A shopping expedition in Delhi often doubles as an exercise in yogic patience. Riding in the back of a cream-colored Ambassador taxi, you’re likely to be distracted from retail therapy by a meditation on urban planning.
India’s stately capital lacks the Bollywood brashness of Mumbai, but it is just as congested with rickshaws, motorcycles, and handcarts. Child acrobats and snack vendors weave through the snarled lanes. Pepsi delivery trucks are sandwiched next to transit buses splashed with bubblegum-pink murals of the elephant god Ganesh.
Stuck in traffic, you can gaze out the window and examine the soul of a sprawling city with two major, culturally diametric districts. Dominated by the Red Fort and Jama Masjid mosque, Moghul-era Old Delhi is a vibrant maze of bazaars and crowded alleys; while New Delhi, imperial center of the British Raj, is a more orderly district of tree-shaded avenues, boutiques and restaurants, diplomatic enclaves, and walled bungalows of the rich and famous.
This tumultuous cityscape also reflects the fashionable dichotomy of its residents, who shop with equal enthusiasm for classic saris and bangles as well as the latest Western-inflected styles from emerging local labels.
On a hunt for artisanal crafts? Best to dig through the stacks of brass pots, wooden puppets, leather slippers, painted pottery, spices, and cooking utensils in stalls that occupy sprawling bazaars such as Dilli Haat and the more venerable Chandni Chowk (Moonlight Square), which has been in existence since the 17th century, when Delhi was known as Shahjahanabad.
If bumping elbows with backpackers isn’t your cup of chai, then set out in search of haute Delhi in upscale malls such as Lodhi Colony, where the city’s top designers display limited-edition clothing lines and home accessories in air-conditioned splendor. There you’ll find New York–based stylist Gurmeet Pia Fleming, who caters to Delhi’s most discerning women at her boutique, Bian; her creations include exquisitely tailored suits, cocktail dresses, even Swarovski crystal–studded saris.
Keeping up with a global beat, young Delhi is breaking with the somber conventions of earlier generations as radical concept store/galleries crop up to rival those in Tokyo, Manhattan, and Paris. Catch a glimpse of Delhi’s colorful future—paisley running shoes and metallic “space gladiator“ leather skirts—at Manish Arora Fish Fry in Lodhi Colony. You'll never say sari again.
To find Delhi’s best wares, hire a car and driver for the entire day. (And unless you’re an experienced haggler, ask your hotel concierge to arrange it.) The average cost is about $50 for a minivan; depending on the type of vehicle and the number in your party, it’s worth every rupee. You can crisscross the city without concern for a ticking meter in commuter gridlock, and you won’t be restricted to malls with parking spaces or have to tote multiple shopping bags on a sweltering afternoon.
No matter how you travel from shop to shop, market to market, one thing is certain: treasures abound in Delhi.