The national capital Delhi is a city where the past and present blend, not always seamlessly, but with interesting results. This seat of governance is also a historic city steeped in multiple strands of culture, a centre for services, a destination for shoppers, heaven for foodies, and a hub for those seeking new age careers.
Why should I visit Delhi? Delhi can be harsh at first glance, but it has been witness to almost eight centuries of history. Even today, it has thousands of historic monuments, two of which are listed as part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. The city is rich in culture, food, shopping, and a huge variety of opinions! Huge, sprawling, it has been growing very fast in the last two decades and is a fair representation of India’s complex existence. Delhi is the entry point to the ‘Golden Triangle’ – the most popular circuit for tourists.
What should I know about Delhi? Delhi is one the largest cities in the world by population, which including suburbs is about 20 million. When people mean Delhi, it often includes its contiguous suburbs – Noida, Gurgaon, Ghaziabad, and Faridabad. As the capital of India, it is also home to the central government.
Where is it exactly? Delhi is in north India, 36N, 77E. Largely flat, it is about 225 m above sea level. It has very low hills to the west. It is nearly a thousand kilometres from the nearest sea.
What languages are spoken in Delhi? Big hotels, and indeed a number of smaller ones, will know passable to a smattering of English. Many big shops, department stores will also have English speaking staff. In open markets, Hindi is the most common language.
What is the best time to visit? December and February, when the weather is pleasant, are easily the best times to visit the city. January can be quite cold, and the rest of the months are hot. May to July highs can go to 48C, while January lows can touch 1C. It rains a lot from July to September.
Air pollution is rapidly rising in Delhi, and the winter months are particularly badly affected.
What are the landmarks? Delhi is a vast urban sprawl, and most tourists confine themselves to the centre and the adjoining parts of south Delhi. India Gate is a good landmark to orient yourself. Connaught Place, close by, is another. Both are in central Delhi and the city spans out from here. Old Delhi is to the north of Connaught Place. The Ring Road (actually inner Ring Road) circles most of the city, and is good indicator of where you are. So is a major south Delhi crossing called AIIMS. Delhi’s river is to its east (note, it is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world, and unlike most cities around the world, Delhi’s residents do not take a stroll by the riverfront – the toxic fumes alone would kill them!)
How far is the airport to the city centre? About 16 kilometres, By metro, it will take about 30 minutes. By car, it will depend on the traffic situation, but average is an hour. To note, you do not need to go the city centre if that is not where you are headed. Check your destination location.
How is the airport? Most international tourists enter the country through the Indira Gandhi Inter- national Airport, now a modern, this century airport with all travel basics in place. Immigration is a tad slow, but better than most other places.
There are two terminals – 1 and 3. Aspect to note – they are not connected internally, and though using the same infrastructure, the entrance from one to another is nearly 3 kilometres. In case you have to change terminals, budget at least half hour extra. T3 is the international terminal, though it has domestic services for Jet and Air India as well.
T1 is a purely domestic airport and used by Indigo, Spicejet and Goair.
Immigration is level 1. Lines can be long, though this is much better than previously.
Only 11 nations have visa on arrival in India, rest need prior visas.
Baggage collection is after immigration. There is a lost baggage counter, in case baggage is missing.
For passengers needing assistance, there are facilities, just let your airline know.
You wont get hand luggage trolleys when you arrive.
Your bag may be security checked, especially as Indian customs is under orders to check gold smuggling.
There are information desks (don’t have high hopes of them), money exchange counters, state and private cab counters. No porters though. If arriving at night, beware of anyone trying to over helpful, and do not give your luggage to anyone till you are sure of their credentials.
There are forex counters in the arrival hall. At least change some money, for you may require in your mode of transport, almost all of whom only take cash.
To depart the airport, the most common way is to use private cabs. Most of the major service providers have their counters in the arrival area. The city’s public transport service also has counters – the charge is slightly less, about 15%, though the ride may not be as comfortable. There are extra night charges in cabs. There are also a few infrequent buses by Delhi’s public bus service – DTC, which take you to various places in the centre and south of the city. There is also a metro line just below T3, which takes passengers to the city centre in 20-odd minutes.
