Delhi For First-Timers

Photo by Patrick Horton

Must-sees on a relaxed introduction to Delhi and India

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Delhi first-timers can find the place daunting. Here are some suggestions for one to three days of sightseeing. Hiring a car plus a driver is the easiest way and a cheap way to do this. Your hotel will help you book. Then you can set the pace and let the driver take care of getting there. There is a ‘Hop On and Hop Off’ bus that delivers you to the main venues but you’re not travelling at your own pace. While each day has a number of options choose about three or four to fill your day.

Day One in Delhi, a choice of museums

Have a relaxed start in New Delhi with a walk around the Indian centre of power surrounding the president’s palace. Nearby are a couple of worthwhile museums, the National Gallery of Modern Art, the National Science Museum and the Crafts Museum. The latter has some wonderful and must-see exhibits of rural arts and crafts. Often there are artists at work there. The National Museum is something of a disappointment, but has a fine collection of miniature paintings.  Nearby and opposite the Crafts Museum is the mighty Purana Qila, one of Delhi’s earlier incarnations as a city.

Don’t forget the shopping

Every first timer in Delhi wants to shop and there are many exquisite craft items to buy. Maybe do this on day three. The best place to shop is the government-run Central Cottage Emporium in Janpath near Connaught Place. It’s fixed price, the staff are helpful and there’s no pressure to buy. You’ll find craftwork here from all over India. There are also street traders around Connaught Place but no fixed price or return of money if the goods are faulty.

Near Connaught Place in Baba Kharak Singh Marg (marg = road or street) are the State Emporiums . These are the retail outlets of the various states of India. Each showcases their states products and the variety is enormous. There are plenty of other shopping places but expect to bargain hard and be exposed to pressure to buy, but then that’s half the fun.

A welcome always awaits in a Sikh temple

In the same road is the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, the main Sikh temple in Delhi and a picture in white and gold. Report to the information office where you’ll find a guide to show you around. Everything is free even in the immense dining room where anyone can receive a simple meal.

For a Hindu temple there’s the ice cream architecture of the Lakshmi Narayan temple in New Delhi. For Hindu extravagance, journey to the Akshardham complex in east Delhi.

Day Two

Start in the south visiting the Qutb Minar complex with its gigantic tower, Delhi’s first mosque here was built out of the rubble of several Hindu temples. There’s an iron pillar that never rusts; a tomb that might have been built without a roof and another minar that was never finished. Allow about two hours here before heading north and an early lunch on the way, maybe in Sundar Nagar.

Railway buffs could call in on the way to the Railway Museum. There’s a large collection of locomotives and luxuriously outfitted Maharajah’s coaches. In the museum is the skull of an elephant that head-butted a train. Maybe two hours are need here. On the way out have a gaze at the most impressive Bhutanese embassy a few doors down from the exit. The design is traditional Bhutanese.

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The Gandhis

Your transport will probably take you through Chanakyapuri, the embassy and diplomatic quarter, on the way through New Delhi. There are three ‘museums’ here celebrating the life of the Gandhi dynasty and Mahatma Gandhi (not a relation). Jawarhal Nehru, first prime minister of India, lived in Teen Murti and the building and contents have been retained to reflect his life here. His daughter Indira and grandson Rajiv Gandhi (sixth and seventh prime ministers respectively) lived not far away. Again this Indira Gandhi Museum and contents reflect their occupancy.

Mahatma Gandhi (no relation to the other Gandhis) used Birla House, now Gandhi Smitri, as his Delhi home during his later years. He was assassinated here. Storyboards give a very poignant account of his last days here. His room and meagre possessions are preserved and concrete marker steps lead from his bedroom to the spot in the garden where he was shot down.

For dinner try a restaurant in Pandara Market. It’s popular with coach groups so choose one of the restaurants they’re not using to avoid a long wait.

Day Three starting in Old Delhi

Your first stop should be to scoot up to Old Delhi and visit the enormous Red Fort. Much was destroyed by the British after the 1857 Uprising and some of it is under army control and out of bounds. However the interesting imperial buildings are still there. A visit here could easily take two to three hours.

Now you’re acclimatised to crowds

Opposite the entrance to the Red Fort is Chandni Chowk, a famous shopping strip from Mughal times. The street contains the places of worship of all the major religions, except Buddhism, in India. Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Sikh and Christian are all here. This was once a luxurious avenue connecting the Red Fort to the houses of the nobility. Now its a shopping street attracting many people. Look up and around to spy remnants of the past..

To the south of Chandni Chowk is the massive Jama Masjid. There are good views of the city from the minaret but you’ll need to pay. Dress conservatively for a visit here and you can’t enter the mosque in footwear. Put your shoes in your backpack or leave them with the shoe attendant who’ll gladly receive a tip when you return. A visit here may take an hour after which it could well be lunchtime –  try the famous Karim’s restaurant nearby.

South for a peaceful garden and the prototype for the Taj Mahal

Your next option is probably to haul down to Humayun’s Tomb in east central Delhi. This is the mausoleum of the emperor Humayun. He was the great grandfather of Shah Jahan who was responsible for creating Old Delhi, where you have just come from. The tomb is in extensive grounds that also contain the architecturally different tomb of Isa Khan and several other buildings. Afternoon is best for a visit here when the warm sun lights up the façade of Humayun’s Tomb. Away from the crowds and bustle of Delhi this is a quiet haven to relax in.

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