As the capital city of the world’s most populous country, most people have heard of Delhi. If not, you’ve come to the right place. It’s a city that can only be described with superlatives. Its monuments are big, its history is old, the food is delicious, and it’s as populated as any place on Earth.
Delhi has changed a lot over its more than a thousand years of history, shifting from dynasties to empires to a modern democracy, each era leaving its own mark on the city, many of which are still visible today.
So, what is Delhi, the capital of India, known and famous for?
Delhi is known for its deep history, striking monuments, and some of the world’s best street food. Despite being India’s administrative capital, Delhi is buzzing with energy, and is an intoxicating mix of influences from throughout the country that will test and thrill any serious traveler.
Spend some time in Delhi, and you’ll never be the same. It becomes a reference point to other big cities of the world. Few other places engage, enrage, and stimulate the senses simultaneously as Delhi can, and if you’re up for it, you’ll be a more educated, experienced, and tested traveler as a result.
Let’s get to know more about this city, shall we?
Table of Contents
The rickshaw is to Delhi what the yellow taxicab is to New York, or the tuk-tuk is to Bangkok. It’s often the most easily accessible form of transportation, and also the most enjoyable.
Whizzing between cars, other rickshaws, bikes, and even cows is exhilarating, and an instant reminder that – yes, you’re in the great city of Delhi now.
Expect to do a little good-natured bartering over the price before committing to a ride, and expect to get overcharged on your first few rides. It’s part of the experience.
The longer you stay in Delhi, the better you’ll understand how many rupees you should be shelling out per ride. Save those rupees for some gol gappas or a fresh paratha (more on those later).
You’ll see a variety of rickshaws throughout Delhi, but the iconic color scheme is green on the bottom, and yellow on the top. Most common are the auto-rickshaws, but there are also bicycle rickshaws, which can navigate a little more nimbly through Delhi’s most congested quarters.
2. Golden Triangle
Delhi is known for representing the northern tip of the Golden Triangle. Not to be confused with the region of the same name in Southeast Asia, this aptly-named route is located in Northern India, connecting the cities of Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi.
The Golden Triangle is one of the most touristed regions in India, because each of the three cities has a number of spectacular sights to offer, and they are relatively close in proximity.
To drive from one city to the next, regardless of the route taken, typically takes between 4 and 6 hours (although driving time estimates in India are often wildly unpredictable). Train travel is an essential part of the Indian travel experience, and is also a viable option to navigate the triangle.
Agra has the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal. Jaipur, known as the “Pink City,” has the Hawa Mahal, the City Palace, and the Amber Fort. Delhi has, well, a lot. Read on.
3. Humayun’s Tomb
Delhi is famous for several UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Humayan’s Tomb. One of many remnants of the Mughal Empire, which began in the early 1500s, the tomb was built by Humayan’s son Akbar in the years following his death in 1556.
Humayan was the second-generation ruler of the Mughal dynasty, which was founded by the infamous Babur. The Mughals swept down from Central Asia, conquering cities along the way, and settled into modern-day Northern India.
Humayan ruled for a decade, only to be ousted and sent into exile for nearly 15 years. He spent time in modern-day Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and after a series of successful battles, he and the Mughal dynasty returned to the throne in 1555.
Despite the epic tales of Humayun’s life, he died somewhat unceremoniously after falling down the stairs of his personal library.
There are many lingering legacies of Mughal rule still in India, one of which is Islam. While the religion was already present by the time the Mughals arrived, its spread grew upon Babur’s arrival.
Mughal architecture is also widely seen throughout the country, most famously known for its large bulbous domes, such as the one atop Humayun’s Tomb. There are many similarities in the architectural design between the tomb and the Taj Mahal. But remember that Humayun’s Tomb came first!
4. Regional crossroads
Pinning down Delhi and defining the sprawling city with a singular identity description is impossible. It finds itself at a regional crossroads, and as a result, the city is a stew of various cultural influences from nearby regions.
