Time for chai: Take home the finest Indian tea from Mittal Teashop in Sundar Nagar. You can even create your own blend.
Khan Market: Fashionistas and bookworms will enjoy this strip of shops, featuring high-end boutiques, tailors and interior stores.
Art attack: The gift shop in the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museums has an impressive collection of handmade textiles and pottery.
Where to stay
Amarya Haveli: The nine tasteful and colourful rooms here are individually decorated and named after gemstones (Blue Sapphire gets our vote) and have bathrooms filled with toiletries from Kerala. Doubles from £70.
The Taj Mahal Hotel: This place impresses, from the marble fountain in the lobby and Mughal domes to the 294 rooms decorated with beautiful Indian art. Doubles from £151.
Leela Palace: Bed down in style among Venetian chandeliers, Rajasthani artwork and gilded domes at the £255 million Leela Palace. There’s also a rooftop infinity pool and Ayurvedic spa. Doubles from £345.
Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Air India and Jet Airways fly daily between Heathrow and Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. Those arriving by train from elsewhere in India will likely alight at New Delhi train station located in Paharganj.
Average flight time: 8h 30m.
Delhi is a surprisingly easy city to get around. Taxis, rickshaws and tuk-tuks are plentiful and cheap, although drivers will insist they know your chosen destination even when they don’t. Cue a sometimes lengthy and frustrating, but always amusing, ride around the city. Traffic, particularly in Old Delhi, can be a challenge at times. Use the Metro system whenever you can.
When to go
Avoid summers, which can swelter at 40C. Late October to mid-March is the optimum time to visit Delhi, when the city starts to dry off after the monsoon rains that sweep in from July. Expect pleasant daytime temperatures of around 20C. It gets chilly between December and February, sometimes dropping to below freezing.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens require a visa prior to arrival. New rules mean these can now be applied for online and purchased at a cost
of £39. indianvisaonline.gov.in
Currency: Rupee (INR). £1 = INR99
Health: Yellow fever immunisation is essential if you expect to arrive within six days of having visited an infected area. Precautions against hepatitis A, typhoid, polio and malaria are also recommended.
International dial code: 00 91 11.
Time difference: GMT +5.5.
How to do it
Cox & Kings offers four nights’ B&B in a deluxe room at The Oberoi, New Delhi, from £1,060 per person, including return flights from Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic and private transfers.
Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)