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Delhi Guide: My top tips

India Gate, New Delhi, India

India Gate, New Delhi. Creative Commons photo.

How to do Delhi right

Most visitors to India land either in Delhi or Mumbai (Bombay). And it is from these cities that they glean their first impressions; and in these cities that they learn the ropes of travel in India. I was lucky, from my very first day in India, I stayed with an Indian family in South Delhi. True Delhi-wallahs, they helped me see the beauty and essential charm of the city and provided the keys to discover hidden treasures that most tourists miss. I grew to love the city and I hope you will give it a chance, too.

Personally, I think Delhi is a glorious city (check out my post Delights of Delhi for a taste). As well as being my home-away-from-home, I also find it inspiring and endlessly fascinating. Like Rome, Delhi is an eternal city. Not only is it the capital of modern India, it has been the capital of at least seven previous civilizations, and each have left behind a trail of monuments. It’s also a very green city, criss-crossed by wide, leafy boulevards; and it’s the country’s cultural heart and political centre. Plus, Delhi is known as a gastronome’s pleasure garden and a shopper’s paradise. In other words, there’s lots to see and do in Delhi, and many reasons to love the city.

But most foreign tourists do not do Delhi well. And it’s not their fault. Delhi is not easy to get to know, or navigate. Delhi is a vast, surging metropolis, and this is by no means a definitive guide, but my top tips should at least get you started on the right foot.

Delhi, India

Lodhi Garden, Delhi.

Delhi 1: Location is everything

Low-built Delhi sprawls, and encompasses many fascinating areas from Raj-era Connaught Place, the commercial centre, to the crammed markets of Old Delhi; and from funky enclave Hauz Khas to the elegant bungalows of New Delhi. There are many places to stay, and many neighbourhoods to explore, but somehow most tourists end up in Pahar Ganj (the seedy traveller’s ghetto near the New Delhi Train Station), Karol Bagh or Connaught place (known locally as CP).

My top Delhi tip is to stay away from the hustle and bustle. Stay instead in the leafy, upscale neighbourhoods of central New Delhi, South Delhi, or Mehrauli. Look for accommodation in home stays, guest houses, hostels or small boutique hotels. There are lots to choose from and more coming up every day. Here are some links you can use to find the perfect spot:

Delhi 2: Getting around

The spanking-new metro makes it easy to get around the sprawling city in air-conditioned comfort, so you no longer have to stay in the centre of town. Don’t be afraid to use it, especially during the day, even if you’re a woman travelling alone. There’s a Ladies Car at one end of every train, clearly marked with pink signage so you’ll know where to stand. If you’re not going far, you can always take an autorickshaw, also known as a tuk-tuk; and there are cabs aplenty, including the iconic white Ambassador taxis. Another smart choice is to hire a car-and-driver for the day, a surprisingly affordable way to see a lot of the city without expending too much energy. Your hotel or guest house can book a reliable car for you.

To find out where to go, and what to see, eat and buy, check out these sites:

Delhi, India

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi.

Delhi 3: The Seven Cities Tour

Exploring Delhi is like the Dance of the Seven Veils. The city is built up of layers and layers of history, and it can take an expert eye to reveal it. Luckily, Delhi is replete with walking tours and below are just a few of the options. I highly recommend a tour for getting to know the city, and also for helping you to acclimatize to the culture shock if Delhi is your first port of call.

Most newcomers need help to learn how to successfully navigate travel in India. This is very hard to do if you just land in Delhi, on your own, and start travelling without any orientation. It can be done — but you will use up a lot of time and energy feeling lost, overwhelmed and frustrated that could be used for better things. Like enjoying yourself. So give yourself a break and take a tour or two.

Delhi 4: Divide and conquer

Delhi is way too big to tackle all at once. Each day, pick an area, such as Old, New or South Delhi, and go exploring. Delhi needs at least three full days, just to get a sense of the city. There is no end to the historical sites, markets, restaurants, parks and lively street scenes you will find. Here are a few of my favourites — this is my must-see list for Delhi.

Old Delhi

  • Red Fort
  • Markets of Chandni Chowk
  • Jama Masjid
  • Raj Ghat

New Delhi

  • India Gate
  • Humayun’s Tomb
  • Connaught Place
  • Janpath market
  • Imperial Hotel
  • Khan Market
  • Gandhi Samadhi

South Delhi

  • Hauz Khas village
  • Lotus Temple
  • Qutab Minar
Gandhi, Delhi, India

Gandhi Samadhi, New Delhi.