Whereas the rest of India is divided into regional states and union territories, Delhi is officially situated in what is known as the National Capital Territory. This designation gives the city its own legislation and more autonomy from the regional government than many other major cities across the country.
Delhi is directly bordered by the states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh (India’s most populous). But it is also geographically within arm’s reach of Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, and even the country of Nepal.
India experiences a seasonal migration that brings workers from all over the country for employment after the harvest season. The big city of Delhi often offers more employment opportunities than rural villages once the farming season ends.
With this migration (estimated to be over 100 million people), workers bring their food, their religion, their language, and their norms, continuously keeping Delhi a cultural melting pot.
Delhi is among the densest and most populated cities in the world. True population and density estimates are hard to pin down, as boundaries and borders vary by definition, but the presence of people, and lots of them, is felt the moment you land at Indira Gandhi International Airport.
The density of the city can be felt most intimately in and surrounding the markets of Old Delhi, with its tangle of narrow streets, as well as near the city’s large houses of worship.
I remember experiencing the crushing, yet beautiful amount of humanity on my first trip to Delhi. It’s simply something that most Westerners haven’t experienced, and can be overwhelming. But such is the story of Delhi as a whole. Overwhelming, in every possible, remarkable way.
6. Street food
Delhi is known worldwide for its mouthwatering array of street food.
While you can find just about any kind of regional style of Indian cuisine in Delhi, because of its location, it leans more North Indian when it comes to ingredients.
There is a lot of nuance to regional Indian cooking. But generally speaking, North India uses more wheat flour, more meat like goat and chicken (not cow), lots of ghee, and fenugreek (a slightly bitter dried leaf).
To condense this topic into one section of this article is undoubtedly an injustice to Delhi street food, because a full recap of the depth of Delhian and broader Indian street-side dishes necessitates its own article.
To get you started on a few classics on the list of Delhi street food, I’ll list out a few examples.
Aloo tikki is an iconic street food dish, which is essentially a fried patty of spiced, seasoned mashed potatoes, served with a variety of sauces.
Chole bhature is a dish that combines the puffy, hollow flatbread known as bhatura, with the rich chickpea curry called chole.
Gol gappas (also known as panipuri) are small, crispy, balls that are most often filled with chickpeas or potatoes, in addition to a chutney and tangy yogurt. They are then finished off with a quick dip in flavored water, which makes for a bite (literally) bursting with flavor.
Street food is an essential part of Delhi, so go out, try some chaat (which translates roughly to “snack”), and enjoy. On that note, there are few better places to find street food than what is described in the following section.
7. Chandni Chowk
The beating heart of Old Delhi lies in Chandni Chowk. It is a magical place.
The neighborhood and market have been alive since the 17th century, its birth coinciding with the construction of the Red Fort and Jama Masjid (more on those later) as Delhi began to grow.
To wander through Chandni Chowk is one of the most exhilarating experiences to be had in Delhi. Anything that one might want, can be found. The market is essentially a conglomeration of many different markets with their own specialty.
The electronic section borders the jewelry section, which borders the garments, which borders the hardware, which borders the religious deities, which borders the hot food, which borders the spices. It’s all there.
To try to use a smartphone or a map to navigate through the market would be difficult (or impossible) to say the least, and it would not be in the right spirit. Getting totally lost and disoriented is part of the adventure, whether you intend to or not. Your best bet for trying to get out is to follow somebody else who looks like they know what they’re doing.
The broader market encompasses some wider avenues, some narrow streets, and some alleyways of which you must constantly duck to avoid the mangle of wires (and sometimes monkeys) overhead.
While it might be jarring, making a visit to Chandni Chowk soon after arriving in Delhi will give any visitor a quick perspective on what’s happening in the city. What are people buying? What are people selling? There’s a lot of life happening in the market, and it’s a great place to throw yourself right into the city of old.
