It’s bold, it’s bright, and it’s LOUD. Here are the best things to do in the magical city of Delhi…
Just putting it out there: when I first visited Delhi I wasn’t sold on it.
I visited as part of a group travel tour, which had Delhi as its starting point and its end point. Arriving here was my first taste of India after dreaming of going for years, and I just felt like it wasn’t for me. It was loud, it was noisy, it was smelly… and it was so damn LOUD. Right?
Maybe it was culture shock or or touch of jetlag. Maybe it felt like too much of a whirlwind, because we were only there for 24 hours before heading onto our next destination on the tour. I wasn’t fussed on coming back. However, when we returned to Delhi at the end of the tour it completely changed my opinion. In that respect, I was so glad I got a chance to go back.
So now that I’ve got that big ol’ confession out the way, let’s get cracking…
Why visit Delhi
Why should you visit Delhi? Well, let’s leave my first impressions aside for now. My biggest takeaway from my trip to Delhi is how ‘extra’ it is, if I’m not to old to use that word. It’s probably unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced. The colours are more vibrant, the noise is louder, and the smells are heightened… you definitely feel like everything is dialled up a notch in the Indian capital. And when we’re talking about everything packing a punch, you can also include the food in that. More on that later.
So what else did I enjoy about Delhi? Well, it’s also a city of two halves, which I found utterly fascinating. On one hand you have the crowded streets of Old Delhi, which is the historic heart of the city. Old Delhi was originally founded as a walled city and dates all the way back to 1639 and the time of the Mughal Empire. When you wander through these narrow streets you can expect to see bazaars, stalls selling delicious street food, and beautiful Islamic architecture, such as the mesmerising Jama Masjid.
New Delhi is a completely different story. It’s all wide, leafy avenues, gated ministerial buildings set back from the street, and space. Lots and lots of space. It also feels very European in style, probably because it was created by a British architect in the colonial era. According to the New York Times, New Delhi was planned to hold its own as a grand imperial capital next to cities such as Washington and Paris, and you definitely get that vibe.
For me, it reminded me a lot of the French Concession area in Shanghai. I lived in Shanghai for six months a few years ago. There was a similar contrast between the winding, crowded streets of old Shanghai and the tree-lined avenues of the French Concession, which are also very European in style. It was one of my favourite places to wander through at the weekend to get a breather from the bustle, and it was the same New Delhi.
Once I’d experienced both sides of Delhi it really flipped my perspective and made me see the city in a whole new light. So that’s my take on why you should visit all of Delhi if you’re travelling to India.
When is the best time to visit Delhi?
I’d say the best time to visit India is probably November, February or March, which is the cool and dry season. However, it’s also not too chilly – it does get surprisingly cold in India in December. The monsoon season in India is between June and September, which obviously means heavier rainfall and higher temperatures, and so is probably best avoided.
|Months||Average max temperature||Average min temperature|
|December to January||25°C||5°C|
|February to March||25°C||20°C|
|April to June||45°C||25°C|
|July to mid-September||35°C||30°C|
|Late September to November||30°C||20°C|
I travelled to India in the middle of February based on the above advice. While it was still hot during the day it was manageable. However, it was a lot cooler in the evenings than I expected! I remember I picked up a hoodie at Primark a day or so before I left thinking that it might be a good thing to have just in case. Well, I barely took the thing off the entire trip!
We had a lot of early starts on the trip. That’s probably going to be the case for a lot of tourists visiting India, as everything looks better in the early morning light, right? There was the Taj Mahal, the morning boat ride along the Ganges, the early start to the Wind Palace in Jaipur… I had that hoodie on the whole time, and trust me, I was very glad to have it.
So top tip folks, definitely pack warmer clothes with you to Delhi!
Packing list for India
I’m going to go into this in a bit more detail in another post (stay tuned for that) but here are a few starting points for what female travellers need to pack for India…
- T-shirts – shoulders are a no-no in India, so have a good supply of t-shirts
- Scarf or pashmina – for visiting temples and also useful for those early morning excursions when it’s a bit chillier
- Shoes that easily slip on or off – I discovered buckles were a pain!
- Midi skirts – midi is the perfect length for a skirt in my opinion, any longer and it’ll dragging along the ground in goodness knows what
- A hoodie or cardigan – as I mentioned, those early mornings can be chilly so make sure you come prepared!
