Delhi serves up a gobsmacking cornucopia of history, culture, cuisine, commerce and street life, with countless sights and activities to keep visitors thoroughly engaged. At first glance, the Indian capital can seem an overwhelming place to negotiate, but give it time and you'll feel the chaos subside, revealing delicate vignettes of daily life and layer upon layer of ancient history, built up over 2000 years of settlement.
Here are 20 great things to do in India’s fast paced and frantic, but fun-filled capital.
Delhi's stunning Jama Masjid mosque © Sahebe Alam / EyeEm / Getty Images
1. Sample Delhi’s delectable street food
The street food in Delhi is legendary. Tangy delights such as chaatpapdi (fried wafers loaded with potatoes, chickpeas, yoghurt and chilli) or golgappas (fried hollow dough filled with chickpeas and spicy potatoes), are de rigueur in Old Delhi. Also seek out stuffed parathas (fried breads with vegetable fillings), sizzling kebabs and treacle-dripping jalebis (sweet swirls of fried dough).
2. Admire the grandeur of Humayun's Tomb
Humayun's Tomb combines Persian elegance with fine Indian craftsmanship, and its graceful lines are mirrored by the fiercely symmetrical Mughal Gardens that surround it. For the best photos, stroll here at dusk, or simply admire the architecture at any time of day. Believed to be the precursor of its more famous look-alike, the Taj Mahal, this UNESCO-protected monument is well worth the relatively high entry fee.
4. Listen to qawwalis
The best place to hear qawwalis (devotional music) is at the dargah (tomb) of the Sufi saint Nizam-ud-din Auliya; resounding professions of faith ring out around sunset at one of Sufism’s most revered sites. Buried close to his spiritual master is Amir Khusro, a celebrated Sufi poet from the 13th century. The qawwalis take on a special hue during Basant, the festival of Spring, when both dargah and devotees are adorned with yellow robes and blooms.
4. Storm the Red Fort
Explore the great sandstone carcass of the Red Fort, and you'll be whisked back to the last days of the Mughal empire. Though some areas are under restoration, the mixture of graceful Islamic structures and British-era additions still spins a tale of duelling empires. If possible, catch the Republic Day celebrations here when the Prime Minister hoists the Tricolor from its resplendent ramparts, and browse the wares on sale in the Meena Bazar, once the exclusive domain of the ladies of the Mughal court.
5. Take the stress out of sight-seeing on a bus tour
You can catch an easy glimpse of Delhi on a HOHO Bus tour for as little as Rs 500 a day. Except for Mondays, tourist buses run throughout the day at regular intervals, stopping at the biggest sights and giving visitors plenty of time to get familiar with the city's history and heritage. Choose from half-day, one-day or two-day tours depending on availability.
6. Go on a shopping spree
To lose yourself in shopping, head to Delhi's government emporiums, a string of temples to Indian craftsmanship lined up along Baba Kharak Singh Marg close to Connaught Place. For bargains, hit the flea market stalls nearby on Janpath and in Sarojini Nagar. For a one-stop shop for crafts from around India, look no further than Dilli Haat, near the INA metro stop, which also serves up great street food.
7. Lose yourself in Old Delhi
Get lost and confused in the narrow bazaars of Old Delhi, and feel like you've wandered into the medieval period. Every wrong turn springs a new surprise as you stumble upon such hidden delights as the home of the legendary Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib, the towering Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque, or Khari Baoli – Asia’s largest spice bazaar. On your explorations, keep an eye out for a series of well-preserved and colourfully painted Jain havelis (merchant's houses), built in the 18th century.
8. Explore the sprawling Sunder Nursery
To restore your inner equilibrium, step into the serenity of the 90-acre Sunder Nursery, a beautifully restored park dotted with Mughal monuments, water features and several hundred species of trees. Alive with birds and butterflies, the flowerbeds surround amphitheatres where you can see performances by talent from nearby Nizamuddin Basti.
