Delhi, India: A Travel Guide
What I learned, what I recommend, and what not to do:
New Delhi was an experience, for sure. Maybe not the experience I was fantasizing about in my head. At this point, I really don't even know what I had in my head that India would be like. I can't think of why I thought it would be so life changing. Maybe just the thought of a strong spiritual people exuding vibes of peace and oneness? Was I just so influenced by movies or infatuated with visions of a sultry people in graceful saris, gorgeous colors, nose studs, toe rings, and bangles? Maybe I just went to the wrong places in India, are there other places that align more with my dreams? I would still love to go to Northern India, with the strong Tibetan influence and the Himalayas looming near and truthfully, when I think of India, I think Goa. I love the hip/hippy vibe and the mix of Portuguese culture. Am I deluding myself though? Will I be disappointed in those places too? Should I just stay home and keep the fantasy of India in my head? ...nah! Screw fantasy! I'd rather have a not so romantic but real experience with real people and their true culture than sit at home sheltered in my own head. How about you?!
What I learned:
Be real about what you expect. There is major poverty. The culture is completely different from western culture.
Don't be offended by street vendors shouting at you to get your attention or quoting you prices that you think are too high, this is how they make a living, this is the way it's done here. Only the most modern shops (run by the younger generation) let you shop in peace.
Get your rude on. If you're going to walk around Delhi, you are going to be harassed by rickshaw drivers, beggars, and even random passers-by. You just gotta shake your head, look the other way, and walk on. The rickshaw drivers want to take you to all the touristy places and markets. The passers-by want to be "helpful" by directing you to markets and such where they get commissions (or even more sinister reasons, I'm not sure, just do NOT, under any circumstances, follow them anywhere) *On our first day out, we even had a rickshaw driver pull up behind one of these guys talking to us (before we knew anything), look us in the eye and shake his head emphatically with a concerned look on his face. Clearly this was a warning for us to not trust this guy. By the second day, though, we were getting good at just ignoring them and walking on, against all instinct to "not be rude". The street beggars aren't actually as numerous as I'd thought, although I'm sure that depends on where you go in the city.
Decide beforehand what type of experience you want. If you like to be immersed in the culture of a city or if you like to visit all the monuments and attractions. If you like to do things on your own or if you want an all-inclusive tour. Then research the heck out of choices. There are a lot of options for the all-inclusive. Because of the "conditions" of Delhi, most people like to have a driver for the day take them around from place to place, recommend where they should eat, and offer, via the car, shelter from the heat, humidity, and/or rain. These tours vary greatly though, some being very well run with guides who are passionate about their city and culture, some being, well, not. The price you pay is a pretty good indicator of the quality of the tour. Don't go cheap, you'll regret it. And even if they aren't super cheap, read reviews and ask a lot of questions about the details of the trip (where you're picked up and dropped off and how you'll know who they are (among possible other tour drivers), what the itinerary is, who the guide is and how long they've been with the company, what is provided (is lunch included, will there be bottled water available, are entry fees included). Most of all though, is let them know how much shopping time will be left in the end and if you want it at all. They will almost all schedule in some shopping time at the end of the tour (they get commissions from the shops) so be firm in what you want (we didn't know and ended up being rushed through our tour of Jaipur just to spend 2 entire hours shopping, which we didn't use so the tour just ended an hour early -read more on my Jaipur blog post if you want).
Be prepared to make thinking about food and water a constant thing. Unless you only want to eat in fancy hotels, you're going to need to pay attention to where and what you eat and drink, for every meal, every day. Everyone has heard of Delhi Belly. Food and water contamination is a real issue you have to be careful, at the least you could be stuck in the bathroom for a couple days, at the worst, you could end up in the hospital with a serious water born disease. I love to eat local food so this was a huge issue for me, I didn't eat a third of what I would've liked because of the fear of getting sick. And be careful what you drink, even bottled water is iffy, make sure the cap is sealed (you hear the crack of the seal when you open it) because some may be refilled with tap water to sell.
We didn't eat at a lot of restaurants in the end, we ate at hotels and restaurants that were recommended by tour guides. I actually had searched on Trip Advisor and found some restaurants that were highly recommended, but even that turned out to be unreliable. Those restaurants are far and few between and never seem to be convenient to where you are when you are hungry. Example, the first day we arrived and went out to eat, the restaurant we chose wasn't open yet (ugh!) and literally none of the other restaurants close by looked like someplace I'd want to risk eating at. Maybe we were being overly cautious, but seriously, food contamination is an issue and I reallly, reallllly, really didn't want to get sick. We were tired and hungry and had just experienced our first taste of walking through New Delhi (crazy traffic, hot, humid, and people at every turn wanting to "help" us or give us a ride somewhere, or asking for money. Honestly, it was a 3 block walk and we had at least 5 people bug us and we hadn't learned to be rude yet, lol) So, that first night in, going against all things I believe in when traveling, we ate at Starbucks (talk about feeling like a "tourist" lol) because I figured they have a reputation to uphold and will have safe food (btw, we did, at least, eat some locally flavored wraps, lol).
