Delhi is a colorful and vibrant world of its own in the North of India. The mesmerizing capital boasts millions of faces, scents, sounds and things to see. It is one of the oldest cities in the world with stunning monuments that tell tales of long-gone empires. At the same time, it displays some of the most enticing features of a modern city, like the irresistible cuisine and sprawling parks. The metropolis is a must-visit, one of the undisputed Indian highlights. It will help you understand what made India the country it is today.
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What to expect
Delhi has a reputation for overwhelming first-time visitors, and yet, for some strange reason, millions of people fall in love with it every year.
If you haven’t been to India before, be prepared for Delhi’s vastness, the horrendous traffic, intense heat during summer/monsoon season (April-August) and the large number of people that seem to want something from you. And despite the Prime Minister’s mission to clean up India, most Delhi neighborhoods are still extremely dirty.
But the worst part for me was to witness so many people living in extreme poverty. I tried to prepare myself prior to the trip but it was so much worse than I could ever have imagined. Young girls sleeping on the streets with newborn babies, handicapped people living in cardboard boxes and emaciated elderly people everywhere. Heartbreaking! Most of the city’s poor, about 33% of the population, are migrants. They came to Delhi attracted by the promise of secure jobs and a better life, but more often than not their dreams never came true.
I wish I had done some more research on organizations helping the less fortunate before we got to India, because then I would have known about “I Like Local” and their Delhi Street Kid Walk, which sounds amazing! You get to tour the streets of inner city Paharganj and the area around New Delhi railway station, with a child who was once living and working on the streets. And 100% of the money asked by the local hosts is directly paid to them. Check out all the other tours and activities avaiable in India here.
You also have to prepare for the staring, which is what a drove me to breaking point several times. (Yes I’m very easily agitated, especially when it’s 45°C out) Some Indian men will openly stare and stare and stare and stare. And then sometimes make unwanted advances, often including groping and photographing you without permission. I tried my best to ignore it, but coming from Norway where people look down most of the time in fear of making eye contact and you are considered to be a crazy person if you sit down next to someone on an empty bus, I just couldn’t help myself. I raised my voice and asked “what are you staring at?!?!?” quite a few times and even then they just kept on staring.
So in light of all of this you might wonder why you should even bother to visit Delhi. But I promise, despite all the mayhem, there are peaceful havens and incredible historic sites waiting to be discovered. You just need to know where to look and what to stay away from.
Streets of Old Delhi – Edited with my Faded Pastel Lightroom preset
How to get around Delhi
The traffic in India is pretty bad in general, but no other city can prepare you for the sheer traffic-anarchy you are about to experience in the country’s capital. I would not recommend trying to navigate the chaos by yourself. It is easy and convenient to grab a taxi, rickshaw or train.
Taxi from the airport
When arriving in the middle of the night I always like to arrange for the hotel I’m staying at to pick me up at the airport so I don’t waste any time driving around looking for my accommodation. This is especially handy in India where scams are a part of everyday life. However after we had booked our hotel in Delhi we discovered that they didn’t offer this service, after all, so we opted for the next best thing, a prepaid taxi which I booked online through Mozio.
I do not recommend using the regular pre-paid taxis at the airport as I’ve heard quite a few disheartening stories. The most common scam revolves around the driver taking unknowing travelers to a remote location in the middle of the night, claiming not being able to find your hotel or that the hotel has closed down and instead taking you to one that pays commission.
More on common scams to look out for at the end of the post.
If you’re a female solo traveler or traveling with a group of girls, Sakha Cabs could also be a great option for both airport transfer and day trips etc. In partnership with Azad Foundation, a nonprofit organization, Sakha provides jobs in professional driving to resource-poor women in India as part of “Women on Wheels (WOW)” initiative. What a great cause to support!
It’s also quite easy to grab an Uber or Ola from the airport as there are designated areas for your driver to pick you up.
The rickshaw is probably the cheapest and most authentic way to get around the city. You sit in a converted, open-air tricycle behind the driver. There are both bicycle and motorbike/auto rickshaws. Remember to agree on a price before you get in.
New Delhi’s metro system is air-conditioned (which, during the intense summer heat is a lifesaver), cheap, and reliable. Within just 20-30 minutes, you can get from the airport to the city center. Don’t be afraid to use it during the day, even if you’re a woman traveling alone. There’s a ladies car at one end of every train, clearly marked with pink signage so you can’t go wrong.