My experience on a guided travel tour
As I mentioned earlier, I travelled to India as part of a group travel tour with Intrepid, along with my twin sister. There are a whole host of Indian tours that you can choose from on their website but we opted for the Indian Getaway Tour with Intrepid travel. As part of the tour we visited Delhi, Varanasi, Agra, Tordi Gahr, Jaipur, and finished back at Delhi.
You can read more about my thoughts on travelling with a group in this post here. However, in short, I loved it. Really, really loved it. I loved travelling around with a group of like-minded people and having lots of interesting travel-related conversations over breakfast and dinner.
It was also cool hearing about what had brought everyone to India and their adventures so far. Some of the group were flying solo, some had already been travelling for over a year already, and for others, like us, it was a short escape from the hamster wheel.
I also enjoyed having a tour guide for that little bit of a hand hold through what can be an overwhelming country. I admire anyone who comes to India completely on their own. But for me, for a first trip, it was great to have an experienced tour guide to take the stress out. It just meant we could relax and enjoy the city. We didn’t need to worry about which restaurants to go to for dinner or how much to tip the hall boys in the hotel or what time we needed to get to the train station, because it was taken are of.
It was also wonderful just to get to know Sana over the course of the trip. She was so warm, friendly and funny and told us so many amazing stories about her experiences of living in India over the course of the trip. If you want to get beneath the surface on India than chatting to your tour guide is the way to do it. She was also a pro at photobombing!
How to get around Delhi
Tuk tuks are the obvious answer for getting around Delhi. They’re quick, cheap and available – there will always be a ton of them clustered outside any tourist location. Saying that, we had a nightmare tuk tuk journey coming back from the India Gate in New Delhi.
It was our last day so it wasn’t like we hadn’t acclimatised to the roads in India, but how this driver wanted to drive was just wild. It was like he had a death wish and kept going ridiculously fast… all while cutting through several lanes of traffic and braking quickly because of traffic lights. In the end my sister had to ask him to slow down. I think we all got out of the tuk tuk with white knuckles because we’d been holding on so tight. Yikes!
However, leaving that particular journey aside, tuk tuks are a good way of getting around the city quickly and cheaply. And just for the record, every other tuk tuk journey I took over the course of the trip was completely fine. You will have to barter with the driver – which isn’t my forte – but one of the guys in the group was happy to take that on as a challenge!
The metro is a great way to get around quickly in Delhi. We used it a couple of times – when we were travelling to the old town and when we wanted to visit New Delhi and it was really efficient. You get round plastic tokens instead of tickets and as long as you don’t lose these you’ll be fine.
I think walking around India is one of the best ways you can really soak up the atmosphere. There are so many things to see that you just won’t pick up on if you’re whizzing by on a tuk tuk, especially if you’re clinging on for dear life like we all were. Definitely build in some time to just wander the streets, have a mosey around the local bazaars, barter with the locals, and order some of the delicious street food. Slow down the pace and really drink it in, because there’s charm and wonder around every corner.
Is Delhi safe?
I wanted to address this as some people will have reservations about their safety when they travel to India: is India safe? Is India safe for women? Can I travel to India alone? Et cetera.
Personal safety is definitely something you have to keep in mind when you’re travelling in India, particularly as a female traveller. As a western woman you are going to attract attention – particularly if you have light coloured hair – and people are going to stare. However, you can mitigate that by being respectful, not engaging with any unwarranted attention, and by dressing in a way that is culturally appropriate. I’ll go into what you should pack for India in more detail below but definitely make sure you do your research on what’s appropriate and what’s not before you go.
It’s also worth mentioning the overnight train when we’re asking if Delhi is safe or not. We took the sleeper train in India twice in the course of the trip; from Delhi to Varanasi and Jaipur to Delhi. The sleeping arrangements are mixed gender throughout the train and again, you have to exercise a little bit a of caution. It’s recommended that female travellers don’t sleep in a compartment alone and don’t go to the bathroom alone for safety reasons. As long as you practice that you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.
Can you eat the street food in Delhi?
People travelling to India are always going to want to know: is the street food in India safe? The short answer is: it depends. However, having sampled some incredibly delicious street food in Delhi I would definitely recommend trying it… as long as you exercise some caution.
As we were with a tour group our group leader Sana was able to give us a steer on what was OK to try and what wasn’t, and that meant we all had peace of mind. There were a few things she mentioned to look after though, which I’ve listed below:
- Go where the locals go. If somewhere is busy then that’s a good sign, so go for it.
- Hot drinks such as masala chai are usually fine as the water is freshly boiled.
