Melanie Ball discovers laneways of silver, sandstone monuments and mayhem on the subcontinent.
As engrossing as it is exasperating, Delhi is a heady mix of noise and unexpected calm, ostentatious wealth and inescapable poverty, technological wizardry and spaghetti power lines. Home to some 12 million people (and counting), India's sprawling capital is much more than a stepping stone to somewhere else in the world's second-most populous country.
See Humayun's Tomb in soft morning light. Humayun was India's second Mughal emperor and architectural elements of his elegant red-and-white mausoleum reached perfection in the Taj Mahal.
Humayun's Tomb is off Mathura Road, Nizamuddin East. Open sunrise to sunset. Entry costs 250 rupees ($6).
Take a taxi to India Gate, New Delhi's central war memorial, and walk west along traffic-free Rajpath (Kingsway) to the Raj-era government buildings at its end. The extensive gardens surrounding the palatial Rashtrapati Bhavan (President's House), which were tended by hundreds of gardeners during Viceroy Mountbatten's residency, are open to the public several days a year between mid-February and early March (see incredibleindia.org for dates).
As you promenade the 2½-kilometre Rajpath, buy postcards and ice-cream from hawkers, watch large, noisy family groups picnicking on the grass and then join in a cricket match.
Step back centuries at the Red Fort in Old Delhi, the seventh of at least eight cities built within New Delhi's vast metropolis. Stroll down the souvenir arcade where royals once bought fineries. Marvel at the inlaid marble in the Hall of Private Audiences and imagine candles flickering in the hall of mirrors. The Red Fort is extremely popular with Indian tourists, so every filigree window and door reveals flashes of red, green, yellow and pink saris.
Opposite Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi. Open sunrise to sunset, closed Mondays. Entry costs 250 rupees.
Having dodged the hawkers loitering outside the fort, weave through Dariba Kalan (the silver jewellery lane) and Kinari Bazaar (extravagant bridal gear) to Jama Masjid, India's biggest and arguably most beautiful mosque. This sandstone and white-marble masterpiece of Islamic architecture was the final excess of Shah Jahan, the Mughal ruler who built the Taj Mahal. Leave your shoes on the steps and tread barefoot across its courtyard, large enough to fit 25,000 worshippers, to the southern minaret. Women can't climb the tower without a male escort, however an Indian or foreigner will usually oblige. There is a superb view of Delhi from the gallery but the ascent is not for claustrophobics.
Jama Masjid, Kasturba Hospital Marg, Old Delhi. Open to non-Muslims 8.30am-12.30pm and 1.45pm to 30 minutes before sunset, closed noon-2pm Fridays. Minaret climb costs 20 rupees.
Head back through Old Delhi's labyrinthine bazaar quarter to Chandni Chowk, the crammed main thoroughfare, and lunch on a delicious dosa, a stuffed rice-flower crepe, in one of the countless cafes. A savoury fast feed at Haldirams costs about 120 rupees and they make sinful Indian sweets, too.
Hail a cycle-rickshaw, the most manoeuvrable means of escaping the Old City's congestion, and head to Connaught Place via the aromatic spice market. At Connaught Place browse the Indian handicrafts at the government emporiums (with set prices) before practising your bartering in the Janpath (Tibetan) Market. Pick up handmade paper, textiles, quirky T-shirts and contemporary Indian art in other local shops.
Flag an Ambassador taxi, manufactured to the Morris Oxford III design (1956-59) and agree on a fee (about 150 rupees) for the 10-kilometre drive south to Qutb Minar. This ancient complex's namesake is a 73-metre, five-storey victory tower begun in the 12th century by Afghani general Qutb-ud-din after bringing northern India under Islamic rule. At the foot of the sandstone and marble landmark is India's first mosque, which was built on the foundations of a Hindu temple using materials, so an inscription declares, from "27 idolatrous temples". Delhi's excellent Metro system is spreading across the city rapidly and ahead of schedule. A rail line to Qutb Minar, due to open in June, will transform the journey here.
Qutb Minar, off Aurobinda Marg, Mehrauli, southern New Delhi. Open sunrise-sunset. Entry costs 250 rupees.
Shop for antiques, silver jewellery, contemporary Indian art works and boutique clothing in upmarket Hauz Khas Village, adjoining the 14th-century tank (dam) dug to irrigate the second city of Delhi. Evening floodlights illuminate an ancient mosque, madrasa (college) and pavilions, best appreciated from above. Check if the open-air restaurant atop the village shops is open. If not, there are plenty of other great options for dinner. In the village, try Naivedyam (vegetarian), the Living Room (Mediterranean) or nearby Park Balluchi (one of Delhi's best Indian restaurants).
Hauz Khas is not located on a major thoroughfare so try to pre-arrange transport home with the taxi driver who drops you off. There should be Metro access from the middle of this year.
Hauz Khas Village is off Aurobindo Marg, about 14 kilometres south of Connaught Place, New Delhi. Most village shops and galleries are open 11am-6.30pm daily, except Sunday.
If Delhi hasn't exhausted you yet, celebrate over-the-top India at a late Bollywood movie session. Many Delhi cinemas feature Bollywood films. To book online for sessions in major cinemas, see pvrcinemas.com.
Singapore Airlines flies to Delhi with a change of aircraft in Sinagpore for about $1398. Thai Airways flies there with a change of aircraft in Bangkok for about $1688. All fares are low season return from Melbourne and Sydney and include tax. Australian passport holders require a tourist visa for India for a stay of up to six months. Delhi will host the Commonwealth Games on October 3-14.