Delhi serves up a full-throttle introduction to the cultural mix and break-neck pace of modern India. The former capital of the mighty Mughal empire and the seat of the British Raj is today bursting at the seams in every direction, throwing up skyscrapers and spilling into new satellite cities to cater to a booming population of 17 million. Befitting a modern metropolis, Delhi has hotels for every budget, every taste, everywhere. Notable in recent years is the swell of classy boutiques and hostels opening to the south, a result of travellers’ waning tolerance for the seedy hotel district of Paharganj (to the west of Delhi’s central hub, Connaught Place) and the launch of the city metro in 2006. If your purse allows it, check into one of Delhi’s sumptuous five-star hotels for a stay to remember. These eye-popping palaces of pomp and splendour (some colonial relics, and part of the historical fabric of Delhi) have carved out serene enclaves in the heart of the city, and welcome guests like maharajahs.
For francophiles & fashionistas: Scarlette New Delhi
A little slice of France exists in Delhi, and it’s not the French embassy. Four-room property Scarlette, opened by French designer Pauline Bijvoet in a pretty residential enclave in south Delhi, is as chic as a Montmartre townhouse — and even has its own on-site atelier. Bijou creations and knick-knacks are on sale in the conservatory, where breakfast is served as a simple, scrumptious array of homemade breads, fruit and eggs. Bedrooms are bright, and high-ceilinged, each with a balcony or terrace. And while staff are hands-off, that suits the vibe: this is a place to retire from the in-your-face hustle of Delhi. Scarlette also lets cute apartments across the street.
Rooms: Doubles from Rs. 6,500 (£72), B&B.
For the high life: The Oberoi, New Delhi
This historic five-star property reopened its doors in January following a 20-month interior overhaul. The result: swaggeringly spacious, high-tech bedrooms with vast en suites and beautifully conceptualised public spaces, including the low-lit roof bar and glitterati hotspot, Cirrus9. The Oberoi exudes the understated opulence of a self-assured icon: interiors are sumptuous and light, with restrained colonial flourishes. And while one could rhapsodise about the staff, it’s the views that steal the show. Top-floor rooms put you at the level of the circling kites, offering a literal bird’s eye views of the iconic Humayun’s Tomb (the inspiration for the Taj Mahal) or the calming, rewilded fringes of a golf course.
Rooms: Doubles from Rs. 21,600 (£238), B&B.
For blooming opulence: The Leela Palace New Delhi
If prizes were awarded for outlandishly glitzy decor, The Leela would win every one. The sheer volume of crystal mirrors, gilt artworks and chandeliers on display in the lobby make it impossible not to gawp. The bedrooms are spacious but teeter on the brink of gaudiness. However, any quibble about the Leela’s taste is quickly remedied by a trip upstairs to Delhi’s most spectacular rooftop infinity pool.
Rooms: Doubles from Rs. 26,780 (£295), B&B.
For pampering: The Imperial
If walls could speak, The Imperial could tell some tales. It was amid the colonial splendour of this hotel that India’s freedom fighters negotiated independence from the British. The Raj-era glamour of the place has been carefully preserved. Come for the history (ask to eat breakfast at Gandhi’s favourite table) but stay for The Spice Route, the award-winning Southeast Asian resturant.
Rooms: Doubles from Rs. 17,500 (£190), B&B.
For heritage charms: Haveli Dharampura
Most travellers only scratch the surface of Old Delhi, picking up a rickshaw at the Jama Masjid mosque for a speedy round-trip ride through its wider bazaars. For years, only the brave stuck around and hung their hats in the rudimentary guesthouses here. But that changed in 2016 when Haveli Dharampura opened its splendid antique doors. The airy 13-room boutique hotel oozes old-world elegance, reminiscent of an emperor’s palace. The hotel is the result of a six-year project to restore a Mughal-era ruin to its original glory. The top terrace is the place to be at dusk: watch pigeon wallahs at work or battle kites with neighbouring kids, enjoying views across a jumble of roofs and temples.
Rooms: Doubles from Rs. 11,000 (£121), B&B.
For modern Mughals: The Taj Mahal Hotel
This big-name destination hotel is every bit as classy as you would expect, and — surprisingly — a lot of fun too. It may be why the Dalai Lama stays here when he’s in town. There’s a lively events schedule and menu of city experiences to discover. Plus, it’s a central pillar in the social lives of Delhi’s elite — the back lawns are often hired out for lavish, themed soirees, and Rick’s Bar (credited with introducing martinis to India) is a staple date night venue. This year, trailblazing restaurant Varq is celebrating its 10th birthday with an irreverent, experimental new menu best described as pan-Indian meets Heston Blumenthal.
Rooms: Doubles from Rs. 10,000 (£111), room only.
For resting nomads: Haveli Hauz Khas
When Neelu and Teji Randhawa opened Teji’s ancestral manor house as a guesthouse in 2015 they found a natural gallery for the curious artefacts and photography they’d amassed while exploring the farthest reaches of India. The affluent neighbourhood is a stroll from Hauz Khas Village, and guests are encouraged to mingle over sundowners and delicious Punjabi cuisine in the lounge — great for solo travellers. Each of the five bedrooms has a single, radiant colour scheme that feels a little like sleeping inside a precious gem. While all are priced the same, ask for a top floor room for a splash more sunlight.
Rooms: Doubles from Rs. 4,000 (£45), B&B.
Three budget places to try
The curled trunk and flapping ears on Shanti Home’s insignia are a nod to Lord Ganesh, god of beginnings. And for a boutique sitting equidistant from the airport and the city’s nerve centre, Connaught Place, that’s pretty apt: for those who’ve just staggered off the plane, bleary-eyed, or are preparing for the long slog back to Blighty, Shanti Home is like a warm embrace. Rooms are cosy and fresh, the chefs are happy to offer cooking lessons, and there’s a tiny gym and spa.
Rooms: Doubles from Rs. 5,000 (£56), B&B.
For backpackers: The Madpackers Hostel
Madpackers is the best of the new crop of funky hostels springing up in the south of the city, catering to backpackers who’ve had it with the scammers and grime of Paharganj. It’s a touch hard to find, but once you’re there you’ve got spotless dorms, wi-fi, helpful staff with the combined knowledge of a travel agency, and an adorable pup named Chewy padding around.
Rooms: Dorms from Rs. 600 (£6.30), bed only. Private doubles from Rs. 2,000 (£22), B&B. Prices include government taxes.
For a taste of Tibet: AMA
The Tibetan colony of Majnuka Tilla to the northeast of Old Delhi began life as a refugee settlement in the 1960s. Today, it’s a warren of incense shops, prayer flags and cafes. Accommodation here is very basic but generally cleaner and better value than in Paharganj. AMA guesthouse is spartan but has soft mattresses and hot water, plus its own in-house travel agent.
Rooms: Doubles from Rs. 850 (£9.40), room only. Prices includes government taxes. AMA Rabsel House, No. 47, New Tibetan Camp, Delhi 110054. T: 00 91 11 2381 2284.
Western & Oriental offers five nights in Delhi from £1,495 per person based on two sharing. The price includes international flights, airport transfers, five nights at The Leela Palace on a B&B basis and two half-day Delhi sightseeing tours including a guide and entrance fees.
Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)