8. Khari Baoli Market
Delhi is famous for being home to the largest spice market in Asia (and possibly the world), located within the aforementioned Chandi Chowk of Old Delhi.
Undoubtedly the best-smelling market in Old Delhi, Khari Baoli has a mind-blowing array of spices, nuts, and dried fruits, arranged in beautiful, colorful, heaping piles in baskets and bowls that line each little storefront.
The best souvenirs to take home from a trip are those you’ll actually use. So why not do as the locals do, weigh out some mustard seeds and turmeric, and bring a taste of Delhi home with you? Grab a handful of sweet, plump dates too if you need a snack to sustain the rest of the Chandni Chowk tour.
Delhi lies in the heart of the Hindi-speaking region of North Central and Northwestern India. It’s estimated that a staggering 300 million people speak Hindi as their first language. That number grows closer to 600 million if including Hindi as a second or third language, putting Hindi in the top 5 most spoken languages in the world.
Despite there being hundreds of languages spoken throughout the country, and over 20 regional languages recognized by the government, only two are considered “official”: English and Hindi.
Hindi is an old language. It is a descendant of one of the earliest common languages known as Sanskrit, which is believed to have developed from Indo-Aryans in Central Asia. As migration moved South towards the Indian subcontinent, new forms of language emerged, including an early type of Hindi around the 8th century AD.
English is widely spoken throughout India and is especially common in the capital, but it can still help to come prepared with a few words or phrases. At the very least, you probably already know “Namaste,” which is a common greeting and goodbye.
Hindi is written in Devanagari script, which is starkly different than the Latin or Roman alphabet. This means most people will have to focus on phonetic pronunciation when picking up some Hindi phrases, or else they’ll surely be saying things wrong.
10. Akshardham Temple
Delhi is home to one of the largest, and most beautiful Hindu temples in the world.
When I laid eyes on Akshardham, I knew that it was the most breathtaking religious site that I had ever seen. The sheer scale from the outside, and the intricate, ornate carvings on the inner and outer walls were astonishing.
The name Akshardham roughly translates to “an abode of God.” The entire temple complex is built as a shrine (also known as a Mandir) to Bhagwan Swaminarayan, believed to be a reincarnation of a Hindu God, and a founder of a specific form of Hindu faith called the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS).
The temple complex is relatively new, built in 2005, and occupies a large swath of land that includes gardens, fountains, the main temple, and a vegetarian food court. There is even a theatrical nightly light and water show just outside the main temple.
The main temple is truly a sight to behold, with thousands of sculptures, domes, spires, carvings, pillars, depictions of classic figures of the Hindu faith, and of course, the centerpiece being the murti of Swaminarayan.
Note – there are no pictures allowed inside the temple or on temple grounds. So if you visit, know that you’ll have to leave your phone behind in a locker before entering. This might be tough for some, but it’s a great opportunity to be present and fully absorb the majesty and serenity of the temple.
11. Masala Chai
A day in Delhi without a cup of masala chai is unthinkable. This milky, spiced tea is ubiquitous across much of India, particularly so in Delhi.
There are few better drinks on earth than a piping hot cup of chai, served street-side by a chaiwala (tea maker or seller), in a brown clay cup. But please, I beg of you, do not call it “chai tea,” as many Westerners do.
Despite its ubiquity in Delhi nowadays, tea drinking was not always so widespread in India. Tea plantations started to expand in the 1800s due to a push by British colonists to reduce reliance on tea from China. Originally exported elsewhere and consumed by the British, it wasn’t until the 1900s that the broader Indian population began widely drinking tea.
Masala chai is essentially heavily spiced black tea, where the leaves are boiled directly in water (as opposed to being steeped). There are nuances to the spice combination, but the masala mix typically includes cardamom, clove, ginger, cinnamon, and black pepper. Copious amounts of milk and sugar are added as well.
Chaiwalas have turned tea-making into an art form, pouring (also known as “pulling”) the tea from one cup to another from great heights. It is partly performative, and quite impressive, but also practical in that it helps to simultaneously cool and mix the ingredients in the tea.
