New Delhi, India’s capital city can be an overwhelming introduction to the country. Well, arriving anywhere in India can be overwhelming, so any research you can do is great. This complete guide is a great starting point for you if you are backpacking Delhi for the first time.
Old Delhi vs New Delhi
Delhi has been invaded and reinvaded for hundreds of years. There must be something special about it as it has been a base for many a ruler to construct a plethora of palaces and other architectural show-off pieces. Happily, there are still plenty around for backpackers to explore.
Delhi only officially became the modern capital, with its name of New Delhi, in 1931 when the British moved their capital from Kolkata. This marked the end of a furious spate of building. New roads, new monuments and new accommodation all marked New Delhi.
Where to Eat and Stay in Delhi – Paharganj
Oh, Paharganj; the hub of Delhi’s backpacker world. This area is located in Old Delhi, running West from the New Delhi Railway Station. Paharganj radiates the smell of India, cows, spices, tuk tuk fumes and heat. The main road in this area, handily called Main Bazaar, is lined with accommodation. These range from real dumps with mosquito-infested bathrooms and gaps in the doors, to relatively nice three-star hotels. You’ll also find shops and cafes the whole way along.
Paharganj Accommodation Options
Paharganj Midrange Choices
Hotel City Star may be a little pricey for those on a tight budget but if you need somewhere nice to stay for one night, to gather yourself after an overnight flight or train, then you should consider this midrange choice. Big beds, with clean and crisp sheets, are mightily inviting. Plus, there is a great restaurant on the roof so you don’t need to go far for dinner, and a gym so you can work that dinner off again.
Just a few steps from both Paharganj and New Delhi’s main train station, this is very conveniently located. BloomRoom’s aesthetic is clean and minimalist, which is quite a contrast to the city around you. It’s a nice, calm place to escape at the end of the day. The rainfall showers feel fantastic. This is where I planned to take mum when she had a taste of backpacking Delhi, but she opted for somewhere cheaper!
Paharganj Budget Choices
This is a great option for solo female backpackers. Smyle Inn’s friendly, genuine staff and female-only dorms create a safe space full of like-minded backpackers. There are plenty of handy amenities like laundry service, travel desk, common room, and relaxed courtyard.
Part of a nationwide chain, Zostel Delhi really knows what backpackers want. This is a little rough around the edges but they have a great social area with TVs, a pool table and some lovely comfy bean bags. As there aren’t any dorms, they need this space for people to mix. Rooms are private doubles/twins so this would be a good option for couples or flashpackers.
In contrast, The Backpackers Hostel is all mixed dorms meaning meeting new people is a guarantee. If you are really strapped for cash but want somewhere safe and simple, then this is a great pick. Staff are keen to assist guests with anything that makes their trip easier so don’t be afraid to ask their advice.
Paharganj Foodie Options
Most of the backpacker restaurants are of a similar standard but I think that a cold drink (whether its a beer or a startlingly orange Mirinda) is just good whereever it comes from. There are a few stand out places though:
Downstairs from Ajay Guesthouse, this place does a slightly pricy but rather lovely breakfast. However, the abundance of flavourful German bread and good cheese makes it worthwhile and a welcome break from the butter toast, and omelettes served elsewhere. If you have been in Asia for a while, you will really appreciate the European style cheese. Plus, Ajay Guesthouse sometimes show films in their rooftop restaurant.
Sonu Chat House and Restaurant
A cheap and almost cheerful street food restaurant. The dosa are great and the portions are good enough for a long afternoon of sightseeing.
Getting Around Delhi
Constructed in three stages this is a cheap and easy way to navigate the city. Pay for your journey and you are given a plastic token to pass into the electric gates.
From the West of Main Bazaar you can board at Ramakrishana Ashram Marg Station (RM Ashram Marg on the map). This lies on the Blue Line.
If you head East, you can take the metro from New Delhi station. From here you cam take the Airport Express Line and the Yellow Line. If approaching from Main Bazaar, the metro is up and over the station bridge.
Uber and Ola have made their mark on the Delhi taxi trade. These ride share apps make journeys cheaper and safer but do rely on your phone having signal or WiFi so unless you’ve bought a local sim card, don’t depend on them.
Radio cabs still exist and are the main way to travel from the airport into town. It is still possible to flag them down but if you are backpacking Delhi on a budget, they are not your friends.
The classic image for me, when someone says the word tuk tuk is the small Delhi version. Green and yellow, these little speed demons weave their way through the traffic of cars, cows and humans with surprising skill. You can squeeze three adults in the back but it is quite cosy. If you are planning to take a tuk tuk, be prepared to haggle. If you aren’t sure of a fair price, ask your guesthouse/restaurant before to embark on your journey.
Top Sights Around Delhi
This beautiful Mughal mausoleum is a striking marble edifice. Completed in 1572, it is oft-cited as a practice run for the Taj Mahal. Curved arches and its distinctive double dome delight visitors. The striking difference is use of rose-coloured stone, alongside the pale marble.
Isa Khan Tomb Enclosure
Built in 1547-8, Isa Khan’s tomb sits within the Humayun’s Tomb grounds. There are some lovely details hidden around this hexagonal tomb structure. Look out for the nearby mosque as well.
Baháʼí Lotus Temple
Travelling through India, temples can begin to blend in the memory. However, this giant lotus temple really stands out, erupting from the landscape with a totally unique silhouette. If you time your visit well, the pure white interior, echoes with song creating a magically calming atmosphere.
