A buzzing international metropolis home to seventeen million people (and counting), sprawling Delhi is the capital of India, and also functions as the prime hub of wider South Asia. While this may conjure visions of urban chaos, and while those visions may be almost precisely accurate in teeming Paharganj and other older districts, much of the city is low-lying and surprisingly green, as best witnessed from the elevated sections of the excellent metro system. Delhi boasts a rich and varied history, and you’ll come across tombs, temples and ruins dating back centuries; on the flip side of the coin, a burgeoning youth scene is exemplified by designer bars, chic cafés and decent clubs. The result is a city full of fascinating nooks and crannies that you could happily spend weeks, or even months, exploring.
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What to see in Delhi
From a tourist’s perspective, Delhi is divided into two main parts. Old Delhi is the city of the Mughals and dates back to the seventeenth century. It’s the capital’s most frenetic quarter, and its most Islamic, a reminder that for more than seven hundred years Delhi was a Muslim-ruled city. Old Delhi’s greatest monuments are undoubtedly the magnificent constructions of the Mughals, most notably the mighty Red Fort, and the Jama Masjid, India’s largest and most impressive mosque.
To the south, encompassing the modern city centre, is New Delhi, built by the British to be the capital of their empire’s key possession. A spacious city of tree-lined boulevards, New Delhi is also impressive in its own way. The Rajpath, stretching from India Gate to the Presidential Palace, is at least as mighty a statement of imperial power as the Red Fort, and it’s among the broad avenues of New Delhi that you’ll find most of the city’s museums and its prime shopping area, centred around the elegant, colonnaded facades of Connaught Place. Meanwhile, at opposite ends of Lodi Road lie constructions marking two ends of the great tradition of Mughal garden tombs: Humayun’s Tomb, its genesis, and Safdarjang’s Tomb, its last gasp.
As the city expands, many shops, restaurants and other businesses are moving into South Delhi, the vast area beyond the colonial city; here, among the modern developments, you’ll find some of Delhi’s most ancient and fascinating attractions, including remains of the six cities that preceded Old Delhi, most notably the Qutb Minar and the rambling ruins of Tughluqabad.
Brief history of Delhi
Delhi is said to consist of seven successive cities, with British-built New Delhi making an eighth. In truth, Delhi has centred historically on three main areas: Lal Kot and extensions to its northeast, where the city was located for most of the Middle Ages; Old Delhi, the city of the Mughals, founded by Shah Jahan in the seventeenth century; and New Delhi, built by the British just in time to be the capital of independent India.
- c.1450 BC
Pandavas (heroes of the Mahabharata) have their capital at Indraprastha, near Purana Qila.
- 1060 AD
Tomars (Rajput clan) found Lal Kot, considered to be the first city of Delhi.
Chauhans (rival Rajput clan) oust Tomars and rename the city Qila Lal Pithora.
Qila Lal Pithora falls to the Afghan Muslim armies of Muhammad of Ghor.
Muhammad of Ghor’s general, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, sets up as an independent ruler, founding the Delhi Sultanate.
Sultan Iltutmish makes Delhi the capital of lands stretching from Punjab to Bengal.
Khaljis, from Central Asia, overthrow Qutb-ud-din’s “Slave Dynasty” and take over as Delhi sultans.
Sultan Ala-ud-din Khalji commissions Siri, the second city of Delhi.
Ghiyas-ud-din Tughluq ousts Khaljis, founds the Tughluq dynasty, and also Tughluqabad, the third city of Delhi.
Sultan Muhammad Tughluq founds Delhi’s fourth city, Jahanpanah, as an extension of Lal Kot, joining it to Siri.
As the sultanate gradually disintegrates, Sultan Firoz Shah founds the fifth city of Delhi at Firozabad.
Timur the Lame (Tamerlaine) invades and sacks Delhi, founding Sayyid dynasty.
Sayyids ousted by Buhul Lodi, whose family take over as Delhi sultans.
First Battle of Panipat: Mughal emperor Babur defeats Sultan Ibrahim Lodi, ending the Delhi Sultanate.
