So, you’ve made the leap and you’re ready to visit Delhi for the first time. You rose above the scare stories of scams and terrifying traffic. The warnings of Delhi belly didn’t phase you, and you’re itching to dive into Delhi’s medieval bazaars and explore its ancient mosques and museums.
Still, it pays to be prepared for some of the challenges that Delhi throws at first-time visitors. This city of 20 million souls is the soul of north India, but pitfalls abound on its narrow and bustling streets, waiting to trip the unwary. With the following tips and pointers, you’ll be ready for anything Delhi has up its sleeve.
The mild winter months from November to February are the best time to visit the Indian capital, avoiding the worst of the heat and the rain. However, this can be the worst time of year for air pollution, and fog can delay flights out of Delhi airport. Temperatures reach oven levels by May, and the summer monsoon from June to September drenches the streets with downpours.
Most visitors to India travel using an E-Visa, available online through the Indian Government. You can apply for a single entry visa lasting three months or multiple entry visas lasting one year or five years, and the actual visa will be stamped into your passport on arrival – a big improvement on the old days of queuing all day at the Indian visa office!
Flights from all over the world converge on New Delhi‘s Indira Gandhi International Airport. Get into town on the Delhi Metro, or take a prepaid taxi from in front of Terminal 1 or Terminal 3. The slow public buses to Kashmere Gate are best avoided.
With the air-conditioned Delhi metro, no part of Delhi is off limits, but for a first-time trip, it pays to stay central. Generations of travellers have dived into the tangled lanes of Paharganj, across from New Delhi Railway station and close to Connaught Place and Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi). The old hippy strip known as Main Bazaar still buzzes with cheap places to eat, sleep and sip a cold Kingfisher beer, but there are more comfortable hotels with more mainstream appeal just north on Arakashan Road.
For maximum atmosphere, duck into the streets of Old Delhi itself. GoStops Delhi covers things impressively for travellers on hostel budgets, while nostalgic Hotel Broadway and archway-filled Haveli Dharampura serve up old-school elegance (and a hint of Arabian Nights) for sightseers with deeper pockets.
Some of Delhi’s best food is served in humble surroundings. Hole-in-the-wall canteens around Chandni Chowk serve Delhi’s amazing dilli-ki-chaat street food for penny prices – don’t miss Old & Famous Jalebi Wala (serving delicious sticky whorls of fried dough) and the paratha (fried bread) sellers on Paranthe Wali Gali. Close to the Jama Masjid, Karim’s has been plying the faithful with rich, meaty nahari (mutton shank stew) for generations. For a meal to remember, book ahead for dinner at Indian Accents, for a fusion feast in the southern suburbs.
Delhi has a reputation for poor hygiene, but it isn’t hard to stay one step ahead of the bugs. Carry anti-bacterial hand gel and wash your hands often, particularly before eating. Only eat at busy restaurants or food stalls, and avoid salads and other raw foods. Ice and ice cream are also no-nos. Delhi’s polluted air is harder to avoid – many travellers bring a dust mask, particularly during the smoggy winter months.
Old Delhi is one of the most atmospheric places in India, particularly when explored on foot. Wander the lanes branching off Chandni Chowk, the centre of the Mughal city, where whole blocks are dedicated to the sale of kites, wrapping paper and steel pots and pans, then climb the minaret of the Jama Masjid for magnificent views over the streets from above.
In New Delhi, Connaught Place is an essential stop, to see India as the occupying British Raj imagined it. Don’t miss Jai Singh II’s curious observatory at Jantar Mantar and the spooky Agrasen ki Baoli stepwell. Wander along Rajpath for more colonial grandeur, and duck into the National Museum to see centuries worth of treasures and a suit of armour for an elephant.
South of the centre, catch your breath amongst the tombs and flowerbeds of the Lodi Gardens, then visit Humayun’s elegant tomb and the lovingly restored Mughal gardens at the Sunder Nursery. Nearby, you can see how Delhi’s magnificent mausoleums would have looked at the time of their construction at the Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din Dargah, the tomb of a revered Sufi saint.
Yes, Delhi has public toilets, but you probably don’t want to use them. When out and about, use the loos in luxury hotels (there’s normally one near reception), at museums and galleries, and in restaurants. Carry a pocket packet of tissues – toilet roll is rarely provided – unless you feel ready for the hand and water technique.
The famed Red Fort is undergoing a major revamp, with many sights inside the walls closed for building work. It may be a better use of your time to admire the fort from outside, and spend your time exploring the nearby streets of Old Delhi instead. The oft-photographed Baháʼí House of Worship (Lotus Temple) is awkward to get to and not as exciting as Delhi’s older attractions. Spend time instead in nearby Hauz Khas, with its hip shops and sultanate ruins.
Rickshaws and autorickshaws (like motorcycles, with a rear cab for passengers) abound in the old city, and taxis are easily flagged down for longer trips. However, meters are rarely used, so you’ll need to bargain hard for a fair fare. Check with your hotel reception to get a sense of the appropriate rate.
Bargaining is also the norm for rickshaw rides, but rides are rarely expensive, and it’s hard to begrudge drivers making a little extra on their low working wage. For longer trips, the Metro has the edge on travelling by taxi; it’s air-conditioned, phenomenally cheap, and lines zigzag to every corner of the city.
Delhi is scam central, so keep your wits about you. Transport can be fraught with hassles; be wary of drivers offering to take you to specific hotels or shops (where they’ll definitely get a commission, added to your bill) and be very suspicious of anyone who comes up to you at New Delhi Railway Station offering unsolicited help (frequently a scam to steer your towards a commission-paying travel agency).
In the streets of Old Delhi and Connaught Place, watch out for fake guides and touts for shops, hotels and travel agents. Also be prepared for the ‘poop on your shoe’ scam, where shoe cleaners drum up business by flicking muck onto tourists’ feet. Begging is a fact of life in Delhi, and it’s often driven by great need: giving or not is a personal decision, but donating to a local charity may make more difference than a few coins in a cup.