Top Tips for First-Time Visitors to Delhi
Featured destinations: Delhi
Published 31 May 2017
Seasoned Delhi explorer Sandy Dhaliwal takes us through her top tips for first time visitors to this vibrant city.
Why visit Delhi?
While this could be said of many of the country’s vast and sprawling metropolises (Mumbai and Kolkata would attest to this in particular), I would say that it is India’s capital, that first and foremost epitomises that notion of East meets West in this vibrant part of the world.
Rickshaws on Old Delhi's streets image: Sandy Dhaliwal
The city is even distinguished as two halves of a whole by namesake; with Old Delhi reaping the glory days of the Mughal Empire and encapsulating that idea of the ancient East; with its exquisite ruins, traditional North Indian cuisine, hauntingly atmospheric shrines and colourful and chaotic bazaars. While New Delhi maintains that Western vision brought over by the British Raj, with its colonial structures and expansive avenues, opulent open spaces and cultural and commercial points of interest all interweaving amongst the lines of the city’s modern metro system.
This truly is a destination where you can mix it up from one day to the next. As the distinct elements of the city really allow you to take a trip to two very different eras of India, the medieval past and the modern day. Assuredly, you will not go away disappointed.
Ghandi Smriti, New Delhi image: Sandy Dhaliwal
Old Delhi versus New Delhi
With its rich mix of dramatic architecture, contrasting communities, delectable foodie scene and awe-inspiring heritage landmarks, there’s a real wealth of attractions to keep you occupied, no matter what your tastes or preferences. So if you’re after the historical sights, spiritual havens and lively hustle and bustle that many of us envision as quintessential India, Old Delhi is your ‘go to’. Though if you’re after the museums, galleries, shopping and high end dining opportunities, it’ll be New Delhi you’ll want instead.Lodi Gardens, New Delhi image: Sandy Dhaliwal
Getting around and planning your break
There is so much to see and do in Delhi that I know that you’re never going to be stuck for places to go. However you will struggle a little bit if you’re travelling on foot, as the city’s sights are rather spread out and rarely clustered together. Hiring transport, such as a taxi, car or rickshaw will really help with this, especially if you’re short on time and keen to see as much as possible.
I would also suggest splitting your days between New and Old Delhi, as trying to see places in both areas in one day could mean that you spend more time travelling than sightseeing. I spent my first few days in Old Delhi – which I would additionally recommend seeing on foot, due to its labyrinth of lanes and markets – as I was more interested in the historical side, then spent the remainder in New Delhi, mostly for the museums and galleries. Jama Masjid, Old Delhi image: Sandy Dhaliwal
Jama Masjid, Old Delhi image: Sandy Dhaliwal
Another tip would be to start and end your trip here, flying in and out of Delhi’s airport so that you can split your activities in the city either side of your holiday. So if you don’t fit it all in on the first visit, you can always try and slot it in later. Like I said, there is a lot, so I would really prioritise or plan, just so you don’t miss out on any of your must-do’s.
Sandy and a friend having tea at the Imperial Hotel in Connaught Place image: Sandy Dhaliwal
Sampling as many diverse dishes as possible is always a big part of my trip too, often punctuating the stops on my itinerary. This is something I’d suggest so you don’t miss out on the vast variety on offer here. For example, while visiting the Red Fort, I made sure that I allowed myself time to sample Dilli-ki-Chaat, renowned local street food in this district. And while shopping in New Delhi’s modern Connaught Place area, I made sure I stopped for tea at the colonial style Imperial Hotel; and for a western fix, grabbed a bite at the All American Diner.
Red Fort, Old Delhi image: Sandy Dhaliwal
Things to do in Old Delhi
Top of the list is the Chandni Chowk area, a bustling centre of trade filled with markets, hawkers, temples, street food stalls and more. The must-see Red Fort is also here, a stunning 17th Century UNESCO World Heritage Site built by the fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to keep out nearby invaders and to serve as a base for the royal family. Nowadays you can explore the once regal grounds and enjoy its fascinating museums, opulent pavilions and more. Don’t be put off by the queues to this popular sight though, as the lines go down fast.
