Turns out April in regions near the equator is the hottest time of the year. We were vaguely aware of this before booking our trip to India but it really only hit us when we walked out of our plane onto the searing asphalt and blinding sun of the tarmac at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. It was the beginning of a trip that had high highs and low lows but that really truly leaves a lasting impression on you. There is nowhere quite like it, this mixture of urban sprawl, ancient history, and tropical air.
Delhi is a city that has to be seen to be believed. It is sitting in LA-level traffic in an air-conditioned Uber with Bollywood music playing in the background while green-and-pink tuk tuks and motorcycles packed with whole families whiz by, horns blaring as a monkey climbs on a nearby car. It is women walking to temple by a freeway in beautiful jewel-colored saris with shining gold filigree, the colors dulled by a haze of red dust that billows up from the ground and the smog that permeates the air. It is having a 10 rupee pakora in a grease stained napkin for lunch in an alley of Chandi Chowk and then spending 11,000 rupee on dinner at Bukhara at the ITC Maurya, where you wait next to a giant orchid arrangement in the mahogany paneled lobby for the taxi the concierge called for you. It is walking out of a 400 year old sandstone fort directly into a maze of stores and tangled electric wires that nearly block out the sun, looking for the neon lights of the closest McDonald's to buy a Fanta.
Truth be told, it can be a bit overwhelming and there were times we felt defeated by the heat, the blaring traffic and a stomach bug or two. But I can safely say that it is unlike any of the other metropolises I have been in and if you fly into Delhi you should definitely take some time to explore the city. And save up for a meal at Bukhara.
THE PLACE TO PICNIC INSIDE A PALACE:
If you're looking for historical sights, the Red Fort is probably near the top of your list. This expansive structure was built in the 1600s and served as the main residence for the Mughal emperors for 200 years. It is hewn out of red sandstone and white marble, with green gardens criss crossed by the long dry beds of canals that used to carry the water that surfaced inside the ornate carved pavilions and cooled their shadowy, pale interiors and noble residents. In its courtyards and dungeons the emperor used to carry out Coliseum-style fights between exotic animals like lions and elephants. In the present day, you can find many families picnic-ing on the lawns and pigeons roosting in the intricately carved marble walls, their former bright white color faded to beige and streaked with dark grey smudges from age. Bring water. And if you dread roaming the fort underneath the bright Delhi sun the night can be a preferable time to visit when you can also witness the Sound and Light Show, which projects colorful art onto the facade of the fort to the sound of music. Buy tickets in advance and note the separate (usually shorter) line for tourists.
WHERE TO GRAB A BITE POST-RED FORT:
Chandi Chowk is a market area in Delhi adjacent to the Red Fort that is rife with small shops and food stands. We were there on a Sunday where most shops were closed but walking in the narrow alleys, dodging motorcycles and cast iron pans bubbling with fried loops of orange jalebi and peeking inside the occasional sari store or barbershop is still an experience. I would likely not have worn open toe shoes if I went again and instead of waiting for an Uber, would have grabbed one of the many tuk tuks rushing by to find a ride home. As for food, this site provides a comprehensive list and Karim's Kebabs nearby is a particularly popular spot. As is just looking for what looks good (and well-fried if you are wary of Delhi belly).
WHERE TO GO FOR NEW YORK CITY PRICES AND THE BEST CHICKEN OF LIFE:
If you are pleased with how far money can stretch in India, Bukhara will be a bit of a rude awakening. You can easily spend $100 USD per person here but if you can't tell by the refined interiors of the ITC Maurya hotel that houses Bukhara and the genteel English-speaking service, this is a pre-tty nice establishment. The food here, a lot of it flame-grilled over charcoal pits, is exceptional. No doubt one of the best chicken dishes I've had and together with the blistered naan, buttery black lentil daal, cool creamy raita and giant cubes of life-changing seared paneer cheese - probably one of the best meals of my life in general. The waiter threw in some free dessert, saffron tinged and pistachio topped firni (an Indian rice pudding) and we left very happy if unexpectedly $160 USD poorer. If we went again I would skip the cocktails (save the room for more daal then get your cocktail fix at the 1911 bar The Imperial Hotel) and take note of the rupee to USD conversion rate, which were blissfuly unaware of the first day in Delhi.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel prices in Delhi can range from $2 USD a night for a bunk bed in a shared room in a hostel to $1000+ USD for a room at one of the Taj properties. Although Airbnb is not as popular in India, we still found interesting properties in the Delhi area. Although some of them can be further from the city center, note that Uber is safe, widely used and very affordable (we rarely spent more than $2 USD on a ride). Hauz Khaz, Greater Kailash and New Friend's Colony are all good, safe, relatively upscale neighborhoods to stay in that are not too far from main attractions. And there are some sights and eats within, including the Lotus Temple and Seventyseven restaurant, both in New Friend's Colony. We booked a fairly large apartment in Greater Kailash that easily accommodated five people (and could have accommodated at least 2 more) with a rooftop garden that had quite the sunrise and sunset views. There was also A/C, filtered water in the kitchen and it included a prepared breakfast every morning (for about $100 USD a day). Link here.
