Think of Delhi and you’ll probably conjure up images of extreme heat, poverty, masses of people, horrendous traffic, noise, and dirt. And you’d be right. Delhi (and in particular, Old Delhi) is all of those things, and then some.
For that reason, many people breeze through India’s bustling capital and see it as merely a travel hub. But there’s so much to be discovered for those who’re prepared to explore its old town either on foot or by rickshaw.
In fact, we didn’t spend any time in the wider “New Delhi” area. Other than by-pass it to and from the airport. We didn’t even venture out to explore the main tourist sites, such as the Red Fort or Humayun’s Tomb. Instead, we based ourselves in the historic heart, encompassing the Old Town and Paharganj. And they were perfect for immersing ourselves in the daily street life of millions of people.
For us, it’s our favourite city in Asia.
And here’s why…
1. It’s a foodie’s paradise
One of the motivators for us to travel in the first place was to explore the world through its food. And we’re complete suckers for Indian food so Delhi was a kind of epicurean magnet we just couldn’t avoid.
There are so many restaurants, cafes, and stalls in Delhi to choose from that it’s difficult to know just where to start. Well actually, it is easy to know where to start – out on the street.
Street food is perhaps as famous here as that served up in Bangkok and Hanoi. Any reservations we might have had about eating at roadside stalls were completely removed during our tour of Rajasthan. There I first came across kachori, a spicy, savoury, fried puff pastry served with chickpea curry and mint relish. And these amazing little bowls of gorgeousness could be had for 10 rupees each at a cracking stall I found mid-way along the Paharganj. Two of those little beauties for breakfast and I was ready for whatever else Delhi could throw at me.
And there was no better way to combat a heat and dust-induced thirst than downing a freshly prepared and chilled mango smoothie. If you haven’t tasted an Indian mango before then you’d be in for a treat. They can be summarised as “similar to those available in Europe but with the flavour knob turned up to eleven”.
At 20 rupees each, they’re a steal.
For a seated meal in a restaurant, we enjoyed Tadka (vegetarian) on the Paharganj and Karim’s (non-veg) just off Chandni Chowk in the old town. Both were simple, inexpensive and clean. But their food was to die for.
Of course, Delhi is also famous for its spice markets. And a wander along Khari Baoli (Asia’s largest wholesale spice market) was a treat for the senses. Stall-upon-stall of spices, nuts and dried fruits interspersed with shops stocked with rows-upon-rows of pickles and other jarred condiments.
2. There’s a certain beauty to the chaos
Our first rickshaw ride through the chaotic streets of the old town was one we won’t forget in a hurry. Our driver was seemingly on a mission to beat his personal best time for the route. So, we weaved, swerved, overtook and honked our way through streets jam-packed with life. And roundabouts jam-packed with even more life. I swear if a book called Delhi’s Driving Rules actually exists no-one seems to have to read it.
But a rickshaw seat in Delhi is one with a front-row view on Indian street life at its most vibrant. It doesn’t actually matter if you’re stuck in a jam caused by a cow hauling sacks of spices, trying to inch its way past an oncoming horse-drawn cart overladen with potatoes. There’s enough going on right in front if you to make you wonder why all cities can’t be like this.
And the noise is just brilliant. Not just the continual honking of car horns but the ringing of cycle bells, the rumbling of wooden cart wheels and the cacophony of human voices brought about by the need for everyone here to speak as loudly as they can.
Next time we’ll hire a rickshaw and ask our driver to “just drive around for a few hours.”
But, of course, you don’t have to take a rickshaw. Walking around is great fun too. Although it can get pretty tough when the mercury is heading north of 45 degrees.
3. It hardened us to scams and tricksters
Scammers are plentiful in South and South-East Asia. And Delhi is notorious for having some of the most ingenious and persistent exponents. But, having walked the streets and nearly been a victim of one of Delhi’s best known-scams, I found that I quickly built up a level of confidence and a way of handling people who approached me, that meant I wasn’t troubled again.
First to the scam.
