For most people Delhi will be their introduction to India and it is not a gentle introduction. Absolutely nothing can prepare you for the culture shock.
Delhi is dirty, smelly, noisy and smoggy. The last time I was there my weather app continuously said “fog”. The fog is a brown mist of pollution hanging in the sky.
When I visited Delhi in 2007 on my first solo trip it took me only 2 hours before I wanted to go back home. I am glad I did not do that, but I did book the first available train ticket out of Delhi. Luckily, I was forced to spent more time in this city on subsequent visits. The more time I spent there, the more I liked it.
There actually are some beautiful and quiet places in Delhi. On top of that, the street food is amazing and remnants of Delhi’s rich and interesting history are everywhere.
Delhi does deserve your time to get slowly used to it’s chaos, so that in the end you will appreciate the intense Delhi experience.
Travel Guide to the best things to do in Delhi
1. Saalam Baalak Trust City Walk, Paharganj
Most tourists are staying in Paharganj. This is where most hotels and tour agencies are. It makes it a convenient and practical place to stay, but not one where you want to linger for too long.
The Saalam Baalak Trust will show you the hidden world of streetchildren in Paharganj. The city walks are led by former street children who once lived on the streets themselves. I can recommend this tour to any visitor new to India.
The confrontation with poverty might be hard, the stories of the former street children heartbreaking, but the projects of Saalam Baalak Trust also give hope. Furthermore it will give you a better understanding how to best help the children. They also accept long term volunteers
2. Hope project’s walk through Nizamuddin, Nizamuddin Basti
Another interesting walk with a good cause is the Hope project’s tour through the Nizamuddin basti. Built in the 14th century around the shrine of a Sufi saint, it is the oldest neighbourhood of Delhi.
Inayat Khan was deeply moved by the poverty in this area. He set up the Hope project that is now running a community health center, a school and a vocational training center. They also accept long term volunteers.
The walk will show you the projects and the hidden secrets of this lively area. Afterwards you can sample some of the most delicious street foods in Delhi.
3. Listen to Qawalli’s at the Nizamuddin Dargah, Nizamuddin Basti
The main atraction in Nizamuddin is the tomb of the sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. Every thursday evening they are singing devotional songs (qawalli’s) after the sunset prayers.
4. Humayuns’tomb, Nizamuddin Basti
Nearby Nizamuddin is the famous Humayun’s tomb. It was designed by a Persian architect and it was the first garden tomb on the Indian subcontinent. The gardens make it a quiet retreat from the chaos of Delhi where you can marvel at this architectural wonder.
5. Delhi’s Jame Masjid (friday mosque)
The Friday’s mosque, or Jame Masjid is Delhi’s biggest mosque. The mosque is by far my most favourite place in Delhi. I can spent hours in this busy, but quiet and spiritual place.
6. Eating Mughal’s cuisine at Karim’s
Mohammed Aziz was a cook of the royal court of the Mughal Emperor and he opened Karim’s restaurant in 1913. His mission was to serve royal food to the common man. It still serves some of the best Mughal dishes in Delhi.
The times magazine ranked Karim’s to be one of the top restaurants in Asia. For sure it is my favourite restaurant in Delhi and my visit to Delhi will not be complete without eating here at least once.
It is tucked away in a little side street near the mosque and it is always busy. Outside you can see the cooks making fresh roti’s and stirring in big pots full with delicious curries.
7. Delhi’s Red Fort
Nearby the Jame Masjid is another historic site you should not miss on your trip to Delhi. The red fort is the royal palace constructed by Shah Jahan in 1648.
It was the residence of the Mughal emperors and their families for almost 200 years. Anothyer lovely spot to enjoy some peace and quiet in the garden and decorated royal buildings.
8. Trying street food in Chandni Chowk
Delhi is a paradise for foodies. Chandni’s Chowk seems to have an endless supply of streetfood items to try and you will wish you had a bigger stomach.
Try sweet Jalebi’s at Old Famous Jalebi wala, an endless list of different paratha’s (stuffed bread) at Babu Ram Devi Dayal Paranthe Wale, the best Indian chaat at Natraj Dahi Bhalle wale, naans still warm from the oven at Kaake di Hatte, fresh lemon juice at Ved Prakash Lemon wala, a thick lassi with a dollop of butter at Amritsari Lassi corner, delicious meat curries at Ashok and Ashok meat dhaba or just try whatever you see.