Delhi is quite famous for its variety of festivals, celebrations, and remembrances. A city that big, with so many religions and anniversaries, has a lot to celebrate.
The most festive and vibrant are of course, Holi and Diwali.
Holi is a primarily Hindu holiday known as the “festival of colors,” and is held in February or March, depending on the Hindu calendar. There are a number of origin stories, but the holiday is celebrated by large gatherings where people throw colored powder into the air (and at each other), turning the air into a smokey rainbow.
Diwali, a more important and less commercialized holiday than Holi, is known as the “festival of lights.” Those practicing Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Hinduism (amongst others) all celebrate the triumph of light over darkness. Over five days in the Fall, observers hang lights, clean their houses, spend time with family, and make sweets.
Alongside many other religious holidays, there are also large gatherings for government holidays, including Republic Day (January 26th), the day India established its constitution. Independence Day is also met with fanfare, to commemorate when India broke free from British rule in 1947 (August 15th).
Unfortunately, Delhi is known for having some of the worst, densest smog in the world. Not only is it visually striking to see when it’s at its worst, but it has become a serious health issue for those living there.
To frame the severity of the pollution into perspective, the commonly-used Air Quality Index (AQI) that measures particles and gasses in the air, in New York City rarely ever exceeds 100, which is deemed unhealthy. During the worst months in Delhi, from November to January, the daily average has often exceeded 300.
There are a number of factors that contribute to the poor air quality. For one, farmers in surrounding rural areas often will burn crop remains after the rice harvest, in order to restore and prepare fields for new planting. The smoke and particles from the fires are sent into the air, and they float along to nearby cities.
There is also pollution from things like construction sites, factories, and engines in the big cities. When atmospheric air currents slow, and the colder, denser air of winter sets in, pollution from farms and cities combine, forming dense, slow-moving smog.
The poor air quality can have some very tangible effects on the city, including shutting down schools and businesses because it is unsafe to drive during the worst days, and people with underlying health problems find it hard to breathe.
There has been some progress shown by the government in taking steps to address pollution, including providing subsidies and access to farmers for equipment that helps to dispose of crop residue, as well as pauses on construction during polluted days, and even limits on fireworks used during big celebrations such as Diwali.
14. Red Fort
Delhi is famous for the Red Fort, one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, and another standing monument to the city’s Mughal history.
A representation of the aforementioned Mughal architectural style, the Red Fort was built in the 17th century by emperor Shah Jahan when he moved the seat of Mughal power back to Delhi (from Agra).
It is built like both a palace and a military complex, with a menacing gate and lookout towers, right alongside beautiful gardens and intricately carved doorways.
The fort was a seat of power for hundreds of years in Delhi, changing hands between the Mughals, Sikhs, and Marathas, before being controlled by the British.
The fort is an iconic point in the city, as it is both beautiful, powerful, and a representation of the various, diverse powers that have ruled the area of Delhi for hundreds of years.
Nowadays, it plays an important role in India’s annual Independence Day celebration. The Prime Minister raises the Indian flag atop the fort, just as the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, did in 1947.
15. Political center
Delhi is famous for being home to the central government of India, the seat of political power in what is referred to as the “World’s Largest Democracy.”
Most of the country’s most important government buildings are located within the specific district of Delhi known as New Delhi. Much of New Delhi can feel more laid back than other areas of the city, given it houses the central government and many of Delhi’s green spaces.
There is the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the office and residence of the President of India, currently Droupadi Murmu. Then there is the Sansad Bhavan, the House of Parliament, as well as the Indian Supreme Court.
The head of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Narendra Modi, the most powerful person in all of India also calls Delhi home. His office is located within the massive Secretariat complex that is home to many other governmental ministries.
A number of government buildings were constructed during the period of British occupation, including the Secretariate complex, so they often appear different from many other buildings throughout the city.