I didn’t try it myself because our time in Delhi was so limited, but here’s a great guide that will help you master the metro system in no time!
What to wear
For women, it is important to cover up shoulders and legs as a sign of respect, especially if you plan on visiting a mosque or temple. It is not advisable to wear very short skirts or tight-fitting clothes while you’re out and about in the city as it will result in stares and maybe even groping as mentioned above. Wearing loose, cotton clothing is a better idea because it will keep you cool and at the same time help you fit in more. I swore by basic cotton maxi dresses and colorful kimonos during our two weeks in India. Super comfortable and at the same time a little bit stylish for the photos. I also noticed that I got a lot more unwanted attention when I wore my long hair down instead of up in a bun.
You should also be aware that pickpocketing is extremely common in Delhi. So don’t flash your valuables around and make sure you carry them safely in an anti-theft backpack or a bag you can lock.
Where to stay in Delhi
The North/ Old Delhi: Paharganj, Karol Bagh & Chandni Chowk
Paharganj, also known as the Main Bazaar, is one of the most popular budget/backpacker areas in Delhi. Here you’ll find chaotic markets, hostels and many restaurants serving both Indian or Western food. “Smyle Inn” is a great accommodation option if you’re on a tight budget. It’s small but modern and the New Delhi Railroad Station is only a five-minute walk away. Other affordable areas close by are Karol Bagh to the West of Paharganj and crazy busy Chandni Chowk to the North.
Central Delhi: Connaught Place
Connaught Place with its spacious, tree-lined streets and roundabouts is the modern business district of Delhi. Connected by numerous Metro stations, taxis, and auto rickshaws, this is the place to stay if you want to zip around the city very easily. Apart from high-rises and office buildings, you will also find fancy hotels like the “Oberoi New Delhi” and the five-star “The Park New Delhi.”
The Southern districts
South Delhi is vast and very different from the crowded market streets of Old Delhi. The somewhat peaceful atmosphere and the fact that most of the tourist attractions are located here is why this is my favorite area in New Delhi. If you stay here, you can easily access highlights like the Lodhi Gardens and the tombs of Mughal Emperors (e.g. in the Nizamuddin district). The different districts look more like oversized neighborhoods with huge streets and lots of trees. You will also find plenty of food stalls and shops. There are some luxury hotels, as well as comfortable guest houses, such as “G49 Bed & Breakfast.”
You might also like: Top 12 awesome things to do in Jaipur
Top things to do in Delhi
1. Humayun’s Tomb Complex
The tomb of Mughal Emperor Humayun, now a UNESCO world heritage site, is simply wonderful. As the first garden-tomb in India and the first large-scale building to use red sandstone, it represents a leap in Mughal architecture. The complex is surrounded by smaller monuments like the tomb of Isa Khan Niyazi, an Afghan noble. Make sure to take a stroll through the paradise garden, designed according to Persian tradition.
We walked here from our hotel in southeast Delhi around 7 am and were the first people there. Humayun’s Tomb was one of the highlights for me in India, it was so nice to walk around and enjoy the beautiful surroundings almost all by ourselves.
Entrance fee: Indian nationals Rs. 30 – Foreigners Rs. 500
Opening hours: 6 am to 6 pm daily
2. Lodhi Garden
What do you least expect to find in a busy, overpopulated metropolis like Delhi? An oasis. But it does exist. Lodhi Gardens are one of the incredible, green spaces of Delhi, sprawling across 90 acres of land. Here, you get to discover the stunning North Indian Islamic architecture and history. The impressive tombs, beautiful bridges and watchtowers were built in the 15thcentury by the Lodhi and the Sayyid dynasties, before the Mughal empire took over. The gardens are also a favorite amongst Delhi’s high society – so you might be able to spot a high-profile politician or celebrity.
We went to Lodhi Garden on a Saturday which meant it was very crowded with locals walking their dogs, working out and just spending the day in the park with their families. I can imagine a weekday would be a much better time to visit to fully be able to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.
Entrance fee: FREE
Opening hours: 6 am – 7.30 pm daily (it might be open later)
Who needs standard supermarkets, air-conditioned shopping malls or fancy boutiques when you can have the Delhi markets! Dive right into the action by exploring the amazing, large scale markets in Delhi, like Chandni Chowk, Dilli Haat, Khari Baoli or Chor Bazaar. They are an absolute paradise for shoppers, buzzing with customers as early as 6 am.
