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Spending a weekend in India's most happening metropolis.
[Text-originally published in The New York Times-by Somini Sengupta; picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]
A seat of power for more than a thousand years, the city-state of Delhi is a survivor of conquest and change. The Lodi and Mughal dynasties ruled this area, as did the British, until it was again transformed by the refugees of partition.
Today, new money has conquered the region, which includes New Delhi, the capital of a rapidly changing India. Spiraling rents have put a Swarovski shop where a small independent bookshop once stood, and in the same market, a shop called It’s All About Bling sells spangly earrings. Thankfully, much of the remarkable history has survived, allowing the visitor to travel easily through the accordion pleats of time.
1) SUNSET TOMB
This is a city of ruins and none is more elegantly preserved than Humayun’s Tomb, a precursor to the Taj Mahal and an early example of Mughal architecture. Built in the 1560s for Humayun, the second Mughal emperor, the domed mausoleum has an elaborate garden, potted with red sandstone tombs, gates and a mosque (admission is 250 rupees for foreigners, about $6 at 41 rupees to the dollar). Savor it at the golden end of the day.
2) ART NOW
The new prosperity has spawned a thriving contemporary art scene. Several galleries are within a 15-minute ride into South Delhi, and new exhibitions usually open on Fridays. The Neeti Bagh neighborhood has Nature Morte (A-1 Neeti Bagh; 91-11-4174-0215; www.naturemorte.com) and Talwar Gallery (C-84 Neeti Bagh; 91-11-4605-0307; www.talwargallery.com). Nearby, Defence Colony offers Aryan Art Gallery (D-25 Defence Colony; 91-11-4155-1277; www.aryanartgallery.com) and Vadehra Art Gallery (D-40 Defence Colony; 91-11-2461-5368; www.vadehraart.com). Palette is on the top floor of a house in Golf Links (14 Golf Links; 91-11-4174-3034; www.paletteartgallery.com). Consult TimeOut Delhi and other local magazines for listings.
3) ART OF THE PALATE
To continue the sensory overload, head to Basant Lok Market, a buzzing middle-class shopping center in Vasant Vihar, in the southwest sector, whose star attraction is the restaurant Punjabi by Nature (11 Basant Lok Market; 91-11-5151-6665; www.punjabibynature.in). Everything about this place is loud and large, including the food. Try the vodka gol gappa aperitif: crispy shells filled with a spiced vodka shot and popped into the mouth whole for a hot, boozy explosion. Carnivores: Try the tandoor-roasted lamb or the fish tikka. Vegetarians must make do with overspiced, tandoor roasted broccoli. For mellower non-Punjabi fare, head to the Defence Colony market and prepare to stand in line with Delhi chowhounds at Swagath (14 Defence Colony market; 91-11-2433-7538; www.swagath.in), for southern seafood dishes. Not to be missed: squid in butter garlic sauce and Chettinad-style prawns. Dinner for two runs about 2,000 rupees, at either restaurant (not counting the vodka gol gappas).
4) ICE CREAM RUN
For dessert, go to one of dozens of ice cream vendors in front of India Gate, where balloons, cotton candy and the cool night air provide an evening picnic.
5) OLD GLORY
Take a taxi to the 17th-century Red Fort and Jama Masjid mosque early, when they are most glorious. Then give yourself the rest of the morning to take in the uninterrupted life of the walled city of Emperor Shah Jahan, also known as Old Delhi. Every street is a world unto its own, devoted to auto parts or wedding cards or freshly roasted spices. One of the liveliest is Kinari Bazaar, a crafters’ paradise bursting with haberdasheries, bead shops and vendors of bright red wedding turbans, alongside crumbling mansions. This is also a portrait of the head-load economy of old India, with porters ferrying everything from saris to bananas on their heads.
6) TRANS-DELHI EXPRESS
The chaos of the old city dissolves in the spick-and-span Chandni Chowk station of the Delhi Metro. Eight minutes and 8 rupees later, you are at Rajiv Chowk station, in the city’s modern heart, Connaught Place. Retail chains are fast taking over the early 20th-century colonnades, though several independent bookshops, jewelers and gun dealers — and several lunch options — remain. Few beat the buffet at the 1911 Restaurant in the Imperial Hotel (Janpath; 91-11-2334-1234; www.theimperialindia.com). For 3,000 rupees for two, you can choose from warm calamari, crisp rucola and tiramisù. For unusual regional dishes, try the Mosaic (M 45/1 Connaught Place; 91-11-2341-6842). Dishes include Bengal shrimp steamed in coconut and tart South Indian spinach with rice. Lunch for two, 800 rupees.
