Ancient and modern India collide in Delhi: Cars jostle for space with elephants and camels on the city’s streets. Visitors will find that parts of Delhi have manicured gardens, natural forests and ridges, and other areas are crisscrossed by dark, congested alleys that dead-end into centuries-old mosques and palace ruins. A popular travel destination, the city is also a melange of different cultures, as people from all over the country go there in pursuit of jobs and dreams.
Travelers to Delhi will find that its long history and mix of cultures have spawned an array of architectural styles, religious sites, eclectic museums, vibrant shopping arcades, a host of art and culture centers, and sumptuous cuisines.
Officially two separate cities, the old city of Delhi, which the Mughuls built and lived in, and New Delhi, built by the British and expanded since Independence in 1947, are really two parts of one sprawling metropolis known simply as Delhi.
Old Delhi is noted for spectacular Mughal architecture, enclosed within walls built in 1638 by Shah Jahan, who constructed the Taj Mahal. The eastern part of Delhi across the river Yamuna, which, until the 1980s, had nothing but shanties and farmland, is now dotted with hundreds of high-rise, middle-class residential complexes.
New Delhi also appeals to visitors, as it is relatively clean and modern with many broad, tree-lined boulevards. New Delhi has expanded south and west, and residential areas in South Delhi, for example, are now the most posh addresses in the city.
Delhi has experienced so much growth and expansion as a travel destination—and more development and construction are under way—that it now touches the borders of its neighboring states, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
In fact, Delhi and its surrounding regions are generally referred to as the NCR (National Capital Region), which includes the very up-and-coming regions of Gurgaon in Haryana and Noida in Uttar Pradesh.
Some of the best shopping malls and restaurants are to be found in Gurgaon, where a lot of international companies have their offices; hence, the crowd is varied and cosmopolitan.
Many old monuments are in the process of being revitalized, and conservation work is being undertaken by the Aga Khan Foundation to bring them back to their past glory.
Located in the heart of northern India, Delhi sprawls along the banks of the Yamuna River for about 12 mi/20 km. The areas of most interest to visitors are west of the river—old Delhi to the north and New Delhi to the south. Old Delhi is mainly a walled city of narrow streets, enormous mosques and colorful bazaars. Its main streets are Daryaganj and Chandni Chowk. Built by the British Raj, New Delhi is separated from the old one by Paharganj—a neighborhood full of accommodations, shops and cafes that cater to budget travelers.
Connaught Place is the heart of New Delhi—it’s actually three concentric circles with wide, tree-lined streets emanating from the center. The subway has a station (Rajiv Chowk) at the center of Connaught Place, making it much easier for commuters. Many banks, airline offices and tourist agencies are located there. Janpath, the main shopping strip for antiques, embroideries, ethnic wear and jewelry, runs south from Connaught Place, and Rajpath (Kings Way) runs east and west between the president’s residence and India Gate. Farther south are such upscale neighborhoods as Lodhi Colony, Jorbagh, South Extension and Hauz Khas.
Halfway between the Indira Gandhi Airport and Connaught Place is Chanakyapuri, the Diplomatic Enclave where most of the foreign embassies are located. To the east, across the river, residential complexes have come up in areas that earlier had only shantytowns, also known as jhuggis. Noida and Greater Noida, both in Uttar Pradesh beyond east Delhi, have developed as clean, well-maintained suburbs with modern infrastructure. Business travelers are drawn to expensive suburbs such as Noida and Gurgaon, which are just beyond the city limits in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, respectively—home to most of the call centers and IT outsourcing companies.
What is known today as Delhi is a conglomeration of seven ancient cities—Qila Rai Pithora, Siri, Tughluqabad, Jahanpanah, Firozabad, Dinpanah (Puruna Qila) and Shahjahanabad.
According to the Indian epic Mahabharata, the Pandavas founded the city of Indraprastha, the first city built in North India, circa 1450 BC. While India’s coastal cities were still muddy quags, Delhi was subsequently fought over, destroyed and rebuilt many times by Hindu rulers and Muslim invaders from central Asia who valued its location between the Yamuna river and the Aravali Hills. Each empire left behind monuments commemorating important personalities and events, which helps explain the city’s profusion of architectural styles.