- Don’t order anything with ice, as, of course, tourists can’t drink the water in India
I understand it can be bit unnerving ordering masala chai from a pot that’s literally boiled on the street – especially if it looks a bit rough around the edges – but having that extra safety net with our tour guide meant that I wasn’t worried about it. It was the first of many of the course of the trip!
10 amazing things to do in Delhi
Things to do in old Delhi
Wander around the narrow streets
Old Delhi was our first foray into India and, boy, was it a shock to the senses. However, if you want to get a sense for what India is really like you have to soak it up from street level.
The narrow winding streets and lanes of Old Delhi are a real trip. Everything is chaotic and charming in equal measure. Expect to see tuk tuks zipping by out of nowhere, cattle wandering down the roads, piles of rubbish piled up on the streets, and wires EVERYWHERE. If you’re anything like me you’ll constantly be pulling a face wondering what on earth you’ve just seen. The masses of wires wrapped around poles and snaking across the roads was just one example! If there were any electricians nearby let’s just say they’d probably be having a heart attack.
Don’t forget the charm though, because there’s lots of that too. With all the delicious looking food stands, women meandering by wearing gorgeous jewel-coloured saris to admire, and beautiful Islamic architecture peeking out from the skyline, it’s unlike anywhere else in the world. My advice is to just get out and just walk. Who knows what you’ll find?
Drink the masala chai
As I mentioned above, this was my first experience of street food in India. It was also my first experience of masala chai. Wow it was good! I wish I could adequately express how delicious it is. Hot, sweet and spicy all the same time, it’s a culinary triumph. I also loved this one because it had a heck of a lot of sugar in it… which also kickstarted a really bad sugar habit over the course of the trip. Let’s just say that some of the street food places later on didn’t add quite as much sugar and I found myself adding about three teaspoons by the time we went home. And I don’t even have sugar in my tea normally! This was definitely my favourite new discovery in Delhi.
Explore Jama Masjid
One of my favourite things that we did in Delhi was visit the Jama Masjid mosque. It’s reportedly one of the largest mosques in India. According to this Times of India article it has the capacity to accommodate 25,000 people in its courtyard and a whopping 85,000 on its premises. Suffice to say, having been crammed into the noisy and narrow lanes of the old town, this felt like so peaceful in comparison – it was the calm amongst the storm. It was honestly just lovely just to bask in the tranquillity for a moment or two!
The building itself is gorgeous – all red sandstone, marble, and awe-inspiring architecture. I wanted to wander around every corner just so I could notice all the details. There was the painted detailing underneath the arches, the intricate carved stonework, and the beautiful marble flooring. It was built during the Mughal era between 1650 and 1656 at a cost of around one million rupees – so no expense spared then!
Just to say, be prepared for a little bit of chaos and confusion when it comes to getting in and out. You have to take your shoes off and leave them outside. When it gets busy, as it was when we were there, it’s interesting trying to locate your shoes again on the way out.
You’ll also have to cover up – shorts and shoulders aren’t allowed as a rule. We went for the garments at the door to cover up with, which you also have to pay a small fee for. I’m not sure how hygienic I would consider that now in this post-Covid world but I didn’t mind too much at the time!
If you want to use your camera inside the mosque then you’ll also have to pay a charge. As I said the building is beautiful so I wouldn’t want to miss out on taking photographs!
Spot the monkeys
When you’re exploring Old Delhi the best thing to do is expect the unexpected. That comes to the wildlife too! It was certainly unexpected to see a bunch of monkeys wondering around on the rooftop of a nearby building but I was so there for it – they were so cute.
Eat samosas at Jalebi Wala
If you fancy trying some local food in Delhi then why not stop off at Jalebi Wala? It turns out it’s rather well-known. Located in the Chandni Chowk area of Old Delhi, it’s been around since 1884. It’s been run by several generations of one family, and is world famous for its jalebi.
You might be wondering what a jalebi is, right? Well, it’s a deep-fried snack made from circular-shaped flour batter which is then soaked in sugar. It sounds delicious! Unfortunately, we didn’t order jalebi so I can’t tell you much about whether they live up to the hype… although you can read a whole bunch of Tripadvisor reviews here.
Jalebi Wala does seem to get mixed reviews, particularly around their customer service. However, I guess when a place has a lot of hype around it that’s always the way. The best thing is to go and see for yourself.
