Colonial sophistication, Mughal grandeur, street food, traffic jam, summer heat, winter chill… each of the Delhi attractions has been endlessly eulogized, recounted, recommended or ridiculed depending on its individual merit. Of course, these clichés have become so for a reason but what to do in Delhi if you have already seen it all? What if you are on your 5th trip to the city?
The good part here is that Delhi sightseeing is NOT limited to the Red Fort, Qutub Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, Lutyen’s Delhi and the Old Delhi. As a matter of fact, the Old Delhi or Shahjahanabad is one of the newer settlements. Over the last few months, as a newbie in Delhi, I have forced myself to explore various monuments, ruins, markets, forts and cemeteries beyond the must-do tourist attractions in New Delhi suggested by the tour guides. This is an attempt on my part to list out some offbeat Delhi gateways, which are the best-kept secrets of Delhi that may be useful in case you are looking to do something different.
Please note that most of them are Historical attractions and if antiquity does not interest you then this may not work for you.
Discover Delhi’s Prehistory & Early Medieval History
Delhi has been the political epicenter of India for over a millennium now. But this region has been a seat of major civilizations since prehistoric times. Under those layers of Mughal, Pashtun and Rajput constructions lay further layers of unknown and unexplained history. One of the best examples of the same is the Purana Quila, which is a generally well known 14th-century archaeological complex. But in the 1950s, an excavation near the fort found artifacts of a far distant past. These Painted Grey Ware artifacts date back to at least 1000 BC and this excavation site is probably the best way to start a date with Delhi in a chronological manner. This can be followed up with a visit to numerous Ashokan Pillars (~300 BC) scattered across multiple locations in Delhi including Feroz Shah Kotla, Greater Kailash, and Delhi Ridge. The small museum in Purana Qila has good information about them as a lot of excavations have been conducted in the nearby areas.
Take a walk through Mehrauli:
If you liked Old Delhi, then you must try out this even older part of Delhi. Of course, the immaculately maintained Qutub Minar complex is known to all. But I am talking about the living “urban village” of Mehrauli, which hosted the earliest cities of Delhi founded by the Rajput Kings and the Slave Dynasty that unseated them. The Qutub complex and the adjacent Mehrauli Archaeological Park has made an effort to protect the major clusters of these monuments. But there are far too many of them scattered throughout a large, densely populated locality. Even walking through those narrow alleys and locating them amidst modern day apartments and shops is an interesting exercise. Some of the major monuments you can look for include Zafar Mahal, Jahaz Mahal, Madhi Masjid, Gandhak-ki-Baoli, Hauz-i-Shamsi etc. For more details do read this excellent blogpost on Mehrauli. Also, there are monuments like Sultan Ghari, that are slightly away from Mehrauli but from the same era.
Explore Sufism beyond Nizamuddin:
The Dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia is the place where everyone goes for a soul-stirring Sufi experience in Delhi and rightly so. But it is not the only one. The aforementioned Mehrauli boasts of the Dargah of Bakhtiyar Kaki, the oldest of all the Sufi shrines in Delhi. Drop-in here for a dose of Sufi Music on Thursday evenings. You can also visit the Ashiq Allah Dargah on the edge of Mehrauli and almost inside the forests or the Chiragh Dilli near Greater Kailash. All these shrines have interesting myths and anecdotes associated with them.
Tughlaqabad and Jahanpanah:
Jahanpanah is one of the older cities of Delhi built around the 14th century by Muhammad bin Tughlaq. As of now, it is a completely residential area with several monuments in various states of preservation scattered over the present-day localities of Malviya Nagar, Kalu Sarai, Begumpur etc. Try to locate the Lal Gumbad, Begumpur Masjid and Bijay Mandal. On the other hand, Tughlaqabad us located further south and it was also contributed by the same dynasty. Tuqhlaqabad is a better known, gigantic construction. But as a quick detour, also check the Adilabad Fort nearby.
Retrace the Mutiny & Revisit The Raj:
Popular history is often sugar-coated with epic love stories and anecdotes of genial monarchs prevailing over tyrants. But if you have the stomach for the grotesque and the tragic, explore the trails of the mutiny of 1857, the first big uprising against the British that eventually turned out to be the last nail in the coffin of the already decadent Mughal Dynasty. Most of the vestiges related to this gory period are concentrated around the Kashmiri Gate area, which now serves as a bus terminus as well as a major metro station. Check out the bullet marks on the gate and the walls. Go through the list of soldiers who laid down their lives engraved on the Mutiny Memorial, learn about John Nicholson’s story at the cemetery named after him, check out the remains of the British Magazine and of course do not forget to visit the likes of Khooni Jheel (Bloody Lake) and Khooni Darwaza (Bloody Gate) to find out why they are called so. You can also explore other vestiges of the Raj such as the Coronation Park.
