In many ways, the India that we dream of doesn’t exist.
It’s an image born from our desire to travel somewhere where finding inner peace is as easy as burning a stick of incense and enlightenment emerges from the murmur of chanting priests.
Chances are that when you land in New Delhi, you’re less likely to be struck by divine light, and more likely to be overwhelmed by hordes of people, unidentifiable odors, tummy troubles, and in-your-face poverty like you’ve never seen before.
But there is a way to experience India that can change you forever. Embrace it.
Get lost in the massive crowds (watch your wallet). Hop on a rickshaw where you’ll perch on a rickety seat while a thick-calved wallah bicycles through treacherous streets, circumventing honking cars and foolhardy pedestrians. Skip the hotel restaurants and sample a pleasingly crunchy, savory samosas from a street vendor (it’s cooked, you’ll be fine).
New Delhi is less cosmopolitan of a city than Mumbai, but it welcomes enough diplomats, business travelers, athletes, and expatriates that the average traveler can enjoy the comfort, culture and gastronomic delights geared toward foreigners. But it’s when you step off the brochure that the city can truly come alive.
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With jaw-dropping prices (there are about 40 rupees to the dollar), shopping is a must in New Delhi. There are plenty of markets that cater to travelers, where you can pick up jewelry, incense holders, statues, rugs, wall hangings, and marble carvings. This is one of those times when it’s perfectly OK to buy touristy items—everyone at home will be impressed by your Indian tapestries.
Cottage Emporium is a massive shopping center where you can find any and every souvenir, but for jacked up prices; Dilli Haat is a tourist-friendly open-air market with less chaos than “authentic” markets, but sells plenty of items at negotiable rates. Dilli Haat also happens to be fully accessible for those with mobility problems— including accessible bathrooms.
If you want to shop where locals go, try Greater Kailash Market, located in south Delhi. This ring of shops, with impossibly narrow walkways, is where you’ll find a mix of cheap trinkets sold alongside high-end jewelry, Indian and Western clothing, and leather goods.
If you’re feeling homesick, McDonald’s is just a step away. This may sound as on the brochure as you can get, but you really can’t get more Indian than ducking under the golden arches for a cold coffee and a McAloo Tikka burger (a potato patty). It may not be local, but it’s definitely localized.
Otherwise, stop by a street stand for a bowl of chaat—discs of crispy fried dough mixed with potato, yogurt and spices. (at right, a chaat maker)
If you’re feeling ready to commemorate your trip to India, sit in front of a mendhi wallah who paints henna designs on your hands, leaving behind an intricate pattern of red dye that lasts about two weeks.
While in central Delhi take a walk down Janpath, off the bustling hub of Connaught Place. Overflowing with souvenir shops and specialty stands, you can find anything and everything you want to buy here. Bangles and bracelets in assorted colors and designs are an especially good deal. Pop into the Tibetan market, an open-air street perpendicular to the Janpath strip, lined with vendors selling clothing, linens, and bags all adorned with hand woven Guajarati embroidery. Get ready to bargain hard.
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Sarojini Nagar in south Delhi is a well-kept secret among locals, packed with stalls carrying rejects or surplus from fashion export houses at ridiculously low prices. We’re talking familiar names like Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, and Esprit, as well as Indian and international designers. There are no changing rooms behind these stalls, so choose your wares wisely.
Street Food and Beyond
If you’re adventerous enough to venture into the street food scene, you won’t find a better meal than at Salim’s Kabab in Khan Market. Choose your meat, fish, or vegetarian/paneer filling and watch Salim as he artfully prepares your kabob. Slathered in a thin, garlicky sauce, topped with onions, and wrapped in a thin flatbread, this is one simple, inexpensive meal option that simply cannot be beat. 52 A, Khan Market, 24643697
If you’re feeling adventurous, navigate the narrow, jam-packed streets of Old Delhi to get to Karim. Located on a small side street near the famous mosque Jama Masjid, this restaurant boasts cooks that can trace their lineage to the chefs who prepared meals for the royalty of the Mughal Empire. Their recipes for hearty meat curries, tandoori kababs, and fluffy, almost biscuit-like naan are renowned, so local regulars keep the kitchen busy at all times of day. Jama Masjid, Gali Kababian, 23269880
On a warm night, there is nothing more magical than the ambience of Lodhi Restaurant. The private cabana-style tables are sprinkled throughout a large garden courtyard. Recline into your lavishly draped nook, prop yourself up against a pillow, and enjoy a live Friday night concert. Lodhi Road, 24655054/24652808
If you’re craving some Western comfort food, skip the Domino’s and TGI Fridays and head to The Big Chill. This local chain serves up a huge menu of salads, pasta, panini, and American-style cakes, pies and ice cream. If you still looking for something traditionally Indian, try a mango milkshake or do as the locals do and douse your pizza with ketchup. The funky orange walls are artfully plastered with old movie posters and even the menu pays its respects to Audrey Hepburn. 68 Khan Market, 115175-7588; F-38 East of Kailash, 112648
