At first chaotic, teeming, tumultuous glance, you might be forgiven for thinking that Delhi is not the most relaxing spot on the planet to spend time with children, but with a bit of forward planning, it's easy to discover the family-friendly side to India's frenetic capital.
The trick to family travel in Delhi is escaping the crowds. Try crossing Connaught Place, amid careering traffic, in the heat, whilst gripping the arms of several toddlers, and you might find yourself racing back to the cloistered sanctuary of your hotel room. Relax in the calm confines of a Mughal garden however, and you might see the city in a very different light.
A good hotel is worth its weight in Mr Men books
Getting the best out of Delhi with kids in tow requires a certain amount of forward planning. Rather than staying in the busiest districts, life will be infinitely less stressful if you choose one of the quieter corners of South Delhi, where guesthouses and hotels offer a bit more room to breathe. Some even have enclosed gardens. As an added bonus, most of these hotels are also close to Delhi's surburban district 'markets' – upscale retail complexes with shops, restaurants and supermarkets selling familiar European and American imports (breakfast cereals, wet-wipes and the like), plus, in many cases, decent kids' playgrounds. Perhaps the most ideal base for families is the Lutyens Guesthouse, with parrot-filled grounds, sprawling lawns and a swimming pool.
However, if you prefer to stay in the centre, this has the advantage that you’re only a short, entertaining rickshaw hop from many of the sights and places to eat. Palace Heights on Connaught Place is a boutique hotel with a good restaurant and a cosy feel, while at the cheaper end of the scale, Bloom Rooms on Arakashan Road, close to New Delhi train station, is centred around a large sofa filled courtyard, with light, bright rooms, and an on-site pizza restaurant. If you fancy a real escape from the city, Tikli Bottom is ideal, wonderfully set amidst the Aravali hills, with plenty of space, farm animals and a swimming pool.
Family feasts in Delhi
When travelling, the default position for many parents is to stick to the familiar, and Delhi has no shortage of fastfood chains and restaurants serving the comforting tastes of home. However, Delhi is also a great place to branch out and delve into the local cuisine. Kids with moderately adventurous palates will find South Indian culinary heaven at Saravana Bhavan, with branches on P-Block in Connaught Place, and at 46 Janpath. As well as healthy veg staples like rice and dhal, another easy dish for children is the dosa, a huge, crisp rice pancake, which can be eaten plain, or more ambitiously with a spicy potato and onion filling and tangy sambar dipping sauce and coconut chutney. Other great south Indian restaurants include Swagath and Sagar Ratna, with branches all over the city.
Kids who are comfortable with a bit of spice will also enjoy the meaty kebabs of Nizam's Kathi Kabab in Connaught Place, Khan Chacha in Khan Market, or Karim’s in Old Delhi – take a rickshaw to the latter to avoid having to negotiate the busy streets on foot. Old Delhi is also good for super-sweet sweets; at the famous jalebiwala on Chandni Chowk, you can watch each bright orange squiggle of batter being deep-fried and dipped in syrup. If you need a bolthole while exploring New Delhi, look no further than the Lodi Garden Restaurant, a large outdoor eatery with a globe-trotting menu, tables in tents and wagons, and plenty of space for kids to charge around.
If you'd rather play it safe and go 'continental' – the local catch-all term for Western food – good choices include United Coffee House (on E-Block in Connaught Place) for a comforting bowl of pasta marinara, Amici (Khan Market) for a pizza, Café Turtle (Khan Market) for a slice of cake, the All American Diner (India Habitat Centre, Lodi Rd) for a pretty decent hotdog, or The Kitchen (Khan Market), for a big, familiar plate of fish and chips. Wengers in Connaught Place is a great pitstop for a sandwich, while next door, at the attached deli or the hole-in-the-wall stand, you can buy delicious milkshakes. Popular ice-cream parlour Naturals at L8 Connaught Place is a wonderful place to buy some of India’s best ice-cream.
Get some education at Delhi's museums
As well as the obvious attraction of the well stocked National Museum on Janpath, with 5000 years of sculpture, art and artefacts, Delhi has a handful of museums specifically designed with kids in mind. Little engine drivers will enjoy a spin around the National Rail Museum, featuring some eleven acres-full of rail-related exhibitions and memorabilia, including the Fairy Queen, the world’s oldest still-running steam train, the saloon car of King Edward VII, and the skull of an elephant who unsuccessfully decided to charge full-tilt at a train. Alternatively, enjoy a doll-sized world tour at Shankar’s International Doll Museum on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg.
Another intriguing attraction is the peculiar sculpture garden at the Jantar Mantar on Sansad Marg, actually an observatory for monitoring the stars, constructed in 1725 by the Maharajah Jai Singh. For a more modern take on the cosmos, there are shows about space in Hindi and English at the Nehru Planetarium, in the grounds of the Teen Murti Bhavan on Teen Murti Marg. Then there are Delhi's child-oriented National Museum of Natural History and National Bal Bhavan (Children's Museum), both packed with colourful but fading exhibits and boisterous groups of schoolchildren.
Arguably a better bet for children with energy to burn is Delhi’s Crafts Museum on Bhairon Marg, a series of pavilions laid out in rambling grounds dotted with mock-up buildings, craft workshops and sculptures. It’s a great space for children to roam around and explore, and they’ll enjoy larking around by the wood-carved horses and carts and watching the craftspeople at work (plus crafts are sold at pocket-money prices).
Plenty of fresh air in Delhi's open spaces
There are plenty of places for children to let off steam in Delhi, if you know where to look. The key is getting away from the traffic, which usually means going inside the fortified walls of Delhi's Mughal ruins. The Red Fort, with its sprawling gardens, forts and palaces, provides an enormous traffic-free zone where children can run around unhindered, and the Sound & Light show offers a cheesy, swashbuckling take on Delhi history. Further south in New Delhi are the serene Lodi Gardens, a wonderful park dotted with hide-and-seek friendly copses of trees and crumbling Lodi-era tombs. The kid-friendly Lodi Restaurant is right next door, or you’re close to loads of family-friendly choices in Khan Market.
Purana Qila on Mathura Rd is another walled fort with a calmer vibe than the Red Fort, and lots of green space and ruins to ramble around. Alternatively, try Delhi's Mughal mausoleums, all set in sprawling gardens – Humayun’s Tomb in Nizamuddin and Sajdarjang's Tomb on Aurobindo Marg are both enticing open spaces. The Delhi Metro provides a fast link to Mehrauli, one of Delhi's seven ancient cities, with spectacular and fascinating ruins at the Qutb Minar and the sprawling Mehrauli Archaeological Park.
Younger kids will enjoy burning off some energy with a swing, slide and spin at the large playground just across from the imposing India Gate, or a ride in a kitsch floating swan at the boating lake nearby. There’s another boating lake in the former moat of the fort of the Purana Qila. Nearby is Delhi's ramshackle but well-stocked National Zoological Gardens, which treats its animals fairly well and is a reliable winner with kids. Or there's always Hauz Khas, with a deer park, Mughal ruins, cute cafes and an ancient man-made lake.
A fantastic way to see the city, for older children who are confident cyclists or toddlers who can fit in a child seat is DelhiByCycle, where you take a cycle tour in the early morning around the streets of Old or New Delhi, or along the river. Children (and parents) with a social conscience will be captivated by a walking tour organised by the Salaam Baalak Trust, whose former street children guides show visitors up-close what life is like for Delhi’s multitudes of street children. An off-shoot, Street Connections, has guides trained by the trust, and offers good walking tours of the Old Delhi backstreets.
This article was first published in December 2010 and updated by Abigail Blasi in November 2015.
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