Delhi, the seven top sights of the city that never sleeps

In October 2019 we travelled to India for a three week trip. We had a couple of days in Delhi before joining an Intrepid small group tour of Rajasthan.

Our flight arrived just after midnight, and as we had booked our visa in advance online, we got through immigration and customs reasonably quickly. It was quite a walk through the airport, but nice to stretch our legs again.

We had organised an airport transfer via our travel company. Not the cheapest, but when you arrive in the middle of the night definitely the easiest. The arrivals hall was very busy with men touting hotels and taxis, even at that time of the night.

Soon we found ourselves in the back of a comfortable car, “speeding” over the highway into the city. We had booked the first couple of nights in a small hotel in Karol Bagh. The traffic moved slow, even on the highway, with large traffic jams around road works, detouring off the tarmac through ditches, squeezing three lanes of traffic into one, which relies on everybody cooperating, nudging slowly forward at the same time. Lots of horns beeping…… Welcome to Delhi!

To ensure we didn’t waste our time during our first days in Delhi, we had booked a full day private tour, via a small company I found on Tripadvisor.

Our tour guide picked us up at 9 am in the morning, and we set off for a full day trip in a comfortable air conditioned car, driver and lunch included. Maybe not cheap, but a very efficient way of seeing the top sights in a short time, finding our feet, discovering what things cost, and get a feel for the “lay off the land” in Delhi and India.

1. Old Delhi and the Spice Market

If like me you get confused when reading the various travel guides, there is an Old Delhi (old part of town with the medieval street pattern) and New Delhi (the newer part of town, the administrative centre of the British Raj).

Our first stop on our tour is Old Delhi, the centre of the old town, next to the Red Fort (which we skipped as we will be visiting the Red Fort in Agra). We got into a rickshaw and set off through the narrow streets. The town was still waking up, with a lot of the shops still shuttered.

Above the streets are large number of electricity wires, given the appearance of a Rio type favella. However, these are legitimate, it is apparently easier to just lay a new cable rather than figuring out which of the old cables needs fixing or removing.

We see monkeys roam from house to house looking for food scraps, men heading out for the shops, horse and donkey carts delivering wares, and odd rickshaw with tourists. Don’t expect to be the only tourist here!

Old Delhi

One of the nicest parts of Old Delhi is the spice market. This is a large building that surrounds a big courtyard with more buildings inside it. Carts carrying large bags of spices go in and out, and the smells are amazing. It reminds me of the old souks in the Middle East!

We head inside, dodging carts with big bales and people carrying big bales, and climb via a small dark staircase to the top floor for a better view. From there we have a great view over the courtyard area and the surrounding buildings. Men are sleeping, eating and washing on the balconies surrounding the courtyard.

Spice Market

2. Jama Masjid

We head back into the car and drive the small distance to Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque.

Although I had brought my own scarf and dressed modestly, in a blanket policy all foreign female tourists are provided with a polyester robe to cover up with. So I slipped my shoes off and donned the peach coloured polyester garment. The day is heating up rapidly and I now have to wear non-breathable polyester over my normal clothes! Somebody obviously hates women!

The mosque itself gives a nice view over Old Delhi from its front steps, and once inside provides a calm respite from the surrounding mayhem. Yes, the city has by now woken up, and the blaring of horns has taken over.

Sweltering in front of the Jamad Masjid

Back in the car, gulping back the water and with the air conditioning on high, we head south, to the New Delhi area.

3. Humayun’s tomb

Our next stop is Humayun’s tomb, a very impressive Mughal building. This mausoleum was build in the 16th century by the wife of the Emperor Humayun. It provides a first impression of the style that ultimately led to the Taj Mahal. The symmetry is amazing, and our guide takes us to the best instagram worthy spots!

Both the building and the surrounding gardens have been wonderfully restored and contain various other tombs, like that of the emperor’s favourite barber and much of his family. The tales of succession, intrigue and murder are fascinating, well worth having a guide for!

In the middle of the big and noisy city, this is a lovely space of green and beauty. Until the early 20th century an entire village had been settled in the enclosure here, it must have been amazing living amongst these monuments.

Humayun’s Tomb

4. Rajpath and the India Gate

We head next towards an area that reflects the more recent history, the Rajpath (Kings Way), which links the colonial style Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the president of India (formerly the Viceroy’s House during colonial days), with the India Gate. The buildings here are in a grand European style, constructed when the British moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in the early 20th century.

The Rajpath is a very wide and multi lane boulevard. As you drive from the western end, from Rashtrapati Bhavan, towards the India Gate on the eastern end, you see a large number of grand government buildings. Too big to walk across, take a car or a bajaj (tuk tuk)!

The India Gate is a war memorial to the soldiers who perished in the first world war. It resembles the Arc de Triomf in Paris, but is much taller and shrouded in a haze as we drive around it. A lot of people are out, having a picnic here on this Sunday afternoon.

