“You can’t just stop in the middle of the street!” he said as he gently tugged me out of the path of the rapidly approaching chaos, i.e. every mode of transportation imaginable, all converging where I was standing.
Taking on the traffic in Old Delhi is not for the faint of heart. And by “taking on” I mean automobiles, motor scooters, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, wheelbarrows, bicycles, pull-carts, or simply your own two feet. All of these things share the roadways at one time, from highways to narrow dirt-packed alleys and everything in between. My emotions rapidly progressed from amused to puzzled to terrified.
While most tourists gravitate towards the more cosmopolitan New Delhi, when it’s not alarming, the older part of the city, also known by its original name Shahjahanabad, can be fascinating, amusing, endearing, and…nauseating. Without a doubt, the sights are an amalgamation of utterly opposing stimuli that pulled my senses in every direction, to the point of overload. This is the real Delhi.
In spite of an enormous amount of research and horrendous visa process, I could not help feeling a certain amount of culture shock as we were transported from the airport to our hotel in Old Delhi. Traffic was gridlocked and there were no lanes, so taxis, buses, and private vehicles all played a game of chicken, beeping their horns and inching closer, then sneaking in just before getting bumped. I’m pretty sure I gasped out loud a few times, but if accused I’ll deny it. We didn’t see any accidents, but I did take note that most of the cars had dents and scratches.
We passed the beautiful avenue where all the embassies are located and the Gate of India in New Delhi. There was some kind of military parade going on
Upon arriving at the Red Fort in Old Delhi, our taxi circled around and then pulled over. He got out, crossed the narrow street, and started talking to a man with a rickshaw. He came back, took our luggage out and heaved it into the back of the rickshaw, without asking us.
He then tried to explain to us that it’s impossible to drive to our hotel, which is in the middle of Old Delhi. The roads are too narrow for cars to go through, he informed. He more or less pushed us into the rickshaw which immediately took off, again, without asking or speaking to us.
We proceeded to be whisked through a labyrinth of narrow streets that did not look like places we would want to stay. We’re boutique travelers – we don’t backpack or stay in hostels.
“We just violated every rule we set up before we left,” said Kary.
“I know. We’re getting kidnapped.” I said.
The rickshaw came to an abrupt halt in front of a large ornate door in a row of flat buildings. “This is your hotel,” he said.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
A tall, rugged man wearing a gold dumalla (large, round turban) came over to welcome us and escort us through the door.
Remember that scene in the movie The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the door after the tornado and suddenly the set changes from black and white to technicolor? That’s what it was like entering the courtyard of this amazing hotel. But more about that later…
Old Delhi is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited. I loved it and hated it at the same time. It’s not for the faint-of-heart, but if you’re up for it, here are the Old Delhi tourist places that should not be missed.
Exploring by Foot
In spite of what seems like an impenetrable mass of humanity, Old Delhi should be explored on foot. Actually, that is a necessity since cars cannot make it through the narrow alleys. In fact, I had to press myself up against a building whenever I heard the engine of a motorcycle approaching. That’s how narrow the alleys are.
And there’s no rhyme or reason to the layout, but every one of the poorly maintained pathways with crumbling havelis (towering townhouses or mansions) seemed like it had a story to tell. We had downloaded maps.me before we left, but there was too much interference between the tall buildings for the app to track where we were.
There were not a lot of tourists here in Old Delhi, and most of the people merchants and people walking about were males. Certainly, I was the only blonde, so lots of locals starred, but no one was rude.
My favorite thing in all my time in Delhi was the beautiful uniformed schoolchildren, smiling, curious, wanting to touch my long blonde ponytail. One little girl, about eight years old, stopped dead in her tracks in front of me. She looked up and broke into a big toothy smile. I looked down and did the same. We smiled at each other for about 5 seconds and then she turned and scampered away to catch up with her schoolmates. It was one of those magical moments.
3 Days: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Old Delhi Tourist Places
Delhi is one of the world’s most ancient cities, with a history dating back to 1000 BC. Originally called Shahjahanabad, the walled-in city was constructed in 1638 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Old Delhi was the capital of the Mughal Empire until 1857 when the British moved India’s capital to Calcutta.
The medieval walled city of Old Delhi was partially destroyed by the Indian uprising of 1857. The 400-year-old Chandni Chowk area was at one time one of the most majestic streets in India. Now, it’s an unkempt mess housing a tangle of disheveled storefronts and lively bazaars.
Built by 5th Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was built between 1639 and 1648 to be the main residence of the royal family. The octagonal fort is a popular attraction, combining a seamless fusion of Indian and Persian architecture, similar to the Agra Fort near the Taj Mahal. The Red Fort is an important monument, symbolling the Mughal era India as well as India’s struggle for freedom. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007.
Jama Masjid Mosque
Adjacent to the Red Fort is the colossal Jama Masjid, aka Friday Mosque. It’s said to be the largest mosque in India, able to hold 25,000 worshippers at one time. The mosque was also designed by Emperor Shah Jahan and built by 5,000 crafts workers from 1644 – 1656 at a cost of over million rupees. The mosque is made from red sandstone and white marble with arched colonnades and minarets. You can climb 130 steep steps leading to the top of its southern tower for a panoramic view of Old Delhi.