The Red Fort
This red sandstone and marble palace has stood here since its construction in the 1640s. It was designed by Ustad Ahmad Lahori, the architect of the Taj Mahal. Unsurprisingly, it is another excellent example of Mughal architecture. Originally a palace for the Mughal emperors until the empire was invaded, it was subsequently used as a prison, fort and the seat of government during British rule. It is now Delhi’s top tourist attraction.
We had a rather interesting visit to the Red Fort back in 2009.
Rajpath and India Gate
Rajpath is a thoroughfare created by the British to celebrate the move of their Indian capital from Kolkata to New Delhi in 1911. The road was called King’s Way in honour of the Bitish monarch. When India gained independence the name was change to Rajpath (People’s Way). The boulevard is wide, straight and flanked by two enormous lawns, perfect for pageantry and parades.
India Gate is a war memorial at the eastern end of Rajpath. It is distinctly reminiscent of the Arc de Triumph in Paris. Inscriptions on the 42m structure show the names of troops who lost their lives in battle between 1914-19. At its base, eternal flames burn to signify the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Part hub, part roundabout, part mall, Connaught Place is a heart of sorts for the commercial life of Delhi. Those in the know just call it CP. If you look up, you will see the Georgian architecture, but most people are just popping in and out of shops and travel agents. The last time we stopped by, we were feeling homesick and popped into Nando’s….yup, there’s a Nando’s.
Qutub Minar is the famous minaret that dominates the Qutub complex. Sadly, it is forbidden to climb the 379 steps of India’s tallest minaret. (That’s almost twice the number of steps at Covent Garden tube). It used to be allowed, but in 1981 the lighting failed and panic caused a stampede. Many people lost their lives and it has never reopened to the public.
Gurudwara Bangla Sahib
Gurudwara Bangla Sahib is the most important Sikh temple in Delhi. There has been a temple in some form on this spot since the 1700s but it has developed somewhat from the original bungalow. Outside is a large lake and inside you will find an art gallery and the pool containing sacred water. Visitors are welcome and you can partake in a free meal. Just ensure you bring something to cover your hair (or borrow one from the entrance) cover your shoulders and knees, and take off your shoes.
10 Top Tips for Backpacking Delhi
1 – Paan Panic
When in a tuk tuk, watch out for the bright red spittle that can erupt from your driver as they chew on paan.
2 – Cover Up
Dress appropriately during your time backpacking Delhi. It is a modern city but you will draw attention if you dress in shorts and a strappy top. You may be visiting sights like temples that require you shoulders and knees to be covered so for simplicity’s sake, just stay that way.
3 – Just One Photo
Prepare to take a whole lot of selfies. Delhi isn’t just a tourist draw for foreigners, but for people from across the Indian Subcontinent. You may well appear on many a mantelpiece in the future. Just smile and agree that a photo or two is fine. Once they are done, smile, say thanks and move on.
4 – A Pinch of Salt
If your taxi driver, new friend or random stranger recommends a shop or travel agency, it is possible that they are chasing a commission. You are paying that commission and these can really add up. Don’t buy anything you didn’t plan to buy, don’t follow anyone to a specific shop etc, and do your own research if you want to buy some tailoring or a rug.
5 – Look Down
There is SO much to see in Delhi. Colours swirl around you and architecture rises above you BUT it is worth keeping an eye on the floor. Pavements can be uneven, or just have holes in and rubbish or street furniture can spill across areas that you need to walk. Nobody wants a twisted ankle.
Plus, free roaming cows leave little presents throughout the city.
6 – Haggling is Expected
Buying something like clothing from a stall, or picking up a tuk tuk will involve a negotiation on price. It can take some getting used to but our advice is to haggle hard until it gets down to the nitty gritty. Sure, you are on a budget but the last few pennies mean a lot more to the person you are haggling with so don’t be too harsh.
7 – Stay Cautious
Scams are a reality when backpacking Delhi. One of the joys of travel is meeting new people and experiencing new things, but do so with a moment of caution. Stop, think and work out if you are doing something of your own volition. If you feel pressured or you are about to do something without having noticed, change the script. For example, suggest a different spot for a drink, tell your new friends you are heading home or just leave the situation. If nothing dodgy is happening then nobody will be upset.
8 – Be Prepared
There are some things you need to carry with you that you might need to adjust to. For example, always have toilet paper with you if you like to use it (but pop it in the bin rather than flushing it). It is also wise to carry your mosquito repellent and anti-malarial just in case you are staying out later than planned.
9 – Delhi Belly
Delhi belly is a real thing. Do not drink tap water and think twice about food preparation standards. When backpacking Delhi, you might want to stick to a veg diet for a week or two to ease your digestive system in gently. Paneer and dahl are easier on the tummy and the wallet.
10 – Be a Picky Eater
Street food is a cheap and delicious delight but again, choose wisely. Grab food from stalls with a fast-flowing queue and freshly cooked food. Deep-fried food is an especially good bet. The faster and fresher the food is, the lower the likelihood that it has been sitting out for a long time.
Another option is to join a street food tour. They are familiar with the spots that create delicious, reliable cuisine. We tried this in Mumbai and started a life long love of pav bhaji (pictured below).
Final Thoughts on Backpacking Delhi
Delhi is a shock to the senses. If it is your first stop in India, be prepared to experience some real culture shock. In fact, even if you arrive from somewhere else, it can still take you by surprise. It is busy, intense and lots of fun. Take a deep breath and charge in, ready to take on the city. A week after you’ve left, you’ll start telling everyone how they simply must try backpacking Delhi!