Delhi 5: Don’t sweat the small stuff

Many tourists worry about getting ripped off in India — and it does happen. You will buy something and see it for half the price two stalls away. But most of the time you are being conned or scammed in India, it is over 10, 50, or 100 rupees — and the difference amounts to no more than 25 cents, $1 or $5. There’s even a name for it: “foreigner tax.” To a middle-class westerner, this is not a lot of money. To a working class person in India, it is significant. If you find yourself in the middle of a heated argument over a few rupees, ask yourself if it’s worth it … or if it’s just better to relax, pay the “foreigner tax” and think about how it might go towards much-needed school books or health care.

Delhi 6: Safety concerns

I have written several blog posts about safety in India, but here are a couple of specific issues.

Money: You can never be entirely safe from pick-pockets in any country, but there are some precautions you can take. Keep your money and credit cards in a secure pouch or money-belt, which you can hang around your neck and tuck under your shirt. At the same time, keep a small amount of cash in your wallet: if it gets pinched or lost, you won’t lose very much.

Health: Delhi-belly is practically unavoidable. But you can reduce your chances of feeling unwell by drinking only bottled water, eating freshly cooked food, avoiding raw foods like salads (which may have been washed in unclean water), foregoing ice cubes and using hand sanitizer.

South Delhi, India

On my birthday in South Delhi, 2006.

Delhi 7: Dress the part

For women it is important to cover up shoulders and legs as a sign of respect – especially if you visit a mosque or temple. It is not advisable to wear very short skirts or tight-fitting clothes. Wearing loose, cotton Indian-style clothing is a good idea because these outfits keep you cool, are suitably modest and can help you fit in better — thereby increasing respect and reducing stares.

This means kurta pajama (loose fitting long shirt and pajama bottoms) for men and salwar kameez (long tunic, pants and scarf) for women. Here are my fave spots for buying Indian clothes in Delhi:

  • Khadi Gramogyog (which sells clothes made and spun at village level according to Gandhian principles)
  • FabIndia
  • Anokhi

Delhi 8: Final words of wisdom

If you want a vacation, go to Belize. If you want to be transformed, go to India. You don’t visit India — you experience it. And the best way to experience India is with the right attitude — an attitude of openness, trust, surrender. If you view everything that happens as a learning experience, as something meant to teach you about yourself and about life, you will fare much better than if you try and control your travel experience. Tattoo the words “go with the flow” on your brain and your arm if you have to!

Qutab Minar, South Delhi, India

Sunset at Qutab Minar, South Delhi.

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42 Responses to Delhi Guide: My top tips

  1. Prasad Np July 30, 2013 at 10:55 am #

    You sum it up very well with your quote” If you want a vacation, go to Belize. If you want to be transformed, go to India.” I will add a few things to the must see

    1. Jantar Mantar- right in the heart of Connaught place, one of the 3 obeservatories made by Maharaja of Jaipur.( probably you had it already in you mind when you said CP as it is very close to Janpath market)
    2. Second thing very close to CP is Agarsen Kee Baowli or a step well normally found only in rural Rajasthan and Gujarat ( though I have discovered a few here in Hyderabad). Both these monuments are normally missed by visitors to Delhi while they are right in front of them and they pass by both.

  2. shubhajit July 30, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

    Excellent article! Well structured, well written. I was in Delhi for 6 years, now in Kolkata and again going back to Delhi in September. There are lots of experiences in various cities, but delhi is the place where I stayed for such a long period. I here tell you Delhi’s story in a slightly different way.

    • Delhi was established as Indraprastha in Mahabharata time (ancient era). Draupadi, the great queen of Pandavas and herself as a goddess, spoke Duryodhana when he slipped in the illusionary room in Indraprastha palace “the son of blind”.

    • Prithviraj Chauhan was the great Hindu king who established Delhi as his headquarter, within a few years that undefeatable king was defeated by the Tomar Ruler.

    • Qutb-ud-din Aibak established his capital in Delhi in 12th century, and within four years he died playing polo.

    • Ghiyasuddin Tughluq was a great ruler in 14th century but after he made his headquarter in Tuglagabad (Delhi), within 5 years he was forced to left.

    • Mughals capital was Agra, but Shahjahan shifted it to Red Fort (Delhi). The great Mughals generation only lived in India for next two generation only.

    • British came and more than 150 years then ruled the country. They declared Delhi as a capital on 12 December 1911 and left India in 1947.