Sher Shah Suri ousts Babur’s son Humayun and founds the sixth city of Delhi at Purana Qila.
Humayun retakes Delhi but dies the following year.
Humayun’s son Akbar shifts the Mughal capital from Delhi to Agra.
Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan shifts the capital back to Delhi, creating its seventh city at Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi).
Persian emperor Nadir Shah sacks Delhi, slaughtering 15,000 of its inhabitants as Mughal power crumbles.
The Marathas subdue Delhi, making the emperor their vassal.
Battle of Delhi: Britain’s East India Company defeats the Marathas and take over as effective rulers.
In the great uprising (First War of Independence), Delhi supports the insurgents, but the British retake the city with bloody reprisals, deposing the Mughals and expelling Muslim Delhiites for two years.
The British decide on a new Indian capital at Delhi as opposition to colonial rule mounts in Calcutta.
New Delhi officially inaugurated as capital of the Raj.
British hand over power in Delhi to India’s first elected government, but Hindu mobs drive many Muslims from the city; Hindu and Sikh refugees flood in from Punjab and Bengal.
Delhi Development Authority (DDA) founded to plan the city’s development.
Indira Gandhi’s Emergency: forced evictions of Muslim slum-dwellers in Old Delhi.
Indira Gandhi’s assassination, followed by sectarian riots targeting Delhi’s Sikh population.
Delhi gains status of Capital Territory (CT), with its own government, but not full statehood; BJP take power in CT elections.
Congress Party wrests the CT from the BJP.
First metro line opens.
Gang rape and murder of a student paramedic sparks worldwide protests. Elections leave the Legislative Assembly hung, with no party in control.
Anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party gains overwhelming majority in the Legislative Assembly.
Where to stay in Delhi
Delhi has a vast range of accommodation, from dirt-cheap lodges to extravagant international hotels. Bookings for upmarket hotels can be made at airport and railway station tourist desks; budget travellers will have to hunt around independently. Don’t believe touts, taxi drivers or auto-wallahs telling you there are no rooms at your hotel, and avoid the places they recommend in Karol Bagh.
Where to eat in Delhi
Most restaurants close around 11pm, but those with bars usually stay open until midnight. If you’re looking for a late-night meal, you could eat in one of the restaurants in a top hotel, or at the 24hr coffee shop or bar at The Lalit (off Barakhamba Rd and Tolstoy Marg, southeast of Connaught Place), or head to Pandara Road Market.
Nightlife and entertainment in Delhi
With an ever-increasing number of pubs and clubs, Delhi’s nightlife scene is in full swing. During the week, lounge and dance bars are your best bet, but come the weekend the clubs really take off. Most, if not all, of the ones popular with Delhi’s young jet-set are out satellite cities such as Noida and Gurgaon; and many don’t allow “stag entry” (men unaccompanied by women), which makes them a whole lot more comfortable for women, but is tough luck if you’re in an all-male group. India Gate and Rajpath attract nightly "people’s parties" where large crowds mill about, snacking and eating ice cream; these are not advisable for women on their own, as you’re likely to get hassled. For drinking, the five-star hotels all have plush and expensive bars, and many of the better ones have dancefloors. Lounge bars with laidback music have become very popular, and there are some good ones scattered about the southern suburbs and satellite towns. Quite a few bars have happy hours with BOGOF offers (“buy one get one free”) on beer and Indian liquors. Note that the minimum drinking age in Delhi is 25; this may be reduced to 21 under proposed legislation, although it is set stay at 25 in Haryana (Gurgaon, for example).
Where to shop in Delhi
Although the traditional places to shop in Delhi are around Connaught Place (particularly the underground Palika Bazaar) and Chandni Chowk, a number of suburbs created by the rapid growth of the city are emerging as fashionable shopping districts. To check prices and quality for crafts, you can’t do better than the state emporiums on Baba Kharak Singh Marg. Unlike the markets of Old Delhi, most shops in New Delhi take credit cards. Beware of touts trying to sweet-talk you into visiting supposed “government shops” which pay them a commission. In all bazaars and street markets, the rule is to haggle.