You will need a printout of your ticket to enter the terminal and an identity card (passport preferably).
It is safer to arrive at least an hour before flight time for domestic flights, maybe two hours for international flights. Traffic in Delhi can be ugly, especially at office hours.
Security is right after the airline counters, not as you are entering the flight.
Money exchange counters are before security – they are not permitted inside.
Airline counters are generally modern, but ensure your documents are in place.
Check hand luggage content and size rules. Some airlines check for size.
There is a metro line below Terminal 3 that takes you to city centre in about 20 minutes. The services are available between 0500 and 2300.
There are airport hotels, and other hotels just outside the airport.
Where should I stay? Delhi has a number of branded hotels, from luxury to budget, from most big international chains such as Accor, Starwood, Hilton, IHG, Hyatt, Marriott, Best Western etc. It also has luxury and mid range hotels from leading Indian hotel chains such as Taj, Oberoi, ITC, Leela etc. The branded hotels are largely to the south and centre of the city, as also in Gurgaon and Noida.
There are also a large number of unbranded hotels / inns/ guest houses that are smaller but could offer a decent standard of service. There are also some that one needs to be wary of. Check hotel listings sites to get an idea beforehand.
Luxury end hotels:
IN CENTRAL DELHI
IN SOUTH DELHI
How do I move about in the city? For someone new, here’s something to keep in mind – Delhi is not a walking city as most European cities would tend to be. Nor is the centre the only focal point – in fact there isn’t one.
Use cabs and if really confident, use metro. Try to avoid public buses and autos (tuk-tuks).
Cabs can be relatively expensive (compared to other forms of transport in Delhi, not New York City), use reliable ones offered by private radio cab operators.
Some of the major operators:
Delhi Cab: 91-11-44333222
Easy Cab: 91-11-43434343
Quick Cabs: 91-11-45333333
Meru Cabs: 91-11-44224422
Mega cab: 91-11-41414141
There are also the traditional black and yellow cabs, though these are becoming rarer. Avoid if possible – they are old, and their interiors could leave you with rashes and bug bites.
The metro connects a fair part of the city, but not entirely. It is not even a decade old here, so vast parts remain to be connected. If the metro suits you, take that, very inexpensive, reliable – though crowded – but that’s going to be almost every public space in urban India. The last mile connectivity may be a problem. However, most major tourism landmarks, such as Connaught Place, Red Fort, Qutab Minar etc are connected by the metro. More metro lines are expected to open in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
The Delhi tuktuk is called the autorickshaw or colloquially auto. These are usually reliable, though will try to overcharge tourists. Insist on going by meter – most will have working ones. The can be hailed from the street. In a few places, they run on fixed cost – these are called pre paid counters. Prefer that if there is one near you! The cost about a quarter of cab rates. Another plus, they run on natural gas!
Delhi’s public buses, run by DTC, are not the safest way to travel for any tourist, especially women. Please avoid, even though the new green, red and orange buses are more spacious than their previous avatars, which are still visible on the roads. For tourists, there is a Hop on Hop off service of purple buses. Called Ho-Ho, you will be anything but laughing if you opt for these. They are infrequent, their stops not clearly marked, and not their staff not the best informed, though of course, they are fairly inexpensive.
How good are the trains? Unfortunately, if you are used to global standards, not very. You could use the trains to go to some nearby destinations. However, train rides can be an adventure, and not always of the pleasant kind. Now trains run increasingly on time, and have better seats, but washrooms are pathetic, and food isnt great either. Delhi has three major train stations, and a number of smaller ones. To visit nearby places, it will probably be better to use good buses or cabs.
Which 5 things do I have to do?
♦ Visit the Qutab Minar. This 12th century stone tower is the tallest of its kind in the world.
