Metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai are generally a foreigner’s first glimpse of India and can set the tone for the rest of one’s India travels. Most first impressions of Delhi (including mine) are that it’s busy, dirty and full of scammers and touts. However if you look closely and go to the right places, you’ll be able to appreciate the beauty and rich history of Delhi, and once you’re able to navigate Delhi the rest of India seems like a breeze.
As soon as you arrive at Delhi train station you’ll be bombarded by autorickshaw wallas (with a hefty markup price) men trying to take you to different hotels etc – bypass them and head to the prepaid auto ticket stand for a more accurate fare to your hotel (if you look non-Indian you’ll still have a slightly more expensive fare but this can’t be helped and when converted to your currency it’s only a matter of cents).
When booking train tickets for onward travel (e.g. To Agra, Jaipur etc.), avoid the Hindi speaking male dominated ticket queues and head upstairs to the foreign ticket office – the prices are the same, the process is much more straightforward and staff are very helpful. Ignore anyone who says the ticket office has burned down, is under construction, has relocated to Dubai, was eaten by cows, before offering to take you to the ‘new ticket office’ – it’s a scam so just head to level 1 and the office will be there as usual.
We stayed in Paharganj, also known as the ‘backpacker’s ghetto’. Whilst it is slightly shady, it’s a great place to meet other travellers, is exciting and vibrant, full of resturants and has streets of cheap markets and shops (just make sure to bargain and cut the price by at least half as they heavily markup the price for tourists), as well as being in a central location to most sights. If you really want something in particular you’ll likely find it in Paharganj; there’s a ‘nothing is impossible’ attitude here which is funny and refreshing. If you’d prefer a quieter area, look for accommodation in South Delhi such as in the affluent Hauz Kuas village, or in Mehrauli.
The best way to get around Delhi is by autorickshaw or tuktuks which are readily available on pretty much every street. Although drivers are required to use the meter, most in Delhi don’t and will suggest a price so before you hop on google ‘Delhi auto fare calculator’ which is fairly accurate, just add 10-20INR when negotiating. That being said, we’ve had some of the best auto drivers here who were very fair and honest.
Delhi can be split up into New and Old Delhi, so dedicate at least a day to seeing each –
Rashtrapati Bhavan: the home of the President of India, designed in the early 1900s by British architect Edwin Landseer Lutyens who also played a key role in planning and designing New Delhi. After that, walk along the Rajpath (large park) to India Gate, a war memorial built to commemorate the soldiers lost in the First World War.
Lodi/Lodhi Gardens: a quieter place to escape the hustle and bustle of New Delhi, Lodhi Gardens contains Sikander Lodi and Mohammad Shah’s tombs as well as a mosque. The gardens were created during the 15th century by the Lodhis, an Afghan dynasty and are one of the few places in Delhi with this architectural style, making them a place of preservation. This is where my mum and uncle (who grew up in Delhi) spent a lot her childhood, playing hide and seek between the arches enclosed the Sikander Lodi tomb.
The security guards around the gardens were nice and talkative, one of them was so interested in the photos we were taking that he came over and suggested around ten different places and camera angles to help us improve our photos and offered to get a woman to help me tie my saree properly haha.
In the afternoon head to Connaught Place, the heart of Delhi for shopping and café hopping – also try the maccas, the McVeggie burger without mayo is pretty good!
If you still have time to kill, walk to Janpath market and window shop (hold onto your belongings as it’s pickpocket central!); it’s always packed and there are endless things to see here. If it’s your first time in India, Janpath market is a great place to practise your bargaining skills, and grab some cheap Indian clothing and jewellery (albeit not great quality).
Start off by going to Lal Quilla/Red Fort which was initially built by Emperor Shah Jahan when he wanted to shift his capital from Delhi to Agra – truly amazing architecture, although it was probably lost on most Indians who spent their time staring at and taking photos of me instead!
Chandni Chowk (‘moonlit market’ in Hindi) is just a short walk (or auto drive) away from Red Fort. It’s a crazy, vibrant market with anything and everything on offer, and a must see place in Delhi. Be prepared to be constantly pestered by vendors and auto drivers, but just keep walking purposefully (even if you don’t have a purpose) and they’ll eventually leave you alone. Have fun exploring the gullys and side streets of the market, and do try the street food – ironically I gorged myself on street food in Delhi without aquiring Dehli Belly, but ended up getting food poisoning in Haridwar… Nonetheless, street food is a quintessential part of India; in Delhi I’d recommend trying gobi (cauliflower) or aloo (potato) parathas, chaat, chole bhathura (spicy chickpea curry with fried white bread), bindi (ocra/lady finger) masala with roti, and vegetable biryani, vegetable momos (my fave!).
If you have the opportunity, take a cycle rickshaw around Chandni Chowk and around the spice market and enjoy watching your driver navigate the endless traffic of autorickshaws, cows, men carrying heavy items, construction work etc.
Pop into the Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib located on the Main Street of Chandni Chowk; a beautiful Sikh temple which is super peaceful in contrast to its surrounding streets – just be sure to be dressed respectfully and cover your hair if possible (or they may give you a hair covering upon entry). People there are lovely and extremely devoted yet welcoming, you can sit there for a while and listen to the music of the harmonium, tabla and singing. The priests there are lovely and gave us some flowers on the way out #blessed.
If you approach Delhi with the right mindset and attitude and have a general idea of what to do, you’ll have an enjoyable time. I encountered some of the nicest people here, and according to my mum the police have significantly improved in the past decade or so. Take everything as a learning experience – India will teach you a lot about yourself.