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Delhi so truly a city of wonders and no matter what others think, I am actually very fond of Delhi and all that it has in store for travelers. Among the Indian metro cities, Delhi has the most to explore with Kolkata right after that. This is not to say that Mumbai or Chennai are any disappointing, but the sheer history of the city (the rest three are all relatively new) and the variety of experiences here are truly unmatched.
Most travelers to the city often stay on the tourist circuit and to be frank, even that's enough to keep you engaged for days altogether. But for some others, like me, it's never enough to do what others do and it's almost a need to go beyond the obvious and explore the city a little bit more. I am not suggesting digging deep into the underbelly of the city, but a step below the conventional tourist circuit.
So here's a guide to some of the offbeat travel destinations in Delhi - some of these are known and getting popular, while others are just not there on the tourist map as yet.
Let's start with the most recent pre-independence Delhi built by the British completely convinced that they will continue to rule till eternity - Luyten's Delhi. Before the capital moved to Delhi, the British ruled from Kolkata (then Calcutta) and large parts of pre-Mughal Delhi was razed to the ground to create space for the New Delhi that has since then remained the capital of India.
So what's to see in New Delhi? Well, the architecture is truly unique in this part of the city. Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mughal Gardens and India gate are not be missed as well. Do visit the numerous churches that came up during these years, they are now notified heritage structures.
Lodhi Gardens is also a part of this side of Delhi and contains some of the surviving tombs form that era.
For food and shopping, head out to Khan Market - its full of lovely little cafes, restaurants and bookshops. A word of caution though - everything here is expensive.
Did you know that right in the middle of Delhi, there is a deer park and you can actually go and see some deer there anytime of the year. The park isn’t just a place for deer, but also health conscious locals who come here to exercise - walks, run, light exercises. Some also come just to hangout, with their friends or their loved ones.
I started my regular trips to the Deer park when I was practicing for my half marathon run in Delhi a few years back, and have been in love with it ever since.
What more, it’s right next to Hauz Khas, arguably Delhi hottest and happiest hangout area - full of cafes, pubs and high end boutique stores. Also worth exploring in the area are the historical remains of Hauz Khas.
Now this isn’t something I would recommend to everyone, though surprisingly it isn’t very uncommon. Yamuna is Delhi's lifeline, but also happens to be one of the dirtiest rivers in the country, and the industries of Delhi on river banks can be blamed for that.
However, there are some old temples and serene spots on the river Bank in Old Delhi which are great for early morning boat rides. You can take the boat to one of the river islands or just to cross over to the other side, but be prepared to see unpleasant views too. As I said, it’s not for everyone - but it can be fun, if done right!
When we think of mosques and Delhi, one mosque always takes the centre stage - Jama Masjid. It’s certainly the most impressive of all mosques in the capital city, but there are a few more which might be smaller, but have very interesting history.
For example, Fatehpuri mosque was built by Shah Jahan’s sister to commemorate the finishing of work at Chandni Chowk. Located right next to the spice market of Delhi, Khari Baoli, it’s a great place to visit early in the morning for some peace and some photography.
Ghata Masjid is another such mosque which is barely known to the travelers today. Close to the river Yamuna, the masjid is made in the same style as Jama Masjid and is absolutely devoid of people.
Not just these, there are many other mosques as well like Kalan Masjid, Nizamuddin, Rukn-ud-daula masjid in Chawri bazaar, Masjid Madrasa Islamia Arabia, Fakhrul Masjid in Kashmiri gate, Moth ki masjid in masjid moth colony, Makhdoom sabzwari dargah, Chirag dill dargah and Qadam sharif.
Now this actually comes as a surprise to many, especially those who do not know the history of the city well. Delhi is actually a fairly old city, though much of the well recorded history is from the time of Delhi Sultanat. However, many confuse and mix up Delhi Sultanat with the Mughals because the rulers were Muslims. The truth is far from it - Delhi Sultanat is much older and started in the 13th century and continued till Mughals took over in the 16th century.
Geographically Delhi was further south of where Old Delhi today and the area is primarily known as Mehrauli Archeological Park. If you’ve been to Qutub minar, that’s actually part of this ‘older’ Delhi. It’s mostly in ruins now because Shah Jahan decided to build Shahjahanabad and so the centre of power shifted northwards and these building fell in ruin.
The best way to explore this part would be through a Heritage Walk, because the area is large and history is rich with stories. Keep an entire day or more, and preferably during winters, to explore huge park.
I am absolutely amazed with the spread of the street art movement across India so quickly over the last few years, though there was years of hard behind that. From Mumbai and Pune in the west, Kolkata in the East, and Bangalore abc Kochi in south, there is some gorgeous street art to be seen. Delhi has actually been on forefront of this movement and I am absolutely amazed with what the artists have managed to create in the capital city.
Some of the best places to explore street art in Delhi are Shahpur Jat (also good for some lip smacking food), Shankar Market and Lodhi Colony. Lodhi Colony is also famed as India’s first public art district.
Well, Delhi produces no spice but is actually home to the largest spice market in the whole of Asia! I am talking about the Khari Baoli spice market located at the end of Chandni Chowk.
The market is fairly old and came up when the second Mughal king had been defeated and Delhi was ruled by the son of Sher Shah Suri, the man who also invented the Indian currency - Rupaiyah.
Surprisingly it’s a hugely popular spot for Instagrammers from across the world who pose on terrace with tea and biscuits. In reality, it’s very dirty up on the terrace and sitting on the floor is quite out of question. It’s great, nevertheless, for photography!
It’s impossible to talk about Delhi and not talk about shopping, but let me talk about a special kind of shopping - wedding shopping. A couple of decades back when my sister got married, she was ferried off to the lanes and by-lanes of Chandni Chowk by her Sister-in-law-to-be to buy her wedding trousseau.
This wasn’t anything new though - for generations brides have been coming to Delhi to buy the best wedding clothes at the best bargain price. There are lanes dedicated to what you need, and it’s rare to go back without finding exactly what you need.
Possibly more Banarasi sarees are sold here in Chandni Chowk than Banares itself!
Pro tip: While you are walking through the congested lanes of Chandani Chowk, do look out for the old havelis and the stunning wooden doors that some of these still have. Many of these are being torn town, so our generation might be the last one to see them.
Mirza Ghalib lived through turbulent times in New Delhi, and while his benefactor and the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar didn't survive India's first war of independence in 1857 (he was exiled to Rangoon in present-day Myanmar), Ghalib did. Ghalib spent many years of his life in this rather humble haveli, but this wasn't the only place he lived in. In fact he also considered Rampur as the dominion of Urdu language and spent many years there as well under the patronage of the Nawab of Rampur. He also lived in Agra and Varanasi.
When I visited the recently renovated and opened-to-public Ghalib ki Haveli in Ballimaraan, Old Delhi, there was so much running in my head. On one hand was a man whose words have stayed relevant even 150 years after his death, and then the context in which he lived - the weakened Mughal empire, increasingly aggressive British East India Company, the rivalry in the court with Zouk - poet laureate in the Mughal court, and a completely different social fabric of Delhi.
Despite being a metropolis with all modern sports facilities, the ancient sport of Kushti is still flourishing in Delhi and there are numerous akharas across the city. It's not at a typical tourist place, but if you are interested in the sport and want to see it, and maybe even play it, an akhara would always welcome you.