The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for India: Sanjay Saxena of Nomadic Expeditions
The son of a brigadier general in the Indian Army, Sanjay was born in New Delhi and grew up living in numerous places throughout India. He began mountaineering and rock climbing in the high Himalayas at age 15, and since 1979 has led groups on trekking, climbing, touring, and safari trips not only in India but in Tibet, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan. In 1992 he and David Breashears co-led the first western descent of the Brahmaputra River—a 250-mile whitewater rafting trip that was filmed for the BBC series “Classic Adventures”—and in 2001 he led the first Western group to journey overland from Kunming to Lhasa along the “southern road. Committed to running trips that are ecologically responsible and culturally sensitive, Sanjay has been named an “Unsung Hero of Compassion” and recognized by the Dalai Lama for the community projects he has created in South Asia. Travelers benefit from his rare combination of deep insider knowledge and talent for creating unique, intellectually engaging itineraries to both traditional and remote destinations. Sanjay was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
The Imperial, built for British officers transiting through Delhi, is now one of the city’s premier hotels—not just for the heritage building, the spacious rooms (some of Delhi’s largest), and the British-era art collection, but also because of its central location: Unlike many of the city’s other five-star options, the Imperial is walking distance to Jantar Mantar, Connaught Place, India Gate, Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, and the Parliament. Since many of the least expensive rooms are awkwardly shaped, we prefer the Heritage rooms, which have more open layouts.
In nearly the same optimal location (at the other end of a very long block) but for roughly half the price, the Shangri-La is another fine option. Décor-wise, these two hotels are opposites, though: The Shangri-La is a newly built, modern hotel, with the top-notch service this chain is known for. Rooms on the higher floors have nice views, which you won’t find at the Imperial.
Restaurants the locals love
Not Just Paranthas, located in the Greater Kailash II neighborhood, serves a ton of variations on the traditional “aloo parantha” (flatbread stuffed with spiced potatoes and peas). A favorite is the fried egg parantha; after your first bite, the yolk oozes out to cover the rest of the bread.
Karim’s, in Nizam ud Din, serves Mughal cuisine. This is the destination for the meat lovers—ask for the raan (leg of lamb) served with Khamiri roti, a leavened bread. Since this restaurant is run by Muslims, you’ll find beef here, but no pork.
Stop at one of Sagar Ratna’s outlets (there are several across Delhi) for a quick lunch of South Indian vegetarian food—perfect when you have a day packed with sightseeing. I’m partial to the bhindi (okra) masala, but the masala dosas are also great.
I’ve usually steered travelers clear of street food, but chaat, the tapas-style spicy treats you typically find in northern India, are now being safely offered in some restaurants. Dahi bhala is a local favorite: chickpea flour balls that are fried and then soaked in yogurt (dahi) mixed with tamarind sauce and a healthy dose of various spices; try them at Natraj Restaurant in Old Delhi.
Meal worth the splurge
Varq, at the Taj Mahal Hotel, is my new favorite. The eclectic cuisine is anchored in traditional cooking, but with a mix of foreign ingredients (lobster, sea bass), local organic produce, and a profusion of Indian spices. You must get the chicken gandheri, a chicken kebab wrapped around sugarcane and served in a tall glass with mango chutney.
Prime picnic spot
Delhi abounds with many parks. The India Gate lawns are best at sunset, when hundreds of locals come out to simply hang around, watch the setting sun on Rashtrapathi Bhawan, enjoy an ice cream or tea, and eat coal-roasted corn-on-the-cob. Lodi Gardens, near the Oberoi hotel, is great for people watching; the park also has a number of ruins from the 15th- and 16th-century Lodi dynasty.
What to See and Do
Among the city’s best-kept secrets are the 100-plus structures that make up Mehrauli Archaeological Park, a complex of ruins dating from various periods of the city’s history. Though the ruins are close to the Qutab Minar, which sees hundreds of visitors daily, you’ll rarely find busloads of tourists exploring Mehrauli’s gardens, mosque, palaces, tombs, and beautiful stepwell (a common feature in these ancient landmarks, stepwells are an elaborate series of steps leading down to a pool).
Many travelers know about Delhi’s fabulous Chandni Chowk bazaar, but few explore the city’s smaller neighborhood bazaars, where locals go to do their daily shopping. Vendors sell everything from silverware to wedding dresses; this is where you can really get a sense of ordinary urban life in India. Two good options are the Lajpat Nagar bazaar, with its narrow alleyways and intense concentration of stalls, and the Karol Bagh bazaar, which gives timid visitors a bit more breathing room (both are named after the neighborhoods in which they’re located).
Making time for the Red Fort: It has an impressive facade, but most of the fort is closed to visitors. A better option—assuming you’re visiting Agra—is the much grander Agra Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Rashrapati Bhawan, now the Presidential Palace, was designed and built by famed architect Edwin Lutyens as the residence for the British Viceroy of India. Until July 2014, it was closed to the public—but now a section is open for guided tours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Even if you are not a museum person, a walk through the Rashtrapati Bhawan (the equivalent of the White House tour) is well worth the price of admission: It’ll give you a good sense of the grandeur and opulence of the British Empire.