If you are scared of eating street food just watch how popular a place is. If it is busy it is busy for a reason and you will not only get the best, but you will also less likely to get sick.
9. Shopping in Old Delhi’s bazaars
Around Chandni’s Chowk you will find Old Delhi’s bazaars. A network of intricate alleys where you can easily get lost, but discover something interesting at every corner. The bazaar has different sections, each with its own specialities.
Head to Chawri bazaar for wholesale paper products, Kinari bazaar for wedding stuff, Dariba Kalan for silver and jewellery, Chor bazaar (literally thieves market) for second-hand stuff and Khari Bhaoli for spices.
10. Buy spices at Khari Baoli
Already mentioned above, make sure you don’t miss Delhi’s famous spice market. It’s asia’s largest wholesale market for spices and the spices you buy here will be nothing like the ones you buy at home. Buy yourself the best garam masala, curry powder, black pepper, nutmeg, coriander and any other spices you might wish to buy to make Indian food at home.
11. Visit a Gurudwara (Sikh temple)
Delhi has plenty of temples. A visit to a Sikh temple is a welcoming and interesting experience not to miss. People are very friendly, the temples are clean and welcome foreigners to watch the ceremonies. Delhi has two big Sikh temples. The Sisganj gurudwara in Chandni Chowk and the Bangla Sahib gurudwara near the India Gate. Both worth a visit.
12. India gate and Rajpath
India gate and Rajpath, the road leading from India Gate to India’s Parliament house and Rastraphati Bhavan (home of India’s President) are surprisingly clean. The India gate is the symbol of Delhi and has a nice park. A welcome respite from Delhi’s chaos.
13. Lodi Gardens
Maybe the most romantic and peaceful spot in Delhi are the Lodi gardens. Green gardens full with old and beautiful ruins from the Mughal period. It’s free and don’t miss spending an afternoon wandering around here together with young couples and Indian families.
14. Laxmi Narayan temple (Birla mandir)
You will visit many temples in India and honestly the Birla Mandir is just another Hindu temple. If you are in the area tough (the temple is close to Connaught place) it makes for an interesting stop. Mahatma Gandhi inaugurated the temple with the condition that people of all castes and religions were allowed to enter.
15. Raj Ghat and Gandhi’s museum
Raj Ghat is a memorial for Mahatma Gandhi at the place where he was cremated on the 31st of January 1948. It is a quiet green space but also an important stop for school tours. The groups of children are curious and very willing to take their selfies with foreign tourists. Combine the visit to the memorial with the nearby National Gandhi museum to learn more about Mahatma Gandhi’s life.
16. Akshardam temple
This huge temple complex for sure is impressive. Construction finished in 2005 and it claims to be the largest Hindu temple in the world. It is easy to get there by metro, but getting inside is a bit of a challenge.
Maybe it was because I visited during Diwali, but it was busy and the strict security check will not allow anything but yourself inside the temple. Camera’s, weapons and food are obviously not allowed, but even notebooks, pencils and my guidebook were all deemed very suspicious items.
The first impression is one of awe and splendor, but soon it felt more like a kitschy theme park than a temple. There are exhibitions, gardens, boat rides and even an IMAX theatre all depicting traditional Indian history according to the Mahabaratha and Ramayana.
There is a strong focus on guru Swaminarayan. If a visit to this temple made you a fan of him, you can buy swaminarayan dolls, mugs, t-shirts and key chains in the souvenir shop at the end. I am not sure this will make you love Delhi, but your visit will be an interesting one.
17. Meditate in the silence of the Lotus temple
Another temple worth visiting in Delhi is the Lotus temple of the Bahai faith. Inside you can meditate in silence and it is a wonderful spiritual place.
If you still have more appetite for temples there are two other temples in the area. The ISKCON Hare Krishna temple and the Hindu Kalkaji temple.
18. Qutb Minar
Qutb Minar, the tallest brick minaret in the world is more than just a minaret. It’s a wonderful quiet and green place with impressive ruins. This is one of my favourite places in Delhi. Make sure you make it all the way out here and spent an afternoon strolling around.
