The non-tourist guide to Delhi
January 1, 1970
It’s been over a year since I first landed in Delhi. And here I am, living in India about to marry a Punjabi. But today I don’t want to write about our oh-so-Bollywood-y love story, instead, I want to try to give you a few tips for your next trip to Delhi. This is for all those young at heart who wish to give the city of Djinns a chance beyond its many historic sites and temples.
When I first arrived in Delhi I stayed at a friend’s place and used the days as most tourists would, to visit the Lotus Temple and the Red Fort, Jama Masjid and the India Gate. I took walks in the parks and got lost in Old Delhi. To me, this was a nice introduction into chaotic, astonishing, wonderful India. I love the busy streets, the colours and smells and, as a foodie, the many new, weird, interesting dishes there are to try. Talking to fellow travellers later on though, I realised many didn’t view Delhi as an intriguing place like I did. Some outright hated it. Too many people, too many vendors and scams, too much staring, too much pollution. Fair enough, I thought, everybody has their own preferences. It wasn’t until I came back to the capital for said friend’s wedding that I completely fell in love with the city and discovered why others didn’t.
The most important thing is where you stay. As most backpackers are on a tight budget, they stay in the cheapest accommodation by the train station in Old Delhi. It’s completely overwhelming there. Especially if this is the first place on your itinerary, the area around Delhi Junction Railway Station will throw you for a loop. It’s extremely crowded and busy and people are not the nicest nor the most discrete. On top of that, most guesthouses here suck. Seriously.
So no matter what your age or budget, make sure you stay in New Delhi. The streets here are wider and cleaner and the staring and busyness are toned down a lot. As interesting as the old town is, at the end of the day you’ll want to retreat to a nice, calm room.
Now, I realise hostels are not for everybody, but for the backpackers amongst you I’m sure a big part of the reason you’re travelling is to meet people, have fun and memorable experiences. Generally speaking, in India, backpacker hostels are a bit more expensive than the very basic guesthouses but it’s completely worth paying those few extra rupees. They are cleaner, have more comfortable beds, A/C – a wonderful thing in 48c hot Delhi summer – and helpful, friendly staff. By chance, I ended up at Madpackers in Pancheelpark and I couldn’t have been happier.
In the 6 weeks between my first encounter and the wedding I travelled around Rajasthan, went to see the Taj Mahal and spent some time in sacred Varanasi. I saw beautiful forts, got lost in tiny alleys with the cows and watched pujas at the ghats at dawn. While these are great destinations, they are also very, very touristy. That took a lot of the charm away from the experience. Delhi is different. It is a real and giant city full of extremes that will manage to astonish you every day anew.
I was lucky enough to make the hostel owner’s girlfriend’s acquaintance and she introduced me to Delhi’s night life and that very first night out I met my better half. And along with him, I also fell in love with Delhi. So here are a few things to try in Delhi that might not be on every guidebook’s checklist:
Going out in Delhi can be a lot of fun. If you have a soft spot for the catching beats of Bollywood music, go dance amongst the locals – just don’t feel out of place if they all bust the same moves matching the lyrics; no one cares that you don’t, they’re just happy you like to dance and party and will welcome you into their group immediately. Haus Khaz Village used to be the place to go out. While the crowd nowadays is rather young and the traffic on the way in is endless, you can still find a few good spots like Raasta, Social or Imperfecto. But there are cool lounges, cocktail bars and pubs scattered all over South Delhi and, for those looking for a more alternative scene, Gurgaon.
Unfortunately, Delhi has a strict curfew because of rape incidents and everything shuts at 12.30. Well, not everything. You can find bars and clubs that are open until 4 am in the 5* hotels. BW in the Suryaa Hotel and GBar at The Grand are just a couple of examples.
The karaoke scene in Delhi is more concert than drunk screaming like I’m used to from Europe. You’ll see the same faces at a different bar every night of the week performing their favourite hits – and amazingly well at that. It’s good fun and might surprise you. Try Summerhouse on Monday night, Raasta HKV on Tuesday or Zutisch on Friday amongst others – and of course sing a tune yourself!