Festivals in Delhi
Republic Day (Jan 26)
Big, largely military parade on Rajpath, commemorating the adoption of India’s constitution in 1950.
Garden Tourism Festival (Feb)
Three-day flower and gardening show put on in one of Delhi’s parks (the venue changes from year to year), with cultural and kids’ activities.
International Mango Festival (July)
A celebration of Indian mangoes held at Talkatora Stadium, with over five hundred varieties to try.
Id ul-Fitr (July/Aug)
The area around the Jama Masjid becomes a huge market of live goats to be slaughtered for the annual Muslim festival.
Delhi International Arts Festival (DIAF) (Oct)
A fortnight-long extravaganza of music, dance and other arts from India and worldwide, at venues around central New Delhi.
Qutub Festival (Nov/Dec)
A three-day festival of arts and culture put on by Delhi Tourism around the Qutb Minar.
Best time to visit Delhi
At the northwestern end of the Gangetic Plain, with the Himalayas to the north and the Thar Desert to its west, Delhi can get very hot in summer (April through June) and surprisingly cold in winter (December and January), when heavy fogs can disrupt train timetables quite severely. July to September is the wet season, making February, March, October and November the best times to visit Delhi, climate-wise.
How to avoid scams in Delhi
Delhi can be a headache for the first-time visitor because of scams to entrap the unwary – even down to dumping dung onto visitors’ shoes and, then charging them to clean it off. The most common wheeze, though, is for taxi drivers or touts to convince you that the hotel you’ve chosen is full, closed or has just burned to the ground so as to take you to one that pays them a commission. They may even pretend to phone your hotel to check, or will take you to a travel agent (often claiming to be a “tourist office”) who will do it, dialling for you (a different number); the “receptionist” on the line will corroborate the story, or deny all knowledge of your reservation. The driver or tout will then take you to a “very good hotel” – usually in Karol Bagh – where you’ll be charged well over the odds for a night’s accommodation. To reduce the risk of being caught out, write down your taxi’s registration number (make sure the driver sees you doing it), insist on going to your hotel with no stops en route, and don’t hand over your payment slip until you’ve reached your destination. Heading for Paharganj, your driver may try to take you to a hotel of his choice rather than yours. To avoid this, you could ask to be dropped at New Delhi railway station and walk from there. You may even encounter fake “doormen” outside hotels who’ll tell you the place is full; check at reception first, and even if the claim is true, never follow the tout to anywhere they recommend. These problems can be avoided by reserving in advance; many hotels will arrange for a car and driver to meet you at your point of arrival.
New Delhi railway station is the worst place for touts; assume that anyone who approaches you here – even in uniform – with offers of help, or to direct you to the foreigners’ booking hall, is up to no good. Most are trying to lure travellers to the fake “official” tourist offices opposite the Paharganj entrance, where you’ll end up paying way over the odds, often for unconfirmed tickets. And don’t believe stories that the foreigners’ booking hall has closed.
On Connaught Place and along Janpath, steer clear of phoney “tourist information offices” (which touts may try to divert you to – a typical CP tout chat-up line is to inform you which block you are on, so be suspicious of anyone who comes up and tells you that unasked), and never do business with any travel agency that tries to disguise itself as a tourist information office.
Finally, be aware that taxi, auto and rental-car drivers get a hefty commission for taking you to certain shops, which will be added to your bill should you buy anything. You can assume that auto-wallahs who accost you on the street do so with the intention of overcharging you, or of taking you to shops which pay them commission rather than straight to where you want to go. Always hail a taxi or auto-rickshaw yourself, rather than taking one whose driver approaches you, and don’t let them take you to places where you haven’t asked to go.