For a calm break from the afternoon bustle, cross the outer circle of Connaught Place up Bharakhamba road for a little pick-me-up at Oxford Bookstore. With an unmatched selection of regional teas, coffees, and blended beverages, this little nook is an oasis from the action below, and is a common choice for quick meetings between traveling business folks or busy students. If you crave something sweet to nibble on, order one of their homemade blueberry muffins which are always served piping hot. The bookstore itself offers a large collection of English books and magazines. 148, New Statesman House, Barakhamba Roadcafe 23766080
For unforgettable South Indian food, head to Saravanna Bhavan on Janpath. Although always packed with locals, the restaurant has a quick turnover. A mind-boggling selection of dosas and uttapam are available served with a selection of tasty chutneys. But nothing beats the 70 rupee thali (served from 7 p.m. onwards). The 15 or so components change daily but include a sampling of vegetable curries, yogurt dishes, and sweet halva and are always accompanied by rice and your choice of puri or roti. 46, Janpath, 23317755
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You’ll find the swanky set crowding into the proliferation of trendy bars and nightclubs, so put on your finery and join in. At vodka bar Aura, located in The Claridges Hotel,
guys drape themselves casually over gorgeous women who are decked out in in their party clothes and glinting with jewels. The bar boasts a huge array of vodkas, go for stylish cocktails like a Hot Chocolate, spiced with a hint of chili, or the Spicelandic flavored with coriander. 12 Aurangzeb Road, 1123010211
This will be on the brochure before we know it, but for now, Akshardham Temple is too new to be a stop on the average bus tour. With no entrance charge, it’s frequented by local sightseers and religious devotees. This massive structure is dedicated to Bhagwan Swaminarayan, but more than a religious center, it is an architectural wonder and homage to Indian mythology and culture.
Towering over the city of Noida, just east of Delhi, the temple was carved out of sandstone and marble by thousands of craftspeople and religious followers. With astonishingly intricate carvings, soaring ceilings and detailed statues depicting myths and Indian children’s stories, every inch of the temple is worth close inspection. The complex also features some rather theme-park-y cultural experiences, including a light and water show (narrated in Hindi), a boat ride through a showcase of “India’s glorious heritage,” and a big-screen film depicting the journeys of a young pilgrim. www.akshardham.com
Another pride of New Delhi is the Baha’i Temple, a huge lotus flower-shaped structure sitting atop a pool of water on 26 acres of land. Opened in 1986, this is one of only seven Baha’i temples in the world (one is located near Chicago). Inside, the large, quiet space, free from ornamentation, altars or idols, is ideal for visitors of all faiths to reflect and meditate. www.bahaindia.org
Hanging Out With the Locals
Lodhi Garden is one of the few places in the city where you will find an outdoor public space devoted to fitness. Large groups of locals gather here each day for a walk or jog along one of the winding trails throughout the space, while others come for bird watching, or to have a picnic on one of the large grassy patches. Within the clean, well-maintained park are ancient tombs and structures.
If you want to join the locals and hang outdoors, stop by the lawns of Delhi’s famed India Gate at Rajpath. The high arch soars nearly 150 feet, and was built as a memorial of the 90,00 Indian soldiers that died fighting for the British during World War I. On warm days (as opposed to sweltering), the grounds are packed with locals picnicking, playing Frisbee, and lounging around eating ice cream.
Though controversial in nature, one alternative to a traditional city tour is a “slum tour” of the streets of New Delhi. The Salaam Baalak Trust invites visitors on a two-hour walk through the New Delhi Railway station and its surroundings, populated by street children and runaways.
Tours are led by child guides, offering a unique perspective opening up a world that is usually invisible to the casual observer. The tours remain as non-invasive as possible (photos aren’t allowed around the railway station). All proceeds go toward the trust to enable and empower youths. 9873130383 (ask for Shekhar), 9810975284 (ask for Javed), www.salaambaalaktrust.com
For more on this, and other similar tours, check out The Good, the Green, and the Downright Crazy Tours.
India’s national carrier, Air India, is often the cheapest of the lot and is a good option for budget travelers who don’t mind mediocre food, cramped seats and frequent delays. In the old days, foreign airlines such as Lufthansa, Air France and British Airways were more popular carriers.
However, in recent years, a number of Indian-owned airlines have shaken up the market, resulting in lower prices and increasingly world-class service. The Mumbai-based Jet Airways recently launched its international services, flying from JFK and Newark to New Delhi and Mumbai, with rates starting at $680 each way.
By Sarika Chawla and Alix Proceviat for PeterGreenberg.com.
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And if all the talk of Indian food has made you hungry, check out our Culinary Travel section.
Want a taste of New Delhi’s streets? Check out this video: