Backpackers guide to Old Delhi
There are more people in the city of New Delhi than there are in the whole of Australia! It can feel like your just a drop in a vast bucket of humanity when you are making your way through the city. My Backpackers guide to Old Delhi should hopefully help you make sense of this confusing corner of the universe.
For many of us, the journey starts ends or both in this great city. So it is incumbent that anyone making a website on travel to India should make a detailed post on how to get the most out of their time here.
I will start by talking about the area of the city that can seem like you have stepped back into another time, Old Delhi. This part of town is a place of contrasts, where sleek looking people in business get into there gleaming white cars and drive to their air-conditioned offices. At the same time, donkey pulled carts are hauling sacks of goods to the market to trade. The flurry of chaotic sights and sounds can be overwhelming. Regardless of where you have just come from in the world, this place is sure to leave your jaw dropped.
Chaotic Old Dehli
It is the most atmospheric part of the city by far, and the small bustling streets provide a cacophony of sights, sounds, smells and colours. There are lots of sights to see here, and it will take a few days to take it all in realistically. There is also so much good food here. Old Delhi has some of the best places to eat in the whole of the country, in my opinion. But before we get into the best places to eat yourself silly, let us start with taking a look at the key sights.
Old Delhi’s Red Fort.
Sitting like some kind of finely sculpted sandcastle old Dehli’s red fort dominates here, with its red hues in keeping with the harsh desert climate. The fort is visible from a good portion of the whole of Old Dehli. Its elegant mogul architecture is striking and sure to turn your head.
The red fort came into being when Shah Jahan decided he wanted to move the capital to New Dehli from Agra. The Red Fort sits in a good spot close to the Yamuna river. Today the river is both receded and quite stagnant. But at the time this would have provided the lifeblood of the new capital.
After ten long years, the building you see today was completed. Construction started in 1638 and finished in 1648. As Impregnable as this mighty structure seems, the mogul rule was eventually overthrown. The British took over, and Bahadur Shah Zafar ( the last mogul ruler in the fort) was then exiled to Burma.
The red fort will take the best part of a day to explore by itself. There are palaces, mosques, temples, markets, bathhouses and even a bird hospital. The hospital treats 30,000 birds a year and is a demonstration of the Jain principle of preserving all life. To cover the fort properly, I would need to write a massive post on the fort and nothing else so for more information, check out this link.
The fort is open from 6 am to 6 pm daily. The cost on the official government website is 90 rupees for Indian nationals and 950 rupees for foreigners. There has been a considerable hike in the price, but I think the complete lack of tourism since the coronavirus pandemic would explain a lot. The upkeep on this place would be epic after all. The nearest subway station is Old Delhi, and the nearest bus station is Kashmiri gate.
Old Dehli’s Jama Masjid.
Built-in typical Mogul splendour the Jama Masjid is India’s largest Mosque. This giant place of worship can and regularly does hold 25000 devotes. Construction started in 1644, and the finished product is spectacular. It was built on a 10m high hill to make sure everyone can see it and indeed it is far from discreet.
Another of Shah Jahans ideas was to move his capital to Delhi. Well, nobody can say he wasn’t a man of vision. It took 5000 workers 14 years to complete the finished article. It is clearly a labour of love and it effortlessly brings a sense of joy to the observer.
Entrance is free, but a camera is 300 rupees. I think that is fair as it is a place of worship and it would also cost a small fortune to maintain. It is open every day from 7 am until noon. Then from 1.30 pm to 6.30 pm. You are not allowed in during prayer and its male-only. Sorry ladies it is strictly off-limits to you. The nearest metro station is Jama Masjid, and it is a concise walk from there.
Raj Ghat, Feroz Shah Kotla, and the National Gandhi Museum.
These three sights are all close together, and while are not show-stoppers, they make for a lovely day out.
Raj Ghat was built after the assassination of Gandhi in 1948. There is a memorial for him inside the park inscribed what is believed to be his last words, “oh god” Friday prayers are held here in the afternoon to his memory. Failing that this is a pleasant green space in pulsating Old Dehli. I even managed to spot some birds of note.
There is a small museum just across the road from the entrance and tells the story of his life and death. It contains his spectacles and the cloths he was wearing when he faced his association. It makes for a very moving and poignant story of this great man. Admission is free and well worth the time.
The Feroz Shah Kotla was built-in the 14th century by the Delhi Sultanate to house an Ashokan pillar dating back to the third century. This was part of the 5th city of Dehli, Firozabad. Today only the ruins of the dilapidated fort remain. It acts as a picnic spot for locals, and I quite enjoyed my time here. It is 250 rupees entrance for foreigners and is just about worth it. For Indian nationals, it is only 20 rupees. It is open from 6 am to 6 pm every day.
