For many international travellers, Delhi’s best quality is its transport links. Visitors touch down in its large international airport and often make a beeline for its bustling central train station, hopping on the fastest train to the mesmerising desert landscapes of Rajasthan, the emblematic Taj in Agra or frenetic, fantastic Varanasi.
But the Indian capital is so much more than a travel springboard. Give Delhi and its fabled street food markets, awe-striking monuments and fizzing nightlife half a chance and the city may surprise you. Here’s a perfect one-day itinerary to help you make its acquaintance; though you may end up staying for a lot longer.
It's also worth noting one of the age-old qualms about Delhi, the difficulty of traversing the city, is now less painful than ever, with the Metro bringing the suburbs close, and app-hailed cabs providing an easy alternative to fare-haggling in taxis and autorickshaws – meaning tourists are much less likely to be taken for a ride, so to speak. The best time of the year to explore Delhi is September to April.
Breakfast in Old Delhi
There’s no better start to a day than a wholesome repast in the by-lanes of Chandni Chowk, whether you sign up for a food walk or go it alone. A famous street food haven, this bustling district serves everything from ghee-soaked stuffed parathas (fried flatbread) at Paranthe Wali Gali (the bread lane) to fresh fruit sandwiches in the Chawri Bazaar.
The freshly made nihari (meat stew) at Haji Shabrati Nihari Wale (south of the Jama Masjid), and the bedmi-puri (lentil-stuffed puffed bread) and halwa nagori (puffed bread with almond pudding) at Shyam Sweets in the Chawri Bazaar are year-round breakfast favourites. For a classic serving of chole-bhature (chickpeas with fried bread), head to Haldiram’s or, for something a little fancier, step into Lakhori at Haveli Dharampura; a restaurant housed in one of the city's old characterful mansion houses. This restaurant also serves Indian high tea everyday on the rooftop (4pm to 6pm). Get to Old Delhi early before the neighbourhood fully wakes up to ensure seats on the Metro, walking space in the street, and a short wait for a morning munch.
Breakfasting early in the old city of Shahjahanabad gives you a head start when it comes to visiting prominent attractions, providing an enviable chance to beat the crowds. Start at the Sisganj Gurdwara, marking the site where the 9th Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadur, was publicly beheaded for refusing to abandon his faith. Wind your way through bustling bazaars to the elegant Jama Masjid built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. An architectural study in red sandstone and white marble, this is one of the largest and grandest mosques in all India. Your next stop, the legendary Red Fort, housed the Mughals for nearly two centuries and is today a must-visit Unesco World Heritage Site. The fort took 10 years to build and, upon completion, its interior courtyards were said to resemble heaven on earth; an opulent oasis reserved only for the elite. The fort's audio guide tour really helps to bring the monument to life.
A leisurely lunch
Walking through so much history is bound to leave you somewhat peckish. Hop into a cab for a 20-minute ride to colonial-era Connaught Place (CP) with its striking Georgian-inspired architecture and a fluttering national flag in the central park. With its myriad old-world eateries, fast-food chains, cafes and bars, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Check out the north Indian fare at Kwality’s, one of the oldest family restaurants in Delhi, with a menu unchanged since the 1940s. For authentic Tamil food, step into no-frills, no-fuss Hotel Saravana Bhavan. For a meal on the move, grab a packed lunch at Wenger’s, offering exceptional sandwiches, patties and shami kebabs.
Work off your lunch bargaining for deals on Janpath, Delhi’s most popular shopping street. Clothes, shoes, accessories, souvenirs – all are up for grabs at the best price you can negotiate. For souvenirs without the hard sell, shop for traditional handicrafts from all over India at the multi-level Cottage Industries Emporium. Head next to Khan Market for some traditional Indian cotton apparel at Anokhi or Fabindia, and home accessories at Good Earth. A rejuvenating plate of cake and coffee at The Big Chill will charge your batteries for a quiet constitutional around Lodi Garden, Delhi’s most frequented public park. Or you could cab it to Humayun’s Tomb in Nizamuddin, rumoured to have inspired the Taj Mahal, and afterwards amble around the recently refurbished Sunder Nursery, a charming 16th-century manicured Mughal garden. Aim for a lap or two – you'll want to build up a good appetite for the evening ahead.
A fine-dining dinner
An outdoorsy day as packed as this deserves a spot of relaxation in posh surrounds to finish things off. The ITC Maurya in Chanakyapuri houses two remarkable restaurants – the legendary Bukhara for Northwest Frontier food, and Dum Pukht for a delectable dose of north Indian and Awadhi cuisine. For modern Indian cuisine, try Indian Accent in the Lodi Hotel; Le Cirque at Leela Palace will satisfy any cravings for French or Italian fare. Or go off-grid – Lavaash by Saby in Mehrauli serves signature Armenian dishes like tolma (stuffed cabbage leaves) and ponchiki (ball-shaped donuts) in sight of the Qutab Minar, an impressive, cloud-scuffing tower built in the 12th century.
A drink after dark
Delhi is fond of a drink and the city offers up countless places to unwind come nightfall. Ek Bar in Defence Colony is a laid-back space with an Indian-inspired menu of signature cocktails. For frosty beers, try Irish House at Epicuria, located close to Nehru Place Metro Station. Prefer a glass of red or white? At Delhi’s pioneering Perch in Khan Market, grapes rule the roost, with a wine list covering everywhere from India to the New World.
Finish the evening with a dance: a carefree ambience and well-curated reggae playlist booms at Raasta, local DJs spin a mix of international and Indian hits at Summer House Cafe, and a speakeasy vibe prevails at the Piano Man Jazz Club, India’s first live jazz music venue.
The sound of the clock striking midnight signals the end of your perfect day in Delhi. But then, you could always stay one day more? (There's certainly plenty more to see.)