7) SITAR SHOPPING
To walk off your feast, try shopping. For table linens, quilts or kurtis, there’s Fabindia (B-28 Connaught Place, Inner Circle; 91-11-4151-3371; www.fabindia.com) and Soma (K-44 Connaught Place; 91-11-2341-6003; www.somashop.com) opposite the PVR Cinema. Boho chic is the specialty of People Tree (8 Regal Building, Parliament Street; 91-11-2334-0699; www.peopletreeonline.com), and a few steps away, the legendary A. Godin & Company (1 Regal Building, Parliament Street; 91-11-2336-2809) sells sitars and tablas. Keep walking down Parliament Street, past a sprawling observatory called Jantar Mantar, to the city’s public soapbox. When Parliament is in session, groups line up to protest along this street, whether college students opposed to affirmative action or farmers aggrieved by loan sharks.
8) FASHION ROW
If you want to go upmarket, head to the Lodi Colony main market to check out two of India’s most innovative designers: the understated Rajesh Pratap Singh and the overstated Manish Arora. Singh (9 Lodi Colony Main Market; www.pratap.ws) offers a muted palette, and his cuts are lean and clean — maybe too lean if you happen to have hips. Men’s shirts and women’s blouses start around 6,000 rupees. Manish Arora (3 Lodi Colony Main Market; 91-11-2464-8898; www.manisharora.ws) is cheeky and loud; a black velvet tunic appliquéd with tiny clock parts goes for just under 10,000 rupees. If you would rather explore Indian crafts, skip the designer row in favor of Dilli Haat (C-126 Naraina Industrial Area; www.dillihaat.com), an outdoor bazaar where artisans peddle everything from hand-knitted socks to Madhubani-style paintings.
9) UPMARKET TASTES
The young, rich and restless have many more watering holes than ever before. Smoke House Grill (Vipps Center, Masjid Moth; 91-11-4143-5530) occupies two floors in the Greater Kailash II neighborhood, and its gimmick is smoked food. For vegetarians, the offerings include smoked artichoke ravioli; for others, smoked chicken and fennel soup, or prawn and calamari ajilo with a warm, subtle red pepper bite. If you want a proper dinner, book a table upstairs. Dinner for two is around 5,000 rupees. The bar menu downstairs is limited, unless you intend to gorge on apple mojitos (350 rupees) and admire D.J. Cheenu.
10) POOLSIDE COCKTAILS
For a nightcap, you could head across the dark courtyard to Kuki (E-7 Masjid Moth Complex; 91-11-2922-5241), a tony disco where the cover charge ranges from zero to 2,000 rupees a couple, and on Fridays and Saturdays, “gents” without arm candy are turned away. Better value is the shimmering poolside bar Aqua, at the Park Hotel (15 Parliament Street; 91-11-2374-3000; newdelhi.theparkhotels.com). A disco ball hovers by the pool and admission is free.
11) YOGI RETREAT
The city’s pièce de résistance, also its green lung, is Lodhi Gardens, a free, quiet sanctuary for parakeets and lovers. Early mornings are for yogis saluting the sun, influential bureaucrats on power walks and chipmunks and doves drinking from the same puddle. There are also 100-plus species of trees and tombs dating back to the 1400s. For breakfast and a morning paper, walk over to ChokoLa (36 Khan Market; 91-11-4175-7570), a lovely cafe at the Khan Market with still-lousy service. For one last kebab fix, it’s worth dawdling until Khan Chacha, a stall inside the market, opens its shutters (75 Khan Market, Middle Lane; 91-98106-71103). The specialty is the kathi roll, stuffed with chicken, mutton or paneer and is arguably the tastiest memento of this new old city.
Continental (www.continental.com) and Air India (www.airindia.com) fly direct from the New York City area to New Delhi, with fares in mid-April starting about $1,000. The Indira Gandhi International Airport (www.newdelhiairport.in) is undergoing a major overhaul, so be prepared for more chaos than usual.
Hotel rates have lately shot through the roof. If you’re ready to splurge, stay at the ultra-modern Park Hotel in Connaught Place (15 Parliament Street; 91-11-2374-3000; newdelhi.theparkhotels.com). It has a poolside bar and modern rooms normally from 16,000 rupees, about $390 at 41 rupees to the dollar, but with discounts online.
Thikana (A-7 Gulmohar Park; 91-11-4604-1569; www.thikanadelhi.com) is a new, elegant bed-and-breakfast with modern fittings and home-cooked meals on demand. Doubles start at 4,500 rupees. The one drawback is the location: it sits along a traffic-choked artery.
The 18-room 27 Jor Bagh (27 Jor Bagh; 91-11-2469-8475; www.jorbagh27.com) is basic to the point of sterile, but it is across the street from Lodhi Gardens and the Book Shop (13/7 Jor Bagh Market; 91-11-2469-7102), perhaps the coziest book store in the country. Doubles start at 3,500 rupees.
Through all the changes, New Delhi remains a city of contrasts, so gird yourself for wrenching scenes of destitution. Charities that work with children include: Childline (www.childlineindia.org.in), Butterflies (www.butterflieschildrights.org) and Child Rights and You (www.cry.org).