Old Delhi (Shahjahanabad)
Though it’s not in fact the oldest part of Delhi, the seventeenth-century city of Shahjahanabad, built for the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, is known as Old Delhi. Construction began on the city in 1638, and within eleven years it was substantially complete, surrounded by more than 8km of ramparts pierced by fourteen main gates. It boasted a beautiful main thoroughfare, Chandni Chowk, an imposing citadel, the Red Fort (Lal Qila), and an impressive congregational mosque, the Jama Masjid. Today much of the wall has crumbled, and of the fourteen gates only four remain, but it’s still a fascinating area, crammed with interesting nooks and crannies, though you’ll need stamina, patience, time and probably a fair few chai stops along the way to endure the crowds and traffic.
The Red Fort (Lal Qila)
The largest of Old Delhi’s monuments is Lal Qila, known in English as the Red Fort because of the red sandstone from which it was built. It was commissioned by Shah Jahan to be his residence and modelled on the fort at Agra. Work started in 1638, and the emperor moved in ten years later. The fort contains all the trappings you’d expect at the centre of Mughal government: halls of public and private audience, domed and arched marble palaces, plush private apartments, a mosque and elaborately designed gardens. The ramparts, which stretch for more than 2km, are interrupted by two gates – Lahori Gate to the west, through which you enter, and Delhi Gate to the south. Shah Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb, added barbicans to both gates. In those days, the Yamuna River ran along the eastern wall, feeding both the moat and a “stream of paradise” which ran through every pavilion. As the Mughal Empire declined, the fort fell into disrepair. It was attacked and plundered by the Persian emperor Nadir Shah in 1739, and by the British in 1857. Nevertheless, it remains an impressive testimony to Mughal grandeur. Keep your ticket stub as you may have to show it several times (for example, to enter the museums).
A wonderful piece of Mughal pomp, the red-and-white Jama Masjid is India’s largest mosque. Its courtyard is large enough to accommodate the prostrated bodies of 25,000 worshippers. It was designed by Shah Jahan and built by a workforce of five thousand people between 1644 and 1656. Originally called Masjid-i-Jahanuma (“mosque commanding a view of the world”), this grand structure stands on Bho Jhala, one of Shahjahanabad’s two hills, and looks east to the sprawling Red Fort, and down on the seething streets of Old Delhi. Broad, red-sandstone staircases lead to gateways on the east, north and southern sides, where worshippers and visitors alike must remove their shoes (the custodian will guard them for you for a small tip).
Once inside the courtyard, your eyes will be drawn to the three bulbous marble domes crowning the main prayer hall on the west side (facing Mecca), fronted by a series of high cusped arches, and sheltering the mihrab, the central niche in the west wall indicating the direction of prayer. The pool in the centre is used for ritual ablutions. At each corner of the square yard a slender minaret crowned with a marble dome rises to the sky, and it’s worth climbing the tower south of the main sanctuary for a view over Delhi. In the northeast corner a white shrine protects a collection of Muhammad’s relics, including his sandals, a hair from his beard and his “footprint” miraculously embedded in a marble slab.
The modern area of New Delhi, with its wide tree-lined avenues and solid colonial architecture, has been the seat of central government since 1931. At its hub, the royal mall, Rajpath, runs from the palatial Rashtrapati Bhavan, in the west, to the India Gate war memorial in the east. Its wide, grassy margins are a popular meeting place for families, picnickers and courting couples. At the north edge of the new capital lies the thriving business centre, Connaught Place, where restaurants, bars and banks line the colonnaded verandas that circle its central park. Meanwhile, Lodi Road, skirting the new city’s southern edge, is flanked by amazing Mughal tombs and embellished with a park full of ancient monuments.
Vijay Chowk, immediately in front of Rashtrapati Bhavan, leads into the wide, straight Rajpath, flanked with gardens and fountains that are floodlit at night, and the scene of annual Republic Day celebrations (Jan 26). Rajpath runs east to India Gate. Designed by Lutyens in 1921, the high arch, reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, commemorates ninety thousand Indian soldiers killed fighting for the British in World War I, and bears the names of more than three thousand British and Indian soldiers who died on the North-West Frontier and in the Afghan War of 1919. The extra memorial beneath the arch honours the lives lost in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971.
