More often than not, Delhi is the traditional entry-point for backpackers starting their first big Indian adventure. This thriving capital city is home to nearly 17 million people, has been around since the 6th century BC and is an eclectic mix of ancient historical wonders, organised colonial infrastructure and traffic jams heavier than dark matter.
If you’re not prepared for Delhi, it’ll hit you in the face with the force and foulness of a sweat-filled water bomb. Prepare yourself for an assault on every one of your senses!
Wake up to a cacophony of vehicle horns that lasts from dawn to midnight. Leave the aircon and enter the kind of heat that envelopes you like a hot, damp facecloth . Step into the street and be prepared to side-step the advance of tuk-tuk drivers, shop sellers and street kids all plying for their percentage of your tourist dollar.
It’s a crazy, wonderful, boiling pot of everything you’d expect from India, with an extra pinch of Masala spice thrown in for good measure!
We spent a week visiting the must-do attractions, tasted the best of the local cuisine and found a few hidden gems along the way. Grab your camera, a sense of urban adventure, a clothes peg for those bizarre “is he really pissing there?” moments and get ready to take on one of the most bustling and brilliant cities on the sub-continent.
WHERE TO STAY
If you arrive at New Delhi’s main railway station you’re slap-bang in the vibrant suburb of Parharganj – the main backpacker and traveller’s hangout in the city.
With hotels, hostels and hovels aplenty it’s good to have an idea of where you’re heading before you wander into the Main Bazaar (the street running directly east to west from the main entrance of the station), otherwise you’ll be bombarded by well-meaning touts, salesmen and everyone under the blazing Indian sun offering you deals and discounts.
Tucked away down a narrow alley (map) away from the bustling main street is the Smyle Inn. We stayed there for a week and loved it. Central, simple, with friendly, helpful staff plus breakfast and Wi-Fi are all thrown in for free – essential if you’re looking for value from your tourist dollar. If you’re an overlander with a 4WD or car there’s nowhere that close to park, but there’s space and locked storage for a couple of motorbikes.
Its central location is perfect for exploring the streets in the early evening when they come alive with market traders, wandering travellers and all manner of locals set to the mystical background sounds of the local mosque.
WHERE TO EAT
Choices, choices and more choices! Delhi has almost every kind of Indian food on offer and safely sampling at least some of the street food has to be a staple for the intrepid traveller. But there’s a fine line to tread by eating straight off the street to save money and eating hygienically enough to stay fit and healthy.
FOOD SAFETY – remember, just because the locals are eating there doesn’t mean it’s safe for you. It takes up to ten years for the human body to become immune to certain types of E Coli and Salmonella! Choose wisely to avoid the dreaded ‘Delhi Belly’.
WATCH THE MADNESS FROM UP HIGH – if you’re staying in Parharganj there are so many eating options available. Through trial and error (we’ve had more than our share of errors) we stumbled on the Exotic Restaurant, which offers incredible views of the market place from their 2nd floor and rooftop dining areas.
Get there around dusk and watch kites being flown from the surrounding rooftops, the market come alive and the sights and lights of the night take over from the heat of the day. Try the Spinach and Mushroom Lasagne or Israeli Laffa for something different.
Where? On the eastern side of the market place, next to Café India (map)
When? Open from 10:30am to 10:30pm
How much? A meal for two costs around ₹ 500
THE BY-LANE OF FRIED BREAD – is exactly what Gali Paranthe Wali means, the name of a narrow back street in the Chandni Chowk area of the city. Home to an Indian staple and something you have to try – parathas.
Watch in wonder as one man rolls out the dough at lightening speed, fills it with topping (usually spices and mixed vegetables) then throws it to another guy who fries it up in boiling oil. Within seconds it’s ready to devour together with local chutney and sauces.
While you’re in the area don’t forget to wander through the Spice Market and sample some of the divine sweet shops that line the backstreets.
Where? Paranthe Wali Gali, Maliwara, Maliwara Tiraha Bazar, Old Delhi (map)
When? 9 – 11am every day
How much? Each plate costs around ₹ 30 – 40
Best way to try safe street food – one of the safest ways to try a huge variety of classic Indian street food dishes at a very reasonable price, in hygienic conditions (yes the staff wash their hands and wear hairnets) is by visiting one of India’s best known street-food restaurants – Halidram’s.
Where? 6, L-Block, Outer Circle, Connaught Place, New Delhi, Delhi 110001 (map)
When? 10am – 10:30pm
How much? A meal for two costs around ₹400
TRY A TASTE OF TIBETAN – it’s worth heading out of the main tourist areas to widen your food choices if you want to look past the standard ‘Indian/Chinese/Japanese/Continental’ options that seem to appear on every restaurant menu.
We stumbled on the suburb of Humayanpur just off the ring road in the south of the city, home to a large Tibetan and Himalayan community. The winding back streets are full of little cafes serving soft, sumptuous Momos, Thali and Nepali style curry.
Try Freedom Corner for a no-frills, simple taste of life from the mountain kingdoms.
Where? Freedom Corner, C-119, Near NCC Office, Humayunpur Village, Safdarjung Enclave, New Delhi (map)
When? 11am – 11pm
How much? ₹600 for two people
A HEALTHY TASTE OF HOME – if you’ve spent months travelling and just want to eat something different from the usual restaurant fare, it’s worth finding the Brown Bread Bakery, just off the Main Bazaar in Parharganj.
Famed for their fresh bread and vast range of cheeses, the shop is full of tasty snacks like breadsticks and flatbreads, cookies, muesli and jams, honeys and homemade peanut butter. It’s well worth stocking up at before hitting the road again.
The restaurant has a wonderful range of meals including freshly made sandwiches and baguettes, falafels – but do remember every meal comes with a selection of bread for free. It’s easy to over order!
Where? Brown Bread Bakery, Ajay Guest House, Main Bazar, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi (map) There’s also one in Varanasi if you’re heading that way.
When? Open 24 hours a day!
How much? Expect a meal for two to cost ₹ 600
WHAT TO SEE
INDIA GATE & THE POWER CORRIDOR – if you look at a map of New Delhi the vast circular roundabouts of Connaught Place and India Gate stand out like a Gandhi’s spectacles.
India Gate stands tall and imperious at the eastern end of the Rajpath, or King’s way, a ceremonial boulevard that runs for 2km. The majesty and scale of the Rajpath are definitely worth a stroll and you’ll find cover from the trees that line the route to escape the glaring sun.
The parks and canals that surround the gate are a hive of activity from late afternoon onwards, as the heat of the day begins to subside. Definitely take a camera but be prepared for street sellers and constant requests to be the subject of other people’s photos. A polite but firm “I’m sorry no” usually stops them!
At the other end of the wonderfully named Corridor of Power (say it in a deep, foreboding voice for full effect) sits the house of the President – Rashtrapati Bhavan.
RED FORT (map) – a stay in Delhi isn’t complete without a visit to the vast Red Fort, the residence of the Mughal emperor of India until 1857. It sits in a vast space spilling out over 250 acres and butts up against one of the busiest areas of the city – Chandni Chowk.
Although the fort itself isn’t as impressive as those found at Agra and Jaipur, the beauty of the grandeur of the red sandstone with marble embellishments are a sight to behold. The surrounding walls stretch for over 2.5km and the Lahori and Dehli gates are a great place to take photos. Think red walls, green grass and blue skies.
CONNAUGHT PLACE (map) – where India Gate was Gandhi’s right eyeglass, Connaught Place is the left one. Day and night there’s always something going on in this vibrant, commercial part of the city. It’s a great place for people watching, reading a book or grabbing an iced frappe on a hot day.
Built in 1933 the design comprises of two concentric circles with a park in the centre. The largest Indian flag in the world proudly flies from the 63-metre flagpole standing in the centre of the park.
Cafes, cinemas, restaurants and retail stores take up the bulk of the buildings with street vendors filling the gaps in between.
LOTUS TEMPLE (map) – around 30 mins tuk-tuk ride to the south of the city is the beautiful and peaceful Lotus Temple, or Bahá’í House of Worship. The building resembles a closed lotus flower and is fashioned from white marble, brought all the way from Greece; obviously the beautiful Indian marble we’ve seen throughout our trip wasn’t good enough!
If you imagine holding the Sydney Opera House in both hands and closing them, you’d be left with the Lotus temple. Inside you’ll find a wonderful place for reflection in the cool and quiet surroundings.
EXPLORE THE CITY ON A SUNRISE BIKE TOUR – it’s not nearly as gruelling as it sounds. In fact there’s no better time to get out and explore the hidden backstreets of Delhi when the roads are quiet and there are less people to crash into.
Sophee and I went with DelhiByCycle, a really well-oiled company who have a fleet of brilliant city bikes and take small groups through the streets offering different tours on different days of the week.
Even in near-monsoonal conditions we still had a fabulous time learning about the old city and dining with the locals. Get your cycle clips ready!
GETTING AROUND THE CITY
METRO (cross city) – clean, fast and the most cost effective way to travel round the city. With five colour-coded lines linking the satellite cities that surround Delhi, and a sixth line (Airport Express) coming into the city directly from the international airport.
Pay per journey or grab a day pass for ₹ 150 per day or ₹ 250 for three days.There’s a female-only section at the front of every train too as things can get a little ‘close’ during rush-hour.
TUK-TUK (2-10km trips) – affectionately known as the ‘Indian helicopter’ these little yellow and green three-wheelers are the easiest and usually the quickest way to take shorter trips around the city. They’ll test your nerve though as they weave in and out of traffic with death-defying levels of agility and speed! Agree your price before you get in, unless there’s a meter in which case check it’s zeroed and use that.
RICKSHAW (up to 2km trips) – for shorter trips jump on the back of a human-powered bicycle rickshaw. It’s a good way to see, smell and feel the intensity of the traffic. I really do pity the poor guys who struggle to peddle two people up the slightest inclines though!
OLA/UBER – enter smartphone app technology. If you want to rely on your 1st world standards then download the apps and order away. It’s worth noting that at peak hours the prices go up by up to 300% and if Uber is your choice, you’ll need a friend with an Indian credit card to preload your account. Ola proved a little more reliable for us with shorter arrival times but Uber was a fraction cheaper.
Plan to spend anything up to a week in this thriving city and don’t just use it as an entry-point into the sub-continent. There’s a multitude of entertainment, nightlife and daytime activities to keep you busy. We spent ten days waiting for embassies to deliver our visas, had a great time and avoided the infamous Delhi-Belly…just!
Got any other suggestions or ideas to enjoy your time there?