Expect the worst and you’ll be fine. It’s not often how I would start a travel guide, but I think it’s a helpful way to think. We’d read so much about culture shock and feeling overwhelmed that we were honestly expecting New Delhi to be a lot worse than we actually found it – part of that might be the jet-lag but part of it was probably because we’d mentally prepared ourselves. That being said, it is a big, busy, loud and polluted city, and that certainly got to us after a little while (and we were only there three days). This blog post is going to cover a little bit of everything – I’ll go through our travel itinerary, my impressions of New Delhi and hopefully some helpful tips along the way.
It’s likely that if you’re travelling to the North of India, you’ll fly into New Delhi which is the capital of the country. If you have the time, it’s definitely worth spending a few days here as there is plenty to see (we didn’t see anywhere near as much as we could have done) but it is also helpful to pace yourself, particularly if it’s your first time in the country. A lot of the things which came to characterise our trip away (such as being asked for photos, and the scary roads) were things we first experienced in Delhi.
Arriving in Delhi
The inside of the airport is tranquil compared to outside as you are only allowed inside the terminal buildings with a boarding pass, or if you work there. Don’t underestimate how helpful this is when you first land, as it means you will be able to go through security and collect your bags with relative peace. There are possibly also a few important tasks you’ll want to do on arrival.
Firstly, if you’ve just arrived in the country you’ll need some money. India has a closed currency which means you can’t get rupees outside of the country. It’s the first time I’d ever been away without any money for the place I was going, or secure knowledge that my card would work so getting money was top of our list. We got some from a bureau de change in the baggage collection hall as this was all we could see, however as you exit into the arrivals hall there are ATMs (but no guarantee they’ll have money).
If you want to get a SIM card for your time away, I’d advise getting this from the airport too. There was a queue at the relevant shop when we arrived so we didn’t bother assuming it would be easy to get one in the city centre. We found this was definitely not the case, so if you do want or need a SIM (advisable if you’re planning to use Uber to travel around) then just stick with the queue.
Unless you’re being picked up, or have a clear plan for how you’re getting into the city centre, it’s advisable to get a taxi using one of the pre-paid stands. We were dubious about this as the prices were higher than we’d expected, but as soon as we stepped out of the terminal it was chaos so I was pleased to just be being walked to a car that we’d already covered the cost of. Then you need to make sure you know where you’re going. Our taxi driver didn’t really know where our hotel was so took us to that area and then kept trying to leave us at the wrong place. Luckily we had an offline map downloaded so could direct him, but would have been a bit stuck otherwise.
An easy first day in New Delhi
It’s a little bit of a stretch to call it a first day, as even though we landed in the late morning, by the time we’d gotten through the airport (including some random COVID testing), checked into our hotel and freshened up it was mid to late afternoon. Rather than rushing out to see as much as you can in as short a space of time, I’d advise pacing yourself if you can.
Agrasen Ki Baoli is a famous stepwell in New Delhi, which was within easy walking distance of where we were staying and free to visit. I had never seen anything like it before so found it fascinating, and really liked seeing the juxtaposition between the old stepwell and the skyscrapers that were visible in the background. Although it’s clearly reasonably popular with tourists, it felt quite peaceful in comparison to the rest of the city so we spent a bit of time just sitting in the shade, watching the birds and enjoying a moment of tranquility.
From the stepwell we headed to Connaught Place, also known as Rajiv Chowk. This is a commercial and financial centre in Delhi which has plenty of shops and restaurants. It’s centered on a ring of colonnaded white Georgian-style buildings, which work in a grid system. At the very centre there is a park. I couldn’t get the hang of the grid system at all and soon realised that we would always be the opposite side of Connaught Place to where we actually wanted to be. After having a quick wander round, we met some friends for dinner and then completed our gentle first day with an auto-rickshaw ride back to where we were staying.
If you’ve got a bit more time or want to fit in a bit more in the area, then you could add on the Jantar Mantar (huge astronomy instruments) and / or Gurudwara Sri Bangla Sahib, a Sikh temple.
Finding calm in New Delhi
Our mission for day two was to find some clothes for the Indian wedding that we’d be attending in a few days time, which meant we had slightly less time for sight-seeing than we’d have liked (I will always pick sight-seeing over shopping!). We headed back up to Connaught Place but were disappointed by the lack of occasion-wear for women. We’d hoped to both get outfitted at Manyavar, but sadly they only sold men’s clothes. As a result, we were whisked away to a place called Indian Loom which is clearly where all the tourists are taken and then encouraged to spend as much as possible. Whilst we did both manage to get our outfits, we found the whole experience a little unsettling (and quite frustrating when we came back and found James could have got a Kurta he preferred for cheaper from the original shop we’d visited). With hindsight, heading to Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi would have given us much more shopping options but we weren’t feeling confident enough to head there at the time.
After a stressful morning we knew we needed a more relaxing afternoon, so we got on an auto-rickshaw and headed south to Lodhi Garden. This was my favourite place that we went to in New Delhi and I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s a lovely green space which feels a world away from the city centre. It’s a good spot for a picnic, or just to watch the world go by for a bit (and the birds and monkeys!). There are various tombs in the gardens, so just wandering round you’ll stumble across some areas of interest.
If you don’t need to fit shopping into the morning, then you could head to Humayun’s Tomb instead which is the one thing I was disappointed to have missed. Khan Market is also in the area and is meant to be a more high-end market which also has restaurants.