The city didn’t gain its present-day moniker until AD 736, when a Hindu clan known as the Tomara Rajputs built the first city of Delhi, later renamed Qila Raj Pithora. By the mid-1100s, it was considered the most important Hindu settlement in northern India. But that era ended when Afghan Muslims swept through the Khyber Pass and across the Indian plains, conquering the city in 1193.
The sultans, in turn, were overthrown by the Mughals in the 1500s, whose passion for building led to the construction of some of the country’s greatest monuments, including the Taj Mahal in nearby Agra and Delhi’s Red Fort. Mughal ruler Shah Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame) is responsible for building much of what is considered old Delhi. Shahjahanabad in north Delhi was the Walled City, also built by Shah Jahan.
By the 1700s, the fortunes of the Mughals declined as the Hindu Marathas gained strength in the south. British interests in Asia also were growing with the influence of the East Indian Company. The British evicted the last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar, known more as a poet than an administrator, after the first war for Indian Independence in 1857, ushering in the period known as the British Raj.
In 1911, the capital of British India shifted from Calcutta to Delhi. British residential areas had already been built north of Shahjahanabad. In the 1920s, when British rule in India was already in a crisis, the British built the lavish city of New Delhi, designed by the architect Edwin Lutyens, with its imposing tree-lined streets and colonial buildings.
Demand for independence grew in the 1930s and 1940s, but rather than help resolve the differences between India’s Hindus and Muslims, the British partitioned the country, spawning chaos. Much of Delhi was decimated, as more than 300,000 Muslims abandoned the city for Pakistan, and about 500,000 Hindus from Pakistan replaced them. In the midst of this disorder, Mahatma Gandhi, who led the passive-resistance movement against the British, was assassinated in Delhi in 1948.
As the capital of the world’s largest democracy, Delhi continues to struggle with religious and racial violence. Assassination has felled two prime ministers—Indira Gandhi in Delhi in 1984 and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu in 1991. Terrorists even attempted to attack the parliament while in session in 2001, and a 2011 bomb blast outside the High Court claimed 11 lives. Yet ordinary people of differing backgrounds live in harmony in most areas, and tourists are rarely a target.
Pollution, poverty and overcrowding remain critical issues. But the city has made great economic strides. Today, it’s a modern city of high-rise offices and comfortable residential areas whose parks have earned it the reputation as the nation’s “garden city.”
India’s tech boom has established Delhi as a hub for manufacturing and back-office services such as call centers. And as India has begun to flex its economic might, the city has become more modern. Construction projects, including a growing subway system, IT complexes, shopping malls, hotel and residential areas, and a variety of restaurants, are under way. There is a notable increase in the wealth of Delhites—the most common indicator are the privately owned imported luxury sedans that are commonplace on the streets of Delhi. Imported goods—such as laptops, home theater systems, gaming consoles, kitchen appliances, the latest fashions and big brands—have become common commodities.
Even with all the modern conveniences, you’re not likely to forget you’re in India: Traffic can be maddening (you may need to share pedestrian road space with cows, dogs and cycle rickshaws—especially in old Delhi), beggars continue to flock to tourist spots in search of handouts, and power cuts remain common, but most hotels and modern residential complexes have heavy-duty generator backup. Through all this, Delhi has the capacity to captivate and charm.
Because Delhi is really two cities in one and both offer plenty to see and do, consider taking at least one organized tour. Many of the places you’ll want to visit are spread out, and transportation between them can be complicated, expensive and time consuming. A tour will provide a good overview, and you can then return to the sites that interest you. The India Tourism Development Corporation and the Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation offer coach tours. You can also hire a chauffeured car with an English-speaking guide for a more individualized tour, or simply hop on the HoHo bus, a hop-on, hop-off bus tour with multiple routes that meander through the city’s main attractions. We recommend booking online. The service runs daily except Monday. Phone 11-4094-0000. http://www.hohodelhi.com.
Old Delhi, the capital of Muslim India from the 1500s to the late 1800s, is strewn with mosques, forts and monuments. Bustling shops line narrow streets, forming colorful bazaars that teem with people day and night. Not to be missed in the old city is the Red Fort, whose massive red sandstone walls recall the grandeur of the Mughal emperors. Jama Masjid is India’s largest mosque—its courtyard can hold 25,000 people.
