They say if you can survive in the mean streets of Old Delhi you can survive anywhere. The heat, pollution, poverty and constant noise put many people off, but the incredible historic sights make it a city not to be missed. I spent two days in Delhi during my trip last year — it was the first city I visited in India and it was the perfect introduction to the country.
Welcome to Delhi
My first journey out into the depths of Delhi was a trip to the Red Fort. I took the metro to Chandri Chowk, a short walk from the Red Fort. and was instantly thrown into the chaos of Old Delhi. I must have looked like a prime cut of fresh tourist meat. Chandri Chowk is one of the busiest market areas in India and it’s a pretty intense place. One rickshaw driver, who insisted I take a tour around the sights of Old Delhi, just wouldn’t take my rejections seriously. He eventually wore me down and I agreed to hitch a ride with him to the Red Fort and no further. He then, predictably, urged me to take a tour for a too-good-to-be-true price. These tours are basically shopping trips — the driver takes you to various stores and markets where he gets money for every sucker he brings in. I knew what was going on and quickly exited the rickshaw, and a few minutes later the Red Fort came into view.
The Red Fort
The giant red walls and ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort provide welcome protection from the chaotic streets of Old Delhi. The Lahori Gate transports you to another place and time, but then the row of garish souvenir stalls jolts you back to reality. It seemed very out of place until I read that this area has in fact always been given over to shopping. The Red Fort’s interior is full of small pavilions and remnants of palaces. making for a nice place to stroll around even in oppressive temperatures. The Red Fort was built in 1639 and housed Mughal rulers for 200 years until the British took over.
After a while I noticed a little kid, maybe eight years old, staring at me and following me around. A few minutes later he walked up to me, shook my hand and introduced himself. I assumed he was trying to be my guide or get money out of me but he just wanted to talk. He pointed out his family sitting under a tree and they smiled and waved. It was my first taste of the uniquely Indian fascination with foreigners.
Shortly after exiting the Red Fort I got talking to some young guys who explained, unprompted, why Hindus touch the feet of their elders. It’s a respect thing, but it pretty much rules me out of becoming a Hindu as I hate feet.
The Streets of Old Delhi
I caught a rickshaw from Red Fort to Jamma Masjid only to discover the iconic Mughal mosque was closed for a couple of hours. I walked around some of the narrow old town streets to kill some time. It was an assault on the senses but this place definitely has character.
The swathes of wires criss-crossing the streets, blocking out much of the light from above, the constant stream of rickshaws and motorbikes and the general claustrophobic nature of Old Delhi make for a jolting early impression of India. It’s not the most universally loved place but I think throwing yourself head first into the extremes of Old Delhi is the perfect way to start your trip.
It’s probably best to hire a rickshaw driver to tour you around the streets of Old Delhi, but make sure you negotiate a price and explain that you won’t be doing any shopping beforehand. If you want to shop, go to the markets by yourself to avoid going to overpriced stores and paying the driver heaps of commission.
Jamma Masjid (Friday Mosque), built between 1644 and 1656, is a must-see sight in Old Delhi. The dual minarets and giant domes combine to create one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture in India. Jamma Masjid is free to enter but they’ll charge you a camera fee (300 INR for foreigners). You’re also not allowed to wear shoes, so if you’re planning to visit in summer you’d better start honing your fire walking skills — the ground is scorching!
Humayun’s Tomb is Delhi’s answer to the Taj Mahal (except that it’s colourful, smaller and 100 years older). It’s one of the top ancient sights in the city and should be on everyone’s two day Delhi itinerary. I visited Humayun’s tomb on a weekday and it was really quiet. The symmetrical structure has four paths leading to it and three of them were completely devoid of tourists when I visited.
The interior features a few graves but the grounds of Humayun’s Tomb provide the most interest. Apparently it was the first garden tomb built on the Indian subcontinent and the grounds are packed with history. Aside from the main tomb there are large sections of peaceful, shaded gardens (with awesome views of Humayun’s Tomb), as well as several other ancient structures to explore. Isa Khan Niyazi’s Tomb, a smaller (and slightly older) white tomb is an attraction in its own right, and there are some grand gates throughout the complex.
Delhi has been referred to as the Rome of Asia, and nowhere is that comparison more apt than the Qutb Minar complex. It reminded me a lot of the ancient ruins around the Coliseum in Rome. If you only have two days in Delhi (or even if you only have a few hours), this should be near the top of your list. There’s so much to explore, from the 45 metre tall, 900 year old minaret to various crumbing ruins of tombs and palaces. Qutb Minar itself is pretty special. It was one of the first big architectural projects the Muslim invaders built in India and it is said that they used materials from 27 destroyed Jain and Hindu temples in its construction.
I spent a couple of hours wandering around the ruins. It was quite busy but most of the locals congregated around the main sights leaving the less popular areas surprisingly quiet. Qutb Minar is in South Delhi — there is a metro stop nearby or you can catch a rickshaw or taxi, which shouldn’t cost too much.
Two Days in Delhi: FAQs
- Where is the best place to stay? I stayed at Madpackers Hostel in Pancheel Park and it turned out to be a good choice. I don’t often sleep in dorms but I’d heard nightmare stories about the budget hotels in Paharganj. Most budget travellers stay in Paharganj, mostly due to its central location, but it’s a pretty horrible place. If you’re expecting it to be like the backpacker areas in Southeast Asia (Khao San Rd etc) then you’ll be in for a shock. I had a quick walk around the area and was very glad that I wasn’t staying there. Pancheel Park is an affluent suburb and even has a western style supermarket, something I didn’t see anywhere else in India. There are also some small ruins just across the road from the supermarket.
- What’s the best way to get around Delhi? The metro is really handy and will take you close to most sights of interest. I took the metro to Humayan’s Tomb (JLN Stadium Station) and had to walk for about 10 minutes to the entrance. From there I took a rickshaw to Qutb Minar. The driver waited for me there for a couple of hours and then took me to my hostel. That set me back 300 INR ($5) and saved me a lot of time. If you’re not on a strict budget rickshaws are the best way to get around. Make sure you bargain, although you’ll almost always get ripped off a little bit. I found the rickshaw drivers in Delhi the hardest to bargain with out of all the places I visited in India.
- How do you book train tickets in Delhi? Travel agents will try and sell you tours and tickets at inflated prices. There is a booking office at the train station where foreigners can reserve tickets. It’s a nice air-conditioned room and the process is easy. Make sure you bring your passport when booking a ticket — I learnt that lesson the hard way.
Are you planning a trip to India? How do you feel about visiting Delhi? Let me know in the comments below!
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