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Delhi is the kind of city where the crazy rhythm of life naturally lends itself to interesting experiences. But the city presents a unique challenge for first time visitors to get used to the madness, and have a level of energy to match with. As you will soon find out, Delhi is an overwhelming discovery of culture, history, street food carts, and places to visit.
I was SHOOK from the moment I arrived—we were on the highway going from the airport to city centre, and inches away from my passenger window, cars loomed in and swerved by, sending my cab rattling. I’ve been stuck in traffic in Bangkok and Manila and sideswiped by a crazy scooter rider in Vietnam, but oh boy, Delhi was a whole other level.
Once I got past the intial shock and went along with the crazy flow, I found Delhi to be full of surprises, in all the good ways. For instance, the pace of life says something about the city’s robust energy and its ongoing effort to innvoate itself. At the same time, so much tradition still remains in a city that is rooted in centuries of history. There is a lot going on here, so keep your eyes open and don’t pass up on these unique experiences when you are in Delhi!
Places to visit in Delhi
Delhi Metro and the auto-rickshaw
To visit most sights and places in Delhi, the most convenient and cost-effective way is with the Delhi Metro. With almost 300 stations connecting the urban landscape, the metro bypasses the crazy mayhem of car traffic. It’s also nice that the first carriage is designated for female passengers, especially if the idea of getting stuck under someone’s armpit during rush hour and getting proposed to by the guy you ask directions from doesn’t amuse you.
But the way I see it, my run-ins at the metro stations also count as some of the more unique experiences in Delhi. Since the service counters typically don’t like to help with top ups, I had to wait in line for the one working machine in the entire station. And then the machine either refused to accept my card or only accepts Rs 10 and 20 notes, so back to the counters I went to get some small change (and plead with the station personnel to just let me purchase a ticket with him). This also meant a lot of back and forth at the security checks, so my honest advice is to have small change on hand, and be ready for a series of patdowns.
For places that are not easily reached by metro, the auto-rickshaw is a great alternative. I recommend getting an auto using Uber or Ola. The price is fair (often much less than the fare on the street) and this way you can pinpoint your exact location and destination on the map without having to bust out Google Translate.
Humayun’s Tomb consistently ranks at the top of places to visit in Delhi, and for good reason. Some 85 years before Taj Mahal claimed the spot as India’s most exuberant showcase of love, Humayun’s Tomb, born out of a grieving wife’s devotion to her husband, was the prototypical design of love for all those thereafter to aspire.
Grand in vision and design
Humayun’s Tomb is a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the 16th century. It is often regarded as the first of many architectural wonders by the Mughal Empire, who ruled over the region for more than 200 years. It was commissioned by Emperor Humayun’s wife Bega Begum in 1565 following his death. Vowing for the the tomb to become the most magnificent masoleum in the empire, Bega Begum’s ambition pioneered a legacy for the Mughals and greatly influenced the designs of Taj Mahal.
The tomb is an interesting study of the interconnectedness of faith with life, death, and everything in between. The geometrical designs, for instance, were inspired by paradise as described in the Quran. The enormous wealth and ambition of the Mughal Empire is also evident in the tomb’s grand scale and lavish furnishing.
Interestingly, the massive site houses more than the emperor’s tomb. Nicknamed the dormitory of the Mughals, it has in fact more than 150 graves, including that of Humayun’s barber.
Under the iconic pink Delhi sky, a stroll at Humayun’s Tomb is the perfect opportunity to observe the various forms of life–the dogs enjoying a siesta on the lawn, the schoolchildren who greeted us with the most enthusiastic namastes I’d ever heard, and the couples who stole moments of affection, in the monument built out of love.
Recommended route: take the metro to Hazrat Nizamuddin station then take an auto to Humayun’s Tomb
At a height of 72.5m, Qutub Minar is one of the tallest minarets in the world. Towering over the landscape, it is also the greatest claim to victory for the Delhi Sultanate, a Muslim empire that occupied the region for over 300 years.
According to the inscriptions, Qutub Minar more than served as a tower for calls to prayer. It was more significant as an assertion of the Muslim power over the Hindu land. Many Hindu temples were demolished and used as materials for the construction of Qutub Minar. The basement level was constructed in 1199 by the first Muslim ruler of Delhi, Qutub-ud-din Aibak. Subsequent storeys were added over time, resulting in distinct styles in the five storeys.
Having survived natural disasters like lightning and earthquakes, the tower has endured its fair share of turmoils, but its most recent tragedy of a fatal stampede in 1981 has led to a strict ban on ascending the tower’s 379 steps.
History lessons aside, the well-maintained lawn also makes for an inviting space for families to have a picnic while soaking in the sun.