IF YOU HAVE MORE TIME IN DELHI:
There are many places we missed as we only had 3 days total in Delhi. Besides the attractions we saw Akshardam, Humayan's Tomb, Jama Masjid Mosque, Qutb Minaret, Lodhi Gardens, the Stepwells, Connaught Place and Dilli Haat (for hand made goods) were all stops on our list we didn't get to. As for restaurants, SodaBottleOpenerWala , a traditional tea house (like this one or this one) and this list from CN Traveler were all noted down too.
FOR FEELING LIKE A LOCAL:
You can get to Agra from Delhi via train (2-3 hours) or private transport car (~3 hours). The train is significantly cheaper and a chance to ride with nearly all locals if you take the regular train instead of the express. Make sure you reserve seats and if you are a woman traveling alone, there is a women-only car. We sat across from a family with two small children and some locals perched on the bunk beds that were in for much longer trips than us. Although few people spoke English the few that did were fun to chat to and wonderfully helpful when the conductor came by and (angrily) noticed we were seating in the wrong area as we had not reserved seats. It's a long ride, the benches are far from comfy, and there is no AC but the company of your fellow passengers and the Indian countryside whizzing by the open windows is quite the experience. Maybe book it only one way and then take the more comfortable express with it's airline style seats or a private car back the other way. Bring snacks and bug spray.
IF YOU MISSED THE RED FORT:
If you missed the Red Fort in Delhi, the Agra Fort in Agra is it's bigger and badder cousin. Similar to the Red Fort it is not solely a fort but a large complex and the Agra Fort is so massive it can be considered a walled town. It was also a residence for Mughal emperors and part of the fort is still in use by the Indian military. You can find multiple courtyards and gardens, some framed by imposing arches hewn out of red sandstone and others all delicate terraces and carved white marble. Be prepared to walk a bit and definitely bring water with you. There are many guides that will offer their services to you if you want a more complete tour. We opted to just wander around. Also, in my opinion I would skip the Red Fort entirely or just go for the Light & Sound show in Delhi if I was also visiting the Agra Fort, which in my opinion is more impressive and has a similar enough architectural style that there is no need to go to both.
WHERE TO BREAK FOR LUNCH:
I don't know about you but despite being a big fan of Indian food, the variety of Indian food we get in the US is quite limited and although most people know what vindaloo curry and tikka masala is, there were times when I would look at a menu and not understand what a single dish was. I now am much more well-versed in what constitutes a dosa, a paratha, a vada and an idli. And if you are not, the lacey thin crepe you see above is a dosa.
Dosas are a thin crepe-like pancake, made of a rice and lentil batter. They cook up so that they are crispy and feather-light, and are often filled with golden spiced potatoes or thickly sliced paneer cheese. On the side, they are served with a wide range of hot and cold sauces like cool coconut chutney, pickled onions, warm lentil daal, and tomato chutney. The onion dosas we got at Dasaprakash were laced with tiny flecks of caramelized onions and I would highly recommend them. The restaurant had friendly servers and was also where I discovered my favorite Indian beverage: salty lime soda. If you are worried about the salty part, you can get them sweet and salty - but the salty is SO much more refreshing. Lastly, if you are in the mood, besides their top-notch dosas, Dasaprakash also has a very extensive ice cream selection for dessert.
IF YOU'RE IN THE MARKET FOR A NEW CHEESE BOARD:
Note that in general if you arrive by train to Agra you will need to hire a car to drive you around. There is a taxi station right outside the train station that shows fixed prices for the driving fares. Although we were skeptical of how pushy the drivers were, it is the way to do it (unless you are staying in Agra and have arranged a tour thru your hotel). The prices are all inclusive although you are expected to tip at the end. Usually you can see multiple sites, like the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, while your driver waits outside for you. They will also take you to lunch and dinner if you are staying late: if you have any preference as to where you can request to be taken there, if not they will likely take you to a friend's restaurant. It is also common for them to stop at shops that sell marble inlaid items and gems, both characteristic of Agra. Although they definitely get a commission if you buy anything we found both shops to be of good quality and bought a small marble table and a pair of earrings. Likely because it was the off season and we spotted very few other non-Indians around (even at the Taj Mahal), we were able to get generous discounts (...at least from the initial price stated).
THE BIG ONE:
I guess if it's your first time in India it's difficult to not go to the Taj Mahal. Many times when I first visit a city I eschew the big, more time-consuming uber-tourist spots - I only went to the Louvre the third time I went to Paris and despite living in Toronto, I've yet to make it to the CN Tower. But there is a reason they are such major attractions. And even if you feel like you already know exactly what the Taj Mahal looks like, seeing it in person, with the sunlight gleaming off it's curved white walls, is quite a thing. In the off season when we went, it is not terribly crowded at all, and you can walk around and linger wherever you want. Our guide also suggested going later in the day to catch the sunset and to avoid the midday heat, which I wholly endorse. When it's busier, I hear sunrise and sunset boat rides thru the river that runs beside it are a serene and unique way to see this wonder of the world.
Note that as a foreigner, your ticket already includes a guide, a bottle of water and covers for your shoes. So no need to go with one of the "official" guides that try to tell you they can help you cut the line at the outside entrance.
IF YOU MISS MEXICAN FOOD:
If you miss your weekly burrito, try a chicken kathi roll! Spiced chicken and/or paneer are rolled in fluffy kathi rolls, fresh off the griddle. Cheap, fast, and tasty, we were big fans of Mama Chicken in Agra. They also have biryani, mutton and momos if you want to stray from their specialty.