To the delight of locals and visitors alike, India's capital has emerged as a true 21st-century metropolis — all without neglecting the sparkling palaces, ancient ruins and culinary traditions that have long made it one of the world's most enthralling cities
Author JAY CHESHES
DAY ONE | You’re up early. Coffee’s good. A dip in your private plunge pool? Even better. Each of the 67 rooms and suites in the Aman New Delhi (1) comes equipped with one — a first for the city. After an invigorating soak, you take in the view from your terrace. Below is Lodi Gardens, where manicured lawns surround ancient tombs and young couples go to hold hands and steal kisses.
After a quick Indian breakfast of steamed idli (a kind of savory cake) in the hotel restaurant, you meet your guide/driver in the lobby. Delhi is a car town — too spread out and often too hot to tackle on foot — and a good guide is the key to avoiding long lines and traffic. You’ve signed on with Cox & Kings, a company that served British foot soldiers here in 1758 and has since become a worldwide tour operator. Your guide gives his name: Ravi Shankar. No relation, he says with a laugh, to the famed Bengali musician.
You’ve beaten the morning rush, so it’s just a 15-minute trip from the center of the new city to the gates of the old one. Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built what came to be called Old Delhi back in the 17th century, and the Brits unveiled its replacement in 1911. Near the winding alleys of Chandni Chowk, as the old city is known these days, you stroll up the steps toward Jama Masjid (2). This stunning red sandstone edifice is the biggest open-air mosque in India, as well as where Shah Jahan himself used to pray. As instructed, you slip off your shoes — the floors are all marble — and, because you’re wearing shorts, don a robe.
After touring the mosque, you step outside, where your rickshaw awaits. Pedal power is the best way to navigate the maze that is Chandni Chowk. On foot you’d be lost in minutes and wandering for hours, Shankar warns. The rickshaw turns down one alley and then another, cutting it close to an ambling cow. Chandni Chowk is a city unto itself, devoted to nothing but commerce. One street sells only silk saris; others, silver jewelry, ornate stationery, even car parts. You stop for spices — hunks of fresh turmeric, a thimbleful of saffron — and haggle to good effect (with your guide’s assistance, of course).
On the way into the center of Delhi, you pause to pay your respects to the father of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi. Raj Ghat (3), a black marble shrine with an eternal flame, marks the spot where he was cremated. Even swarming with schoolchildren, it’s a serene place for reflection — at least until the sky opens up. Rain showers can come fast and furious in Delhi, and this one sends shoppers and merchants alike scrambling for shelter. Some find it; others don’t. You don’t. Fortunately, it’s over quickly.
Before lunch, you hit the open-air stalls just off Connaught Place, Delhi’s Times Square, and pick up a cheap cotton kurta, a long, loose-fitting top, to replace the soaked shirt you’re wearing. Then you walk a few blocks to grab a table at a branch of the hugely popular vegetarian restaurant chain Hotel Saravana Bhavan (4). Its enormous potato-filled dosa (a crêpe, basically) with coconut chutney is inexpensive and delicious.
You spend the afternoon browsing among silk scarves and Kashmiri throw rugs as you explore the Georgian-style buildings — formerly government offices, now shops — that run in concentric rings around Connaught Place. As the sun sets, you join the crowd heading to see the latest Bollywood blockbuster at the Rivoli Theater (5), a movie palace that opened in 1933. You can’t understand a word of the film, but the song-and-dance numbers are still plenty of fun.
Dinner and drinks are nearby at the historic Imperial Hotel (6), where you check in for the night. The place is bustling with fellow travelers. Sipping Indian whiskey at the mahogany-filled 1911 Bar, you’re transported to the last days of the Raj, when this great hotel opened its doors. Its restaurant, the Spice Route, is a destination in its own right, considered by many to be among Delhi’s top tables. Though the expansive menu covers seven Southeast Asian cuisines, you stick to dishes from India’s Malabar Coast. The shrimp and fish in thick coconut curries are worth lingering over, but you wrap things up in short order. It’s been a long day, and you’re wiped.