Delhi has long been dismissed by visitors, viewed only as a place to fly into and get out of, rather than spend precious travel time. Guidebooks remain cautious, warning of shysters and scams, and the undeserved ‘Delhi belly’ label has stuck like glue for decades. It’s perhaps no surprise many arrive in India’s capital with low expectations.
As the capital continues its fevered march towards economic progress though, attitudes are changing. Those who venture beyond the tried-and-tested traveller enclaves, perhaps via the all-new Metro system, find elegant spas, cosmopolitan bars and a fresh crop of boutique hotels to choose from.
The international art set flock to Lado Sarai, south Delhi’s avant-garde hub, where photography exhibitions and cutting-edge installations and performances are staged, while Hauz Khas village remains a draw for gourmands with its ever-growing roster of celebrated restaurants.
Over in Khan Market, local ladies lunch and fashionistas can send their credit cards into meltdown at the enticing cluster of smart boutiques. History buffs, meanwhile, have long delighted in exploring Old Delhi, where remains of the old city walls and gates still surround crumbling Mughal tombs and ancient bazaars. Founded as ‘Shahjahanabad’ by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1639, it remained the capital of the Mughals until the end of the dynasty. Today, it is home to the ever-popular Red Fort and Asia’s largest wholesale spice market, Khari Baoli, dating back to the 17th century. And at the heart of Old Delhi lies Chandni Chowk, the place to sample some of Delhi’s tastiest street food from samosas to jalebis (sticky, deep-fried cakes) and Indian sweets.
In fact, only in Delhi can you practise yoga among the mausolea of Sultanate dynasties in the morning, window shop in India’s glitziest mall, DLF Emporio, in the afternoon, and be served from the kitchens where Michelin-starred wonder-chef Atul Kochhar trained in the evening. There’s no denying India’s capital has come a long way.
See & do
India Gate: One of the most photographed monuments in the country, India Gate was built in remembrance of the British and Indian soldiers killed during World War I. If time allows visit twice, once during the day and again at night when the illuminated scene is especially stirring.
Nature Morte: Tap into Delhi’s modern art scene at this gallery, lauded by many aficionados as Delhi’s most cutting-edge, and discover experimental Indian art forms, from photography to unusual installations.
Red Fort: This huge red sandstone fortress is where Shah Jahan held court. It remains resplendent after being pillaged by the Persians and later, the British. If you’d like a quick, kitsch overview attend the sound and light show, highlighting its long history.
Hang out at Kunzum: In the heart of bohemian Hauz Khas, Kunzum is Delhi’s only ‘travel cafe’. An especially friendly spot to exchange tips over a coffee and meet other travellers, there’s also wi-fi, regular talks and workshops by travellers, artists and writers, and even the odd gig. www.kunzum.com
Delhi by Cycle: Wake up with Old Delhi on two wheels. Not as daunting as it sounds — this four-hour cycle tour with a local expert around Delhi’s most atmospheric quarter will introduce you to the Red Fort, Jama Masjid and the dust-choked Spice Market. Great value-for-money at 1,600Rs (£19). www.delhibycycle.com
Lodhi Gardens: Set around the burial places of the Sultanate dynasties, this well-tended park attracts the city’s well-heeled and is a great place to take a morning stroll or leisurely picnic.
Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary: Bring your binoculars to spot storks, ravens and peacocks at this twitcher’s paradise, lying just 25 miles from Delhi. www.sultanpurbirdsanctuary.com
Join the spa-set: A 30-minute drive from the centre of town, The Claridges Spa Surajkund is one of Delhi’s smartest, with a globe-spanning menu of different treatments on offer. It’s blissfully serene, surrounded by manicured gardens. www.claridges.com
From kaftans to china, tribal pottery to designer labels, Delhi is a shopper’s paradise.
Khan Market: A long time favourite of Delhi’s sizable ex-pat community, Khan Market is a great place to shop for books, clothes, fabrics and gifts. For easy-to-wear, ethically made, Indian block print clothes, Anokhi or Fabindia are both good choices, or opt for some colourful homeware from Good Earth, which also has a cute rooftop cafe. Just be aware that nothing really opens before 10am and it gets very busy on weekends. www.anokhi.com www.fabindia.com www.goodearthindia.com
Connaught Place: Recognisable by its white Georgian-style architecture and its radial roads, ‘CP’ is a well-established shopping area. Head to the curiously-named lifestyle store Happily Unmarried where you can pick up brightly coloured Indian-inspired CD racks and luggage tags. And pop in to nearby People Tree, a pioneering fair-trade fashion company. www.happilyunmarried.com www.peopletreeonline.com
Like a local
Wenger’s: If you have a sweet tooth and love nothing more than a pastry or two, pop into Wenger’s at Connaught Place for elevenses. The ultimate sugar-hit — they’ve been making truffles, cookies, mousses and cheesecakes since 1926. T: 00 91 11 2332 4373.