Markets and Bazaars
The old city is a veritable rabbit’s warren of bazaars sprawling across streets and alleys, each selling their own niche specialty. Teeming with peddlers and street vendors hawking merchandise and street food, it’s a favorite spot for the intrepid traveler. Here are some of the markets we visited.
If you’re up for an adventure, the über chaotic and crowded Chandni Chowk is not easy to navigate but is one of the most colorful places in India and should not be missed. The markets here have been around for more than three centuries. There is an almost infinite number of markets, each with their own specialty. Be warned, the traffic is insane here, almost impossible to cross the street in some sections.
The maze of the Kinari market was just steps from our hotel. The alleys are so narrow you have to pass through single-file and it’s very easy to get turned around. You can find everything you might possibly want here. It’s a riot of color, sounds, and smells. We loved it here and went back several times!
This market is a must for the spice-lover. It’s Asia’s largest spice, herb, and seed market, displaying racks of yellow turmeric, red chilies, saffron, and other seasonings. Spices are historical, as they are what connected India to the West, so it’s an enriching cultural and visual experience to visit this market.
Nai Sarak is the place to find all things paper such as old and wholesale books, decorations, and stationery. Books here run the gamut from fiction, textbooks, architecture, cookbooks, how-to books, comic books and more.
Bhagirath Palace is the area to head to for electronics, home goods, and medical equipment.
The Chhatta Chowk Bazaar dates back to 1653. The market has 40+ shops selling costume and semi-precious jewelry, brass and copper, designer handbags, and faux antiques.
Katra Neel is known for its vibrant, locally made textiles in silk, satin, lace, georgette, printed cotton, and embroidered fabrics
Dariba Kalan offers beautiful silver and gold jewelry, and pearl and semi-precious stones such as lapis, coral, malachite, tiger eye and rose quartz. Shop-after-shop hypnotizes passersby with glittering bangle bracelets and shiny earrings.
The name literally means “Thieves’ Market.” You’ll find everything from electronic items to designer clothes, at very enticing prices. Beware that the quality and authenticity cannot be established so use your best judgment (and bargaining skills!).
Meena Bazaar, the bazaar of the Mughal era is where the royal ladies used to come shopping for their silks and for their jewels. The outdoor souk is located behind Jama Masjid. The name Meena is taken from the Meenakari work that was done on lacquer bangles, but the market’s real focus is the plethora of stalls of colorful textiles, hanging and folded, that go on and on.
You can buy exquisite saris and colorful Indian dresses here, which in fact I did buy two.
The area in and around the Meena Bazaar, including the Jama Masjid Mosque, is filled with intriguing sights. We couldn’t help but crack up at one little boy strolling with his father, without his pants.
You’ll likely smell the food before you see it. Indian food is very pungent and tasty. Don’t be afraid! Try the street food, it’s so good! Just make sure you watch it being cooked and it’s fresh off the grill/pot and piping hot when you buy it.
Here are some things to try:
- Chicken or mutton kebobs
- Kulfi, a flavored frozen milk dessert)
- Parathas, a fried Indian bread stuffed with curried fillings and served with tamarind chutney
- My favorite was jalebi. These delicious, heart-shaped snacks are fried batter soaked in sugar syrup.
Our hotel was simply amazing! WelcomHeritage Haveli Dharampura is a stunning Indian and Moroccan fusion-style boutique hotel. It’s was an expansive and unexpected sanctuary hidden behind an unassuming doorway.
The courtyard was three stories of stunning Indo-Moroccan architecture and a rooftop lounge area with views over the old city. The staff could not have been nicer or more helpful, and the food was quite delicious.
Kary had the sampler menu and thoroughly enjoyed “tasting India” in one seating. I loved the potato pancakes with small, sweet figs beyond explanation and ordered them with every meal.
One evening, while enjoying dinner from our courtyard table, all diners were treated to Indian music and traditional dance performance from the second story balcony.
Delhi Belly, or Traveler’s Diarrhea, is real, and it can happen to anyone, for a variety of reasons. Kary did get it and we had to cancel our flight to Mumbai the next morning because he was too sick to fly.
You likely already know the drill by now – don’t drink the water in Third World Countries. Drink only bottled water or bring a water filter bottle with you. Don’t forget to use filtered water even when brushing your teeth.
Other tips include washing your hand frequently – much of Old Delhi is filthy; eat only hot, fresh food; don’t eat the skin of fresh fruit or vegetables.
Make sure you bring an anti-diarrhea medication like Imodium with you (I bring Cipro, a powerful antibiotic) in case you do get sick, and stay hydrated.
For more tips on how to avoid Traveler’s Diarrhea, get How to Shit Around the World: The Art of Staying Clean and Healthy While Traveling
The once-stunning centuries-old architecture is crumbling in disrepair.
After our first full day of sightseeing in the old city, we were tired and a bit far away from our hotel. Plus, we’d gotten turned around and not really sure how to get back to it.