New Delhi is the imperial city built by the British near the end of the empire. Imposing government buildings line wide, leafy avenues with names such as Rajpath (Kings Way), Janpath (Commoners Way) and Vijay Chowk (Victory Crossing). Rajpath, which links the Rashtrapati Bhavan with the India Gate, was built on the model of Paris’ Champs-Elysees. The commercial hub of New Delhi is the circular Connaught Place, where you’ll find plenty of shops, restaurants, hotels and tourist services. Not to be missed are India Gate, the stone arch that symbolizes modern Delhi, and Humayun’s Tomb, one of the first examples of Mughal architecture in India.
Ruins and monuments can be found throughout the city. Most of the official monuments are open throughout the day, and entry fees are usually minimal. Unfortunately, few of Delhi’s historical places of interest have telephone-information lines, and addresses are sometimes expressed in maddeningly vague and approximate terms. (This is not a town for travelers who need to know a building number before setting off in search of it.) We suggest asking your hotel to write your destination in Hindi, along with the appropriate landmark, before setting off on your journey, as many drivers do not speak English. Note that many attractions are closed Monday and on national holidays.
Thanks to the tech boom and a growing number of folks with disposable income, the rules in Delhi have changed. As popular as discos with the party crowds are the proliferating neighborhood lounges. The market at New Friends Colony is a promising place to pub ‘n’ club crawl.
The number of concerts and stand-alone discos has also grown, as musicians and DJs have found more places to play. Big international acts have noticed the expanded Asian market for big-ticket rock shows and visit Delhi and other Indian cities on their tours.
India has dozens of regional cuisines that include much more than curry dishes. There are roast meats, pancakelike dosas, and snack foods ranging from fried samosas to papri chaat (Indian-style nachos) and Bombay bhel puri (a puffed rice concoction). Most of them are available in Delhi’s eateries, roadside stands and hotel restaurants. A restaurant boom has increased the quality and range of stand-alone restaurants.
Although curries are favored in the south, meat-oriented Mughlai cuisine, which is similar to Middle Eastern food, is preferred in the north—especially tandoori dishes. Poultry and meat, as well as vegetables, are marinated in a mix of spices and yogurt and then cooked in a clay tandoor. The most popular dish is a British concoction known as chicken tikka masala, which combines baked chicken with a spicy gravy. Thali (pronounced TAL-ley) is the most ubiquitous meal in India. Meaning “plate,” it consists of rice and puri or chapatis (similar to heavy flour tortillas) with five sauces and yogurt or raita. North Indian thalis rely more heavily on dal (various combinations of lentils and beans). Keep your eyes open for street vendors selling Tibetan momos—dumplings stuffed with chicken, mutton or vegetables.
Not all Hindus are vegetarians, particularly in Delhi, where the Muslim influence remains strong. Western cuisine, referred to as Continental, is also widely available in Delhi, as is Chinese food (you may notice that it’s been influenced by local tastes, however). Increasing numbers of Thai, Italian and even Greek menus have popped up since the late 1990s. There is also an emphasis on Lebanese and other Middle Eastern restaurants—many of which double as lounges for the young, upwardly mobile crowd, who go to listen to the latest trance grooves and hip-hop until dawn.
You’ll find a variety of restaurants around Connaught Place. The Village Bistro Complex at Hauz Khas Village also has numerous restaurants serving Mughlai, south Indian, Chinese and Continental fare. Many additional new eateries can be found in other upscale shopping complexes spread across the southern edge of New Delhi.
Despite a long history of coffee production in south India, it’s only recently that the espresso revolution has reached endemic proportions. Store-bought coffee runs about 10 times the price of the chai wallahs (street-level tea sellers).
Indians rarely go out for breakfast, although that is changing in the corporate world. Even some coffeehouses do not open until 10 or 11 am. Lunch is usually taken 1-3 pm, and dinner is usually eaten around 8 pm and sometimes as late as 11 pm. Milk-based Indian sweets take some getting used to, but they can be eaten throughout the day.
Most restaurants (except those serving fast food) accept most major credit cards.
Expect to pay within the following guidelines, based on the cost of a single dinner, not including tip or drinks. $ = less than 250 Rs; $$ = 251 Rs-500 Rs; $$$ = 501 Rs-1,000 Rs; and $$$$ = more than 1,000 Rs.
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