Finding a hotel is hard, really hard. There are the obvious luxury hotels, which is where we stayed and are definitely a good choice, but can be expensive. Even some of those have bad reviews, although I think most of the bad reviews are comparing Delhi hotels to western hotels and you just really can't do that. They are going to be different, maybe not as spotlessly clean, maybe the towels are worn and not super fluffy, but the service is usually good and they are still cheap compared to comparative hotels in the states. We focused on being walking distance to a lot of places we thought we'd like to visit. Turns out, you don't really want to walk too much, maybe in the winter/spring/cooler times of year it'd be better, but between being harassed constantly and the extreme heat and humidity, walking is not the best option, and I LOVE walking everywhere when we visit someplace but it's just not the best choice in Delhi. Transportation is so cheap anyway, even private cars can be had for almost nothing. Find a nice guest house in a safe area and spend the extra money on Ubers (which are actually safe and reliable in Delhi), shopping, and good food.
Think about limited internet access! Download Trip Advisor maps and info. Take screen shots of places you want to visit and the address and info. Take screen shots of metro routes and the metro map if you're going to go be taking the metro. Know where you're going and map out how best to get there if you're going to take a cab, even take a screen shot of the route to show the driver so he knows you know the route and doesn't try to take you the long way. Save any tour emails and details offline or take screen shots or even print them beforehand if you can so you have the info you need on hand. This saved us on our Jaipur tour when the tour guide didn't know what all was included in the tour. And anything else you think may be helpful to you IF you have internet access (cause you probably won't).
The biggest thing I learned though, is to accept the culture for what it is. Change your perspective. Instead of being annoyed by the constant honking on the streets (and it is, literally, constant) think of it as the Symphony of Horns of Delhi, instead of being grossed out by the trash on the streets, think of how it's a part of these people's lives, they go to school, go to work, have families, have friends, laugh, play, and have fun despite the trash and what we, as westerners consider dirty. Say hi to people, smile, take a rickshaw ride (all the locals do), and just enjoy India for what it is, not what you think it should be it wish it was.
What I recommend:
Hotel: If we go to Delhi again, I'd stay in a guest house called Colonel's Retreat in the Defense Colony neighborhood of South Delhi. My son stayed there with his volunteer group and we visited and had dinner there and it was a super cute place with nice people and really good food which you order whenever you're ready to eat. The neighborhood is safe and pretty clean and still near all the things to see in Delhi. --We stayed in the Lalit New Delhi, which was a nice, big hotel with an awesome pool, but the food is so expensive and it's not really a pleasant walk to anywhere, and 2x or more expensive than a nice guesthouse.
Eat: This is really the most difficult for me to recommend. Search Trip Advisor for restaurants with good ratings that are close to the places you want to visit and save them to view later on the fly. If you eat at a random restaurant, look for cleanliness, look for signs of tourists or catering to tourists, order food that has to be cooked thoroughly and preferably doesn't contain fresh vegetables (which may be washed in contaminated water). Wipe off utensils with your hand sanitizer (that you will have with you at all times). Drink bottled drinks. Don't feel bad eating at known restaurants if you have to and eat at your hotel when you can. Also, find a tour by a highly rated, reputable company that includes lunch or dinner, they'll know restaurants that are safe, that's really the best way to get street food or local food.
Uber cars are quite reliable and cheap. Download the app and sign up before you leave and make sure you're familiar with the way it works. We took Ubers several times and they were super cheap ($2 - $4 around Delhi, $10 to the next town which was about a 45 minute ride) and usually better cars than the cabs you'll get. Oh, and build time into any travel you take by car. Traffic is bad and there's always closed streets, protests, or something going on to make getting around difficult.
Cabs: we didn't take a traditional cab, but heard they are reliable, just beat up cars and not much cheaper than Uber. There are several cab companies in Delhi, you should research them beforehand if Uber isn't an option for you.
Metro: Yes! The metro is clean, actually semi-airconditioned, and pretty easy to navigate. The most difficulty we had was in getting the tickets. There was some confusion at first about the daily pass so I'm not sure what we ended up with, but they were still about $1.50 a ticket. To get a single ride ticket (or token) is easy but you need small change (it's about 10cents a token) as the machines won't take large bills (which is why we tried to get the daily pass at first). The metro map is easy to read and it's fairly easy to figure out which track you need to be on, in the correct direction. Seriously, easier, 100x easier than the New York metro, and that's in English! Don't be afraid of trying the metro.
Rickshaws: There are auto rickshaws and pedi rickshaws. Both are ok depending on where you are and where you want to go. Getting around Old Delhi, for example, pedi rickshaws are the best way (those streets are tiny) and they are dirt cheap, like 50 cents a ride cheap. For short distances around New Delhi, auto rickshaws are easy to grab (they are literally everywhere, sometimes several per block) and cheap also, usually $1.50 to $3.00 a ride (and I'm quoting tourist rates here, one of our tour guides negotiated a ride for us and it was about half the price, but I'm not squabbling over $1, especially because that's a bit of money for these people). It's a bit intimidating at first to get a rickshaw, especially because the drivers can be quite aggressive in offering a ride, but just stop and ask how much to a particular destination, if it sounds like a good deal to you, then go for it. It's definitely an experience worth the money alone!
