Touchdown New Delhi.
Like so many travellers, Delhi was my first experience of India in 2015. In a flurry of last minute reading, sections of the lonely planet such as “scams to avoid in Delhi” and questions such as “is Delhi safe for foreigners” had thrown my heart into a bit of a flutter. Directions from my tour company to absolutely not leave the airport terminal until I had been met by the ground rep did not exactly help.
Like many, I was nervous of Delhi. On my first trip I spent only two days in India’s capital, and did not have to plan my own things to do in Delhi. Along with the others in my group, I was guided through the winding lanes of Old Delhi to the fragrant and colourful spice market, towards the stunning Jameh Masjid mosque. My eyes gawking at the mass of dangling power cables and narrow streets as cycle rickshaws hurried past, threatening to keel over at any time in my jet-lagged brain.
But I also noticed the cold and prying eyes of Old Delhi – the cold, incessant stares that did not seem like the friendly stares one finds in other places in India. Was I not welcome here?
From that first visit, as part of a tour, to many subsequent visits to Delhi (often solo), it has taken me some time to appreciate – and even learn to love – Delhi. Much of that learning has been with the help of tips from friends – both local Delhiites and international friends who know the city. So here is why Delhi is a firm favourite on my India itinerary, and some top tips for things to do in Delhi that will hopefully give you – too – that feeling of appreciation for this crazy city of contrasts.
Want to experience India by train? Read my guide to what you need to know about train travel here!
Delhi Travel Tips – The Basics.
Many of us arrive in India’s capital under cover of darkness – that is to say that many inter-continental flights arrive in the small hours of the morning. Fortunately the immigration process seems to be much quicker than it used to be – if you have an E-visa, head straight to the far end for quicker processing. In the arrivals hall is where the fun begins.
Avoiding the Airport Scams. For travel from the airport, I do not recommend taking a regular pre-paid taxi (and definitely ignore anyone that approaches you offering a taxi or ride). The “your hotel has burnt down / is closed / Delhi is closed due to smog” (yes, really) scam is still going as strong as ever, and revolves around taking unwitting travellers to a remote location in the middle of the night, claiming not being able to find your hotel, and instead taking you to one that pays commission. Or worse.
Some Safe and Responsible Alternatives. One of the best options for a safe transfer from the airport is to have your hotel arrange a transfer. Make sure they’ll be inside the terminal with a sign with the hotel’s name, or with a “password” and check their identity carefully before leaving with your driver. Sakha Cabs, powered by Women on Wheels offer transfers and taxi services for women travellers, by women drivers. The Azad Foundation behind the Women on Wheels initiative started it in Delhi in 2008 to bring economic empowerment to women by enabling them to become professional drivers. Do your bit to support them by arranging an airport transfer with them! If that fails, I have used Meru cabs from New Delhi Airport – there’s a separate desk for them when exiting arrivals. They’re a little more expensive than regular cabs but I have found them to be reliable and safe.
If you have a few minutes at the airport, get an Airtel or Vodafone Simcard for your mobile phone – as this will make travel and communication in India much easier! The booths are located inside the arrivals hall.
Getting Around Delhi. Prepare to jump a few hundred years as you step from bustling Old Delhi into the New Delhi Metro! The super fast and efficient Delhi Metro is a great (and cheap) way to get around the city and there’s a ladies carriage at the front of each train (solo ladies- use it!). For short hops (auto)rickshaws / “tuktuks” are useful – in Delhi Rickshaw Wallahs seem to have universally forgotten what the meter is so you’ll have to negotiate. Expect to pay 50 Rupees for a short hop, and more for longer rides. I love to open up the Uber app to get an idea of the going rate for an Uber and then use that price to negotiate with the rickshaw guys. I do not recommend taking a rickshaw for solo ladies at night (see more below). Uber itself has been involved in some scandals in Delhi, and personally I try to avoid Uber due to their (un)ethical policies – an Indian alternative is the OLA app, which is a good way to pre-book rickshaws and arrange taxis for the evening.
