Delhi is without a doubt one of the most intriguing cities in the world. While first impressions may be of sensory overload, for most visitors, this soon gives way to an inkling that there are many layers beneath the hectic surface. Travel writer and Asia specialist John Oates gives us a rundown of Delhi’s best sights…
The remains of seven different cities have been found in the area, and it’s been a trading centre and cultural crossroads for hundreds of years. But Delhi’s glories are by no means all in the past, and it’s fascinating to immerse yourself in this ancient city as it tackles the challenges of the 21st century.
Most of the historical sights are in Old Delhi, including the Jantar Mantar (an 18th century astronomical observatory) and the India Gate (one of many reminders of the British Empire). Old Delhi is also the site of the Red Fort, which is worth seeing particularly if you won’t be visiting the more impressive fort in Agra.
Qutub Minar complex
When the Muslim army of Shahab-ud-Din Ghori defeated the Hindu rulers of Delhi at the end of the 12th century, he built the Qutub Minar – a five-storey brick minaret – to mark the victory.
Other buildings in the UNESCO-listed complex include the first mosque to be built in India, which was constructed in such haste that it incorporated recognizable chunks of Hindu and Jain temples. The gardens are well maintained and a popular spot for picnics.
The centuries which followed Ghori’s victory saw a succession of Muslim dynasties, of which the Mughal Empire has left the most splendid traces. The red sandstone tomb of Humayun, the second Mughal emperor, is often described as a predecessor of the Taj Mahal and its grand symmetry draws crowds.
If you want space for quiet reflection, then head to Safdarjung’s Tomb nearby. Built in 1754, it’s built in a similar style to Humayun’s but receives far fewer visitors.
Places of worship
The country’s four main religions – Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism – each have notable places of worship in the city. Other holy buildings worth visiting include the striking BahÃ¡’Ã House of Worship (AKA the Lotus Temple).
Hanuman Temple Found on Baba Kharak Singh Road close to Connaught Place in New Delhi, this small temple is dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman. It’s hugely busy, particularly on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and alive with the smell of incense, the sound of clanging bells and the reverence of believers. The biggest annual festival marks the birthday of Hanuman in March or April.
One of the focal points of Old Delhi, this mosque was created at the behest of Shah Jahan – the Mughal Emperor who was also responsible for the Taj Mahal. To give you an idea of its size, the courtyard can hold an impressive 25,000 worshippers.
Tourists are made very welcome, from 8am (or 7am in summer) to 12:15pm and from 1:45pm to half an hour before sunset. Women will need to cover their heads, shoulders and knees, while men should avoid shorts. Ignore any touts outside trying to charge you to enter, but do leave a few rupees for the man looking after your shoes (which you must remove).
You’ll find all kinds of shopping experiences in Delhi, from back-street markets to modern malls. Remember that bargaining is expected almost everywhere.
One of the busiest markets in the country, Chandni Chowk has all the colour and mayhem you could desire. You can buy a huge range of things including spices, jewellery, saris and handicrafts. Indulge in Indian sweets and other delicacies, or watch craftspeople hard at work in open workshops.
As you wander keep an eye open for havelis, old homes centred around courtyards. And when you’ve had your fill of the sights, sounds and smells, find some peace at Karim’s restaurant on Kasturba Hospital Marg. Its Mughal food is deservedly famous.
This market is a great place to buy regional handicrafts, often direct from the people who made them. It’s a more controlled environment than most Delhi markets because there’s a small entry fee, and the prices are not as low as you may find elsewhere, but it’s a useful one-stop-shop for everything from toys to pashminas.
Dilli Haat is also wonderful for grazing as it serves up cuisine from every Indian state. Try Kashmiri meatballs, momos (dumplings) from Arunachal Pradesh or north Indian fare such as golgappas (bitesize crispy unleavened bread filled with water, spices, tamarind, potato, onion and chickpeas).
If you’re yearning for a more authentic shopping experience then check out INA Market, right across the road from Dilli Haat. It’s been there for more than 40 years and caters squarely to locals, with clothes, food, luggage, housewares and much more at very reasonable prices.
As you’d expect from the nation’s capital, there are some very good museums in Delhi. In addition to the two mentioned below, the Crafts Museum is well worth visiting and includes stalls where you can buy direct from craftspeople.
The collections at the National Museum, one of the country’s best, demand at least a few hours of your time. Don’t try to see everything, though, as there’s just too much: highlights include items from the Indus Valley civilisation, Central Asian artefacts, tribal masks and manuscripts from Tibet. Bring ID along so that you can borrow one of the free audio guides.
Mahatma Gandhi was staying at Birla House as a guest when he was shot by a Hindu extremist in 1948. The house has been turned into a shrine and museum, telling the story of Gandhi’s life and struggle against the British regime. An eternal flame marks the spot where he was killed.
For the best fares on flights to Delhi, visit www.virginatlantic.com Have you been to Delhi? What tips do you have for a first-timer? What were your favourite experiences? Share them with us in the comments below.