9. People watch at Lodi Garden
To see Delhi at its most relaxed, wander around Lodi Garden on a Sunday afternoon, the perfect place for people watching. The gardens are dotted with ancient ruins from the Islamic Sayyid and Lodi dynasties so there's plenty to see; bring a picnic basket, relax with a book, or put its jogging tracks to good use.
10. Watch the Changing of the Guard
A relatively unknown Delhi attraction, the Changing of the Guard takes place on the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan every Saturday morning. The President’s Bodyguard, kitted out in their ceremonial regalia, put on an equestrian display for a gathering of no more than 200, against the backdrop of the imposing Presidential Palace.
11. Visit Indira Gandhi's former home
The ghosts of history swim through the former home of Indira Gandhi, Indira Gandhi Smriti, where she was shot dead by one of her bodyguards in 1984. There's a lot to learn about India's most powerful dynasty, and India's complex politics, as you wander through this period mansion.
12. Get acquainted with Indian art
Be flabbergasted by the wealth of Indian art at the National Museum, home to an astonishing collection of statues, woodcarvings, paintings and other treasures. Not far away, you can introduce yourself to India's avant-garde artists and their work, installations included, at the National Gallery of Modern Art.
13. Feast on fine Indian fare
Delhi is amply stocked with great places to eat. For a taste of the south, chow down on scrumptious masala dosas (rice and lentil flour pancakes) at the Janpath branch of Saravana Bhavan, and finish your meal with a deliciously nutty south Indian coffee. Alternatively, take things up a notch by booking a table at Indian Accent in the Lodhi Hotel to sample a tasting menu blending flavours from across the subcontinent, or try the cluster of Mughlai restaurants at Pandara Market; Pindi and Gulati are standout options.
14. See the city from a different angle
There are dozens of great books that bring Delhi's history to life. Use the map from William Dalrymple's City of Djinns for a novel way to explore the city, or grab Madhulika Liddle’s The Eighth Guest and Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries and traipse around Shajahanbad in the footsteps of her intrepid Mughal-era detective.
15. Put on your dancing shoes
One great way to feel the rhythms of the subcontinent is through a dance lesson at the Delhi Dance Academy. Their two-hour Namaste India Dance Workshop is an entertaining introduction to the Bollywood, Bhangra, and Garba styles you've probably already seen on the big screen. The cost includes costume hire and a video of the choreographed performance.
16. Take time out at the Qutb Minar
For a break from the centre, take a trip out to the historic Qutb Minar, with its towering minaret resembling an ornate factory chimney. This was complex is studded with monuments straddling several centuries, of immense interest to history, architecture and calligraphy buffs, and the ruins continue in the neighbouring Mehrauli Archaeological Park.
17. Go upmarket at Khan Market
Sample the refined lifestyle of middle-class Delhiites at laidback Khan Market. Browsing the bookshops and homeware stores then hang out for a chat at Café Turtle, fuelled by coffee and gooey cake. Alternatively, get the youthful vibe by ordering a shake at Big Chill or sushi at Yum Yum Cha, or mix coffee and carafes at Perch, the city’s first wine and coffee bar.
18. Escape the crush at Gandhi's tomb
For respite from the chaos of the city streets, visit Gandhi's simple tomb in its tranquil gardens at Raj Ghat, and consider the humble lifestyle of the great Independence leader and the tragedy of his departure – nowhere else in Delhi is as peaceful as this.
Colourful Indian artworks on sale in trendy Hauz Khas village © Almazoff / Shutterstock
19. Feel the buzz of Hauz Khas
History meets BoHo in the district of Hauz Khas, with its crumbling Mughal tombs and enticing art, antique and fashion boutiques. Enjoy a quick bite or a long, leisurely meal in one of many hip eateries overlooking the lake, or stop in for coffee and conversation at Kunzum Travel Cafe.
20. Admire Old Delhi from above
Wind up your explorations back in Old Delhi at the Jama Masjid, and climb the mosque's minaret in the late afternoon, for epic views of stacked rooftops, soaring vultures and bobbing kites, then reward yourself with a classic non-veg meal nearby at Karim's or Al-Jawahar, both famous for their rich, meaty kebabs.