♦ Walk around in Connaught Place (if not too hot). Lots of interesting shops, some dating to the colonial period.
♦ Eat a nice Indian meal. This isnt an easy ask, for there is nothing like an ‘Indian’ meal. In Delhi, try north Indian – Mughlai or tandoori, or even Punjabi.
♦ Buy curios at Cottage (near CP) or at Janpath,
♦ Visit Dilll Haat (again weather permitting). In winter, go during the day. In summer, after 7pm.
What should I see if I get extra time? For the tourist, Delhi has history, food, shopping, culture, entertainment and a bit of nature.
However, as it is so spread out – it was different urban centres earlier, choose your focus. For history buffs who do not want to stray far from the centre, see Red Fort, built by Shahjahan (RE1628-57), though if you are also headed to Agra, see the fort there. This fort is quite big, and even after significant destruction during the British rule over India, there is a lot left to see. Highlights include Mughal palaces and residences, besides a museum. Budget at least three hours. A good way to do it is in the late afternoon, then you can stay back for the sound and light show, an hour long show that happens daily after sunset (summer and winter timings vary) in English and Hindi.
If old cities are your thing, Delhi’s old city (the one just north of the city centre – there are multiple old cities in Delhi) is a throwback on previous centuries with old architecture hugely compromised by modern additions, narrow lanes, traffic chaos, traditional retail, dense human movement and lot of modern trade eg unbranded electronics, computer parts etc. Get a guide to show you around, and with luck you could go into the interiors of these houses and see traditional crafts, or pigeon flying. Check the nuts and raisins market. Or Kinari Bazaar, the jewellery market, which also makes traditional medallions!
The 17th century Jama Masjid is huge. Approximately opposite the Red Fort, and next to Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, it is open to all, though non Muslims are expected to hurry and not linger. There are great views from the minar of the mosque. Entrance fees apply for camera. Tour guides are not compulsory.
While in south Delhi, visit Qutab Minar, an 800 year old stone minaret that marks the beginning of the Delhi as a capital. There are stepwells in Mehrauli, another old city at the southern end of modern Delhi, where Qutab Minar is.
Delhi has many old forts, largely decaying. Some beautiful 15th century tombs are at Lodi Gardens, near the city centre. The best preserved tomb is of Humayun (RE 1530-40, 55-56). See medieval time measuring instruments at Jantar Mantar.
The colonial period saw its own buildings – see them in Civil Lines (Oberoi Maidens hotel) or in the Connaught Place area. You can only see the President’s House and Parliament only from a distance (unless really worked out well in advance). India Gate can be seen while driving past. Delhi has a number of green areas, including parks, forests and bird sanctuaries. Parks: try Lodi Gardens, Nehru Park, Buddha Jayanti Park. It is not advisable to go the forests alone. In winter, visit the Okhla Bird Sanctuary.
For shopping, Connaught Place (now Rajiv Chowk) is a great place to soak in history and indulge in a fair variety of branded and souvenier shopping (for the latter, try Janpath, one of the radial roads of CP). For really inexpensive and a huge variety of unbranded clothes and accessories, try Sarojini Nagar Market. For the feel of a destination market, try Lajpat Nagar Market or Karol Bagh Market – both highly overrated. For cheap electronics, try Nehru Place Market. For local apparel designer boutiques, try Hauz Khas Village. For luxury brands, try Emporio. For mid level brands in malls, go to Select Citywalk, Promenade, Ambience, Pacific, Great India Place. In most open markets, bargaining is de rigueur, even when there is a sign saying ‘no bargaining’.
There are any number of religious shrines across faiths. The Bahai Temple is popular for its design. The Birla Temple, Akshardham Temple, Iskcon Temple are popular as well, though have little aesthetic merit.
Cultural festivals abound in winter. Food fests, theatre fests, book fairs, craft fairs, art fairs, film festivals, flower shows, car rallies, etc are all popular in winter. As is just lazing around in the sun.