Walking: Like I stated before, walking really isn't the best way to get around. I LOVE walking everywhere when I travel. I've literally walked across Rome and back. You get to see lots of things you'd miss in a car or metro, plus you can eat tons of delicious (read fattening) food and not feel guilty because of all the exercise you're getting, lol. But, I do concede that Delhi is not a good place to walk a lot. There's a lot of empty space (empty being nothing interesting to see), some of the streets are really, really dirty and SMELLY, it gets very tiring fending off all the drivers and "helpful" locals trying to get your attention, some even walking blocks alongside you trying to persuade you to come with them. The weather in summer (that's when we went, I don't know about other times) is unbearable, super hot and humid and miserable to be out in. Walk a block or two, find another way to get from place to place!
My biggest recommendation, find a tour that caters to how you like to visit a place. I hate tours, I never take tours, I don't like being herded to crowded touristy attractions or force fed info I'd rather read about on my own, I don't like the artificial feel of most tours. But, in Delhi, maybe because of all the issues I've mentioned, you can find tours that cater to different styles of traveler. My favorite tour was the Old Delhi Bazaar Walk and Haveli visit by MKH Tourism. It was perfect for me, no big, crowded monuments, we dove right into the culture of Old Delhi and got tons of info about the people and history of Old Delhi and India. Plus, we got to eat street food, our guide knew the places that were safe to eat. I was a happy camper! Another tour I wanted to take but we didn't get the chance is any of the many interesting tours offered by Delhi Magic.
Visit the New Delhi Crafts Museum. It's a nice, relaxing way to see some of the traditional crafts of India along with some artisans working on their crafts right in the plaza. Parklike setting, great gift shop, although you can buy directly from the craftspeople, and a great cafe that is safe to eat at.
We chose to use one of our days to take a tour to Jaipur. I'm not exactly sorry that we did, it's nice to experience other cities and the whole trip was an experience in itself (see my Jaipur blog post for the juicy details), but because of that we didn't visit the Red Fort or the Delhi Jantar Mantar (because we visited the Amber Fort and the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur) which are definitely worth seeing.
Hauz Khas has some gorgeous ruins on a beautiful lake setting next to a huge park (that apparently has a deer enclosure) that is a nice short visit, especially if you make it a eating out and shopping visit and spend some time in Hauz Khas Village also. If you love the bar scene, definitely head there at night, it's the place to be for nightlife.
I do NOT recommend visiting Swaminarayan Ashkardahm temple. It is gorgeous and it would be amazing to see and you really may want to see it, but it can be very crowded, especially on Sunday when we went, and if you do go, leave everything at your hotel or you'll have to stand in line, a long line, to check your things into a locker. It's a long, long wait among throngs of people, and if it's hot, it's not fun at all. Also, if you really want to go, I suggest going as soon as it opens, there'll be less crowds and cooler.
I also, personally, don't recommend Agra and the Taj Mahal. This probably seems crazy to a lot of you. I mean, we're in India, a couple of hours away from one of the major sites in the world, and you say don't go?! Again, I don't like touristy places, filled with throngs of people that make the place, that is likely a huge part of history, feel like a Disney attraction. It's sad and I'd rather have my visions of those places in my head via pictures and stories of it's past. That's just me, but I've had some bad experiences with that (mainly the Sistine Chapel) and don't want to repeat the experience. Plus, there's nothing else to see in Agra (a Fort, I think, but no more impressive that the Red Fort in Delhi) and it's apparently dirtier and less pleasant to walk around in than Delhi.
Shopping is another tricky subject. There is tons of shopping to be done in Delhi, you just have to decide what type of shopping you're up for. I, personally, am not a haggler, especially in the Delhi summer heat. I opted for an indoor shopping plaza that was at least marginally cooler than outside, no haggling required although you're still "encouraged" to buy constantly and the prices are more than you'd find on the street but still cheap compared to US standards. It was worth it to me to spend more to be inside and not have to haggle and have most things I wanted to see in one place. There are a lot of indoor and outdoor shopping markets and Old Delhi has tons of shops. Just figure out how and how much you want to shop and research the best options for you. Also, there are several shopping tours available that may be the best bet if you really want to shop a lot. Oh, and a lot of places are closed on Mondays, so be prepared for that.
There are a lot of other sites, monuments, temples, and historic places to visit in Delhi. It's impossible to see them all unless you're on an extended stay. Really think about what you like to see, how you like to travel and visit cities, what's feasible for you given the transportation issues. (Some of the sites are outside of the city so will require a cab, Uber, or metro and a long walk. Auto rickshaws will probably take you there, but honestly I'm more afraid for my life in them long distance than in a car. Really, traffic is that bad, India has one of the worst auto death rates in the world.) Make a list of what you want to visit the most to the least and plan out when to go.
I realize that this is a huge post, but it's a big subject and I hope I've been helpful. I wish I'd had this information before we went. We kind of flew by the seat of our pants and had some great and some not so great experiences. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask. Also, my information and knowledge is limited, if you have conflicting information or other things to share, I'd love to hear them. Thanks!
Location: New Delhi, Delhi, India
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