Here is a huge city with a storied past and frenetic present. At the heart of north India, Delhi is home to 21 million people and serves as the country’s hub for government, commerce and tourism. It offers many major sights, packed and ancient neighborhoods, street foods galore, and plenty of adventure. Which means that if you’re a backpacker with gumption you’ll never run out of things to do. But as a major urban center, the city is completely unapologetic about its raw, hectic, tremendously overwhelming state, so the faint of heart may elect only to pass through.
During our time in Delhi we stayed in the Paharganj neighborhood, which is centrally located and a great starting point for most of the key sights. As a backpacker’s haunt, there are many inexpensive hotels and eateries hidden away in the tiny, winding streets off the main road in Paharganj. This is one area where you should definitely steer clear of the restaurants that Lonely Planet recommends. Our theory is that the moment a place shows up in LP, the prices skyrocket and the quality boards a downward spiral of half-cooked eggs, mushy vegetables, and insipid, spiceless imitations of the local cuisine. Fortunately in the major cities there are always locals, which means there is always good food if you look hard enough. But, I digress. This article is about sightseeing!
If you stay in neighborhoods like Paharganj and use the city’s modern and efficient metro, you can absorb much of what Delhi has to offer in a short period of time. The best part is that you can go almost anywhere on a tight budget if you don’t mind a fair bit of walking around and dodging vehicles. Just make sure to continuously look both ways – not only on the roadways, but even on the sidewalks, as drivers don’t always see the distinction. If you absolutely have to cross a major street, it’s best to shadow groups of Indians (preferably women and children) who know how to navigate through the traffic.
Only a short Rs.8 ($0.15) metro ride away from Central Delhi, the Lotus Temple is one of only eight Bahá’í Houses of Worship in the world. The temple is open to all people regardless of religious belief, and it’s free too – they didn’t even ask for fees to store our shoes as we walked around. Like all Bahá’í temples, the building is nine-sided and circular in shape. It is composed of 27 freestanding “petals” arranged in clusters of three to form the nine walls, encircling up to 2,500 worshippers in marble that was brought all the way from Greece.
The nine pools and gardens that surround the temple are beautifully maintained, and provide a nice respite from the noise and pollution of the city. Given its splendor and proximity to Delhi, it’s little wonder that the temple is one of the most visited sites in the world, surpassing both the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower in the early 2000’s.
Gandhi Smriti, formerly known as the Birla House, is where Mahatma Gandhi spent the last few months of his life, and where he was assassinated on January 30, 1948. It now serves as a poignant memorial to one of the most compelling figures of the twentieth century, with exhibits detailing Gandhi’s vision and showcasing his few worldly possessions.
Visitors are free to wander the building and grounds learning about how Gandhi lived, and to trace his final steps from the house to the courtyard where he met his untimely end.
Admission to the Birla House is free, and photos are allowed. If you’re in Delhi, this one is a must-see – not only to learn about all that Gandhi did for India, but to remember the man who pioneered nonviolent direct action and influenced other leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. (As a side-note, we watched the 1982 film Gandhi before arriving to Delhi, and it helped us appreciate how special Gandhi Smriti really is).
Not far from Gandhi Smirti is India Gate . Inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, it serves as a war memorial and prominent Delhi landmark.
The Red Fort is also close by, although we just snapped photos from outside after the rickshaw incident sapped our energy for the day.
A friend of ours describes Old Delhi (or is it India in general?) as “an assault on all five senses with a new problem every minute,” and perhaps this isn’t far from the truth. The neighborhood is grimy, intimidating and noisy. But no visit to Delhi is complete without a half-day excursion through the clamor and clatter of Chandni Chowk. The area has 2,500 shops, and it’s one of the oldest and most active markets in India. If you visit when it’s busy (which is basically always), be prepared to claw your way through the streets, which are choked with thousands of people and shops with their goods spilling out onto the roads. It makes for terrific window-shopping and people watching. There’s also a great wholesale spice market called Khari Baoli, which has been operating in much the same way for centuries.
If you find yourself in Old Delhi, make sure to stop into the original Haldiram’s Restaurant for a dish called Raj Kachori. Classified as a chaat (snack), this treat consists of a puffy hollow fried shell filled with potatoes, curd, chutney and spices. Your taste buds will be simultaneously delighted and confused. My mouth is watering just thinking about the savory, sweet, crispy, delicious combinations that make this dish so glorious. Yummmm.
Even though we spent almost a week there, we definitely only scratched the surface with Delhi. Maybe we’ll be back for more in the future, if we work up the nerve to return!