New Delhi is an ideal place to first arrive in India, especially if you’re coming straight from the comfort of home. As the capital city of India, New Delhi serves as a hub of culture, industry, politics, commerce and arts, making it a proper introduction to such a dynamic, multi-layered country and culture. It’s also the most advanced and developed metropolis in India. Having said that, “developed metropolis” is a bit of an overstatement in comparison to more advanced parts of the world.
But in comparison to Mumbai, for example, the New Delhi airport is pristine and modern, and the public transportation is excellent if you choose to utilise it (which I recommend you do). In fact, the metro system in Delhi is by far the most advanced public service I’ve seen in all of India and holds up in comparison to the public transport in any major world city I’ve been to. It’s clean, comfortable, and a great way to explore the majority of the city.
Getting your bearings:
If you’ve never been to India before (or even if you have!) finding your way around can be intense and overwhelming. In New Delhi I stayed in an area called Paharganj, sometimes referred to as the “backpacker ghetto.” I don’t think that nickname is a particularly apt description; it’s definitely a touristy area, and by no means is it posh, but its Main Bazaar is a bustling street filled with vendors, restaurants, hotels, and shops.
If you’re on a budget it’s a good place to settle down as the rooms are cheap, necessities are close, the location is central, and the metro station is a 10-minute walk away. If you’re looking for something a little classier, there are definitely nicer hotels in Paharganj as well as other areas in Central and South Delhi. For the nicer hotels, prior reservations are probably a good idea, but if you want to go with the flow and shop around, Paharganj has loads of cheap hotels with flexible prices (haggle with them!).
It’s always important to be aware of touts and scams, especially in a jam-packed area like Paharganj or anywhere near a train station or tourist site (i.e. India Gate, Taj Mahal, Red Fort, etc). Anyone offering overly-friendly advice, looking to take you to a tourist office, or usher you into a tuk-tuk for really cheap, probably has some sort of ulterior motive. Even asking for directions will usually get you caught up in some sort of hustle, so try to know where your destination is before getting to the area. It’s important to mention, that besides the train station con-artists, I’ve found the people in India to be some of the most friendly, helpful, honest and generous people I’ve ever come across. So don’t be too overly suspicious of kindness!
Go See Some Sites:
If you open up a tourist map or guide book, there are lots of “sites” to see and places to go in New Delhi. Depending what kind of traveller you are, you might want to see a few and spend the rest of your time relaxing/exploring. Or you might want to pack in as many photo-ops as you can. I will say this though: Delhi is spread out. It’s crowded and loud, the air quality isn’t excellent, and the temperatures can get brutally hot. Even if you’re Rick Steves with Lance Armstrong’s endurance (…too soon for a steroids joke?) these factors are important to keep in mind.
My recommendation is to do a little reading and choose the places that seem most interesting to you. Also don’t over schedule your days. Personally, I’d rather miss a fort or museum here or there in order to appreciate my experience and the places I do go to.
The Red Fort is one of Delhi’s most popular tourist attractions. It’s definitely worth checking out, especially if this is your first stop in India; it will set the stage for the type of beautiful precolonial architecture you’ll find throughout India. The Red Fort is in the heart of Old Delhi right next to Chandni Chowk Bazaar which is where you’ll get that crazy, crowded, hectic Indian marketplace experience.
Humayun’s Tomb and the Qutub Complex, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites (which usually means awesome), are also worth a visit. Surrounded by gorgeous gardens Humayun’s tomb is another beautiful example of middle-age Indian architecture. In fact it’s of a similar style as the Taj Mahal (which you’ll probably be seeing soon, right? You better!). The Qutub Complex houses some of the earlier examples of Delhi architecture, dating back to around the 13th century. There are a handful of fascinating buildings on the grounds as well as similarly well-manicured gardens.
Like I said before, there are too many sites to see in just a few days and I’d recommend reading up on each one to see which piques your interest, but a few other personal favorites are: Gandhi Smriti Museum, National Museum, Jama Masjid (largest Mosque in India), Khari Baoli Spice Market, Connaught Place (for shopping), and Jantar Mantar (if you’re a science nerd, like some people… who may or may not be writing this…).
Depending on how much time you have in Delhi, you’ll see a few or a lot of really interesting “sites.” But I think we all agree that travelling isn’t always about seeing monuments and temples and snapping photos. Plan your days loosely, and be okay with missing this monument or that bazaar. New Delhi is a microcosm of India on the whole; the expansive nature of both the city and the country makes seeing everything impossible. That’s okay. See what you can see, eat what you can eat, and just take it in.
* Give yourself a spare afternoon to stroll down the Raj Path from Rashtrapati Bhavan (President’s House) to the India Gate. The Raj Path is a long (4 km) park in the heart of the city (close to Central Secretariat metro station) and is one of my favourite places to kill a few hours on a nice day.
*Take a few hours to get lost in Old Delhi without anything specific on your agenda. The winding alleys, crowded bazaars, and diverse architecture are enough to keep your attention for the whole day.
*One time I went down to Connaught Place (Rajiv Chowk metro station) and caught a Hindi movie at the cinema; had to see Bollywood in its natural habitat! I didn’t understand the language, but I was able to pretty much follow the plot (the movie wasn’t that good, but hey!).
*Wander the narrow side-alleys that branch off of the Main Bazaar in Paharganj. You might get lost but that’s sort of the idea. It feels like you’re in a modern version of the movie Aladdin. Yeah, pretty awesome. A whole new world…
*Eat. Wherever you are. Try some street food! Just use your best hygienic judgment; you can usually tell if they vendor is doing things the right way. Bengali Market has great street food, as does Chandni Chowk. The restaurant on top of the Aman hotel on the Main Bazaar in Paharganj has great food and a nice view of the street below.
*Set aside a day or so to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal! But you already knew that.