Anyway, we opted for the samosas at Jalebi Wala. There were two variations to choose from, but I opted for a matar samosa stuffed with potatoes and peas was which super yummy. It also came with a chutney which was a really tasty addition… and came with a bit of a kick!
Explore Sheeshganj Gurudwara
This is a famous Sikh temple in Delhi and is one of nine historical gurudwaras – or Sikh temples – that are located in Delhi. It’s located in the Chandni Chowk area of Old Delhi and there’s some real history behind the location. It marks the spot where the ninth Sikh Guru was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam in 1675. So there you go.
Anyone can go inside – just leave your shoes at the door as before – and immerse yourself in the experience. We starting off sitting on the carpets at the back and listened to the chanting going on.
You can also wander through the kitchens at the back of the temple, which was amazing. The temple feeds the poor, and when you see the volume of food being prepared it really was eye-opening. There were groups of women rolling up balls of dough along with huge mounds of peeled potatoes and chopped up aubergines lying on blankets on the floor.
And when you saw the size of the pots that the people were using to cook with… it made your regular pots and pans look like miniature versions. It was great to get to see what goes on behind the scenes at the temples and to be able to appreciate, first hand, the valuable work that they do.
Try thali at a local restaurant
The final thing we did in Old Delhi was try thali. It’s a dish which comprises several different local dishes served altogether on a platter. It’s a great way of trying a lot of flavours at one time. Rather than committing to one and not liking it. I can’t for the life of me remember where we went in the old town (sorry, bad traveller blogger) but it was just a local café on the side of the street. It was busy inside, which tied into the rule of thumb that if it was packed out with locals it was likely that the food was safe – and tasty!
Things to do in new Delhi
Walk along the leafy avenues
One of my favourite things to do in New Delhi was just walking down the avenues and enjoying the space. It felt so tranquil in comparison to the frenetic pace of the old town. The avenues are lined with trees and tons of massive gated buildings that are all set back from the street. If you want to enjoy a sense of grandeur and order on your trip then New Delhi is definitely the place to go. There’s also lovely pieces of street art to admire as you walk down the avenues, so keep an eye out for them!
Agrasen ki Baoli step well
This was the second step well I visited in India, after seeing one for the first time in the village of Tordi Gahr. I was just as charmed by this one. It was so beautiful!
You might be wondering what a step well is? I was the same. Well, a step well is actually exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a well where the water is reached by descending a series of steps. The smart thing about the design of a step well means that the water can be accessed at any time; when the water level is high and when it’s much lower.
There are many intricately designed step wells dotted all over India and they’re just breath-taking. Chand Baori in Rajasthan would probably be my favourite based solely on the pictures I’ve seen. I also loved this Lonely Planet article which ruminates on how wonderful they are, describing them as extravagant pieces of ‘public theatre’ and positioning them in the same realm as wonders of world such as the pyramids. I would hasten to agree.
But I digress. So what can I tell you about Agreasen ki Baoli? Well, it is thought to have been built by King Agrasen and then rebuilt in the 14th century. It’s a protected monument and is well known in India, having featured in numerous Bollywood movies over the years. The architecture itself is mesmerising, with 108 steps leading down to the baoli.
It’s also said to be one of the most haunted places in Delhi. There have been reports of apparitions being seen here apparently! I certainly didn’t pick up on any other worldly vibes when we were there, although there is a calmness and a stillness about the place. There are numerous bats hanging upside down above the well however, which was unexpected and certainly gives it more of a haunted feel. Make your own mind up!
The final stop on our short tour of New Delhi was the India Gate. I was so happy we made it here because it’s such a breath-taking piece of architecture. It’s located at the eastern side of the Rajpath, which translates to ‘Kingsway’, and is the powerhouse boulevard that connects all the important buildings and monuments in New Delhi.
The official name of the India Gate is the Delhi Memorial. First unveiled in 1931, the 42 metre high memorial was built to commemorate the 70,000 troops of British Indian Army who died during 1914-1921. 13,300 soldier’s names are actually inscribed on the stonework.
It was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and has been called a “creative reworking of the Arc de Triomphe”. I certainly agree with that. I guess it taps into what I was saying earlier about New Delhi being designed to evoke those other big imperial cities of the west.
Just as an FYI, it’s super crowded and touristy around the gate as you might expect. There are numerous tourist touts trying to sell you everything from henna tattoos to photographs of yourself with the gate. Just keep your wits about you and an extra eye on your bag and possessions as you’re snapping all those lovely photographs of the gate.
And that’s the end of my whistle-stop tour of Delhi!