Taxi scam: Like in any big city, you have to watch out for scams. A common one is for taxi drivers to deny any knowledge of your hotel on arrival, only to take you to an alternative and earn a bit of commission; another is to insist a sight or attraction has moved, before offering to take you to a travel agent to make a booking. The best advice is to remain cautious.
Delhi Metro: Make like a Delhi-ite and use the Metro to move around the city cheaply and safely — it’s another world from the carnage overground. Tourist cards, valid for one to three days, can be used for unlimited travel on the network over short periods of time. Also, ladies should make the most of the ‘women only’ carriages available on every train. www.delhimetrorail.com
Delhi has a long culinary tradition, recalling not only its own history, but also British Delhi, its neighbours on the sub-continent and, increasingly, the wider world. Don’t miss its superb street food either, from fish curries to papri chat and lassis in Old Delhi.
£ Karim’s: Family-run since 1913, Karim’s is a meat-lover’s paradise. Order-up the super-tender, marinated mutton kebab.
££ Blanco: In the heart of Khan Market, Blanco’s eclectic menu — Vietnamese prawn rolls, salads and Indian thalis — makes this a perfect pit-stop for lunch or dinner.
T: 00 91 11 4359 7155.
£££ Chor Bizarre: For a dining experience you’ll never forget, head to Chor Bizarre, where plate-upon-plate of lip-smacking Kashmiri food is served amid eccentric decor — the buffet is presented on a vintage Fiat. If you’re up to it try ‘wazwan’, the legendary Kashmiri ceremonial feast of 36 courses. www.chorbizarrerestaurant.com
Delhi has an ever-increasing range of accommodation to suit every pocket and taste.
£ Hotel Cottage Yes Please: If you’re looking for a cheap hotel in Delhi, the Paharganj — backpacker central — is still the place to go. The best of a mixed lot is Hotel Cottage Yes Please, just off the Main Bazaar; the staff are friendly and the guestrooms are cheap, safe and clean. www.cottageyesplease.com
££ B Nineteen: This is hands-down Delhi’s best boutique choice. With free wi-fi, cool linens, views of Humayan’s Tomb and hospitable hosts, it’s no wonder B Nineteen is popular with in-the-know Delhi visitors. With just six rooms, it’s wise to book ahead. www.bnineteen.com
£££ ITC Maurya: Brilliantly glitzy, ITC Maurya has some of the city’s best dining, a floor just for ladies and a jaw-dropping lobby made of vaulted and brightly painted wooden beams. www.itchotels.in
While India’s nightlife is subject to noise restrictions and hefty alcohol taxes, partygoers will find plenty of places to go.
The Living Room Café: A great location in the heart of hip Hauz Khas, The Living Room Café is an eclectic venue dishing up tapas, nitrogen-cold beer, DJ nights and laid-back interiors. www.tlrcafe.com
Aqua: Young and very much of its time, Aqua attracts the bold and beautiful of Delhi who like to party poolside. Dress up to fit in. www.theparkhotels.com
@LIVE: One of Delhi’s best live-music venues, the music here tends to be unplugged and of the classic rock variety. Centrally located, laid-back and sociable, this is a great weekend venue for letting your hair down. www.qba.co.in
DID YOU KNOW? Despite its reputation as a polluted and dirty city, Delhi, is in fact, one of the ‘greenest’ cities in the world with grass and parks covering 20% of this urban sprawl. Further steps are being made to boost its eco credentials too: www.greenleapdelhi.org.in
Jet Airways, Air India, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic all fly direct from Heathrow. There are no direct flights from other UK airports. www.jetairways.com www.airindia.com www.ba.com www.virgin-atlantic.com
Average flight time: 8h20m.
Except around the narrow market areas, Delhi isn’t great for walkers. It’s generally a choice between taxi, Metro or auto-rickshaw.
Try hiring a car with a driver. Maavalan Travels can organise a comfortable car and English speaking driver from around £25 a day. www.maavalanindiatravels.com
When to go
Between October and March to avoid the worst of the heat and monsoon. Nights can be chilly during this time and occasionally a flight may be delayed due to fog.
Need to know
Visas: A pre-paid tourist visa (valid for six months) is required for UK citizens from £30. http://in.vfsglobal.co.uk
Health: Check with your GP about jabs.
Currency: Rupee (Rs) £1 = 86 Rs.
International dial code: 00 91.
Time: GMT +5.5.
How to do it
Four nights with British Airways at the three-star Delhi Pride costs from £781 per person with flights.
Delhi Wallpaper* City Guide. RRP: £4.95.
www.thedelhiwalla.com is an excellent resource for ‘alternative’ Delhi.
www.eatanddust.com for New Delhi street food, a blog by ex-pat food writer and cook Pamela Timms.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)