Our hotel manager had warned us to ignore pretty much anyone who approached us about where to go in the city. Yet, within five minutes of venturing out on foot, we started talking to a youngish guy who happened to walk by. He commented on how nice my hat was and we got chatting as we continued to walk along the footpath. He’d apparently lived in England for a short while and had a girlfriend in Northampton. Of course, he had.
When we indicated we were taking a left turn to visit the Paharganj he seemed concerned that it wasn’t safe for foreigners at that time of day. It would be better, apparently, to go in the afternoon when there was more security around. He suggested instead we visit Connaught Place where there were some good restaurants and shops. We could always make our way to the Paharganj later, anyway. And, If we had a good map we could easily make our way around without falling prey to scammers who might literally take us for a ride.
Ironic really because he then spoke to a nearby rickshaw driver who just happened to have a suitable map to show us. The driver would take us to the Government Tourist Office at Connaught Place for 20 rupees, where we could pick one up for free. Gullibly we went along with it, thanked him for his help and were promptly delivered to a “tourist office” that was basically a back street travel agency (and nowhere near Connaught Place).
After some uncomfortable moments with the “office manager”, we told him what we thought of him and left. We still had no idea where we were and remained without a map. Our rickshaw driver caught up with us about ten minutes later, pleaded his innocence and promised to take us to Connaught Place for just 10 rupees. Ever the forgiving souls that we are, we agreed. And were promptly delivered outside a carpet shop to be greeted by a small group of hungry carpet salesmen. Nicky glanced at our beloved driver, gave him “the look” and we both disappeared on foot into the traffic.
We hadn’t lost anything from the experience, apart from some wasted time. No money had actually exchanged hands with our driver or anyone else. But it gave us the resolve not to be tricked again.
After that, anybody who approached us who looked like they were selling something was met with a dismissive “No”, a shake of the head and a wave of the hand at our side. Much in the same way that the Indians seemed to handle it, to be fair. So, instead of being nervous about walking around the city, unsure of where and when the next scam would hit, we found ourselves feeling in control and safe.
I even went back to the scene of the scam to see if our hat-lover would try it on again. In the end, I was approached by another guy who tried exactly the same thing. I let him give me his patter for a while until he tried to suggest I go to Connaught Place. At which point I turned on him and asked: “Maybe you could suggest a reputable rickshaw driver who could take me to the Government Tourist Office so I can get hold of a good map?”. His confident manner suddenly subsided and he just turned and walked away.
I firmly believe that our experience in Delhi made us better “street-wise” travellers. And it’ll undoubtedly help us when we visit other cities of the world.
4. The shopping was a joy
To be honest, we’re not great shoppers. In fact, if we can avoid shopping at all we usually will.
But it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in Delhi’s insatiable appetite for it. Particularly when it’s the final two days of your 15 month-long Asia and Oceania trip. And you’ve bought two cheap holdalls to take advantage of the 30kg luggage allowance on your flight home to England. And, of course, when there’s a long list of people to buy for.
So it was, as we made our way along Paharganj, we looked for hand-made drums for our nephews, incense sticks, and burners for our friends and pashmina scarves for our family. Of course, Nicky couldn’t buy them without playing the haggling game. Something again we previously might have thought of as just too much of a hassle. But Delhi (and indeed India as a whole) had taught her that it’s not only a good way to strike a bargain but it’s also expected. And everyone just seemed to have a smile on their faces while they were doing it.
It certainly beats eBay.
We’ll be back
We’ve been back in England for a few weeks and it’s noticeable that there aren’t heaps of rubbish on the streets. Or beggars asking us for money. Or the acrid smell of ammonia wafting its way from behind another makeshift urinal.
Yet we’re already pining for a return to the chaos, the noise and pulsing beat of Indian street life. It might not be this year or even next. But I’ve got a kachori from that stall on the Paharganj with my name on it…
- The Ultimate North India Itinerary And How To Do It In 3 Weeks
- How To Plan The Ultimate Rajasthan Road Trip
- 10 Books On India To Read Before You Travel
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…or visit our India page.
What did you think? Have you been to Delhi? Did you love it as much as we did or was it your worst nightmare? Even if you haven’t been we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.