Delhi travel guide and things to do: 20 reasons to visit

The Jama Masjid is the best-known mosque in India.
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The Jama Masjid is the best-known mosque in India.

It once seemed like Hell on Earth. But India's most chaotic city has transformed. The food, the shopping, the partying and the chaos: Here are the reasons to visit this transformed Indian city.

1 CLEANER AND GREENER

When I first visited Delhi 10 years ago, I thought I'd landed in Hell on Earth, so confronting was the poverty and filth. Economic growth and an improvement in infrastructure (largely due to the 2010 Commonwealth Games) has since transformed the city, from its airport to the streets. It's now India's most prosperous city, with the average Delhi-ite earning three times that of the average citizen; while air quality and visual pollution is slowly improving with the implementation of green technologies.

2 THE CHAOS

With 17 million inhabitants and more than  7.2 million registered vehicles, it's little wonder the streets of Delhi are chaotic. Car travel can be terrifying, with honking horns, zero respect for road rules and no adherence to marked lanes; but the mayhem is an attraction in itself, awe-inspiring to witness and impressive in the rarity of accidents. Despite the beeping, there is little evidence of road rage - drivers seem to take their frustrations out on the horn, not each other.

3 MONUMENTS FROM THE PAST

Qutub Minar, the ancient Islamic Monument in Delhi was built in 1192 by Qutub-ud-din Aibak. Photo: Getty Images

Modern-day Delhi contains the remnants of at least eight separate cities, with architectural vestiges from empires spanning several millennia. The towering stone Qutab Minar, dating from AD1192 was the first monument built by a Muslim ruler in India; while other Mughal masterpieces include the Jama Masjid​ mosque, Humayun's Tomb (an Indo-Islamic mausoleum) and the "crown in the jewel", the imposing Red Fort, built  in 1639. The modern city of New Delhi is marked by the austere India Gate, commemorating 70,000 Indian soldiers lost in World War I.

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4 OLD DELHI 

A man pours water using a bucket to clean the banks of river Yamuna during early morning in old Delhi. Photo: Getty Images

Originally called Shahjahanabad, the crumbling walled city dating  to 1639 was once graced by lavish mansions and gardens. Now a congested maze of bazaars and food stalls, Old Delhi symbolises the pulse of the city, and is a must-see for any visitor who wants to experience street life at its most frenetic. Bombard your senses on a bicycle rickshaw ride along Chandni Chowk, or explore the intriguing labyrinth on foot, discovering temples, wholesale markets selling everything from electronics to wedding paraphernalia, and ornate havellis tucked into silent laneways.

5 STREET FOOD SURPRISES

A vendor prepares jalebi sweets inside his shop. Photo: Reuters

Afraid to try street food from fear of the dreaded "Delhi Belly"? Remove the guesswork by joining a customised Heritage and Food tour. Passionate foodie and historian Ramit and his knowledgable team will guide you to hidden Old Delhi delights such as a 120-year-old shop selling deep-fried sweet pretzels called jalebi, a stall making unique flaky pastries called Japanese Samosas, and my favourite - kulfi, a milk-based dessert stuffed into a frozen mango. Taste sensations galore, and great fun to boot.  $180 a  person, book via mantrawild.com.au.

6 SPICE UP YOUR LIFE 

Photo: Michael Vito via Wikimedia Commons

The Heritage and Food tour also visits Khari Baoli, the largest wholesale spice market in Asia. Inhale the heady aromas; but be warned, the chilli laneways will literally blow your mind. Swing by Mehar Chand & Sons on the main road, where fourth generation master blender Anshu Kumar loves to share his knowledge and fill your hand-luggage with herbs, spices and teas packaged to the satisfaction of Australia customs regulations. (mantrawild.com.au).

7 IMPERIAL SPLENDOUR 

Even if you can't afford to stay in one of Delhi's magnificent five-star palace hotels, drop by just for a gawk at the colonial opulence or to indulge in High Tea. The landmark  art deco Imperial Hotel is famed for its Sunday brunch, while tea is served daily in its sun-soaked atrium, offering a choice of tea blends as well as scones, sandwiches and pastries served on the finest of china. (theimperialindia.com).

8 HANDICRAFTS GALORE

Dilli Haat market.  Photo: Nick Wright

India's amazing and varied handicrafts are beautifully displayed at the National Crafts Museum, run by the Ministry of Textiles. Set up to preserve dying arts and traditional crafts, the museum holds 35,000 rare pieces, including embroidery, painting, pottery and textiles. (nationalcraftsmuseum.nic.in). Afterwards, head to Dilli Haat market (dillihaat.net.in) for affordable souvenir shopping in a pleasant, open-air, uncrowded environment. Nominal entry fee of  about 70 cents. 

9 BIRD WATCHING 

Migratory birds fly above a man rowing a boat in the waters of river Yamuna during early morning in old Delhi. Photo: Reuters.

With a surprising array of green space, Delhi has the second richest bird population of any city in the world (after Nairobi), with more than 450 species of endemic and migratory birds. Pack your binoculars for a morning stroll in tranquil Lodhi Gardens, or join Mantra Wild Adventure's experts on a birding tour, spotting egrets, kites and the beautiful striped hoopoe. $80 a person.

