Delhi is celebrating its economic rise with gusto. Its silvery, sleek new metro system, in its latest stage of expansion, makes the city a much more straightforward place to visit, allowing passengers to zip about in air-conditioned comfort, avoiding its notoriously polluted and congested roads.
Unlike the world above, Delhi’s metro is quiet, clean, calm and incredibly cheap: 100 rupees (about £1) loaded on to a smart ticket should be enough for four days of sightseeing. You’ll need to pay extra for rickshaws from stations to outlying attractions, but, at an average of 40 rupees (40p) a ride, that is unlikely to break the bank.
The main line of interest to visitors is the north-south Yellow line, which whisks you between the city’s tourist attractions, from Mughal bazaars and forts, to cutting-edge art galleries and fusion restaurants.
The metro has some wonderfully Indian idiosyncrasies: passengers are reminded not to ride on train roofs; sari-clad women are advised to use the stairs, lest their silks get trapped in the escalators – and urged to use the ladies-only carriages to avoid rush-hour groping. Outside entrances, troops of monkeys await food donations from commuters.
Security is tight, with a bag check and body scan at each ticket gate, often supervised by gun-toting officers. The penalties for misbehaviour are severe: blocking the train doors, for example, may see you jailed for four years. But, as long as you remember to keep your elbows in and resist the urge to climb on the roof, the metro system will keep you safe and sane in one of the world’s most frenetic cities.
Here is our guide to the 10 best stops.
This stop deposits you in clean, calm imperial Delhi, a gentle, culture shock-free introduction to the city. You emerge on Rajpath, Delhi’s most impressive boulevard, with the mighty arch of India Gate, a 1931 war memorial designed by Edwin Lutyens at its head. Flanked by lawns and monuments, this is the site of Delhi’s passeggiata, and at sunset, candy floss and ice-cream sellers, bubble blowers and henna artists set up stall. Museum lovers are well catered for: the National Museum, Crafts Museum and Gallery of Modern Art are all a walk or a short rickshaw ride away. Off the standard tourist trail is Purana Qila, Delhi’s oldest Mughal monument, where 100 rupees will buy you half-an-hour’s pedalo ride on a beautiful boating lake in the shadow of the citadel’s walls.
Two stops further south will take you to the Gandhi Smriti Museum, where Mahatma Gandhi spent his last days and was assassinated in 1948. The museum is a comprehensive record of his life, displaying photographs, quotes and video footage, along with the few possessions he left behind, including his trademark spectacles. Following in his last footsteps and seeing the spot where he was gunned down is a moving experience. Nearby is the Indira Gandhi Memorial, where the assassinated prime minister’s rooms are preserved, offering a window into the elegant lives of Delhi’s political elite.
This busy stop is handy for a visit to Safdarjung’s Tomb, a mausoleum built in 1754 for one of the most important Mughal nobles. Nearby, and more diverting, is Lodi Gardens, a peaceful park dotted with the tombs of Sayyid and Lodhi rulers, and a haven for the city’s butterflies and birds. Come late afternoon it’s full of boys playing cricket, power walkers, picnicking families and canoodling couples. Leave time for a meal in the grounds at the idyllic Lodi restaurant, where you can loll in a private gypsy wagon overlooking a sun-dappled courtyard, sip cocktails and work your way through the delicious Mediterranean menu.
There’s only one reason to visit this stop: to shop. Dilli Haat, a two-minute walk from the station, is a collection of more than 150 stalls selling artisan goods from across India. With strict rules about hassling and haggling, it’s by far the most relaxing and tourist-friendly shopping experience in the city. You’ll pay more than you would at Old Delhi’s bazaars, but you’ll still get a bargain: Rajasthani leather satchels go for the equivalent of £12, hallmarked silver bracelets start at £14, cashmere shawls are £8, hand-embroidered silk purses £3 and hand-woven wool carpets start at only £8. Other goods include jutti (curly-toed slippers), leather shoes, Rajasthani patchwork quilts, Jaipuri silk puppets, hand-bound leather notebooks and stoneware. Go at the end of the day and you’ll be offered bargains by traders keen to shift stock.