If a rickshaw driver offers you a free ride or offers to take you to a friend’s shop then the trip will certainly involve stop offs at stores that pay commission to the driver. Best avoided, unless you are up for some uncompetitively priced shopping..
Getting Around Delhi as a (solo) Female. Some extra precautions are required here, although it depends which area of Delhi you are in somewhat – with South Delhi being more relaxed and “safer”. After dark, it’s generally advisable to avoid travelling alone if you can. If you do need to go out alone then avoid walking and rickshaws, and take an OLA or driver that you know. Make sure you have a working local SIM card and always tell someone (preferably in front of the driver) where you are going and read out the vehicle’s number plate over the phone.
Thinking of travelling to Rajasthan, India? Read my comprehensive guide on Ethical Travel in Rajasthan here!
Where to Stay in Delhi.
Like my overall experience with Delhi, understanding where to stay in Delhi has been something of a learning curve. While I have not experienced staying in the backpacker ghetto of Paharganj first hand, frankly I would not recommend it unless you have a very short overnight before taking the train elsewhere (Paharganj is located just opposite New Delhi / NDLS Railway Station). Paharganj is ground zero for Delhi’s tourist scams and hustle, and is home to possibly the grottiest of accommodation.
My first experience of staying in Delhi was in Karol Bagh, which is where many tour groups stay. While it undoubtedly has more going for it than Paharganj (It has a local market, is close to the huge Hanuman temple, as well as being close to the Metro) I also don’t really recommend Karol Bagh. The hotels here are cheap but they attract a very mixed crowd, and during my stay I did not feel particularly relaxed (or safe) in this part of town. I would not recommend walking around alone at night.
As alternatives, here are a couple of more responsible / eco friendly options in serene South Delhi.
Responsible Accommodation Options in South Delhi.
It was on my third trip to Delhi that I was pointed in the direction of South Delhi – perhaps the most beautiful and leafy green part of Delhi – and recommended Prakash Kutir B&B which has since become my preferred place to stay in Delhi. It’s set in Hauz Khas market which is perfect for getting to grips with Delhi local life, enjoying a good espresso, and is handily connected to the city by Metro – there’s currently a new line under construction to the airport too. I loved the experience of staying with an Indian family in their home, waking up to the musical calls of the local vegetable wallahs outside, and getting to know the family better over breakfast each morning. It’s also a very safe part of the city. The Gupta family offer a truly comfortable and charming home from home in Delhi.
If you’re prepared to base yourself outside of Delhi itself but want to be nearby, then Casa Delhi in nearby Noida (and connected by metro) is an eco retreat and farm stay is a truly unique opportunity to experience life on an organic farm – with a focus on yoga, meditation and community living. This place is on my list for my next trip to the capital!
If you’re on a serious budget then I recommend Madpackers Hostel in Panscheel Park, which is comfortable, clean, and comes with great chai included.
Things to do in Delhi – That do Good.
There are plenty of things to do in Delhi to make you want to extend your stay – from exploring the city’s tombs and Mughal architecture, to the bungalows of Lutyens, to exploring bazaars, to sipping world class cocktails in trendy bars. Delhi is, after all, a perfect mirror image of India where contrasts are visible and the city’s poorest sleep on streets or under a tin roof, meters away from the city’s wealthiest villas and fanciest members clubs.
If you feel compelled to leave a footprint for good and help some of the less fortunate in Delhi, there are some great options for responsible tourism in Delhi that give back. These are some of my most memorable experiences from exploring the capital.
Go on a Street Walk of Delhi – with Delhi Street Kids.
My first taste of Paharganj was not by staying there, but by going on a walk lead by former street kids of the area that I found on responsible tourism website I-likelocal.com. It is this area – adjacent to the main railway station of Delhi that many kids – usually in search of a better life in the big city – that is the first image of Delhi that most street kids see. Many kids who have run away from abuse, hardship and appalling conditions find themselves sleeping rough, in the train station and soon get prayed upon by gangs.