19. Diwali in Delhi
Diwali will make you love Delhi and hate it. Forget about a good nights sleep and avoid Delhi with Diwali at all costs if you have any respiratory issues.
I had a severe cold when I flew into Delhi, therefore I couldn’t sleep in the plane. My first night in Delhi was another sleepless night full with firework smoke, air pollution and a lack of oxygen.
That said, the festive atmosphere and all the lights make Delhi a great place to join the Diwali celebrations and get your blessings from Laxmi, the goddess of wealth.
20. Delhi’s Metro
Navigating Delhi’s chaos and crazy traffic is made much easier by Delhi Metro. It will bring you in close proximity of most sites mentioned above. It is cheap, clean and comfortable and you do not need to negotiate or wait in front of shops where the tuk tuk driver is trying for you to have a look, so he gets his commission.
At peak hours it does get extremely busy in the center, but otherwise Delhi Metro is the way to go. Women have their own carriages where it is more quiet most of the time.
Delhi is famous for several scams and New Delhi train station seems to be the innovative center of creativity for the most original ones.
When I arrived by metro in November every single tuk tuk driver told me that Paharganj, where most hotels are, was closed because of Diwali and that we had to get a special permission from the police. After talking to several tuk tuk drivers and walking for 30 minutes we finally found a driver who wanted to take us to our hotel. No special permission needed.
People might tell you your hotel is closed, has burned down or is very bad. Of course they know a much better hotel for you.
Do you need to buy your train tickets? Before you even reached the station official people will try to lure you away to their own office to tell you that the train you want is full for weeks or can not go because of floods, and of course they can organize much better alternatives.
Why not go to Kashmir, madam, we have excellent driver. (note: the official international tourist bureau to book your train tickets is inside the station on the first floor, any office outside the station on a first floor is not the real one).
These incidents can really sour your mood and you might start to think that all Indians are like that. Just remember that the majority of people who do not approach you are friendly and helpful.
And here comes another problem. It is impolite to say no. So if you approach someone to ask the way, they will gladly help you with a big smile. They will answer any question with the indian noddle (a wobble of the head that means something between yes and no), even if they have no clue what you are talking about.
Again, Most Indians are friendly people, just be careful with anyone actively approaching you to ‘help’ or the ones who are working in the tourist business. There is a tourist police, but opinions are divided about how effective they are.
I stayed in several budget places in Delhi, but none of them were to write home about. In my last visit I stayed in Smyle Inn. Despite the good reviews on Trip advisor I didn’t think it was very good.
On my way back I decided to spent a bit more on a better hotel and tried Nataraj, Yes please. This probably is the first place in Paharganj that I would truly recommend. For paying just a little bit more I felt like I was in an upmarket hotel with a clean bathroom, clean sheets and fluffy pillows.
Right outside is an excellent place where they serve fresh lassi’s in the morning. So for next time. Nataraj? Yes, please !!
Solo female travel in Delhi
With all the news about sexual violence in India you are probably wondering if it’s still safe to travel as a female alone in Delhi. Unfortunately sexual violence is a real problem in India.
As a woman travelling alone people will stare at you. Below I will give some advice to prevent worse and you will most likely be safe.
Dress Modestly: Leave your bikini, short skirts and tank tops at home. You should at least cover your legs and shoulders. The best you can do is to to buy a shalwar kameez. They are also comfortable in Delhi’s heat.
Use the Female only carriage in the metro: The female only carriage is not only saving you from a lot of staring and possibly groping, it is also much more quiet and clean.
Don’t go out alone in the dark: make it a rule that once it gets dark you get back at your hotel, unless you are with other people.
Don’t accept invitations from single men: don’t accept any invitation or let a single men take you somewhere secluded or quiet.
Look as if you know where you are going: Even if you are completely lost, look self-assured and pretend you know your way. If you need help finding your way ask other woman, but be prepared for the wobble answer.
Look for other woman in the street: If you feel someone is following you try to look for other woman and ask for help. Often informing passersby of a dodgy situation will scare away a possible offender
Avoid crowds: It’s best to avoid crowds, especially during festivals, but if you find yourself in one then try to stay close to other woman.
Use your instinct: If you don’t trust a situation, trust your gut feeling and get out of there.
Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.