Hauz Khas, Delhi’s hippest hangout, is a short rickshaw ride away. Set by a deer park and the crumbling ruins of Mughal tombs, this compact urban village is crammed with galleries, boutiques, bars and restaurants. French love songs and Cuban salsa waft from bars, and students practise capoeira in the park, giving it an international feel. Shops go out of business quickly, but stalwarts include The Cottage of Arts and Jewels, a dusty basement selling vintage Bollywood posters, ancient Indian maps, texts and curios; Elma’s, a quaint tea shop, complete with grandfather clock, lace lampshades and bone china; and Country Collection, an antiques shop selling rare and imaginatively reworked furniture at reasonable prices. On my visit, pieces included a Keralan teak canoe upended to form a bookcase, and a Rajput palace window frame with a mirror inserted. For modern art, try Delhi Art Gallery and Creativity.
Two stops down from Green Park and the most southerly of our destinations, this station is a short rickshaw ride from the Qutab Minar complex, home to a triumphal 72-metre minaret, built to celebrate the advent of Muslim dominance in Delhi. For a cultural contrast, hop in a rickshaw to Lado Sarai, an emerging arts district, where cutting-edge galleries such as Gallery Threshold, Exhibit 320 (exhibit320.com) and Latitude 28 draw dealers from the world over. Make time for lunch at Olive, a chic bar and restaurant only a few minutes’ walk from Qutab Minar’s entrance gate. Built in an old haveli (private mansion), its airy courtyard, centred around a gnarled 160-year-old banyan tree, makes it one of the prettiest settings in town. The menu is determinedly Mediterranean and pizzas are cooked in a wood-fired oven.
Big-name western stores, tourist-friendly bars, restaurants and cafes make traffic-free Khan Market a big draw for wealthy Delhiites and expats. This station, on the Violet line, one stop east from Central Secretariat, is the place to buy tailored clothes. Grovers will whip you up a perfectly cut suit in three days for 11,000 rupees (£110). Nearby, in the Taj Hotel, Varq serves artfully presented Indian nouvelle cuisine in elegant surroundings (two-course lunch starts at £15). Khan Market is also one of the closest stops to Humayun’s Tomb, still a 20-minute rickshaw ride away, but a must-see. Built in the 1560, the gigantic mausoleum is an example of a great tomb-building tradition which reached its apogee 100 years later with the Taj Mahal. The resting place of emperor Humayun is one of the most peaceful and atmospheric spots in Delhi.
At the heart of New Delhi’s commercial district, this stop drops you at Connaught Place, a series of colonnaded neo-classical Georgian crescents built by the British between 1929 and 1933. The arcades shade a mix of upmarket western shops and traditional Indian street stalls and restaurants, the best of which is Rajdhani, serving no-frills Gujarati vegetarian thali, and Haldiram, which does the best sweet lassi in town. West of Connaught Place is Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, a modern, tourist-friendly Hindu temple.
Enter the doors of the 1911 restaurant at the Imperial Hotel and you’ll be jettisoned back to the days of the Raj. Oak-panelled walls are hung with hunting scenes and pre-independence state crests, while the chandeliers twinkle. The menu is stolidly British – tea and biscuits, fish and chips and club sandwiches are favourites. Opposite is Central Cottage Industries Emporium, a government-run, fixed-price Aladdin’s cave of woodcarvings, jewellery, pottery, papier mâché, brassware, textiles and miniature paintings.
The final stop on our whistlestop tour is our most challenging, and should only be attempted by those with a strong stomach, oodles of stamina and plenty of wet wipes. Chandni Chowk coughs you straight into Old Delhi, the oldest, most chaotic and colourful part of the city. A medieval world of ancient bazaars, dark, narrow alleyways and hand-pulled carts, this is India at its most extreme, and its most saddening: gangrenous beggars, crippled goats and mangy dogs are only some of the sights you’ll witness.
Old Delhi is also where you will find two of the city’s most notable landmarks: the wonderfully atmospheric Lal Qila, or Red Fort, built from sandstone in 1639 for Shah Jahan; and Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque and one of its finest buildings, with three huge domes, a pair of minarets and a courtyard that holds 25,000 worshippers. Cover up for the latter or you’ll be forced to wear a garish full-length gown that will make you the butt of visitors’ jokes. If you want to see the bazaars, hire a guide or you’ll become disorientated. The liveliest are the wholesale spice market of Khari Baoli, the jewellery market of Dariba Kalan, and Kinari Bazaar, the dazzling wedding regalia market. There are chai stalls and street food all over Chandni Chowk, or try Karim’s, a Delhi institution serving legendary Mughal fare.
Don’t leave Delhi without having a traditional Ayurvedic massage – you’ll need one after a day like this. Head back to Racecourse station and grab a rickshaw to Amatrra Spa, soother to the rich and famous, where back massages start at 2,200 rupees (£22).