Experiencing Old Delhi
We’d heard a lot about Old Delhi, and not all of it was good, so we’d deliberately left it until our final full day so that we had acclimatised as much as possible. I would definitely recommend heading into Old Delhi as it does feel more ‘authentic’ than Connaught Place. We contemplated getting a guided tour, then didn’t and were fine without it, but we probably missed quite a bit as a result as we stuck to main thoroughfares rather than all the narrow streets and back-alleys. I imagine it could be very easy to get lost!
We didn’t go to the Red Fort as we’d been advised by our friend that if we were also going to Agra and Jaipur then we didn’t need to make time for the fort in Delhi. However, quite a few of our friends went and really enjoyed it. Instead, we headed straight into Chandni Chowk and were actually surprised at how peaceful it seemed. We soon realised it was because bicycle rickshaws were the only mode of transport allowed on the street, so we’d left the incessant beeping of the autorickshaws behind temporarily, although you’ll still find motorbikes making their way down the narrowest of lanes. As well as checking out the market area, we also went into Jama Masjid. If you’re planning to head here then make sure your shoulders and knees are covered, and ladies will also need to cover their head. This was the first place we went where people were really keen to take photos with us which I really hadn’t expected in a Mosque.
After the mosque, we made our way to the Rajpath back in New Delhi. We started at the end with all of the government buildings, and walked down towards India Gate and the Netaji Canopy. India Gate is really popular with tour buses so there were a lot of people, and it felt a bit like everyone wanted to have a photo with us. There’s very little shade, so I would try and go later in the day if you can (we were there late afternoon) as otherwise you’ll find it quite hot.
If you’re planning to go to the Red Fort, I’d suggest adding India Gate into your itinerary on an earlier day (some of our friends did it the day they arrived rather than the stepwell) so that you’ve got plenty of time.
Where we stayed in New Delhi
There’s an incredible choice of places to stay in New Delhi with everything from £5 per night backpacker hostels to seven star hotels which means you can pick somewhere to suit almost any budget. We opted for a budget hotel and stayed in the Bloom Hotel in Janpath. It was clean, cheap and well-located so I’d recommend it providing you’re not looking for a luxury experience. I’d probably equate it to an Ibis Budget in the UK. One of the best things about the hotel were the free snacks and drink fridges which you could help yourself to and got refilled everyday, and it also had aircon. There was also a breakfast buffet which you could pay for in addition to your room but was really reasonable. We paid slightly more for our room to get a suite, which was handy as it meant we had somewhere to sit other than our bed which actually had quite a good view.
Where we ate in New Delhi
We were very cautious about what we ate in New Delhi as we really didn’t want to get food poisoning. As a result, we avoided street food and only ate in places which were well-rated. I’m ashamed to admit that we did go to Starbucks on day two after our shopping experience, as we just wanted somewhere with air-con and where we didn’t have to think too much about what we were ordering. However, each night we ate somewhere a bit different and all of the food was very nice and didn’t make us ill!
On our first evening we ate at Dasaprakesh on Connaught Place. There were choices of Northern or Southern Indian food and it’s quite an extensive menu. I had the North Indian Thali which was delicious and had plenty of food!
On our second evening, we followed the recommendation of a friend and went to Sandoz, again on Connaught Place. It was reassuring to see that most of the families eating were Indian rather than British, and the waiter helpfully pointed us in the direction of some less spicy dishes.
For our final evening we headed with a big groups of friends to Saravana Bharvan on Janpath Road which is an international chain (you can even go to one in London), and so again felt quite safe. It was clearly very popular (there was a huge queue when we left) and again, we really enjoyed the food we had. The first time I’ve ever been served fudge with spicy dishes!
Travelling around New Delhi
We approached Delhi in the same way we would most places, and therefore were trying to walk most of the time. I wouldn’t always advise this as there aren’t always pavements, and it can be very hot and dusty but if you’re used to it then it’s quite nice not having to think about transport. Auto rickshaws are an experience and you should definitely take at least one. We found them quite convenient as there is always someone willing to give you a journey, but make sure you settle the price and agree the location before you get in. If you’ve got internet access, you might Ubers a convenient way to get around the city. You can also order an auto-ricksaw via Uber which means you don’t have to haggle the price.
When we headed up into Old Delhi we made use of the Metro. I’d heard all sorts of horror stories, and probably wouldn’t have done this if I was travelling on my own (although there are women-only seats and carriages) but it was actually a lot calmer than I expected. It wasn’t any busier than using the underground in London, although we didn’t try using it at a peak time.
Impressions of New Delhi and other things to know
- The roads are scary. Trying to cross the road is terrifying as there are very few pedestrian crossings – you just have to walk and hope nobody will hit you. Nobody did, but I still largely put that down to luck! In a couple of places (such as trying to get from the Red Fort to Chandni Chowk) the roads just seem impossible, but if there’s a metro station you can use this to get from one side to another safely. We did this a few times!
- I knew there would be monkeys in the city, but what I hadn’t expected were so many birds of prey! We had a really good view of them from our bedroom window.
- Delhi has a distinct smell, and it’s not particularly pleasant. It’s a mix of pollution, cigarette smoke, incense and who knows what else. It sort of hits you when you arrive, you gradually get used to it, and then if you return to the city during your stay you’ll immediately recognise it.
- The key to Delhi is to find moments of calm where you can. I advise making sure you have at least one thing each day on your itinerary which is in a more peaceful place just so you get a bit of time to breathe.
- One thing which surprised us was opening times – a lot of the markets don’t open till 11am so unlike in Europe where if you don’t arrive early you won’t see anything, you need to leave it till later in the day or the evening. There was a market close to where we were staying that we kept missing as we were up and out too early.
Have you been to New Delhi? What would you recommend adding to an itinerary?