    Delhi makes everybody materialist and that’s the reason of their downfall. Delhi is like the U.S minus the sincerity of Americans. Delhiwalas know how to earn money, their thoughts confined to three things – ingestion, egestion, and ejaculation. Personally I don’t like Delhi, but I like certain aspects like hardworking people, money making capabilities and staying alone in anywhere you want. (for men). You can find cheap food and costly food at the same region. You can find appropriate rent within couple of days anywhere you want. You can travel to various places nearby, proximity to Himalayas are the biggest attraction for me.

    • Mariellen Ward January 16, 2014 at 11:03 am #

      Thanks for the history of Delhi — it must be one of the most historical cities in the world. As one of the economic engines of the country and the political centre, it will naturally be more industrious than other places. That’s life, I suppose.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..How to find vegetarian food in CanadaMy Profile

  3. A. Madhavan July 30, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    Great article – you really touched on all the bases. Very helpful tips and links. I’m going to print this out for my next trip! I can totally relate to the quote “if you want to be transformed, go to india” – SO true!!!

  4. Andrea July 30, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    I like your philosophy for travel here…you know, it could actually go for travel anywhere. Have not been to India but it looks fascinating!
    Andrea recently posted..Travel With Dietary RequirementsMy Profile

  5. Erin July 30, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    I really enjoyed this blog post. I think it has captured all the reasons why I fell in love with Delhi. I had the right mix of these things when I was there, which is why my perspective on Delhi contrasts that of many others I know who have travelled through (and hated it, mostly). We are planning another short trip in February and I am bringing a group of graduate students with me, so much of what we are doing is on this list. I hope they enjoy the city as much as I did when I lived there last year.

    • Mariellen Ward January 16, 2014 at 11:05 am #

      It’s upsetting that so many tourists hate Delhi. But like I explain in the post, it’s because they never got the chance to know Delhi the way I did, living for six months in a lovely enclave in South Delhi. I saw the other side of the city.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Year in review: Return of the heroMy Profile

  6. Destination Infinity July 31, 2013 at 6:07 am #

    I am sure this post will be useful to me sometime in the future, when I visit Delhi.

    BTW, according to the Ministry of Tourism 2010 report, the Top 3 Indian states visited by tourists from abroad are – Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Delhi. Two more states from the South are among the Top 10 – Goa & Kerala.

    So, I welcome people to visit South India, as well :)

    Destination Infinity
    Destination Infinity recently posted..Is Traveling Solo in India Safe for Women from Abroad?My Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 16, 2014 at 11:07 am #

      Interesting, I did not know that! Maharashtra because of Mumbai, no doubt. South India is glorious, indeed.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..The RiverMy Profile

  7. icyhighs July 31, 2013 at 7:05 am #

    Well written, as always. I’m in (South) Delhi at the moment, and loving it, especially the large number of parks and greenery inside the city.
    icyhighs recently posted..How Karan Johar brought back the RajMy Profile

  8. Andi July 31, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    I agree with Andrea! LOVE that first pic, wow!!!

  9. Ariana August 1, 2013 at 4:08 am #

    I agree we need to have the attitude of openness when we travel. All countries are unique when it comes to culture and beliefs. India is a special country and unique in some ways. Thanks for this helpful tips. I appreciate your love for this country.
    Ariana recently posted..OLD FAITHFULMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 16, 2014 at 11:09 am #

      Thanks for your comment. The best way to travel is indeed to imbibe the local culture :)
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..The RiverMy Profile

  10. Shalu Sharma August 5, 2013 at 5:24 am #

    Nice tips for Delhi. You are right about Delhi that its too big. You need few days to fully explore the city. There are no shortages of monuments, temples and mosques in Delhi. Traffic can be a nightmare though.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..The charms of an old ruined temple in India – PulicatMy Profile

  11. Connie August 5, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    Someday I will visit Indian in person but until then, I’ll just read your blog ;)

  12. pcjeweller August 8, 2013 at 5:41 am #

    Delhi of the most famous tourist destination among the tourist people .

  13. Amelia @ chai a cup of life August 13, 2013 at 11:25 am #

    I agree with you that Delhi Is not easy to get to know. I have been living here for 2 years now and think these 3 places are great for tourists : Hauz Khas, Conaught place and Delhi haat …all three I still enjoy. Great post!

    • Ravi October 24, 2013 at 9:23 am #

      In delhi, there r many temples,famous are – 1. Akshardham Mandir, 2. Chattarpur mandir, 3. Birla Mandir, 4. Kalka Devi Mandir & Bahai Temple (Lotus Temple). U may hire auto or a taxi to reach these places. These all famous temples are in delhi. To know more about delhi tourists places u may also bye a book Delhi Tourist Guide (it cots only Rs. 10) which available on all books store, railway stations and Main Bus Stands and its also have delhi road guide maps. This book hv all necessary information about delhi.