A forgotten ruin
The auto-rickshaw dropped me and my friend off at a rather inconspicuous spot. We took a dirt path down to a slope that leads to the mosque, surrounded on all sides by tenements in mismatched colours. It felt like we were trespassing but the residents casually went about their business. Nobody seemed to even notice the ancient monument standing outside their balconies.
Khirki Masjid means the “Mosque of Windows” in Urdu. It was constructed between the years 1351 and 1354 during the Tughlaq Dynasty. The mosque is one of its kind in North India due to its unique quadrangular shape. But despite a grade A classification by the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India), the mosque is in a crumbling state and in dire need of proper preservation. The ground floor leads into arched chambers, dark and rank with negligence. Such a shame, since it is really beautiful. Climbing the steps to the upper floor, we could see into a passage framed by the arches and illuminated by the soft morning sun.
Since it was Sunday, the mosque was closed to the public, but the guard allowed us in for a few minutes to snap some photos.
In place of melodic hymns, the mosque’s present inhabitants were rather chatty. I followed the noises and stench and stopped in front of a puddle of mysterious substance on the ground. I looked up and sure enough, inside the deep, pitch-black dome were bats. Hundreds of them.
Shivers running down my spine, it was time to wrap up the urban exploration and get back to the noises and crowd outside. Odd how that’s become a sense of normalcy in this city.
Recommended route: take the metro to Malviya Nagar station then take an auto to Khirki Masjid
This Guinness World Records title holder is equally impressive for the manpower and hours that went into its construction. Built in just five years thanks to its 8,000 volunteers, Akshardham Temple is a testament to spiritual fervour and devotion.
A mishap with Google Maps took my Ola ride on an excursion to the banks of Yamuna River, where slums and dwellings made out of scraps etched the very image of poverty in my mind. On arriving at Akshardham and seeing the temple in its grandeur, the stark contrast with what I’d just seen along the river was unbelievable.
Maybe that is the point. Before entering the temple complex, bags need to be checked at the cloak room, along with all digital devices. The main halls also require visitors to take off their shoes. Removed from distractions, the temple invites visitors to take in the experience with their senses and return to the outside world with a humbled frame of mind.
Every little detail at Akshardham speaks for its spiritual significance. Namely, the 108 cows, symbolizing Hindu deities, that decorate the lakes. Also, the 10 gates representing the directions in Vedic tradition. If I hadn’t taken an accidental detour to Yamuna River, I would have spent hours exploring its many exhibits. Marrying technology and innovations with tradition, the temple boasts a cultural boat ride and an IMAX film. In the evening, the water show depicts a moving story about the circle of life at Yagnapurush Kund, the largest stepwell in India.
Nearest metro station: Akshardham
Majnu ka Tila
Ever since I moved into a local family’s home, I kept hearing about Majnu ka Tila (MKT), an elusive Tibetan colony on the Yamuna riverbed. Finally, on my last night in Delhi, Naveen the host dad took me and another girl staying with them there. I had been dissatisfied with the Indian takes on Chinese food I’d had– momos (dumplings) and chow mein. Thankfully, our Tibetan food exploration at Majnu ka Tila ended my trip on a delicious and memorable note.
At the foot of an overpass, Naveen explained that Tibetan refugees had come and settled along the river in the 1950s. Here fresh produce is grown right by the water and costs far less than anywhere else in Delhi. It used to be known for its moonshine too, though nowadays people have stopped making their own homebrew.
At the other end, we officially entered the marketplace through a narrow alleyway. Dodging between dark, dingy corners, we emerged on the other side to an unfamiliar world where Tibetan prayer wheels, tapestries and portraits of the Dalai Lama fill the walls. Peeping through a curtained door, we could see a sparsely furnished poker hall, sounds of the chips hitting the floor in discordant rhythms.
Dare I say the best chicken soup I’ve had
We went inside a hole-in-the-wall kind of place and ordered something I never knew I missed– hot chicken soup. Naveen went inside the kitchen to order and came back with a sneaky grin. Working his charm, he had procured a bottle of whiskey to go with our meal. How does something so simple taste so delicious? What a feeling it was, slightly buzzed from the drink while relishing every drop of the hearty soup. We devoured the soup and overestimated our tolerance for the spicy sauce. Before we knew it, we were fanning ourselves like crazy and somehow wanting to order more.
Back on the street, we spotted beef skewers, a rare delicacy in Delhi. We also stopped by a street cart and cooled off with some laphing, or cold mung bean noodle mixed with spices.
A few winding turns later, we took an exit to where the marketplace meets the river. It was a bit chilly but in the darkness obscured by smoke, people sat out in the open on odd furniture pieces. Everyone’s hands were wrapped around a bowl of warm soup. And I have to agree, food tastes much better in good company.