Go Spotting Nilgais:
The Nilgai or the Indian Blue Bull is the largest antelope species found abundantly in India. What is interesting is that amidst all the deforestation and extinction of other species, this one has somehow held its own even in a highly populated city like Delhi. They mostly live in the reserved forests of the southern part of the city but can also be seen roaming on the streets in search of food. You can spot them in the bushes near the Jawaharlal Nehru University, inside the reserve forests of Sanjay Van and also near the Tughlaqabad Fort.
Explore the Reserve Forests of Delhi
Delhi weekend outings are now complete without a trip to its reserved forests. They are not only the lungs of Delhi but they also possess many hidden gems that you can uncover. For example Sanjay Van in Mehrauli swallowed up the remaining walls and bastions of the old Rajput city called Qila Rai Pithora. Similarly, the Central Ridge near Chanakyapuri contains an allegedly haunted, Lodhi Era building called Malcha Mahal as well as the small but serene Dargah of Moluddin Chisti. The Kamala Nehru Ridge up north contains some Colonial Era relics such as the Flagstaff Tower and the aforementioned Khooni Jheel. Read the story of the haunted house here. Another notable forested area within the city is the Jahanpanah City Forest in South Delhi.
Soak in the bucolic charm of Delhi’s Weekly Markets
Weekly markets are a regular feature in the villages and provincial towns of India. But while other metropolises in India have embraced the swanky malls and supermarkets, most parts of Delhi have maintained their old-worldly charm through these markets that conjure out of nowhere once every week. Such flea markets sell everything you can imagine and this is where you get a feel of the hinterland right at the heart of the capital. Watch out for the Sunday bazaar near Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, Monday market at Karol Bagh, Wednesday market at Govindpuri, Thursday Market at the historic Masjid Moth, and so on. Check this post for more traditional shopping options in Delhi.
If you are in Delhi with your companion, then also Shopping is a great way to explore and relax together. Here is another list about things to do for couples in Delhi.
Visit the Historic Gardens of Delhi
Delhi boasts of quite a few Gardens. Mughal Garden, Lodhi Garden and Deer Park are quite famous among them. But there are several others of various sizes, mostly built around already existing archaeological sites. So, while jogging through them, you are likely to stumble upon forgotten monuments and ruins that capture your imagination. Try out Roshanara Bagh, Qudsia Bagh, Shalimar Bagh and Sunder Nursery. Check this link for a better write up on Sunder Nursery area.
Night Photography at the Bhagirath Palace Lights Market
This is actually a large palace in Chandni Chowk. But the surroundings have grown in such a congested manner that it is hard to imagine the original glory of the palace that used to be surrounded by spacious promenades and gardens. It was originally owned by Begum Samru, a Kashmiri woman who married a European soldier and grew in prominence during the early days of the Raj or for that matter during the last days of the Mughals. Her story is enchanting and once there was a Bollywood biopic being planned (Although I think the project was shelved). Anyways, now the lane by the side of the Bhagirath Palace houses a lights market full of white goods. It comes alive after dark as the chandeliers and other items start glowing. It is a good place to try your hands on low light photography if you are serious about the craft. You can find more details about Begum Samru in this post.
Get A Slice of Northeast India at Humayunpur
Never heard of it? Well, a lot of people have not. But Humayunpur is gradually gaining prominence and soon it will become the next HKV or at least the next Shahpur Jat. A huge diaspora from Northeast Indian states live here and over the years, they have opened up their own restaurants and shops. You will find Mizo Restaurants, Naga Restaurants, Manipuri Restaurants, and there is even one serving Burmese food. Apart from that, there are a few things underground that I can’t mention but only those who seek can find them.
Bonus: Wildlife & Birding Tours in the Outskirts of Delhi
Yes, there are jungles near Delhi and they are not overrated like most other things around big cities are. I have seen more birds in one birding trip near Delhi than I had seen in my entire life in many better known national parks. However, this activity is not suitable all the time. Winters are the best time when you can spot migratory birds as well as blackbucks and other animals.
So, is this a comprehensive list? Of course not! As a matter of fact, Delhi can look different to different people according to their perspectives. For instance, try out this blogpost to understand a foreign visitor’s perspective of Delhi.
Nevertheless, there are many other places to see in Delhi I keep stumbling on new attractions every day. But I hope this encourages everyone to explore beyond the obvious. I will probably make a second list. Do drop in a comment in case you have suggestions… or brickbats for that matter.
More Offbeat Resources
I love going offbeat as much as I dislike cliched choices. I will keep adding more offbeat ideas from popular Indian destinations as I find them.