What religion do people follow? Most people are Hindus, though there are sizable numbers of Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists in the city. The city is full of temples and other religious shrines.
What should I eat? While it is advisable to be careful while eating in India restaurant food tends to be heavy – do try some north Indian meals. Tandoori or Mughlai is very heavy on the stomach – so maybe dinner. Indians have dinner late, post 2100 hours, in general. There are many other Indian cuisine outlets in the city, and each cuisine is quite different from the other.
Some international cuisines are easily available – especially Italian and American – just do not expect similar quality or approach. Indian portion sizes are somewhere between the mega American and petite French. Coffee places are common, and most offer sandwiches, croissants and muffins. Be aware, even though ‘Chinese’ is available from luxury restaurants to street vendors, it is Indian Chinese, nothing like what any part of China will have. Cuisines such as Japanese, Lebanese, French, English, Malay, Thai, etc are available usually only at the top end. Many international chains have their presence in Delhi – Nando’s, Benihana, Johnny Rockets, Lavazza, McDonald’s, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, Megu, Wasabi, Eggspectation etc.
Street food – very common and varied, is unsafe, period. If you are unaffected by it, you will be lucky.
Water bottles are available almost everywhere and pretty inexpensive. Tap water is usually not for consumption.
What should I buy? Inexpensive clothes, often of good quality – though check on that. Jewellery of a bewildering variety – from expensive to imitation. Shoes, and handcrafted leather. Lots of crafts – ceramic, marble, stone, wood, paper. Indian art is getting popular. Packaged food – savouries would be best. Many branded products are lower priced in India, so if baggage weight permits, indulge. The same Levi’s is half the price here. Books are inexpensive too.
Bargaining is for unbranded shops – big or small. Quote a third of the initially quoted price. Also for things like curios, most are mass produced, in case you feel a shop is quoting too high a price, get it from the next one – most shops in touristy areas have similar stuff.
Delhi also has its share of luxury and premium shopping. While high streets used to dominate here, a number of malls have emerged in the previous decade. From the luxury end Emporio to the popular Select Citywalk, Pacific, Ambience, Promenade, Great India Place and many more, today they house many global and domestic brands and are thronged by Delhi’s upwardly mobile young.
Where should I party? Lots of nightclubs in the city – just ask your hotel for the ones in vogue now.
Can I see the latest films here? Yes, Delhi has a number of cinema halls, though only the major Hollywood studio releases make it here. Newly released Indian films dominate the halls. European, and other world cinema is more for film festivals.Are there entertainment parks here? Not of the Disney variety. Children have a few options, but nothing great.
What should I be wary of? Personal safety for one. Be wary when in public spaces – of people try to pull a fast one. Cabbies could quote higher rates, shopkeepers will try higher prices, guides will try to take you to specific shops. Also, please keep your belongings eg cash, cards, passport safe always.
Who can I contact in an emergency?
For lost documents – most embassies are in Delhi. Again, try no to lose – it will just complicate your visit.
For medical assistance – Delhi has decent hospitals and most modern western medication is easily. available, often without prescription.
For theft etc – the nearest cop. And hope for the best.
On which days is movement restricted?
National holidays – January 26, August 15 and October 2 – most places – offices and shops – will be closed. Also on festivals such as Diwali, Holi, Christmas, Janamashtami, Id, Buddha Purnima, Dusshera – these have lunar calendar dates which vary – so check.
What is nearby? Agra is about 200 kilometres south south east, Jaipur about 250 kilometres south west. ALong with Delhi, these three are the most popular destinations for foreign tourists.
The nearest points in the Himalayas are about 400 kilometres away.
The spectacular bird sanctuary at Bharatpur is about three hours away by road, while the Sariska Tiger Reserve is about five hours away. There are other smaller wildlife sanctuaries in the plains, while those in the Himalayan foothills – Rajaji, Dudhwa and Corbett national parks are about five to six hours of driving distance.
Religious towns – Mathura, Vrindavan are about a couple of hours by road.