NGO Salaam Baalak trust has set up help centres around the station and in nearby paharganj. Adolescent street kids who have been through the recovery programme are trained as tourist guides, and you can support the work by booking a walk around Delhi (it takes about two hours).
Visit Sanjay Colony with Reality Travel & Tours.
Award-winning Reality Travel and Tours started their work in the slums of Dharavi, Mumbai and expanded to Delhi in 2014 and began working in Sanjay Colony in South Eastern Delhi. This is one of the city’s largest garment manufacturing areas, and while visiting Reality Travel’s operations in the colony you can see many of the garments made by slum-dwellers for sale, as well as some of the processes for recycling waste fabric.
80% of revenue from Reality Tours & Travel activities goes directly to Reality Gives, which funds projects in Sanjay Colony such as their computer program which allows access for IT learning for residents. The tour in Sanjay Colony – like Dharavi – comes with a strict no photography policy out of respect for all residents. We saw some of the harsh reality of a slum just next door being demolished, where its residents had become homeless literally overnight. This kind of activity serves as a harsh reminder of the struggles that many of India’s city-dwellers face on a day to day basis. If you’d rather not go to a slum area, then you can still support Reality Tours in their work by going on one of their Old Delhi tours or tours to nearby areas including India’s golden triangle.
Enjoy a Home-Cooked meal in an Indian Home.
Delhi is well known for its rich, spicy and oily food. Delicious to many, but not the easiest food to digest for a stomach that has just arrived in India. I recommend avoiding the street food in Old Delhi (few seem to escape unscathed from personal experience 😉 ) and instead head to a home for a sampling of culture through food.
One of the best ways to go deeper into Indian culture (and get a load of local travel tips!) is to visit an Indian home – and even better – to share home cooked food. Last summer I had the chance to do just that through platform Authenticook, who offer the chance to visit an Indian home to travellers, make new friends through your fellow diners – and perhaps most importantly, enjoy lots of delicious home cooked food. Visiting a home in Delhi was a great way to arrive in the city, re-aclimatise, and get my bearings. Two hours later I was too full to move!
For those with fears about “Delhi-belly” or getting sick during their travels, this is also a great way to get familiar with the local cuisine in a way that is safe and friendly on your stomach!
More Tips for Enjoying Delhi Responsibly.
What to Wear.
Chances are, you’ll stand out in Delhi, so to blend in a little – and earn some brownie points for bargaining, what you wear makes a difference. It will also cut any hassle for ladies if you dress in a modest way and avoid showing too much skin. Guys will easily blend in in jeans and a shirt / t shirt. For ladies, I’m not suggesting to go out and invest in a lavish saree, but instead a Kurta (tunic-like top) has the advantage of being both cool and modest (it is loose fitting and covers your behind). A scarf is also really handy draping to cover your chest, head or arms.
Shopping and Eating.
Delhi has an array of organic eateries and ethical shopping options perfect for souvenirs. For a completely different dining experience, Tihar Jail has opened a restaurant – Tihar Food Court – which is run by inmates and is part of the jail’s rehabilitation efforts, preparing prisoners for life in the outside world.
For shopping, Dastkar Bazaar / Market is the perfect place to shop for responsibly sourced handicrafts and eco friendly products. Anokhi is the place to go for hand block-printed fabrics, and Organic India is the perfect place to pick up healthy, environmentally friendly teas, herbs and foods.
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Enjoying the Best of Delhi.
Despite some of the tourist scams and hustle, Delhi is one of the best places for experiencing all that India has to offer. For best results, get up early to see Delhi’s sites in the magical morning light, complete with plenty of birds. Delhi gets uncomfortably hot outside of winter months (and surprisingly cold during winter!) so be sure to check the weather and pack accordingly. Of recent years the air quality has been awful, so an anti-pollution mask could be a worthwhile investment for while walking around. Last but not least, relax and enjoy the scene.
Have you been to Delhi? What are your tips for getting the most of your visit, or do you have eco-friendly / responsible options to add? Let us know in the comments below!