India Gate

Interestingly, we notice a large number of signs with photos of the Dutch King, welcoming him in Hindi, English and Dutch. He and his wife are due to pay a state visit next week. I wonder if they would do an Old Delhi rickshaw tour as well…..

Koning Willem Alexander and Prime Minister Modi

5. Qutb Minar

Next we head to the Qutb Minar, a minaret built on the ruins of a Hindu temple in 1199 AD. It was build as a victory tower, and at 72.5 metres tall is still the tallest minaret in the world constructed solely of bricks.

The entire complex, the Qutb complex, is an Unesco world heritage site, and contains a large number of amazing buildings. There is a mosque from 1198 AD, constructed from stones and columns that formed part of the 27 Hindu and Jain temples which were originally on this site. Many were used just as they came, including their carvings, although faces have often been removed.

In one of the courtyards stands a mythical iron pillar. It has Sanskrit inscription, dating back to the fourth century AD, and still shows no rust!

This is a large complex, so we take our time to walk around it, look at the details of the carvings and soak up the atmosphere!

Qutb Minar

History in India often mentions five periods. Earliest settlement was probably around 10,000 BCE, with earliest forms of Hinduism appearing around 1500 BCE. The Muslims entered northern India early in the 7th century AD, and took over Delhi in the 12th century. The Qtub minar was built during this period.

However, the fate of the sultanate was sealed when Timur (Tamerlane) sacked Delhi in 1398 AD. The Mughals entered the scene, building a massive empire, taking over the entire subcontinent and creating amazing wealth. The founder of the Mughal empire, Barbur, was a descendent of both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.

In the 18th century, Britain surged to power, moving nearly by accident from trading to governing. The Indian disunity led to the British gaining power. India gained independence on 15th August 1947, and the country was divided into a Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India.

6. Agrasen Ki Baoli Step Well

Back to our tour, our day trip should have finished at the Qutb Minar, but as we ask our guide about step wells he took us to one of the few remaining ones in Delhi.

Despite its size, this one may not be easy to find by yourself! With little to no indication of its presence on the outside, once you climb the bank, following a small path between some bushes, the view opens up to a large, 60 by 15 metres, step well. It doesn’t have any water in it anymore, but it is still a local meeting point, with young people sitting on the steps and in the naves.

The origin of Agrasen Ki Baoli isn’t clear, but it seems to have been built in the 14th century AD. Baoli, or step wells, were once common across India and Pakistan, and are often featured in adverts and movies. I just love the architecture and symmetry of these buildings!

Agrasen Ki Baoli

7. Lodi gardens

We have a second full day in Delhi before heading out. So our guide from yesterday suggested we take an Uber to Lodi gardens.

This is another great green space in Delhi. The gardens are spread over 90 acres and contain a number of 15th century buildings and tombs. The oldest tomb is from 1444 AD and was constructed by Ala-uddin Alam Shah. There are few buildings left from this period. They are unique in the world as they merge both Hindu and Islamic styles of architecture.

Lodi Gardens

We have a lovely morning walking around the gardens, and in and out of the buildings. The buildings are empty and cool, with wide window sills to sit on and admire the mosaics on the floors and ceilings.

There are very few tourists here. The main visitors to the gardens are groups of school kids, all neatly attired in school uniforms and very well behaved.

There is also a small canal, a pond and a stone bridge. The bridge is famous, it is the “eight pier bridge’, one of the last constructions in Delhi that was built during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar.

As we take a bajaj back to the hotel, we note how clean the roads are. Delhi is notorious for its pollution, however, the roads are continuously being swept clean of rubbish, and a large number of the vehicles on the road are now running on liquified gas to limit air pollution.

Karol Bagh

We spent our second afternoon in Delhi discovering the area around our hotel. There is a metro station and a nice pedestrianised shopping street which has a range of shops, including western brands, as well as a good range of eateries.

Hitting the road on both our first and second day in Delhi has been a great way to deal with jet lag. We are exhausted and fall asleep easily. Those famous sounds of Delhi, beeping horns 24/7, cannot keep us awake!

Karol Bagh shopping street

Travel Detail and Tips:

Accomodation: Hotel L’Affaire in Karol Bagh. A small local hotel, clean with decent sized rooms. Hot water is widely available in the morning, and on request with some notice, in the afternoons and evenings. It has a nice restaurant next door for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

On our way home from Delhi we stayed at one of the hotels closer to the airport, the Radisson Blue. I can highly recommend the upgrade package which gives a larger room AND a free “all you can eat and drink” happy hour! They also have a lovely spa, great if you can’t go out because of air pollution.

Tip 1: it is very easy to get an Uber in Delhi, or a Bajaj, to take you around.

Tip 2: if you don’t go and visit the Red Fort in Agra, I would highly recommend to add the Red Fort in Delhi, to your list of sights to see and do.

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