16. Parks and gardens
Picturing the city of Delhi may not evoke images of bucolic landscapes or rolling fields, but the city is actually famous for having a large number of gorgeous, green parks and gardens.
Necessary given the number of people and street congestion, the city has set aside quite a bit of land for green space. Estimates vary, but there are in the range of 18,000 parks within Delhi.
The parks and gardens act as a place to relax and exercise, for locals and tourists alike. One of the most popular is Lodhi Gardens, eponymously named after a 15th-century ruler. Filled with palm trees and manicured grass, it offers a pleasant respite.
There’s also Deer Park, located in the Hauz Khas neighborhood in the shadow of a tomb. And yes, it is in fact home to a number of deer.
Many of the most popular monuments and sites in the city find themselves encircled by gardens and parks, such as the Sunder Nursery adjacent to Humayan’s tomb, or the Kartyava path in the lead-up to the India Gate.
17. Jama Masjid
Delhi is known for having one of the largest and most beautiful mosques in India, the Jama Masjid. Another one of Shah Jahan’s (the Mughal ruler) buildings, it bears some resemblance to the Red Fort, due to the use of red sandstone.
Given Shah Jahan was also responsible for the construction of the Taj Mahal, the towers and domes of the Jama Masjid might look familiar to those making the rounds of the Golden Triangle.
The mosque is highly functional to this day, with thousands of worshipers gathering on Fridays for prayer, and a capacity to hold almost 25,000 people.
Given its location in Old Delhi near the wonderful chaos of Chandni Chowk, the mosque stands in a stark juxtaposition with its serenity and permanence, a true respite for those looking to worship, or simply visit the beautiful architecture.
India as a whole is famous for having quite the sweet tooth, and the variety of sweets – also known as mithai – in Delhi is a manifestation of that.
You can find mithai in sweet shops throughout the city, at street carts, and on the menus of restaurants.
When arranged in mithai shops, these desserts are often displayed like a work of art, almost like a mosaic, with different shapes, colors, and textures. My recommendation is that you don’t restrict yourself to just one. Get in line, and order a few.
The decision of which ones to pick can be daunting, so I’ll walk through a few that Delhi does particularly well.
Start off with some gulab jamun, one of the classics. This is a deep-fried ball of dough that is then soaked in syrup that is infused with classic Indian spices.
Follow up with an order of peda. This mithai resembles fudge in texture, and is made with milk, milk powder, sugar, spices, and is often topped with nuts.
Finish off your order of mithai with some kulfi, a dessert that resembles ice cream, but tends to be thicker and creamier, and is often served on a stick. Perfect for the brutally hot summer days in Delhi.
If you’re the type of person that “doesn’t like sweets,” I may not understand you, but luckily Delhi can more than satisfy your savory cravings.
19. India Gate
Possibly the most recognizable of all the many monuments in Delhi is the India Gate. It bears a bit of resemblance to France’s Arc de Triomphe, and is similarly a memorial to those who died fighting in wars.
The India Gate is dedicated and inscribed with the names of over 13,000 people that perished in both World War I and the Third Anglo-Afghan War, fighting for the British Indian Army. Construction began in 1921, and it was inaugurated in 1931, so it pre-dates Indian independence from Great Britain.
A fixture of the city now, the India Gate is the centerpiece of the Republic Day Parade, a gathering point for protests, and home to the tomb of the unknown soldier.
20. Qutb Minar
The Qutb Minar, now nearly one thousand years old, is a minaret that towers over the broader Qutb complex in the southern part of the city. Construction began under the sultan of Delhi named Qutb ud din Aibak, who was one of the first Muslim rulers in the region.
Within the complex, the Qutb Minar was built near the main mosque, and was used to broadcast the call to prayer. Over its nearly thousands of years of history, the mostly sandstone minaret has increased in size, and its multi-colored layers point to its growth over time.