North of Connaught Place and directly west of New Delhi railway station, Paharganj, centred around Main Bazaar, provides the first experience of the Subcontinent for many budget travellers. Packed with cheap hotels, restaurants, cafés and dhabas, and with a busy fruit and vegetable market halfway along, it’s also a paradise for shoestring shoppers seeking psychedelic clothing, joss sticks, bags and oils of patchouli or sandalwood.
There is also a less-visible underside to life in Paharganj, in the shape of the street children. Most are runaways who’ve left difficult homes, often hundreds of kilometres away, and the majority sleep on the streets and inhale solvents to numb their pain. The Salaam Baalak Trust, a local NGO working to help them, organizes walking tours of Paharganj conducted by former street children. Proceeds go towards providing shelter, education and healthcare for the children themselves.
The National Museum, just south of Rajpath, provides a good overview of Indian culture and history. At a trot, you can see the museum in a couple of hours but to get the best out of your visit you should set aside at least half a day. Guided tours are available, though they cover a rather random selection of exhibits.
The most important exhibits are on the ground floor, kicking off in room 4 with the Harappan civilization. The Gandhara sculptures in room 6 betray a very obvious Greco-Roman influence. Room 9 has some very fine bronzes, most especially those of the Chola period (from south India between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries), and a fifteenth-century statue of Devi from Vijayanagar in south India, by the left-hand wall. Among the late medieval sculptures in room 10 is a fearsome, vampire-like, late Chola dvarapala (a guardian figure built to flank the doorway to a shrine), also from south India, and a couple of performing musicians from Mysore. Room 12 is devoted to the Mughals, and in particular their miniature paintings. Look out also for two paintings depicting a subject you wouldn’t expect – the nativity of Jesus. It’s worth popping upstairs to the textiles, and the musical instruments collection on the second floor is outstanding. The Central Asian antiquities collection includes a large number of paintings, documents, ceramics and textiles from Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) and the Silk Route, dating from between the third and twelfth centuries. On your way out, take a look at the massive twelve-tiered temple chariot from Tamil Nadu, an extremely impressive piece of woodwork in a glass shelter just by the southern entrance gate.
Close to the medieval Muslim centre of Nizamuddin, stands Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi’s first Mughal mausoleum. It was constructed between 1565 to 1572 to house the remains of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun. It was built under the watchful eye of Haji Begum, his senior widow, who camped here for the duration and is now buried alongside her husband. The grounds were later used to inter several prominent Mughals, and served as a refuge for the last emperor, Bahadur Shah II, before his capture by the British in 1857.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993, the tomb is nicknamed 'Dormitory of Mughals' as it also houses up to 150 family members. The emperor Humayun was laid to rest here nine years after his death, caused by a terrible accident in which he fell from the stairs. In 1947 the garden-tomb was used to house refugees during the Partition of India.
The tomb’s sombre, Persian-style elegance marks this as one of Delhi’s finest historic sites. Constructed of red sandstone, inlaid with black and white marble, and set on a commanding podium looking towards the Yamuna River, it stands in the centre of the formal charbagh, or quartered garden. The octagonal structure is crowned with a double dome that soars to a height of 38m.
Getting To Humayun's Tomb
Getting to the grounds of Humayun's Tomb is fairly easy. You can go either by road or on the Delhi Metro. The closest railway station is Nizammudin for trains, but buses also go to Rajiv Chowk, ISBT and Nizammudin, all within walking distance. For the metro, you can get the yellow line and stop at either Jorbagh or Race Course Station.
Just across the busy Mathura Road from Humayun’s Tomb, and now engulfed by a busy road network and plush suburbs, the self-contained mahalla (village) of Nizamuddin, with its lack of traffic, ancient mosques and tombs and slow pace of life, is so different from the surrounding city that to enter it is like passing through a time warp. At its heart, surrounded by a tangle of narrow alleyways lined with shops and market stalls, lies one of Sufism’s greatest shrines, the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, which draws a constant stream of devotees from far and wide. The marble dargah is the tomb of Sheikh Nizam-ud-din Aulia (1236–1325), fourth saint of the Chishtiya Sufi order founded by Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti of Ajmer, and was built the year the sheikh died, but has been through several renovations, and the present mausoleum dates from 1562. Lattice screens and arches in the inner sanctum surround the actual tomb (closed to women), which is surrounded by a marble rail and a canopy of mother-of-pearl. Sheikh Nizam-ud-din’s disciple, the poet and chronicler Amir Khusrau – considered to be the first Urdu poet and the founder of khyal, the most common form of north Indian classical music – lies in a contrasting red-sandstone tomb in front of his master’s mausoleum.
