Delhi is one of the world's ancient cities, with a complex and layered history dating to 1000 B.C. Today, however, the name "Old Delhi" chiefly refers to the walled city built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan — who also commissioned the Taj Mahal — when he moved his capital from Agra in 1639. Here, you will find grand monuments such as the Red Fort, where Nehru declared Indian independence in 1947, and the country's largest mosque, the Jama Masjid.
"New Delhi" was conceived by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and constructed between 1912 and 1931. The former imperial capital is now home to the Presidential Palace and India's government buildings, arrayed along the great ceremonial avenues of the Rajpath and the Janpath. During the traumatic partition of India and Pakistan, tens of thousands of Muslims fled Delhi, and the old city of Shahjahanabad fell into decline. New Delhi, in contrast, received a huge influx of Punjabi (mostly Sikh) refugees, all determined to strive and make good. This exchange of populations completely changed the character of the city. Many so-called "Dilliwallahs" still lament the loss of Delhi's sophisticated Islamic culture and its replacement by a brash business ethos. It is New Delhi that now revels in India's economic boom, while Old Delhi is sunk in apparently irreversible melancholy and decay.
Foreign tourists invariably stay at hotels in New Delhi, where most of the restaurants, shops, galleries and museums are also found. Aside from its grand Mughal architecture, the principal attraction of Old Delhi is the teeming bazaar of Chandni Chowk ("Moonlit Market"), today a chaotic and cacophonous place crammed with tiny stalls and smoky restaurants. But, as any Dilliwallah will remind you, 350 years ago, Chandni Chowk was the grandest shopping street in the world, the Faubourg Saint-Honoré of the mid-17th century.
One Old Delhi institution that still attracts a regular flow of overseas visitors is Karim's (16 Gali Kebabian, Gate No. 1, Jama Masjid, Tel. 2326-9880), a simple restaurant that has been serving traditional Mughlai cuisine for close to 100 years. Hidden away in a labyrinth of tiny alleys, it specializes in rich meat dishes such as tandoori burra, roasted spiced mutton, or the famous tandoori bakra, lamb stuffed with chicken, rice, eggs and dried fruits. Just getting to Karim's is an experience suited only to the more adventurous traveler, but the food makes the effort worthwhile.
Those who wish to sample robust tandoori cuisine in more reassuring surroundings should head to Bukhara (ITC Maurya Sheraton Hotel, Diplomatic Enclave, Sardar Patel Marg, Tel. 2611-2233), a mandatory stop for visiting luminaries for more than three decades. Some complain that the food is overpriced, but the celebrated sikandari raan (marinated, roasted leg of lamb) and black dal (lentils with tomato, ginger and garlic) are as delicious as ever.
Although meat and bread are the staples of northern Indian cuisine, Delhi provides plenty of options for the less carnivorous. Swagath (14 Defence Colony Market, Tel. 2433-0930) is a South Indian restaurant specializing in fish (especially a local favorite, pomfret), prawns and crab from the Spice Coast that runs from Goa to Kochi (Cochin). These are accompanied by lighter sauces based on ingredients such as coconut, garlic, mint and coriander.
When they dine out, Delhi's more affluent inhabitants tend not to eat Indian food, as they all have cooks who prepare Indian dishes at home. Italian cuisine is particularly popular, and Diva (M-8a, M-Block Market, Greater Kailash, Tel. 2921-8522) enjoys a justified reputation. Owner Ritu Dalmia is a minor celebrity, thanks to a TV show and a new cookbook, "Italian Khana," but she remains very much a hands-on chef. Her delicious interpretations of Italian classics are complemented by a list of more than 450 wines.
Many of Delhi's best restaurants — and certainly the ones most likely to appeal to foreign visitors — are found in the capital's major hotels. Among our favorites are The Spice Route (The Imperial, Janpath, Tel. 2334-1234), which serves exceptional South Indian and pan-Asian cuisine in a lovely handpainted dining room, and Wasabi by Morimoto (The Taj Mahal Hotel, 1 Mansingh Road, Tel. 2302-6162), an exceptionally fine contemporary Japanese restaurant. (Its presiding genius, Masaharu Morimoto, has numerous claims to fame, including that of having been executive chef at Nobu in New York.)
India's booming economy has led — as in China — to an explosion in the contemporary art market. Vadehra Art Gallery (D-178, Okhla Phase 1, Tel. 6547-4005) is perhaps the country's most important showcase for modern art, and promotes many leading artists with both exhibitions and publications. It also benefits from an association with the Grosvenor Gallery in London.
Gallery Nature Morte (A 1, Opposite Kamla Nehru College, Niti Bagh, Tel. 4174-0215) was originally founded by American Peter Nagy in Manhattan's East Village. He moved to Delhi in 1997 and began staging avant-garde exhibitions within a large private house. Nagy is nowadays extremely well-respected as a discoverer of young Indian talent (though on a recent visit, we were rather underwhelmed by an exhibition of contemporary photographs).
In complete contrast, Gallery 29 Sunder Nagar (29 Sunder Nagar [G. F.], Tel. 1108-7325), owned by the Kaicker family for the past 40 years, contains a wonderfully eclectic range of traditional Indian art, including miniature paintings, stone and wood carvings and fine textiles.
Despite the voracious demand in recent years, it is still possible to find high-quality shawls and pashminas in Delhi. We particularly recommend the Kashmir Loom Company (A 21, Basement, Nizamuddin East, Tel. 2431-8947, by appointment only), which offers a superb selection of silk and cashmere scarves, shawls and tribal blankets. Exquisite textiles, as well as fine enameled jewelry, can also be purchased at Bharany's (14 Sunder Nagar Market, Tel. 2435-8528, by appointment only), a famous family enterprise now run by a third generation.
Shopping for jewelry in India can be extremely entertaining, as it is still possible to find racquetball-size stones at a fraction of the price they would command back home. Large aquamarines and tourmalines can be unearthed from the hundreds of drawers at Silverline (18 Babar Road, Tel. 2335-0454), a friendly and informal place located on the first floor of a private house. At the other end of the spectrum, for the past century Kanjimull & Sons (Scindia House, Janpath, Tel. 2331-2073) has been selling precious jewelry to a star-studded clientele that has included the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy and Indira Gandhi. Padma Gems (9A Sunder Nagar Market, Tel. 2435-1513, by appointment only) generally operates at the same elevated level, though the company will also accept commissions from those on more restricted budgets. Distinctive Indian craft jewelry can be found at Amrapali (39 Khan Market, Tel. 4175-2024), while Frazer and Haws (11 Lodi Colony, Main Market, Tel. 2464-7818), a firm once patronized by Queen Victoria, continues to manufacture exquisite silver jewelry and collectibles 142 years after its founding.
Finally, two of our favorite stores that offer a quintessential Delhi experience are D. Minsen (F-17 Connaught Place, Tel. 4152-3520), a manufacturer since 1937 of bespoke polo boots, and the Aap ki Pasand Tea Co. (Sterling House, 15 Netaji Subhash Marg, Tel. 2326-0373), which sells the finest teas from Darjeeling, Kangra and Assam in the Himalayas, as well as from the lovely Nilgiri Hills in South India.
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