Now, I don’t know about you but the cinema I know has a big screen, reasonably comfortable seats and popcorn and ice cream vendors. That’s it. I had no idea that there could be leather heavens that you put into whatever comfortable position at the push of a button, each with a little side table and service at your request – supplying you with pizza, sushi or whatever else your heart desires. It’s our favourite pastime. Try the Imax in Noida or Director’s cut if money is not an issue. Oh, and don’t be surprised by the national anthem playing before the movie. Everybody gets up and so should you.
If you want some entertainment in a climatized room when it’s just too hot to be outside, take some friends and head to Smaaash for loads of fun games or try one of the escape rooms like Ctrl.Escape.Shift in HKV.
Driving in Delhi
I was super lucky to have Prateek pick me up with his white Audi every night and we spent hours on end driving around Delhi’s then finally empty streets. They are my happiest moments to date. I personally love Rickshaws (named autos in Delhi and really only tourists call them Tuktuk, just saying) but they can be frustratingly unaccommodating for the naive foreigner as they hardly ever turn on the meter and you end up paying way too much. The metro is a good and fast alternative but both can be less safe in the night and if you have the possibility, go on a drive with local friends. You’ll have a blast and get to eat Maggi and parathas at 5 in the morning – who can say no to that? If you feel adventurous, rent a car, but I suggest you drive at night only as Delhi streets – and the drivers – are crazy and annoyingly jammed.
One of my favourite things to do is getting lost in Old Delhi’s labyrinth of alleys. You can walk for days without having seen everything. Most streets have a speciality, like wedding invitations, traditional shoes or student books which makes for an interesting stroll. And the food… A good tip is, go where the locals go. Where there’s a crowd it’s less likely to be unhygienic. My indispensable stops are at the Amritsari Lassi Wala and for fresh sugar cane juice with lemon and mint but there are so many things, it’s impossible to list them all. Just don’t forget the Jalebis. And those little cookies sold hot from carts. Oh, and that cloudy light saffron-flavoured egg dessert. And the Kebabs. The Biryanis… and of course Golgappe! Also called Pani Puri, these are little crisp-like shells, filled with a little chickpea and potato and a spicy water, sometimes with sweet chutney on top of it all. Delicious!
This huge entertainment city in Gurgaon packs all you need for a good time. You’ll be bombarded with a huge range of food joints from fine dining restaurants over fast food outlets to bakeries and cafes. You can indulge in delicious Bengali dishes or juicy burgers from Delhi Heights, grab some chicken at Nando’s or cake from Theobroma. There is an amphitheatre for concerts and comedy nights and a kids zone for your little ones. Nightlife seekers are tended to with beer breweries and dance bars.
The Tibetan Colony is a small and often overseen district close by the Delhi University where, as the name implies, immigrant Tibetans settled down. Visit the temple, browse the spiritual library or buy a little souvenir. You’ll also find some of the best Thukpas, Tingmos and Momos here. I could die for that stuff.
If you wanna see as much from the many different Indian states as possible, head over to Dilli Haat at INA. You can haggle for various handcrafted items like jewellery, clothes or decorations but I go for the food and the food only. You can get a taste of every corner of the subcontinent in one place and then find a rickshaw to drop you at your doorstep to avoid falling over your stone-heavy belly.
Delhi food deserves an article all to itself. You can have absolutely anything in this magnificent city. There is authentic Italian and amazing Sushi if you don’t eschew any expense, and there is mouthwatering street food. I love street food. People tend to be afraid to eat from streets vendors in India and I can only tell you: don’t be! Take daily probiotics to strengthen your gut health and avoid meat in the heat, the rest is out of your hands either way. I’d say, unless you’re only in India for a very short time, you’ll absolutely have to give it a try because if you miss the flavours of street food, you miss a big part of what makes India amazing.
That would be it for now. My general advice is, get out there, meet the locals and have fun. That’s what will make your time in Delhi unforgettable. Don’t be scared of the proclaimed unsafe streets or food and definitely don’t have prejudices against the people. There is a world between the people owning street stands and the ones you’ll meet at the bars; either might surprise you but I found the modern youngsters to be incredibly warm, fun and easy to be with. I hope you will too.