It was one of Shah Jahan’s wives projects, and for us, it provides a break from the mayhem just out the door. The Mosque is located just of the ridiculously busy Chandi Chawk. Coming here can seem like a breath of fresh air. There is a central pool in the courtyard you can sit around, and it is verging on tranquil. The entrance is free. All anyone asks of you is to take your shoes off. If you come in the summer, it can feel like a hot iron under your feet when you step on the marble. Follow the carpets as they are there for a reason.
The Old Delhi spice market – Khari Baoli.
This, for me, is a highlight of visiting this part of town. As a Chef myself, this is my favourite part to cover in my Backpackers Guide to New Dehli. It feels like you have stepped back in time when you see sacs of spices from all over the subcontinent coming to market to trade. The sights and smells of this place are intoxicating. It is easy to get lost in the small twisted lanes of Asia’s largest spice market, and that is hardly a bad thing.
The spice market has been trading since about 1650, and today it feels like not much has changed. Spices, pickles, fruit and nuts are laid out in loving displays as each trader competes for trade. You will find it off Chandi Chawk.
Getting a nights to rest.
As I always say in my posts, I want to be honest with my readers, and my Backpackers Guide to New Dehli is no different. So I will say I have never slept here and neither has most backpackers. Hotels around Old Delhi are aimed at domestic tourists so you can bank on there being high prices for mediocre rooms.
There are some cheap guesthouses around the Jama Masjid, but I definitely don’t recommend them for a lone woman. In my experience, things have gotten pretty weird when I have travelled with girls to this area and on several occasions. The is no need to stay around here unless you really really don’t want to see any other foreign tourists in the evenings.
Getting a bite to eat.
Now this place is a gastronomic treat. There are so many quality places to choose from its hard to know where to start. I have three favourites I want to share with you. For more information on where else is good to eat check out my blog on Indian food for tips on where to get the best eats, because let us face it, we all want to travel our tastebuds.
The first place I would recommend is one of my all-time favourites, the iconic Moti Mahal. There is only one real Moti Mahal in India, and it is this one. There are many copies generally called Moti Mahal Delux, and they tend to be a good bet, but there is only one true Moti Mahal! This restaurant specializes in Muglai cuisine and serves some of the best. Whats more Iconic dishes such as Butter Chicken and Tandoori Chicken Tikka Masala can find their roots in this place.
Dishes here cost a couple of hundred and is more expensive than most. But this restaurant is a chance for you to get an authentic taste of India. The food here is cooked to perfection and as a chef myself for more than 20 years. I can tell you wholeheartedly this is some of the best around.
Karims close to the Jama Masjid is another top-quality restaurant sure to appease any carnivore. There are many restaurants clustered around the Mosque, but this is the most famous. It sells meaty curries and kebabs galore. It costs less than Moti Mahal, but tasty quilty meaty fare costs a little more anywhere you go.
Gali Paratha Wali is a whole street just off Chandi Chawk that sells parathas of every conceivable variety. For me, the biggest problem is choosing what type to indulge in first.
There are two main ways to Get around here. One is to take a rickshaw or cycle taxi around. You can pay for someone to drive you around and show you the sights. I can’t give a price as it depends where you want to go and for how long. Remember if you take a cycle taxi around that man is going to pedal you around the city in the desert sun, so try not to bargain too hard for the cost. Taking a cycle taxi around can be both romantic and nail-biting experience.
The other way to get around is the subway. Its well thought out, fast and airconditioned. There are stations all over Delhi and does not cost very much. Like any subway system, it takes some time to learn your way around, particularly as this one is so vast so that I will provide a map. The lines are named after the colour they show on the map. They provide the backpacker with an effective way to travel around the city. You pay at a counter, and you get a plastic coin. The machines retain it when you exit and don’t lose it as the penalty charge is not a fair comparison to that tiny piece of plastic.
In summary of Backpackers guide to Old Delhi.
As I said, this has been an honest guide in keeping with my own experiences. There is so much to cover when talking about the countries capital; it is just not possible to cover it all in only one posts, so I have broken it down. It can seem counter-intuitive when you arrive at this chaotic urban sprawl that this place has so much charm. Indeed Dehli is the heartbeat of the country and oozes charm. I hope you have found this post useful and if you have any further questions about Old Dehli, please feel free to ask for an honest opinion and until next time, happy travels.
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