Crowded, hot and with more sharp operators than a surgeon’s convention, Delhi is a challenge. Yet among the hawkers and holy cows are moments of serenity
Before you arrive
Delhi encompasses all of the frenzied, glorious chaos of the subcontinent. The old city is a warren of medieval lanes, mobbed by pedestrians, porters and sacred cows, while New Delhi is brash and discordant, a place where extreme poverty and lavish wealth clash in a cloud of honking taxis and auto rickshaws. It’s also fascinating, vivid and vibrant – you just need to keep your wits about you.
Taxi and auto rickshaw drivers have a sixth sense for picking out new arrivals. If the driver won’t use the meter, bargain hard for a fare before you board. Anyone who strikes up an unsolicited conversation probably has an ulterior motive, but don’t judge everyone by the behaviour of the beggars and commission-wallahs; plenty of locals are just happy to meet someone from the home of cricket.
Gets the Delhi feeling by reading William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns or watching Richard Attenborough’s epic Gandhi? Alternatively, tune in to the Hindi pop channel on the in-flight radio while you fill in your landing card (use a hotel name from your guidebook if you don’t know where you’re staying).
At the airport
Domestic and international flights touch down at Indira Gandhi International Airport, 23km south-west of the centre. Passing through immigration and customs is fairly painless. The swanky new Terminal 3 has foreign exchange counters, ATMs and phone offices, and some of the cleanest bathrooms in the city. To avoid expensive roaming charges, buy a (dirt cheap) local SIM for your unlocked mobile phone.
Getting into town
The Metro line to the airport was completed earlier this year (2011), if you don’t fancy taking this, the best way to reach the centre is by pre-paid taxi. Ignore the touts and look for the pre-paid taxi booth located to the right as you leave the arrivals hall.
Other ways to arrive
Trains pull into New Delhi station, (Old) Delhi station and the branch-line station at Nizamuddin. The tourist office at New Delhi railway station is the place to book tickets on the tourist quota. Avoid buses – it takes half a day just to clear the suburbs.
First night’s sleep
Delhi is crammed with hotels, from five-star palaces to fleapit dives. For plenty of the latter, head to Paharganj, Delhi’s original traveller centre, which makes up for general grime with a handy location, across the road from New Delhi station.
It’s also scam central, so some opt for the marginally calmer surroundings of Connaught Place or the posher neighbourhoods to the south. Taxi drivers are notorious for taking new arrivals to commission-paying hotels – if you don’t have a booking, ask to be dropped at a nearby landmark.
First day’s tour
Delhi has a split personality. Old Delhi, to the north, has the best of the monuments, temples and bazaars, while New Delhi to the south has the restaurants and colonial relics. Getting around is easy by taxi, but more atmospheric by pedal rickshaw or autorickshaw. City buses are strictly for masochists; the Delhi Metro is a cheap, efficient alternative.
Kick off a half-day tour in Connaught Place, the centrepiece of colonial Delhi. Stroll south along Janpath to the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, jammed with arts and crafts from across India, then cut east to Jantar Mantar, the whimsical observatory of Maharaja Jai Singh II.
Grab lunch at one of the nostalgic eateries on the outer circle of Connaught Place, then bargain hard for the autorickshaw ride to the Red Fort, the one-time palace of Emperor Shah Jahan. Meander through marble audience halls, then duck into the bustling bazaars to the south of Chandni Chowk. These winding lanes are the beating heart of Old Delhi, and at the centre of the maze is the magnificent Jama Masjid, Delhi’s finest Mughal mosque, where you can survey the chaos from the southern minaret – it all seems so much calmer from up here. Finish with a chota peg (little drink) at the 1911 Bar in the Imperial Hotel.
Stay or go?
Most people go, but it’s a shame not to linger a few days to explore the Mughal monuments and the Aladdin’s cave-like state emporiums along Baba Kharak Singh Marg. Should you choose to depart on the first available train, you can be in Agra in three hours, Jaipur in six.
Avoid the fake booking office scam at New Delhi station. The real booking office is upstairs, but a legion of touts will tell you the office has closed, relocated or ‘shut for the holidays’, redirecting you to a dodgy private travel agency where they’ll earn a hefty commission. Don’t fall for it!