Steeped in history yet overflowing with modern life, colorful, cacophonous Delhi pulsates with the relentless rhythms of humanity like few other cities on Earth.
Old Delhi Mayhem
Honk-honk-beeeep! Welcome to Old Delhi. Love or hate it, it's impossible to ignore. Whether you make it your base, or just dip into it for shopping sprees or to see the Red Fort, you'll be hard pushed to ever forget your time in this wonderfully chaotic, and fabulously photogenic corner of the city. You'll be sharing its hectic streets and alleys with carts and cycle-rickshaws, with cows and monkeys, with shoppers and with beggars, with street-food sellers and market traders, and with cars, vans, scooters and autorickshaws; watch your back – honk-honk-beeeep!
A Fabulous Feast
As the capital city of one of the most delicious countries on Earth, Delhi tantalizes your taste buds with its thali-like fusion of flavors from every corner of the subcontinent: Breakfast on South Indian idly; lunch on Punjabi kulchas; then, come evening, dine on rich Mughlai curries. But don't forget to leave room for some Dilli-ka-Chaat, Delhi's famously delicious street-food snacks; try sizzling kebabs for starters, then munch on aloo tikki (spiced potato patties) before getting your fingers sticky on jalebi (orange-coloured coils of deep-fried batter dunked in sugar syrup) or savoring some sumptuously creamy cardamon kheer (rice pudding).
The Great Indian Bazaar
All the riches of India twinkle in Delhi's emporiums, so if you're regretting not buying that handmade kathputli (puppet) you saw in Rajasthan or that Madhubani painting you loved in Bihar, fear not; chances are you'll be able to find one here too. New Delhi's emporiums are multi-floor, gift-filled markets that are perfect for a last-minute souvenir binge before you fly home. Old Delhi's famously frenetic street bazaars, meanwhile, contain a mind-boggling array of clothes, slippers, shawls, handicrafts, food, electronics and more – even if you're not buying anything, they're a joy to visit (and photograph).
Eight Cities in One
Delhi is a city built upon cities. There are at least eight historical Delhis, each constructed on, or near, the ruins of its predecessor, leaving a modern-day citadel that's dotted with ancient monuments, many said to be haunted by djinns (spirits). Love history and you'll be left salivating as you trace your way through the eras, clambering across the ruined forts of Tughlaqabad, Siri, Purana Qila and Shajahanabad; exploring the magnificent tombs of eminent historical figures; and visiting the still-vibrant temples, mosques and shrines that throng with devotees today, as they have done for hundreds of years.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Delhi.
There are extraordinary riches scattered around Mehrauli, with more than 440 monuments – from the 10th century to the British era – dotting a forest and the village itself behind the forest. In the forest, most impressive are the time-ravaged tombs of Balban and Quli Khan, his son, and the Jamali Khamali mosque, attached to the tomb of the Sufi poet Jamali. To the west is the 16th-century Rajon ki Baoli, Delhi's finest step-well.
Founded by Emperor Shah Jahan and surrounded by a magnificent 18m-high wall, this fort took 10 years to construct (1638–48) and is rumoured to have had the decapitated bodies of prisoners built into the foundations for luck. It once overlooked the Yamuna River, which has now shrunk to some distance away. A tree-lined waterway, known as nahr-i-bihisht (river of paradise), once ran out of the fort and along Chandni Chowk, fed by the Yamuna.
Humayun’s tomb is sublimely well proportioned, seeming to float above its symmetrical gardens. It's thought to have inspired the Taj Mahal, which it predates by 60 years. Constructed for the Mughal emperor in the mid-16th century by Haji Begum, Humayun's Persian-born wife, the tomb marries Persian and Mughal elements. The arched facade is inlaid with bands of white marble and red sandstone, and the building follows strict rules of Islamic geometry, with an emphasis on the number eight.
A beautiful pocket of calm at the heart of Old Delhi's mayhem, the capital's largest mosque is built on a 10m elevation. It can hold a mind-blowing 25,000 people. The marble and red-sandstone structure, known also as the ‘Friday Mosque’, was Shah Jahan’s final architectural triumph, built between 1644 and 1658. The four watchtowers were used for security. There are two minarets standing 40m high, one of which can be climbed for amazing views.
Visiting the marble shrine of Muslim Sufi saint Nizam-ud-din Auliya is Delhi's most mystical, magical experience. The dargah is hidden away in a tangle of bazaars selling rose petals, attars (perfumes) and offerings, and on some evenings you can hear the qawwali (Sufi devotional singing), amid crowds of devotees. The ascetic Nizam-ud-din died in 1325 at the ripe old age of 92. His doctrine of tolerance made him popular not only with Muslims, but with adherents of other faiths, too.
If you only have time to visit one of Delhi's ancient ruins, make it this. The first monuments here were erected by the sultans of Mehrauli, and subsequent rulers expanded on their work, hiring the finest craftspeople and artisans to set in stone the triumph of Muslim rule. The complex is studded with ruined tombs and monuments, the majestic highlight of which is the Qutab Minar, a 73m-tall 12th-century tower, after which this complex is named.
Shh, whisper it quietly: this place is better than the Red Fort. Delhi's 'Old Fort' isn't as magnificent in size and grandeur, but it's far more pleasant to explore, with tree-shaded landscaped gardens to relax in, crumbling ruins to climb over (and even under, in the case of the tunnels by the mosque) and no uptight guards with whistles telling you not to go here and there.
This magnificent 14th-century ruined fort, half reclaimed by jungle and gradually being encroached on by villages, was Delhi's third incarnation, built by Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq. The sultan poached workers from the Sufi saint Nizam-ud-din, who issued a curse that shepherds would inhabit the fort. However, it's monkeys rather than shepherds that have taken over. There are fantastic emerald-green views. Interlinking underground rooms, which you can explore, were used as storehouses.
The Qutab Minar that gives the complex its name is an unmissable, soaring Afghan-style victory tower and minaret, erected by sultan Qutb-ud-din in 1193 to proclaim his supremacy over the vanquished Hindu rulers of Qila Rai Pithora. Ringed by intricately carved sandstone bands bearing verses from the Quran, the tower stands nearly 73m high and tapers from a 15m-diameter base to a mere 2.5m at the top. Admission price is to the whole Qutab Minar Complex.