It’s quite beautiful up close, with its carefully-inscribed scripture placed in the stone like a work of art. The whole complex is worth visiting, with many other ruins and structures from the era of the Delhi Sultanate, one of the many layers of history that comprise the story of Delhi.
21. Lotus Temple
Delhi is famous for being home to one of the world’s few Baháʼí temples, known as the Lotus Temple. Built in 1986, it is a relatively recent addition to the landscape of the city.
The Baháʼí faith is a monotheistic, global religion, and is unique in that it acknowledges and includes all other major religions in its core belief system. One of the core principles of the Baháʼí faith is that prophets of other faiths (Jesus, Muhammad, etc.) are manifestations of the same god.
The Lotus Temple stands in contrast to many of Delhi’s other notable architectural behemoths. Whereas Akshardham has an intricate, classical Hindu design, and the Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb are built in the style of the 16th and 17th century Mughal’s, the Lotus Temple is built with a much more modern, contemporary design.
Called the Lotus Temple because it takes the shape of a Lotus flower, the style is aptly compared to the famous opera house in Sydney, Australia. Yet, the design incorporates aspects specific to the religion, including its nine-sided shape, which is an important symbol and common throughout the world’s Baháʼí temples.
The Lotus Temple has now become one of the most visited sites in all of India, as it sees an estimated 10,000 people per day.
While anyone is allowed to go inside the temple, the true beauty is best seen from the gardens outside (in my opinion). Baháʼí temples are fairly bare on the inside, as sculptures, idols, and music are not allowed.
Delhi is known for having some of the world’s best paratha. Paratha, a type of flatbread that is believed to have originated in North India, is no ordinary flatbread.
To make paratha, dough is made with flour, water, salt, and ghee. The dough is then rolled out, slathered with more ghee, and rolled out again. This process is repeated multiple times and then cooked until slightly crispy on the outside on a piping hot pan.
The repeated rolling and addition of ghee develops layers within the flatbread, which leads to a flaky, delicate inside, and what sets it apart from other flatbreads like roti.
Paratha can also be stuffed, including with potatoes (aloo), cauliflower (gobi), and onion.
So if you find yourself wandering the alleyways of Chandi Chowk and see someone lathering and rolling out some dough, do yourself a favor and grab a paratha.
23. Gurudwara Bangla Sahib
Last but certainly not least on the list of eye-popping places of worship in Delhi, is the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. A Sikh temple located in the heart of Connaught Place, it attracts thousands from all over India (and elsewhere) every day.
A Gurudwara is essentially a house of worship, so visitors come to pray, eat, and spend time in the healing waters of its famous well. It’s not quite as famous as the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in the Punjab state, but the white marble walls and golden domes are nonetheless a sight to see.
The site was formerly the home of a Rajput ruler, but it gained its reputation for healing in the 17th century. Sikh ruler Guru Har Krishan was staying there, and he provided the community – in the midst of a cholera outbreak – fresh water, saving many lives.
Every single day, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib is open and operates a langar, which is a communal kitchen that serves meals for free. To put some visuals to the scale of the operation, take a look at this video that shows how the temple serves tens of thousands of visitors every day.
People from all religions and walks of life are allowed, and eating a meal at the temple is one of the most special experiences to be had in Delhi. If you visit, just make sure to wear a head covering, and don’t take any pictures while inside the complex.
The thing about Delhi is that it’s too big, has too many people, and has too many stories to tell for it to all fit in one article. Entire classes could be taught about medieval-era history, culinary techniques, and modern politics, all focused on Delhi alone.
Some of the most serene, holy houses of worship from the world’s great religions are found here. And in Delhi, they butt up against the hive of humanity that are the city’s streets, markets, and alleyways. This contrast between old and new, and calm and frenetic, is what makes Delhi, Delhi.
So, this article is simply an infinitesimal taste of what Delhi was, is, and will become. To truly learn about this mega city, you have to get on the ground, and let the city and all of its layers simply wash over you.