    • Mariellen Ward January 16, 2014 at 11:12 am #

      Oh yes, Dilli Haat is really fun, and I love Hauz Khas too,
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Pura Vida in Costa Rica My Profile

  14. globetotting.com August 20, 2013 at 1:11 am #

    A great post! What you say about experiencing Delhi is so true and ‘going with the flow’ is so important if you are to enjoy it. In fact you sum up India so well in your last paragraph that we would love to quote you in our Family Guide to Delhi (with a link to this blog post of course). Would that be ok? You can read our Delhi overview here http://globetotting.com/hierarchy-places/asia/india/delhi-around/delhi-around/area/overview
    globetotting.com recently posted..Nicola BurkeMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 16, 2014 at 11:12 am #

      Certainly, and please link back to this post. Cheers.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..The RiverMy Profile

  15. Saurabh Kapur August 20, 2013 at 3:41 am #

    My favorite would remain Qutub Minar. Absolutely love photography there be it early morning or twilight.

    And it is really nice to have a bunch of very active communities and social groups who meet every weekend to follow their passions.
    Here is a blog post regarding that: http://gomissing.in/travel-stories/travel/delhi/8-awesome-and-free-things-to-do-in-delhi/

  16. gagan@ budgets hotels in delhi September 3, 2013 at 7:32 am #

    I just love the way you explain and write about this wonderful place and appreciate the way some one who is clicking this wonderful pictures…
    Thanks

  17. prashant September 4, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    Very correct and interesting description of Delhi.

  18. Charu September 9, 2013 at 10:44 am #

    Jamah Masjid is a gem, and you look so beautiful in that picture
    Charu recently posted..An Insider’s Guide to ParisMy Profile

  19. Jonathan October 7, 2013 at 9:58 pm #

    Great tips! :) I really agree that location is everything. I think that when you stay away from the center, then you can usually experience the real local life. I would love to visit Delhi one day.
    Jonathan recently posted..Trekking on the Inca Trail, EcuadorMy Profile

  20. Sanskar November 9, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    I loved your post, being a Delhi wala myself I feel you have experienced Delhi as a Delhiite. “You don’t visit India – you experience it” perfect expression :) I have hosted some of my Russian friends and colleagues in Delhi, some loved it and some did not. It is all about attitude. One needs to be open for new adventures and cultural shock to experience India. If you have a bad attitude, you will receive bad feedback.

    You can mention about HOHO buses in your article. Have you heard of them? If not then google it. It is a great convenient and cheap way of sightseeing in Delhi.

    Last year I compiled a list of top destinations to visit in travel alog with some tips and advices to stay healthy, safe and save money in Delhi, may be you will like this and get some ideas to cover in your article :) http://www.theworldreporter.com/2013/03/top-10-destinations-in-new-delhi-travel.html
    Sanskar recently posted..Why India’s Mars Mission is about more than power and prestigeMy Profile

  21. Raj November 12, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    Nice post. Well Said
    Raj recently posted..Holy God Men – Anatomy of a God Man – 1My Profile

  22. Rachit Aggarwal November 14, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    I have never realized that Delhi is so beautiful.

    It reflects very bad on me being a Delhite. I will definitely follow this guide, next time to go to Delhi.

    Honest Confession: After going through you blog, I am realizing that we do not appreciate the things which are easily available to us.

    I was not aware about Delhi by cycle and many more things but now seeing through your lens, i am getting a entire new picture of Delhi unknown to me for years.
    Rachit Aggarwal recently posted..MahaShivratri celebrations at Brahma Kumaris, Shanti SarovarMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 16, 2014 at 11:16 am #

      It is sometimes hard to see the life right in front of us — we sometimes need others who see things in a new way to point out the obvious!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..The best day of my lifeMy Profile

  23. Charu January 16, 2014 at 11:07 am #

    I remember going to Delhi as a very young girl and my parents were extra cautious. As with many big cities, you need to make smart choices. Nice post, Mariellen, and I’m so sorry about your friend.
    Charu recently posted..An Oasis in the Middle Florida Keys: Hawk’s Cay ResortMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 16, 2014 at 11:18 am #

      Thanks for the comment Charu. If you are referring to the woman who was attacked, she was not known to me, I am just feeling a lot of empathy for her.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..The RiverMy Profile

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