Delhi was our first stop and therefore our first impression of India. Many guidebooks and people familiar with the place told us not to start our India trip with three days in Delhi, as we might find it a bit overwhelming. Overwhelmed, us??!! Who do you think we are? We have been all over Latin America and felt at home, so we quickly shrugged this advice off as nonsense! Well…it turns out that the advice was sound. Although we are seasoned travellers, nothing could quite prepare us for the assault to the senses brought on by the chaos that we stumbled out into, bleary eyed and exhausted from our flight. Having said that we don’t think that there is a place for a first impact with India that can prepare you for, well… India!
All the clichés about India seemed to be true! It was oppressively hot, the traffic was INSANE (constant honking, NO rules, auto-suicidal auto-rickshaws zooming about and a fair few holy cows sprinkled in to the mix) and nothing we did or tried to do went quite to plan (a theme that would keep on repeating). Added to that, we were there during the lead up to Diwali, India’s biggest celebration.
Delhi does have some sights to see and we’ve listed the ones we visited, however it is a mega city and some travellers may wish to take a connection and avoid it completely (just a thought). We are not considering going back unless to pass through on route elsewhere. Sorry Delhi!
Our accommodation was in the southern, quieter suburb of Saket. Upon arrival we were a bit disappointed as it didn’t seem all that peaceful, but after our venture into the centre, we readjusted our opinion and it became quite the little paradise – it’s all relative! We have a feeling that this might keep happening in India!
What did we do in Delhi for three days:
Basically a victory tower and complex built (using parts of defaced Hindu temples which you can go hunting for) to celebrate the Muslim ruler’s defeat of the Hindus.
A pleasure garden, lake and ruins which has upmarket shopping (not that we could find it), nightlife (we went during the day) and deer (we only found rabbits and guinea pigs)!
Dehi’s Mughal fort made of red sandstone is certainly impressive. Unfortunately we went on the Sunday before Diwali and the queues were ridiculously long so we didn’t get to go inside.
A Persian influenced Mughal mausoleum said to have influenced the Taj Mahal.
Old Delhi is famous for its markets and bazaars. It quite difficult to work out what’s going on though, so if we went again we would definitely hire a guide. It was also packed with people looking for Diwali bargains!
Guided street food tour
Although it may look like the last place on earth you would want to try street food, unless you are into getting seriously food poisoned, Delhi is actually renowned for its huge variety of unique street food which has often been prepared by generations of the same family, and it is something that has to be tried… if you dare.
We took an evening street food tour which had us trying all sorts of delicacies from crisp samosas to creamy rice pudding. There are many food vendors in old Delhi, and without a guide we wouldn’t have been brave enough to try them, but the ones we were taken are institutions part of every street food tour for tourists, so totally safe and well worth the visit. We recommend Yo Tours.
Although we did the food tour and we took our chances with food before, we weren’t really prepared to take our chances eating from the street without someone to guide us to trusted establishments, especially considering Jess’ new coeliac status. Our B&B recommended that we go to the local mall (DLF) but to begin with we were reluctant to give in to this westerner’s cop out! However, as soon as we got there, it was like an oasis in the desert. Delhi is not an easy place, what with the heat, dust, dirt, traffic and sheer amount of bodies and it can be quite overwhelming. Of course the mall is a complete contrast but we have a feeling that a lot of India will be like that in terms of the line between wealth and poverty. The mall did have an amazing and reasonably priced food court where you could charge up a card with cash and set about picking whatever took your fancy, safe in the knowledge that the hygiene standards would be high. We found the variety, and quality of food really good and a great way to have an easy introduction into Indian cuisine. This is a recommended eating strategy for first-time goers.
Oh, and, by the way, most places don’t serve alcohol. If they do, then it’s on the sly and you should be discreet. This is partly cultural thing but also an issue of licensing. There is also no drinking allowed in the street or in most hotels, but you can visit specialist alcohol stores to buy alcohol to consume in your own home.
Some cultural observations
They don’t say ‘this is India’ for no reason. Simple activities can become bureaucratic and time-consuming nightmares, the rules don’t apply, things don’t go according to plan, booking a train ticket is a seemingly impossible task, and everyone seems to be out to make a quick buck off of tourists. That said, Indians are very friendly and will almost certainly start a chat or ask for a selfie with you. Just be prepared to be a bit frustrated from time to time!
Get used to saying ‘no’ a lot, because you’re going to be offered a lot of services and things! Also, haggling hard is totally acceptable.
Tipping is commonplace. It’s a bit of minefield, but as long as you carry some small change you will be prepared to give tips or charity to people on the street.
Go with a local or ask for lots of help from your accommodation. They know how things work and will be able to guide you through the chaos and the multitude of scams.
Use the Metro where possible because it’s new, air-conditioned and efficient.
Agree auto-rickshaw prices in advance of getting in. You will get overcharged by about 50%, but it’s cheap as chips anyway.
Don’t let auto-rickshaw drivers take you places that you don’t want to go like shops. They are not concerned about you having a good holiday; they just want to make some commission.
Not sure if this came across on the post or not but Delhi is not one of our favourite cities in the world. However, we wanted to give you a realistic picture of our experience, surely others would disagree. As we mentioned at the start of this post, many Indians and guides did warn us not to start our trip here but logistically it’s the one that made better sense. If your intention is to visit Northern India than Delhi can’t be avoided.
Having said that though, we would be lying if we said that Delhi is a must see dream destination. There is beauty and there are sights definitely worth visiting, but the hassle that it takes to get from one to another in endless tuk-tuk life-threatening journeys kind of take the joy away from visiting what the city has to offer. In other words, prepare yourself to spend hours in heavily polluted traffic or (better) the efficient tube network in order to get anything done. The fact that we were there during the run up to the major holiday of Diwali didn’t help.
Delhi is one of the world’s great megalopolis, and the sheer amount of people will overwhelm you, but if you are willing to ignore these inconveniences it is a place that can reward a culture-hungry tourist. As for us, our three days were more than enough!