Not gonna lie, we were really apprehensive to go to Delhi, especially as our introduction to India. That goes against basically all the travel advice we’ve read online - everyone says Delhi is too intense, too chaotic, and that it exposes travelers to the worst aspects of India right off the bat. Well, all of that is true, but we’re glad we started here, and not only because our flight from Kathmandu was dirt cheap. It’s absolutely insane. It’s by far the craziest place either of us have ever been by FAR, but it’s also giving us a crash course in surviving India and for that we’re grateful.
Delhi slapped us in the face literally as soon as we got off the metro. I had the hostel details (and all of greater Delhi) saved in my offline places in Google Maps, and we knew we were walking distance from there, but we didn’t expect walking to be quite so insane. As soon as we stepped out into daylight, we were accosted with all the sights and sounds (and smells) that Delhi is infamous for. Blaring horns, clouds of dust, human waste, rickshaws, and most of all, people everywhere. Steeling ourselves, we made our way through the chaotic streets, dodging traffic that seemed to obey no rules (we passed several traffic lights that were clearly just for decoration) and avoiding all the touts who were trying to push us into their autorickshaws with choruses of “where going, lady?” One guy literally just looked at us and hit the seat of his rickshaw while grunting dramatically. Yeah, hard pass on that one.
Resolutely, we ignored everything around us and pushed onward to Paharganj, the neighborhood we’d be staying in. It’s the backpacker’s ghetto of Delhi, a crowded, dirty, incredibly busy pocket of town where all the hostels and budget accommodations are clustered. We actually made it to our hostel without incident, although we were followed by a particularly aggressive tout for a couple blocks but that’s just par for the course here and it’s kind of funny seeing how hard they try to sell you on whatever it is they’re offering. This guy, for example, was INSISTENT on getting us to stay in his (probably terrible) hotel, and despite the fact that we never responded to him, he kept asking us ‘which hotel?’ and demanding all kinds of info from us. The secret to handling touts, it seems, is just to ignore them, because if you start talking they have an in and then they’re harder to get rid of. Luckily, both Alex and I went to Northwestern which means we have years of experience avoiding people on Sheridan Road, so we had no issue just pretending not to see or hear anyone who approaches us.
Mercifully, our room was ready once we got to our hostel and we immediately crashed, mentally and physically drained from lugging our bags across this insane town. We’d booked a room with A/C and were so glad we did - even though it’s winter, it’s still almost 90 degrees and miserably hot during the day. Although A/C rooms cost more, we would not recommend cutting corners here. We were also glad to have booked a place slightly off the main road of Paharganj, because the streets are unimaginably noisy - every car, scooter, and autorickshaw has a horn and they all use them VERY aggressively. Alex has severe tinnitus already, and by the end of our stay in Delhi he could hardly hear himself think for all the noise. You just never get used to it, it’s absolutely insane and by far the hardest thing to deal with in our opinion.
As it turns out, we timed our Delhi stay pretty horribly: we stayed from Saturday through Tuesday and many sites and markets are closed on either Sunday or Monday (it’s hard to tell which, sometimes you just have to go there to find out). Plus, apparently the Italian prime minister was in town and was visiting all the sites, so we were unable to go inside the Red Fort. But we did manage to get over there and snap a few photos. It was unbelievably crowded, though, and we were accosted by touts and auto rickshaw drivers trying to get us to take ‘tours’ which in India just means they take you to overpriced shops and try to pressure you to buy stuff because they get commission. No thanks.
Because of our poor timing, and because doing anything in Delhi is a massive undertaking that requires all your mental energy, we kept a low-key schedule and only felt capable of doing one “scheduled” thing per day. We still felt like we had a good introduction to Delhi, but we’re glad we didn’t stay any longer because it truly is a city of constant sensory overload and by the end of our stay, we were ready to move on.
The best thing we did, by far, was take a street food tour. Both Alex and I are obsessed with Indian food (back home, our Friday night routine was ordering Indian and watching a movie), so we knew we wanted to try ALL the street food. But we also didn’t want to get Delhi belly, especially after my little ‘incident’ in Nepal. Plus, Delhi is just an insane city to navigate and we figured having a guide show us around Old Delhi would take away some of the stress.
We went with Food Tours in Delhi and highly, highly recommend them. We were hesitant at first because the tour was fairly expensive - at 4000 rupees a person it literally cost the more than our private air-conditioned room for three nights, but it included all the food and transport between markets, and considering how little money we’ve spent in Delhi so far we decided it was okay to splurge for the experience. We are so glad we did! We wound up in a group with two older couples (we kinda figured at that price point it would mostly be old people and we were right) and together we roamed the streets of Delhi, stopping at a zillion food stalls and trying all kinds of unbelievable foods. Among the delicacies we sampled were: chole bhature (spicy chickpeas with puffed bread), potato curry, parathas, naan, and kachoris with all kinds of magical fillings, sweet and salty lassis, kulfi (a light, airy dessert), and even cookies! If you’re wondering how I can remember all this stuff, it’s because I’m now keeping a note on my phone titled “SUPER DOPE INDIAN FOODS” with everything we eat because it’s all amazing and I don’t want to forget any of it.
Beyond the food tour, we ate incredibly well during our stay. We made an effort to try at least one new dish at every meal, and Delhi has zillions of restaurants specializing in everything from South Indian (dosas!) to Mughal cuisine (super rich!) to pan-Indian (gimme some of everything). And, of course, we had so many amazing thalis. Thali just means ‘plate’ - it’s the standard South Asian way of serving a bunch of curries with rice and/or flatbread. Thalis are often all-you-can-eat, but you get so much food I don’t think we ever asked for seconds on anything. It’s an amazing way to try a ton of new things and every place does their own kind of thali so you never get the same food twice. And a ‘deluxe’ or ‘maharaja’ thali at most places, which includes naan (more expensive than roti) and extra dishes like raita (my fav) plus a dessert, usually only cost us between 140-200 rupees, which is around $3, so we figured it was OK to splurge.
Another thing you might find surprising if you know us well is that we’ve been eating almost 100% vegetarian. If you’ve read anything about traveling to India you know it’s recommended to go veg while you’re here because a) meat, especially chicken, is more likely to be undercooked here or sit out for a while catching germs, and that can be wayyyy more dangerous than a raw carrot; and b) many if not most Indians are vegetarian and so there are a billion incredible veggie options out there. I’m happy to report that we don’t even miss meat. The food is just so good meat isn’t even on our radar. Well, except that we did pay a visit to Nando’s, because, well, Nando’s. It was by far our most expensive meal in India and we don’t expect anything to surpass it, but we regret nothing. Nando’s is Nando’s, and it’s delicious all around the globe.
So yeah. Delhi was an adventure like we’ve never experienced before. We’re so glad we came here first, because although it is chaotic and filthy and crowded and pretty much everything you’ve ever heard about this city is true, it’s also an incredible introduction to this mystifying, beautiful, intoxicating country. By the end of our stay, we were definitely ready to move on, but making this our first stop helped us acclimate faster than we probably would have otherwise.