“Hotel,” I said to the wizened old man at the helm of the rickshaw just outside of the Jama Masjid mosque. He just cocked his head. Kary handed him the card from our hotel displaying the address in the heart of the oldest part of the city. He nodded his head, so we climbed aboard.
I was skeptical as he headed in what appeared to be the opposite direction. Skepticism quickly turned into concern and then outright panic. The old man headed right into the middle of a multi-lane highway, without so much as a glance in either direction.
And then it got worse.
The road was crammed with all manner of vehicles – cars, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, and buses – all within a hand-reach of our primitive transport.
A rickshaw had no business being part of that cacophony!
I screamed at him to just pull over and let us out, but the traffic was too loud, and he didn’t hear me, just kept struggling to peddle the bike uphill. I felt bad that he was just a skinny old man trying to navigate a large man and medium woman, but there was no way I was stepping out into traffic.
It’s difficult to convey the intense sense of fright I felt. Once again, the trauma (Kary insists I have post-traumatic syndrome) of my South Africa car crash bubbled to the surface, and tears stung the back of my eyes.
After what seemed like an eternity, he pulled out of traffic and onto a side street, close to a busy bazaar. I had no idea how close we were to the hotel, but I made him stop and leaped from the seat before it even came to a standstill. I was done with him.
There’s trash everywhere. The old city seems to be devoid of any kind of public trash removal whatsoever. I won’t lie, much of the city smells really bad, and it can be suffocating.
The locals don’t seem to be troubled about the rubbish. The sweet jalebi that I’d just eaten had come on a small paper plate. After I’d devoured the delicious treat, I looked everywhere for a trash barrel. Finding none, I folded the paper plate into fourths and just held it in my hand as we continued to shop in the bazaars.
As I was admiring a bright aqua sari with glittering silver stones on display, the shop owner came out in an effort to get me into his establishment. Since I was interested in the sari, I started to go into the shop. He took the plate from my hand and I thought, great, he’s going to throw it away for me. But he just tossed it into the alley, much to my chagrin.
All the crowded alleys of Old Delhi are hugged by knotted, tangled clumps of electrical wires connecting the crumbling havelis, crisscrossing the alleys and everywhere you look. It’s a veritable rat’s nest of cables. Or maybe I should say monkey’s nest. Wild monkeys scamper across the wires all day long!
If you have an extra day, or three, here are some day trips to consider…
Jaipur, known as the “Pink City” for its iconic rose-colored buildings, is the capital of India’s Rajasthan state. The city was founded by the ruling royal family in 1727. At the center is the opulent, multi-column City Palace complex complete with gardens, courtyards, and museums. Here’s how to spend three days in Jaipur.
The Qutb complex is a collection of Indo-Islamic architectural red sandstone monuments and buildings from the Delhi Sultanate in the Mehrauli, South West district of Delhi. The complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Construction started in 1192 and was completed in 1220. Restoration works/additions were made in the 12th century, 14th century and 19th century The original builder was Qutb ud-Din Aibak, then Iltutmish added 3 stories, and Firoz Shah Tughlaq carried out restoration work.
Across the city, the new part of Delhi has a lot of places to explore, too. Dilli Haat is the hub of Indian crafts in New Delhi; the Lotus Temple is built out of marble imported from Greece and shaped like unfolding lotus petals; Humayun’s Tomb was commissioned by his first wife, Empress Bega Begum, in 1569-70.
If Agra is not on your travel schedule, I highly recommend taking just a day trip to see the Taj Mahal. The stunning iconic structure was built in 1632 by Mughal Shah Jahan as a love-letter to entomb his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The palace-like mausoleum is made from white marble and rests on the south bank of the Yamuna River. It also houses the tomb of Shah Jahan. Read my review of the tour of Taj Mahal here.
Leaving the Old City
On the morning we were to leave Old Delhi to fly to Mumbai, the hotel porter helped us lug our suitcases through the narrow alley on the side of the hotel out to the bustling main street where we were to catch our pre-arranged taxi. By this time, I was having no more of trying crossing the street.
I hailed a rickshaw and asked him how much to get me to the other side of the street. He blinked a couple of times and then said 100 Rupees ($1.40 USD). I hopped into the back while Kary and the porter looked on, mouths open wide.
I had to close my eyes as the rickshaw driver dodged in and out to avoid getting hit. I suppose it’s a matter of getting used to such a way of life, because I made it to the other side, unscathed. I won’t lie – that was the best dollar I’ve ever spent.
And telling that story is one of Kary’s all-time favorites, which is fine with me.
Be Careful What You Ask For!
“You stayed in Old Delhi?!?” my Indian-born colleague, Archana, inquired incredulously upon my return to the U.S. “We don’t even stay in Old Delhi. We go to shop in the bazaars and then we go to New Delhi or home. It’s wild there.”
“I wanted an authentic experience,” I said.
“Well, you got what you asked for!” she laughed.
I had wanted to experience the “genuine” Delhi. Part culture shock, part sensory overload, part fascinating, the Old Delhi tourist places are both intoxicating and repulsive at the same time. It’s one of the most memorable places I’ve ever visited. It wasn’t an easy experience, but I don’t regret one minute of it.
All photos by Kary Kern.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.