The Mandi House neighborhood is the heart of Delhi’s contemporary art scene, with many galleries located around the Mandi House Chauraha (traffic circle). Of note are Triveni Kala Sangam (housing four galleries and a theater), the Shri Ram Centre (a gallery and theater), Lalit Kala Akademi (India’s National Academy of Fine Arts), and Mandi House. After enjoying some art and perhaps a music performance, make the short walk to Bengali Market for a South Indian vegetarian dosa, followed by some delicious Bengali sweets.
A bicycle-rickshaw ride through the narrow alleyways of Chandni Chowk, in Old Delhi, will get your blood racing as your “rickshaw-walla” dodges carts, pedestrians, and motorbikes while monkeys follow you, darting along the rooftops and telephone poles.
How to spend a Sunday
On Sunday mornings, Delhites head to the Hauz Khas village, with its multitude of cafes, shops, and boutiques built around a reservoir; follow the locals here for some good people watching.
Also on Sundays, the Darya Ganj market closes and the street fills with book peddlers, their wares stretching for over a mile. You’ll find volumes on almost any topic, all at cheap prices.
Gems and jewelry, silk carpets, wood-carved items, paintings, textiles and fabrics, pashmina wool shawls—so many things to buy and just one small bag. The four floors of goods at Cottage Industry on Janpath (opposite the Imperial hotel) is the perfect place to start. This government-run store showcases handicrafts from all over the country. The quality is high, as are the prices (all fixed; don’t bother trying to bargain), but the items are genuine. Even if you don’t buy here, a walk-through will give you a good baseline of prices to expect as you tour the country.
September through November, when the monsoon rains give way to clear skies and pleasant temperatures. This being a major festival season, there’s also a holiday atmosphere similar to what you find in the United States around Christmas and New Year’s. Celebrations start with Ramlila, when hundreds of theatrical groups put on free performances of the Ramayana (a Hindu epic in which Lord Rama battles the demon Ravana) in every neighborhood. The shows culminate a week or two later on Duesehra, when giant effigies of Ravana are burned. During Divali, which always falls on a new moon, everyone lights candles to guide Rama home. All in all, it makes for a wonderful time to be in Delhi.
February and March offer similar weather, and the festival of Holi is celebrated with great gusto in every part of the city: Locals gather at bonfires the night before, then throw colored powder and water at each other to celebrate the beginning of spring.
In December and January, a combination of fog and smog (partially created by wood, coal, and dung fires burned in poorer neighborhoods and nearby villages) sits heavily over Delhi; morning flight delays are common because of this. Since there’s no central heating in India (except in hotels, high-end apartments, and shopping complexes), it can get quite cold indoors. Furthermore, January 26th is India’s Republic Day. This is a festive time, no doubt, but there are lots of road closures (especially along the parade route from around January 20th-31st), and popular sites become off-limits to travelers whenever government officials visit—often on short notice.
The correct name for India’s capital city is simply Delhi. For Delhites, “New Delhi” refers to the region of the city built by the British; only in the 1980s did foreigners start equating that term with the entire city. The true New Delhi is part of a larger region called South Delhi (which includes all the neighborhoods south of the Ring Road). When locals speak of Old Delhi—also known as North Delhi—they are referring to the sections built under the Mughal Empire, which are centered around the Red Fort.
Overpaying for souvenirs. Always bargain in local shops; start by offering 40 percent of the asking price. Once negotiations have begun, walk away: If the salesperson follows, you’ll get the best price; if not, there’s probably another souvenir just like it down the road. And don’t ever disclose that you’ve just arrived in India; if you do, prices will go up exponentially.
Buy precious items only from government-certified shops (those that advertise it on their signage). Think you’ve found a bargain elsewhere? Chances are the item was made yesterday in the store’s backyard and is complete junk. Remember also that it’s illegal to take an antique (any item over 100 years old) out of the country.
Delhi Airport is big—it can easily take 20 minutes just to walk to your gate—so allow plenty of time. At check-in, you must put an airline tag on each and every one of your carry-on items (even small purses or fanny packs). After your carry-ons have gone through the x-ray machine at security, ensure that the tag is stamped and dated; if not, you will be hassled at the gate and may not be allowed to board.
Don’t show up at the airport with just your passport, as you might in the U.S.; you must have a hard copy of your e-ticket, in addition to identification that exactly matches the name on your reservation. Without a hard copy of your ticket, you won’t even be allowed into the terminal.
Railway stations in India are always a challenge. A rookie mistake here is shooing away all the licensed porters because you can handle your own baggage. As soon as you reach the station, hire a porter—they not only know the place inside and out, they will put you in the right seat of the right compartment on your train. A side benefit is that you won’t be bothered by other porters or hawkers; your porter will keep them at bay. Agree to a price before you hire the porter (typically the rupee equivalent of $1 per bag), then hang onto the coattails of the porter, as they are the fastest walking human beings even when loaded down with half a dozen suitcases—they want to get you to your train and get on to their next customer quickly. That said, give yourself at least 30 minutes to board your train after arriving at the station, as wading through the crowds takes time. Keep a firm grasp on any precious items; the station is full of pickpockets.
Sunscreen—which is hard to find in India—and slippers or airplane socks for visiting temples and mosques, where you’ll have to remove your shoes.