You can buy pretty much everything you can imagine: Tons of fresh vegetables and fruit, wonderful home decorations and fabrics, handicrafts, vintage goods, tea, spices, jewelry, clothes and much more. Just make sure to bring patience, bargaining skills and endurance. You will return with bags of wonderful goods, a belly full of delicious Indian food and a lot of new friends. Spending one day here will save you months of lessons in Indian culture and etiquette, language, history, delicacies, art and fashion.
Dilli Haat is a paid-entrance open-air market located in South Delhi, run by Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation. They also operate two other locations but I do think the original one opposite INA Metro Station is the best. What is so great about Dilli Haat is that it gives the feel of a traditional weekly village market (called a haat) but it is open every day. We opted to do most of our shopping here so we could escape the crowds for a little while. Get there just as they open at 10.30am for the best prices and a more comfortable temperature. I bought several straw bags here for only $7 a piece so I couldn’t be happier.
Entrance fee: Indian nationals Rs. 30 for adults, Rs.10 for children and foreigners Rs. 100.
Opening hours: 10 (or 10.30) am to 10 pm daily
4. Tomb of Safdarjung
The Safdarjung Tomb, made of marble and sandstone, is the last magnificent tomb garden of the Mughal era. The tomb was constructed in 1754 for Mirza Muqim Abul Mansur Khan, better known as Safdarjung. It is conveniently located close to both Lodhi Gardens and Humayun’s tomb.
Safdarjung Tomb is not on the itinerary of most people doing Delhi in less than 3 days, so it’s usually very peaceful and you won’t have to navigate around large crowds of people to get that perfect shot.
Entrance fee: Indian nationals Rs. 15 – Foreigners Rs. 200
Opening hours: 7 am to 7 pm
5. Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple
The Akshardham Hindu Temple is another must-see in Delhi. It is a stunning spiritual-cultural site regarded by Swaminarayan Hindus as a temporal home of God on earth. ‘Akshardham’ means the abode of almighty Lord Swaminarayan, a yogi and ascetic, who revived central Hindu practices. His life and work are portrayed in the various exhibition halls. The Akshardham temple reveals thousands of years of fascinating Hindu spirituality, Indian culture and architecture.
This is one of the most intricately beautiful buildings in India and is definitely worth a visit. But remember that you’re not allowed to bring a camera, phones, umbrellas, toys, food or drinks inside the complex.
Entrance fee: Entry to the complex is free but there are different exhibitions and shows that require a ticket
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday – First Entry: 9.30 am – Last Entry: 6.30 pm
6. Red Fort
The Red Fort, also known as the Lal Qila, was constructed by one of the most famous Mughal emperors, Shah Jahan. He also commissioned Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and several other majestic buildings around northern India. Not surprisingly, the period of his reign is considered to be the golden era of Mughal architecture.
Built on the banks of Yamuna River, it took over 8 years to finish the construction of the magnificent fort. When Shah Jahan decided to shift his capital from Agra to Delhi, the Red Fort took over as the main royal residence of the Mughal emperors. And it stayed that way for over 200 years.
Today the fort has become an icon of the city and is a must on any Delhi itinerary. With its towering red sandstone walls measuring 33 meters high and almost 2.5 kilometers long, you can’t really miss this place. Inside you’ll find a large complex of entertainment halls, palaces, indoor canals, a stunning white marble mosque and perfectly manicured gardens.
Entrance fee: Indian nationals Rs. 35 – Foreigners Rs. 500
Opening Hours: 7 am to 5.30 pm daily
Related post: Everything you need to know before visiting Taj Mahal
7. Agrasen ki Baoli
Just a short walk away from Connaught Place, down a peaceful residential street, you’ll find Agrasen ki Baoli, a centuries-old, subterranean stepwell hidden behind a seemingly uninteresting stone wall.
Stepwells, otherwise known as “baoli” or “bawli”, depending on the region, were built centuries ago in the arid zones of Rajasthan to provide water all year around. These days the wells are no longer used for storing water, instead, the aesthetically pleasing geometric features attract local and international visitors alike.
We visited Agrasen ki Baoli in the middle of the day and to our surprise, we were the only tourists there. The guard told us that “modeling” was not allowed but photos were, so we had to be a bit sneaky to get a couple of good shots here.
Entrance fee: Free
Opening hours: 9 am to 5.30 pm
8. Old Delhi Spice Market (Khari Baoli)
Just west of Chandni Market you’ll find Khari Baoli Road, home to Asia’s largest wholesale spice market. The market has been in operation since the 17th century and is today a vibrant and fun attraction for both locals and tourists.
Although I’m not usually a fan of guided tours I would suggest touring the market with a good guide so he can take you up to one of the rooftops for an incredible view of the bustling streets below. If you go by yourself there’s a good chance you’ll struggle to find the entrance as it is quite hard to spot.
Just like most parts of Delhi, the Old Spice Market is crazy and chaotic. So if you have the opportunity to visit early in the morning you’ll see a totally different side to the area and maybe even witness a beautiful sunrise.
Entrance fee: Free
Opening hours: 10 am to 9 pm Monday – Saturday. The roof is open 24/7 but be aware of the people sleeping up there
What & where to eat in Delhi
Delhi has much more to offer than meets the eye, which is also true for the food. In this foodie haven, you will never go hungry.
Just at the entrance of the National Crafts Museum, you’ll find Cafe Lota – a beautiful, Instagrammable cafe that feels like a calm oasis compared to the chaos of the streets outside. We had lunch here and it was one of the best meals of our India trip, so I can definitely recommend this place.
AnnaMaya, a food-hall style restaurant filled with stations for every cuisine you could possibly imagine, is another one of my favorites in the city.
- Old Delhi: One of the most iconic areas of Delhi, the old part of town boasts buzzing markets and some of the best food stalls in the city. You have to come here if you’re a street food lover like me!
- North Campus: This area is one of the best places to find cheap and delicious meals. After all, students always know where to get the best value for their money. Some great spots: Bamboo Hut, Shagun Asian Eatery, Momo’s Point, Bille Di Hatti and South Indian Cafe.
- Hudson Lane: Not far from the North Campus area, you will find great cafés and restaurants, which also offer international cuisine. Some of the best places are Big Yellow Door, Mad Monkey, QD’s, Woodbox Café, Indus Flavours and Rico’s.
- South Campus/ Satya Niketan: This is a great area to find quirky cafés and chains like Chowringhee Lane, Echoes, Kev’s, and Vadapav Junction.
- Jama Masjid & Bazaar Matia Mahal: This is not only a favorite for hungry locals but also a great foodie and traveler destination.
- Nizamuddin: This iconic area is a must-visit for any foodie, with one great eatery next to the other. Some great options are: Ghalib Kebab Corner, Karim’s and Gulfam Kashmiri Wazwan.
- Fine dining: Pandara Road and Safdarjung Enclave offer some excellent fine dining options.
Promise me that you won’t leave the city without trying Chole Bhature, Paranthas, Chaat and of course my favorite, Butter Chicken.
Common scams to be aware of
Traveling in India is not always easy. Despite the kindness of the people and the country’s incredible beauty, you will probably experience some lows. You should always stay alert and be aware of your surroundings as scams are kind of a daily routine. Here are a few examples of popular scams for you to avoid:
- Fake train ticket: Only buy your tickets from an official ticketing office. Do not trust strangers who offer to take you to their alleged friend’s ticket outlet.
- Apparently closed or canceled: Do not believe somebody telling you that your train has been canceled. They will try to sell you alternative transport options like a car or bus. A similar scam is also popular at tourist attractions. The driver will claim that one site is ‘closed,’ in order to offer to take you to another place, often a store or somewhere that gives the driver a commission like the hotel scam I mentioned earlier. Stick to your plan.
- Altered taxi meters: Find a legal taxi, be direct about where you want to go and keep an eye on the meter. If it is running unusually fast, it may have been altered to claim a higher fare.
- Pre-paid taxis: Many people have experienced pre-paid taxi drivers who suddenly ‘forgot’ the way and suggested another hotel. Stick to your plan and do not hand the pre-paid voucher to the driver until you have arrived.
- Keep an eye on your money: People will often try and short-change you. If you notice this, confront the person authoritatively to solve the issue. Also, watch out for fake currency.
Have you been to Delhi? What are some of your favorite things to do in the city?
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