Delhi – with its tenacious touts and crush of mechanical and human traffic – can be downright confronting and confounding for the first-time visitor. But don’t let petulant first impressions muddy the plus points of this truly multidimensional metropolis. Scratch beyond the gritty surface and you’ll swiftly discover that Inia’s capital is sprinkled with glittering gems: captivating ancient monuments, magnificent museums, a vivacious performing-arts scene and some of the subcontinent’s yummiest places to eat.
A vibrant melting pot, you’ll hear a jumble of vernaculars spoken in Delhi, the most common being Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu. In terms of its layout, Delhi encapsulates two very different worlds, the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, each presenting deliciously different experiences. Spacious New Delhi was built as the imperial capital of India by the British; rambunctious Old Delhi served as the capital of Islamic India. Visitors can easily dip into both, spending half the day immersing themselves in history at the dramatic Red Fort, Jama Masjid and medieval-flavoured bazaars of Old Delhi, and the other half reviving themselves over frothy cappuccinos or frosty cocktails at one of New Delhi’s swanky cafés and bars. Furthermore, Delhi’s recent global cuisine revolution means that hungry travelers can now feast on everything from meaty Mughlai curries and plump South Indian idlis (rice cakes), to crispy wood-fired pizzas and squishy sashimi.
Agra’s magnificent white marble Taj Mahal stands like a bulbous beacon, drawing tourists like moths to a wondrous flame. Despite the hype, it’s every bit as good as you’ve heard. While Agra itself is a sprawling, bloated and polluted industrial city that few travelers seem to have a good word for, the Taj is not a stand-alone attraction. The legacy of the Mughal Empire has left a magnificent fort and a sprinkling of fascinating tombs and mausoleums, while the Yamuna River provides a suitably sacred backdrop. The Mughal emperor Babur established his capital here in 1526, and for the next century Agra witnessed a remarkable spate of architectural activity as each emperor tried to outdo the grandiose monuments built by his predecessors.
The city has a lively but chaotic chowk (marketplace) and plenty of places to stay and eat, but the hordes of rickshaw-wallahs, touts, unofficial guides and souvenir vendors can be as persistent as the monsoon rain.
Many tourists choose to visit Agra on a whistle-stop day trip – made possible by the excellent train services from Delhi. However, Agra’s attractions are much more than can be seen in a day, and if you have the time you can enjoy several days’ sightseeing with side trips to Fatehpur Sikri and Mathura.
Jaipur, the City of Victory, is chaotic and congested, though it still has a habit of tickling travelers pink. Stunning hilltop forts and glorious palaces fit like footprints from a rich royal past, candy floss-bright turbans blaze a trail through brilliant bargain-filled bazaars, and fluttering saris catch the eye like butterflies.
As the gateway to the desert state of Rajasthan, however, it’s also a city permanently under siege. Package tourists are captivated by (and offloaded on) the bustling bazaars, world-class hotels and clammy sophistication, while camel carts and cows waddle through diesel-soaked streets, rampaging rickshaw drivers hustle and burn past businessmen and tourists, and scores of street children beg outside huge jewellery shops and palatial hotels.