Between its elegant marble-faced imperial constructions on the one hand, and its teeming, heaving bazaars on the other, Delhi is the archetypal city of contrasts. In its thousands of years of existence, Delhi has been a capital many times: first of ancient kingdoms, then later of the mighty Mughal empire and the British Raj – and now today, of India itself.
Over the centuries, between the construction efforts of its rulers, and the looting of invading armies, Delhi has accumulated a magnificent and varied collection of historic monuments. In the last decade or so, the city has seen a very modern burst of growth, giving Delhi a thriving cultural and leisure scene alongside its historical pedigree.
At first glance, Delhi’s sprawl of 12 million people can seem rather forbidding and impenetrable – but once you get beyond the chaotic first impression, there’s a lot to do.
Most prominent among Delhi’s attractions are its forts and monuments of empires past. A good starting point are the city’s three Unesco World Heritage sites, the most famous being the Red Fort: a magnificent but now-decrepit sandstone palace, built by the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan, the man behind the Taj Mahal.
Further back in time is Humayun’s Tomb, another example of imposing Mughal architecture – and a great opportunity to take some pictures, and stroll in the majestic and well-maintained gardens. Finally on the Unesco tour, the Qutub Complex offers perhaps the most interesting experience, with its 13th century skyscraper minaret and elaborate Islamic architecture.
The most recent empire to fall – the British – also left its own set of monuments: New Delhi. Designed by Edwin Lutyens in the early part of the 20th century as the administrative capital of the Raj, these elegant constructions are now occupied by modern India’s government departments. The wide, leafy boulevards of New Delhi are definitely worth a stroll, and offer a relatively calm respite for visitors. For a dramatic contrast, take a look at the bustling markets now occupying the colonial pillars of Connaught Place (officially renamed Rajiv Chowk).
While Connaught Place may be bustling, the word doesn’t begin to describe Paharganj Bazaar, one of Delhi’s other famous tourist spots. Located opposite New Delhi Railway Station, Paharganj is rammed with stalls selling pretty much anything, and touts who will claim to sell pretty much everything else – along with plenty of cheap hotels, for more adventurous travellers.
If you’re in Delhi at the right time, another shopping experience worth seeking out is the Delhi (or Dilli) Haat in the south of the city, a craft fair held every few weeks. The fair sees artists and craftsmen from all over India come to sell their work – offering a rare opportunity to buy something direct from the person who made it.
Throughout Delhi’s tourist hotspots, visitors should look out not just for petty thieves and pickpockets, but also touts, who will often approach with apparently helpful advice. A good general rule is only to trust people or outlets which you choose, and not those that try to approach you or lure you in.
Getting around in Delhi has become much easier since the opening of the Metro, but visitors after a more exciting and “authentic” public transport experience should venture on to the autorickshaws. These three-wheeled, doorless vehicles are a cheap if rather unnerving way to get around – but make sure to agree on a price at the start of a journey, and be prepared to haggle.
As befits the country’s capital, Delhi offers good Indian food from across the country, from meat-heavy Mughal offerings from the north, to pure-vegetarian dishes from the south. Many of the more upmarket hotels feature excellent Indian restaurants – but this quality comes with a premium price tag.
There are plenty of low-budget options as well, including Delhi’s famously good street food – but be aware that food hygiene standards can be extremely variable, and even tasty dishes can lead to the infamous “Delhi belly”. Follow the standard travel advice of only eating piping hot, freshly prepared food, and if in doubt, stick to vegetarian dishes instead of meat.
Delhi listings magazines and websites should be able to not only give you the most up-to-date advice on where’s good – including restaurants offering international cuisine, an area where Delhi has boomed in recent years – but also tips on specific eateries to avoid.
Along with the growth in international dining, Delhi has also seen massive growth in international-quality bars and nightclubs. To find a good time – whether this is partying the night away, or whiling away the time with a shisha pipe and a glass of chai tea – listings magazines are again the best place to start.
Delhi makes up one side of India’s famous Golden Triangle – three of the most-visited cities in the country. Delhi’s weight of history sits in contrast to the out-and-out splendour of the other sides of the triangle: Agra with its stunning, if ubiquitous, Taj Mahal, and sprawling Agra Fort, and Jaipur, the “Pink City”, with its bazaars and ornate architecture.
With its international air links, Delhi is the traditional starting point for touring the Triangle, with all three cities connected by India’s often-excellent (but also often chaotic) rail system.
The railways also offer the opportunity to reach almost anywhere else in the country, with direct trains connecting even many of the most distant points. From the hard wooden seats at the bottom of the spectrum, up to private air-conditioned sleeper cabins at the top, India’s trains should suit all travellers, whatever the desired comfort level.
Emirates also flies to numerous other destinations in India, offering travellers who want to explore the country the opportunity to arrive in one city, and depart from another: book a multi-city or open-jaw trip through emirates.com.