Raj Ghat, Old Delhi image: Sandy Dhaliwal
Located nearby is also Raj Ghat, the poignant monument where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated following his assassination in 1948. Here you’ll see a constantly lit flame in his honour, while locals gather daily to mark their respects. Additionally, the free entry National Gandhi Museum is situated close to here too.
Another must-see is the tranquil Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque which can hold up to a staggering 25,000 worshippers at a time. It’s another fine example of Mughal architecture, made up of ornate courtyards, terraces water tanks and more.
Humayun's Tomb, New Delhi image: Sandy Dhaliwal
Things to do in New Delhi
If you love visiting galleries and museums, you’re in luck as there are plenty to choose from – many of which are free too. Start off with the National Museum, which is home to over 200,000 artefacts spanning over 5000 years of the country’s fascinating past.
For those interested in India’s political history, there are three places worth checking out. The Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum is the preserved residence of the first and only female Prime Minister of India, housing a number of personal belongings, including the sari she was wearing when she was killed. Similarly, you can visit Gandhi Smriti, the touching memorial and museum where Gandhi spent the last days of his life. You’ll be able to see his modest possessions, as well as an array of exhibits featuring photos, paintings and the setting of Gandhi’s final footsteps. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Planetarium is the former residence of India’s first Prime Minister and focuses on the country’s Independence movement. If you’re interested in astronomy, the Planetarium is definitely worth a look, as is the city’s huge observatory, Jantar Mantar.
If you’re more of an art lover, there is the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Crafts Museum, which both house dazzling collections charting works from the across the country and throughout India’s history.
India Gate, New Delhi image: Sandy Dhaliwal
To experience the colonial part of the city, head to Connaught Place for some shopping and eating; or over to Rajpath to admire the grand stately buildings, including the President’s House, Secretariat buildings and Parliament House. Here you’ll also find India Gate, the striking Arc de Triomphe-style war memorial commemorating the thousands of Indian and British soldiers who died during the First World War and the Afghan War. Venture here by day, with the option of combining your activities with a picnic in the nearby gardens; or return in the evening to see the arch wonderfully illuminated by floodlights and pretty fountains.
Paharganj area, New Delhi image: Sandy Dhaliwal
For a shopping and eating experience with more of a rustic feel, head to the Paharganj area for its markets, bars and rooftop restaurants. It is the popular place to pick up a souvenir, though be prepared for a bit of harassment from hawkers.
Continuing with the old world feel, a number of Mughal vestiges can also be found in New Delhi. Humayun's Tomb is a particularly significant cultural landmark, as it was the first ever garden tomb constructed on the Indian subcontinent. The 16th Century UNESCO World Heritage Site is another fine example of enchanting Mughal construction, with its picturesque gardens and elaborate architectural detailing. Also the climb to the top of the tomb is well worth the trek for the scenic views of the surrounding landscape. The 18th Century built Safdarjang’s Tomb has a similar feel to Humayun's Tomb, but I would only visit this additionally if you’re especially keen on the Mughal sights.
Purana Qila, New Delhi image: Sandy Dhaliwal
I would make time however for both Purana Qila, a vast and striking fort with beautiful, leafy grounds and a moat that has been transformed into a charming boating lake with pedalos, and Qutub Minar, the world’s tallest brick minaret, and the second tallest minar in the country. Here you will also find the striking Quwwatu'l-Islam, the oldest mosque in northern India, as well as a number of ornate statues and monuments.
And finally, if you need to get away from it all and take a break from the sightseeing, head to the peaceful Lodi Gardens, an enchanting open space filled with crumbling Mughal tombs, exquisite floral displays, as well as beautiful native butterflies and birdlife. If you’re lucky, you might see the odd peacock – India’s national bird – roaming the grounds and looking magnificent too.
Golden Temple, Amritsar image: Sandy Dhaliwal
Where to next?
For short trips out of the city, I would highly recommend visiting the spectacular Lotus and Akshardham Temples, as they both truly are sights to behold. Or for a day or two, stay in Amritsar for the serene Golden Temple and entertaining changing of the guard at the Wagah border.
But if you’re leaving the city altogether, a popular option would of course be Agra, home to the wondrous Taj Mahal, Moonlight Garden and Agra Fort. On the way, you could also stop off at the Mughal brilliance of Fatehpur Sikri, another impressive fort in this region. Further north, the rolling mountains and the famous Hill Stations await you too.
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