Not my favourite of experiences but hey, when in Delhi. At Connaught Place, a massive circular shopping district designed to lose yourself in the sea of people and shops, you’ll find many street carts selling this unique mouth-freshener. But the most popular shop seems to be a big, flashy kiosk called Shukla Odeon Paan Palace.
Paan is betel leaf and areca nut rolled with sweet masala and varying sweeteners. In the case of the fire paan, the leaf is stuffed with a clove paste and lit on fire before it is sent to your mouth. The fire extinguishes instantly so you won’t feel the burn. But chewing on a mouthful of leaf and crunchy cloves… It is refreshing in the worst ways. I hated the lingering aftertaste and resented my decision to try it after my friend, also a tourist, had already warned me about the taste. I then proceeded to warn my other friend about it and watch him suffer the consequence of not listening… Ha!
Paan as an after-meal dessert has been around for a long time, but fire paan supposedly came to being when a customer healed his mouth ulcers this way. Nowadays, it is one of those places where all tourists feel compelled to visit in Delhi. Don’t say I didn’t warn you though!
Recommended route: take the metro to Rajiv Chowk station then walk towards Odeon cinema in D Block
Bazaars and street fairs
The many bazaars and open street markets make up some of the most interesting places to visit in Delhi. Dozens of food carts challenge the stomach to yet another street food crawl, while the shops sell everything you could possibly want and never need. These experiences have given a very real glimpse of the essense of Delhi.
- Janpath Market, pedestrians-only streets for cheap jewelry and clothes.
- Main bazaar, busy area with plenty of food options.
- Tilak Nagar Market, trinkets, bags and saris, one-stop shop for souvenirs.
- Kalkaji Market, street food market for a college crowd. The nearby Deshbandhu College is also exciting to check out during their university fest events.
- Palika Bazar, India’s first underground marketplace.
- Khan Market, a more upscale shopping experience with international brands and bars catered to expats.
Equally a shopping experience and a stimulating exploration, Chandni Chowk is essential to a first trip to Delhi. The city’s oldest and busiest marketplace dates back to the 17th century, when Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor most known for the Taj Mahal, relocated his capital to present-day Old Delhi. Chandni Chowk enjoyed a glorious past as the moonlit marketplace for the Mughal royalty, selling exquisite fabrics and rare gems. Quite on the contrary today, the marketplace is run-down looking and jampacked with scooters, cows and people, but is nonetheless an exciting place for visitors to try their hands at the art of bargaining.
Read more about Chandni Chowk and places to visit in Old Delhi ↓
Nearest metro station: Chandni Chowk
Belly Dance & Bollywood Hip Hop
Watching the video afterwards, I’ve decided to not let myself agree to trying another dance class in the future. Just kidding, it was so much fun! Taking a break from yet another visit to historical places, my new friend and I took up Bollywood and belly dancing in a small studio near the south campus of the University of Delhi.
I was new to the city and meeting a local friend for the first time so naturally, we decided to get acquainted over awkward dance moves and shrieking laughter (from the instructors). We started with some basics in belly dancing, isolating the core, lifting and rounding the hips. Just when we thought we got the hang of it, in came another instructor and it was time to change up the tempo. Blasting Hindi jams and top 40s, it was an intense, high energy workout. And of course, we looked like fools while having fun.
Ethical Street Tours
–Sam Anderson, NY Times writer
My trip to Delhi was full of interesting, albeit somewhat touristy experiences. I did, however, begin and end my stays in Delhi with two local families. In those days, we ate hearty, homecooked meals together, stayed up and played games I’d never heard of, and hit the streets for places I otherwise would not have discovered. In experiencing the everyday affairs and being in conversation with them, I learned much more about the city than being out exploring on my own.
Although I didn’t get to join street tours while in Delhi, I think they offer visitors something valuable to the experience– the local perspective. I’ve made it my goal this year to travel with environmental and ethical issues in mind. After some research, I found two ethical tours that take participants to visit places that are a bit off the tourist track and see a different side of Delhi. During the tours, you will get to hear stories from the locals and be in touch with their reality. Most of all, your contribution directly gives back to the communities that live the reality.
Delhi: Ethical Sanjay Colony Slum Tour — a 2-3 hour walking tour through Sanjay Colony, home to 50,000 residents and one of the largest industrial areas in India. The tour encompasses a glimpse of the industries at play within the community, and explores social and economical issues for the residents in the slum.
Delhi Street Walk by a Former Street Kid— a 2 hour walking tour through the lens of a guide with a firsthand experience of living on the streets. The walk takes place on the streets of Paharganj, accompanied by the guide’s personal story of survival as a former street kid.
I encourage you to do your own research too, and let me know if you have other suggestions for places to visit in Delhi!