Delhi is one of India’s biggest international gateways and is an enigmatic, mystifying and ultimately irresistible explosion of the old and the new. It is a bustling, crowded city that is full of life, and this handy three day itinerary will help you maximize your time in this eclectic city and see the best that Delhi has to offer.
Delhi is many backpackers introductions to India, and as a main international hub and the gateway to the popular Golden Triangle is a place many travellers end up spending a fair amount of time transiting through.
Unfortunately first impressions of Delhi aren’t always the best. It can be congested, polluted, loud and crowded, and the constant hassle and sheer amount of people can overwhelm a lot of first time travellers and get them running to leave the city as soon as possible. For those who do want to explore a little the tendency is often to try and squeeze in as much as they can in a small amount of time before they head off to explore the rest of India.
But Delhi has so much to offer travellers too and there is a lot of beauty, culture and excitement to be found amongst the challenges. There really is no place on earth like it, so it is well worth taking at least a few days to take in some of the highlights, and that is exactly what this itinerary will take you through.
Now bear in mind that if you have just arrived in India, and especially if you have never been before, Delhi can be an absolute assault on the senses and culture shock can hit you hard. So it is a very good idea to not only give yourself a day or two to simply rest and acclimatize to the heat, sounds, smells and sheer deluge of people, (not to mention navigate the impossible mystery that is getting around in Delhi) but also to give yourself an extra day to spread this itinerary out if you need to. Slow travel and an open mind are the keys to enjoying India, so don’t worry if you need to split one of these days into two. There’s no rush and you will enjoy it more.
Delhi can be overwhelming for any first time visitor so assuming you have already given yourself a good nights sleep and a day of rest to acclimatise, your first day in Delhi will be all about exploring New Delhi, the more orderly side of the city, and taking it easy.
Start off easy with a slow, early morning stroll around one of India’s oldest astronomical observatories. Built in 1724 by the Maharaja Jai Singh II after the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah tasked him with revising the entire calendar and astronomical tables, this impressive archaeological site is a fascinating look into India’s historical achievements.
Although it is technically a major tourist attraction I have never seen it packed, which is strange as I absolutely count this as a must see in Delhi, and in fact on two visits there I have been the sole person wandering around the grounds (although I do tend to go early in the morning when it is cooler). Ignore all the touts and ‘tour guides’, you really don’t need them, read up a little on the history beforehand with a good guide book and take your time strolling around the grounds yourself.
You’ll be forgiven for getting a little bit of déjà vu when approaching this 16th Century Persian and Mughal inspired tomb even if you have never been here, as the structure looks eerily reminiscent of the Taj Mahal. That’s hardly surprising as the iconic Taj modelled itself on this very building.
This UNESCO world heritage site is the final resting place of the second Mughal Emperor, Humayun, and is Delhi’s first Mugha Mausoleum. There are almost 150 other nobles and family members interred here, including Humayuns senior widow. Quite apart from the extensive – and interesting – history, the building itself is a stunning work of art and the Persian influenced architecture and manicured grounds are a beautiful way to spend a morning taking it all in.
A little packed and confusing at first, the National Museum is still a perfect way to get a glimpse into India’s past before you rush off to explore it’s present, and it is also a good way to spend the afternoon escaping from the hustle and heat of Delhi. It is well worth hiring one of the audio guides here to give you some of the background on the impressive pieces of art and history.
If you have time, and aren’t too tired, you can visit this impressive open air museum that is only a short distance from the National Museum. The Craft Museum is more like an open village than a closed off museum, and showcases some amazing traditional Indian art and handicrafts. You can buy some traditionally crafted souvenirs here (at a pretty hefty surcharge) but there is also a good cafe to refresh yourself.
This glorious relic of Delhi’s colonial history is the perfect way to end your afternoon. The circular building has been heavily gentrified and is filled with boutique shops and up market showrooms as well as a plethora of restaurants, eateries and open spaces. Take your time, enjoy some great food and refreshments and do a little window shopping to end off your day.
Now that you have acclimatised yourself a little to Delhi, you can head to Old Delhi and take your time exploring the spectacular forts and mosques that the area is famous for. If you want to spend an extra day here or you really want to pack your itinerary tight (which isn’t recommended), there are plenty more to choose from too.
The Red Fort.
This ubiquitous must see tourist attraction is one of the single best sites in Delhi in my opinion, and you could very easily spend at least half a day here if not more. Lal Quila, as it is also known, is a 17th Century Mughal fortress and is technically now a complex of interlinked museums built within the walls of the old fort, each one worth visiting in their own right but much better when seen consecutively, especially within the walls of the evocative fort itself.
In the centre of the grounds of the Red Fort is Sawan Pavillion. A beautiful and serene structure set into perfectly manicured and peaceful gardens. A perfect way to sit and relax in some peace and quiet for those whose nerves are still a little frazzled.
This impressive structure is the single largest mosque in India and is only a short walk away from the Red Fort. You’ll see the striking minarets long before you reach the mosque itself, and the ubiquitous Delhi red sandstone and white marble really define this as a special building, but it is the interior that will really blow you away. This is a working mosque so remember to dress respectfully and be prepared to wait if there are people worshiping inside.
A short distance from the Jama Masjid (although long enough that you may want to get an auto rickshaw in the heat) is this simple and unassuming memorial. It is nothing special to look at in and of itself, a simple slab of black marble adorned at various points with different displays of flowers, but don’t let its humble facade fool you, this is the spot Mahatma Ghandi was cremated following his assassination, and as such is worthy of a visit and a bit of quiet contemplation.
Bahai Lotus Temple.
If you aren’t too frazzled or ready for a good meal at this point, this truly stunning modern temple is the perfect cap to a day of mosque and fort sightseeing, although don’t be afraid to extend your stay in Delhi and leave this to another day either as you can easily spend half a day here.
The Bahai Lotus Temple is a lot more recent than some of the other tourist sites in the city, but that does not make it any less stunning. Its lotus shaped structure is a symbol that is common throughout Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Islam and represents the universality of the Bahai faith.
It is a truly beautiful building to see at any time of the day, but is best viewed – in my opinion at least – at sunset, when the white marble glows in the colours of the evening sky and the lights begin to wake the structure up the darker it gets.
After a busy day temple hopping and sightseeing on day two, you are going to want to take it easy again on day three, get your shopping and people watching fill and take in a bit of local life.
If you are an early riser come down to this wide open, 90 acre space filled with manicured gardens, historical monuments and interesting tombs, including the tomb of Sikandar Lodi himself. This is a popular early morning spot for joggers and even the odd practitioner of yoga, and no one will bat an eyelid if you want to practice a bit yourself.
If you don’t fancy the Lodi gardens, have a lie in, grab a late breakfast and then head down here at 1000 when things start to get going. This 17th Century market is the bustling heart of old delhi, filled with street food packed side streets, touts and market traders galore, it is a great place to shop for any type of souvenir any traveller could want, that’s if you can tear yourself away from all the food stalls! But what I like best about this market is the unrefined clamour of old Delhi, by all means practice your haggling and get a good bargain while you are here, but you really come for the atmosphere.
Don’t let the name fool you, this is no market. This is a popular street filled with retail outlets, bookshops, cafes and eateries. You may not want to buy anything from the high end shops, but it is a good way to see another side of Delhi away from the hustle and bustle, and you can finish of a hectic day of haggling with a good meal!
This three day itinerary barely scratches the surface of Delhi, and there are enough sights and activities to fill up another week or more, but this will give you a good, broad selection of what to see and do here without burning you out in your first week. Odd’s are you will pas through Delhi again at some point in your Indian adventure, so if you miss something out now you can always see it again.
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