10. HAUZ KHAS 

Meaning "royal tank", this historic neighbourhood built around a lake and deer park is one of Delhi's most affluent, hip villages, with a maze of funky bars and restaurants, independent designer boutiques and to-die-for homeware and antique shops such as the three-storey Country Collection. To recover from your credit card workout, follow the graffiti entranceway to the area's coolest new bar, Social, overlooking the lake.

11 PARTY LIKE A BOSS

Photo: Facebook.com/LapTheClubOfficial

For a taste of Bollywood exuberance, head to one of Delhi's pumping nightclubs, where the dance floors erupt into seemingly choreographed showstoppers each night. Show off your best "electric light bulb" moves at hip clubs Hype, Rick's, Blue Frog and Kitty Su (featured in DJ Mag's Top 100 Clubs of the World); while the most hedonistic place-to-be seen is Lap in Hotel Samrat, owned by Bollywood star Arjun Rampal and featuring grooves by internationally known  DJs. (laptheclub.com).

12 HERE COMES THE BRIDE  

An elegantly decorated and dressed Indian bride. Photo: Merten Snijders

I recently accompanied  a bride-to- be on a wedding shopping excursion in Delhi - but there was no way I was letting her have all the fun! While she made serious decisions about lavishly embroidered saris, lehenga choli and the accompanying bling, I also took the opportunity to frock up at the wedding emporium of Frontier Raas, trying on divine creations that I never imagined wearing. (frontierraas.com).

13 RAJ GHAT

It's difficult not to be moved by this simple memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, at the site of his cremation in 1948. The black marble platform with an eternal flame is marked by the inscription "He Ram" (meaning "Oh God"), said to be the last words uttered by the pacifist and Father of the Nation after he was assassinated. The monument is surrounded by pathways and gardens and is a designated "no shoes" area.

14 RELIGIOUS LIFE 

Indian Muslims gather after evening prayers as they break fast on one of the last days of Ramadan at the Jama Masjid. Photo: Getty Images

The diversity of Indian religious and cultural life is celebrated in Delhi's many temples, mosques and shrines, each more impressive and imposing than the next. Architecturally notable sites include the Baha'i Lotus Temple, the enormous Akshardham Hindu Temple, the Jama Masjid mosque,  Birla Mandir, and Chattarpur Mandir,  dedicated to the goddess Durga and built in South Indian style. For an uplifting experience, visit the Sikh temple of Sri Bangla Sahib,  which offers free communal meals, or langar, to devotees. Make a donation so they can continue the charitable work.

15 DRESS TO IMPRESS  

The sari market of Chandni Chowk, in Old Delhi. Photo: Education Images

Indian clothing may be conservative, but a riot of colour and embellishment, as well as great prices, make an India-suitable wardrobe a versatile fashion investment. Try FabIndia, Cottons, Pantaloon or Anokhi for gorgeous, well-made kurtas, leggings, dresses and tops, with branches all over Delhi including the market at GK1-N Block. FabIndia (fabindia.com) also has a separate store for home furnishings, while Anokhi's traditional woodblock print fabrics are also used  for accessories such as scarves, toiletry bags and bedding. (anokhi.com).

16 COOL DELHI 

I'm always surprised by how sophisticated and cosmopolitan Delhi is, with cool bars, cafes and restaurants rivalling any Western city (in price as well as design). Uzuri in GK-2 (uzuri.co.in) offers European and Moroccan dishes with rooftop seating options and a mouth-watering cocktail menu; while the revamped Shalom in GK1-N Market features a Middle Eastern menu, beverages served by the pitcher and chilled sufi grooves on Wednesdays and Fridays.(facebook.com/shalomexperience).

17 AFFORDABLE HOSPITALITY 

Hotel accommodation in Delhi can be expensive, so budget-conscious travellers may want to consider a bed and breakfast, or homestay. Hosts are generally congenial and informative, breakfasts home-style and hearty and the rooms comfortable. Recommended is Colonel's Retreat in South Delhi, offering double airconditioned rooms with en suite, free wi-fi and legendary banana bread as well as cooking classes, yoga and an in-house spa. Tariffs start from $114 a night.  (colonelsretreat.com).

18 DUM PUKHT  

Photo: itchotels.in

From its silver decor to silver service, this opulent Northern Indian restaurant in the ITC Maurya hotel is a fine-dining experience to be savoured. Ranked India's best restaurant in the 2014 S. Pellegrino  Awards and winner of Asia's first Golden Fork Award, Dum Pukht aspires to revive "royal culinary traditions", specialising in slow-cooked recipes including biryanis in a sealed clay pot, stews and kebabs.  Well worth the splurge. (itchotels.in).

19 ROADSIDE ODDITIES 

Need your ears cleaned? Just visit a local ear cleaner, who will poke your eardrum with a metal spike. Or if you're in need of a shave, there is always a barber who will run a blade over your stubble in a makeshift kerbside stall. Delhi's innovative, entrepreneurial vendors may not offer the most hygienic conditions, but they offer a spectacle that will leave curious visitors aghast.

20 A MORE COMFORTABLE JOURNEY

The comfort level of Air India's new Dreamliner 787 has made the journey a lot more bearable.

The writer was a guest of Mantra Wild Adventures.

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