In a country as large as India, it’s somewhat counter-intuitive to position a weekend itinerary anywhere within it. But even if you can only spare a few days in Delhi, there’s plenty to pack in. Long known as a city of ancient ruins and obsequious bureaucrats, Delhi has, in the last several years, experienced a cultural efflorescence that is nothing short of spectacular.
Affordable spaces and a rich, intellectual heritage have meant a steady influx of artists, musicians, writers, designers, and entrepreneurs—many of them defectors from Mumbai—who have brought new life into this imperial city’s ancient bones. Delhi may not beat out the competition for India’s most beautiful, most navigable, or even most welcoming city—but at this particular moment, it may be its most exciting.
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Where to Stay
More than any other city in India, Delhi offers a good balance of the grand and the boutique. For a taste of the city’s colonial heyday, nothing beats The Imperial, an Art Deco showpiece dead in the center of British New Delhi. To get closer to the action, stay at The Rose, a charming boutique hotel tucked away at the back of bustling (and at times, chaotic) Hauz Khas Village. If you don’t mind being a little out of the way, then you can’t do better than The Manor, easily the most elegant of Delhi’s small hotels, and home to the city’s best restaurant, Indian Accent.
Where to Eat
Delhi is a city replete with restaurants, from humble canteens, to some of the finest restaurants in all of India, representing a cross-section of regional cuisines. To sample Delhi’s indigenous Mughal cooking, head to the 18th-century Old City for a breakfast tour with Delhi Food Walks. On Sundays, the Andhra Pradesh Bhavan canteen serves the best biryani in town, while Café Lota at the Craft Museum offers perhaps the loveliest place in town for an al fresco lunch.
To challenge your idea of what Indian food can be, head to Nagaland’s Kitchen, serving the pungent, spicy, pork-heavy cuisine of India’s distant northeast. Dum Pukht at the Sheraton is an elegant, if a bit stuffy, spot for traditional north Indian dishes (try melt-in-your-mouth kakori kebabs, and the rich, meat-and-marrow stew called Nihari), while Pot Belly, in the trendy shopping area of Shahpur Jat, serves authentic cooking from the east Indian state of Bihar.
Whatever you do, though, don’t leave Delhi without sampling the tasting menu at Indian Accent, where chef Manish Mehrotra turns out modern interpretations of Indian classics (chicken tikka meatballs with tomato makhani, tamarind fish with coconut barley and cashew pakoda) at what is undoubtedly the most daring dining room on the Subcontinent.
What to Do
Each of Delhi’s seven capitals has left its mark on the city’s immense urban landscape, with ancient mosques, tombs, and shrines around every corner. Easily the most beautiful building in the city is Humayun’s Tomb, burial place of the second Mughal Emperor, and a masculine counterpart to ethereal Taj in Agra. From Humayun’s Tomb, it’s a short distance to the Lodi Gardens, a beautifully manicured park dotted with the 14th-century tombs of the Lodi Sultans, the last of the dynasties in the Delhi Sultanate.
In the city’s southeast, the Qutab Minar is the city’s oldest Muslim monument, a victory tower built in the 12th century by the founders of the Delhi Sultanate, and set in an expansive complex built from elaborately carved pillars ransacked from ancient Hindu temples. Adjacent to the Qutab Complex is the Mehrauli Archaeological Park and Mehrauli Village, one of the old villages now subsumed in Delhi’s metastasizing sprawl. Arrange for a tour through Delhi Heritage Walks, or through local historian Sohail Hashmi.
If you’re in Delhi on a Thursday night and don’t mind crowds, stop by the Hazrat Nizamudin Dargah, a 700-year-old Sufi shrine in the heart of the city. Take a stroll through the Craft Museum for a sense of India’s rich tradition of handicraft, visit the Kiran Nadar Museum, the only private collection of contemporary Indian art in the country, for a more recent sense of India’s art scene. At Nature Morte, the most cutting edge gallery space in the city, for a look at what’s happening right now.
Where to Shop
It used to be that shopping in Delhi meant going to Khan Market, but the last decade has seen the city’s design community shift decisively toward old village areas. The first of these to attract interesting shops was Hauz Khas Village. Though at night it attracts a decidedly college-age crowd to hits many small bars and restaurants, the area’s narrow lanes still shelter a few of the city’s best boutiques. Stop by Bodice and Love Birds for clothes by two of India’s most sought-after labels, visit Loom Mool for hand-woven scarves, Tana-Bana for antique pashmina from Kashmir, and Gray Gardens for clothes by Delhi-based fashion label 11.11.
Shahpur Jat, a short distance to the east, has entered the scene more recently and remains far more peaceful than Hauz Khas. Second Floor Studio and Les Parisiennes are the area’s flagship boutiques, stocking collections by the best designers from around the country, but just strolling through the neighborhood’s narrow lanes will reveal a shocking diversity (and density) of interesting shops, from leftist bookstores to cute cafes. Near Lodi Gardens, stop by Meher Chand Market to visit the flagship store of accessories designer Nappa Dori, and the small but impeccable En Inde for clothing and housewares.
Michael Snyder is based in Mumbai, and covers the India beat for Travel + Leisure.