The two-storeyed tomb of Safdarjang was the very last of India’s great Mughal garden tombs. Built between 1753 and 1774, it dates from the period after Nadir Shah’s sacking of the city, by which time the empire was reduced to a fraction of its former size and most of the capital’s grander buildings lay in ruins. Safdarjang was the Mughal nawab (governor) of Avadh who briefly became vizier before being overthrown for his Shi’ite beliefs. Emblematic of the decadence and degeneracy that characterized the twilight of the Mughal era, the mausoleum sports an elongated, tapered dome and absurdly ornate interior filled with swirling plasterwork. Facing east, it’s at its most photogenic in the morning.
Most of the early settlements of Delhi, including its first city at Qila Rai Pithora (around the Qutb Minar), are to be found not in “Old Delhi” but in South Delhi, the area south of Lutyens’ carefully planned boulevards. The rapid expansion of suburban Delhi has swallowed up what was previously countryside, whole villages being embedded within it, and the area is now home to some of the city’s newest and most happening locales.
Qutb Minar Complex
Above the foundations of Lal Kot, the “first city of Delhi” founded in the eleventh century by the Tomar Rajputs, stand the first monuments of Muslim India, known as the Qutb Minar Complex, 13km south of Connaught Place. One of Delhi’s most famous landmarks, the fluted red-sandstone tower of the Qutb Minar, covered with intricate carvings and deeply inscribed verses from the Koran, tapers upwards from the ruins to a height of just over 72m. In times past it was considered one of the “Wonders of the East”, second only to the Taj Mahal, but historian John Keay was perhaps more representative of the modern eye when he claimed that the tower had “an unfortunate hint of the factory chimney and the brick kiln; a wisp of white smoke trailing from its summit would not seem out of place”.
Work on the Qutb Minar started in 1202; it was Qutb-ud-Din Aibak’s victory tower, celebrating the advent of the Muslim dominance of Delhi (and much of the Subcontinent) that was to endure until 1857. For Qutb-ud-Din, who died four years after gaining power, it marked the eastern extremity of the Islamic faith, casting the shadow of God over east and west. It was also a minaret, from which the muezzin called the faithful to prayer. Only the first storey has been ascribed to Qutb-ud-din’s own short reign; the other four were built under his successor Iltutmish, and the top was restored in 1369 under Firoz Shah, using marble to face the red sandstone.
Some 15km southeast of Connaught Place on the Mehrauli–Badarpur Road, a rocky escarpment holds the crumbling 6.5km-long battlements of the third city of Delhi, Tughluqabad, built during the short reign of Ghiyas-ud-din Tughluq (1320–24). After the king’s death the city was deserted, probably due to the lack of a clean water source nearby. The most interesting area is the high-walled citadel in the southwestern part of the site, though only a long underground passage, the ruins of several halls and a tower now remain.
The southernmost of Tughlaqabad’s thirteen gates still looks down on a causeway, breached by the modern road, which rises above the flood plain, to link the fortress with Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq’s tomb. The tomb is entered through a massive red-sandstone gateway leading into a courtyard surrounded by cloisters in the defensive walls. In the middle, surrounded by a well-kept lawn, stands the distinctive mausoleum, its sloping sandstone walls topped by a marble dome, and in its small way a precursor to the fine series of garden tombs built by the Mughals, which began here in Delhi with that of Humayun. Inside the mausoleum are the graves of Ghiyas-ud-Din, his wife and their son Muhammad Shah II. Ghiyas-ud-Din’s chief minister, Jafar Khan, is buried in the eastern bastion, and interred in the cloister nearby is the sultan’s favourite dog.