A GUIDE FOR FIRST TIME VISITORS TO INDIA’S CAPITAL
Before heading off to visit the capital of India for the first time, please read these 18 tips for surviving Delhi. This essential guide provides important advice to prepare you for some of the things you will encounter, what to do, things to avoid, and help keep you safe, so that you can enjoy your experience.
Having recently visited the fascinating country of India for the first time and staying for over 1 week in the exciting city of Delhi, I am pleased to say, I survived relatively unscathed. My experience in Delhi was certainly eye-opening and definitely like no other place I have ever seen before anywhere in the world, especially Old Delhi.
If you are planning a trip to Delhi, before you head off on your adventure, there is some important information you should know and precautions I recommend you take. This guide for first time travellers to Delhi is based on my own experiences.
I should state upfront that I am a fairly cautious traveller, I don’t take unnecessary risks, and prefer spending a little extra for clean, safe and more comfortable options, especially as a mother of 2 children.
I never thought I would go to India, but I finally decided to take the plunge and visit in 2019. My husband’s background is partly Indian so that was my main reason for wanting to go. He has been to India many times so I felt quite at ease.
I don’t like to start off on a negative note, but most of Delhi is very dirty, I’m sorry to say, but it’s true. The first thing you will notice as you drive from the airport is the overwhelming amount of rubbish on the streets. Piles of garbage are almost everywhere, containing building debris, recyclables, food scraps, animal waste and everything else you can imagine. People go about their lives with the filth around them, as they have no choice. They cook and sell their produce, children play, cows and dogs wander around and eat from the rubbish.
The government seems to find it impossible to deal with the massive rubbish problem and any effort made by locals seems futile. Little recycling is done and the landfill sites around Delhi are sky high. Combined with the fact air quality and water quality is also very bad, which is caused by a number of factors, the UN considers Delhi to be the most polluted capital in the world.
In spite of this, my advice is you have to try and look past it. You can’t dwell on it, or you will miss seeing the wonderful things about Delhi – the colour, the sound, the history, the monuments, the architecture, the culture, the people, the food, the markets and so much more.
Interestingly, the tourist attractions and the diplomatic areas are clean, with no rubbish at all.
You just have to avoid walking where there is a lot of rubbish, as it can be dangerous. Take transport instead of walking if possible. I know it’s usually nice to walk a city on foot to get to know it better, but Delhi isn’t really a great city for walking.
POPULAR TOURIST ATTRACTIONS IN DELHI
Most people speak some English, so it is easy enough to communicate. The main language is Hindi, but many other languages are spoken also, as Delhiwaalas come from all around the country.
This is one of the most important tips for surviving Delhi. The tap water is unfit for drinking, or even brushing teeth with. Only drink sealed bottled water, or you will most likely get ‘Delhi belly’. Don’t bother with filtered bottles, as bacteria can still get through.
When showering, close eyes and mouth, and do not swallow any water.
Be aware that some street vendors refill used bottles with tap water, so check that the seal isn’t broken when purchasing bottled water.
Public toilets in Delhi generally are not clean and don’t have toilet paper or soap, as it is customary for most Indians to use a water hose next to the toilet for cleaning themselves. So, always carry some tissues/toiletpaper/wipes/hand sanitiser with you and be prepared.
Always use Insect Repellant, tropical strength, when outdoors for protection against mosquitos which can spread Malaria and Dengue Fever. Covering up also helps protect yourself from bites.
Be sure to bargain for things in Delhi. In other words negotiate on an agreeable price when paying for taxis, rickshaws, and goods at markets. It’s expected that you will, and is a useful skill to master. But remember, prices are often already cheap for many tourists. So you may be haggling over a minor amount of a few dollars, that doesn’t really make a big difference to you, but makes a huge difference to them and being able to feed their families.
You will no doubt be overcome with emotion at the extreme poverty you will be confronted with in many areas. I was overwhelmed with sadness at seeing young children sleeping on the street. But there isn’t anything we can do about the homeless situation as tourists. Some people take tours of the slum areas. I don’t need to see these parts, I know they exist and it saddens me to see how they live, and not be able to help them.
You will most certainly be confronted with beggars too in Delhi. They are often found to be near tourist attractions, train stations and shops. They even come up to cars at intersections trying to sell you pens or some other goods. They can be quite insistent and bang their fists on the car. It’s a little scary.
Often they are working for a gang and have to hand over what they collect. Sometimes they use children to beg for them or hold a baby that is drugged. We gave money to a little girl who approached us, who then walked over to an older woman.
It’s best to say ‘no’ firmly and ignore them. If you give to them you will be surrounded by more, but of course it’s a personal choice. You can give them food or clothing as an alternative.
9. Staring by locals
Intense staring from the locals is something you can’t avoid, whether you are female or male, especially if you have light coloured hair and light skin. You will be viewed as a celebrity. People may want a photo with you and you may even get kissed on the cheek. I had a lady do just that, after having photos taken with her, but it was perfectly harmless. If you’re not comfortable with this, tell them ‘no’. Bear in mind, many of the people are from rural areas outside of Delhi, who aren’t used to seeing tourists, so we are a bit of a novelty.
10. Tour guides
It is a good idea for first timer travellers to Delhi to take a tour or hire a guide to take you around. These are quite inexpensive and will look after you when dealing with locals, scammers, beggars, etc. I felt much more comfortable going out with a trusted guide, who knows the local area well, and what things should cost and would give me advice. So handy when visiting Delhi for the first time.
Furthermore, Delhi isn’t the type of city you can walk around, as there aren’t really footpaths to speak of, you need to walk on the roads where cars, trucks, bikes, trikes, cows and other animals all share the space with pedestrians, so it is definitely safer and easier to have a driver/rickshaw rider take you around. You should take a photo of your driver’s details if possible.
Scams are commonplace in Delhi, so you need not be naive and don’t trust strangers who offer unsolicited advice or want to change your plans. For example, taxi drivers may try to take you somewhere other than where you want to go on the pretence that the other place has burnt down. Don’t agree to this. Be wary and always trust your instincts.
Book taxis from booking counters, or through your hotel, or use Uber, Ola or one of the other new and cheaper cab apps that are now available in India. Don’t go with anyone that walks up to you offering a taxi, especially a free ride, otherwise you risk getting scammed.
Choose accommodation wisely. Central Delhi and South Delhi are the safest places to stay, and are close to most tourist locations. You can find accommodation to suit all budgets and tastes. For the top of the range luxury, I suggest The Leela Palace Hotel. Read about my wonderful stay.
Another option is to stay just outside of Delhi in one of the suburbs. Noida is worth considering, as you can stay at a great hotel for less.
As a first time traveller to Delhi, I suggest avoiding street food, unless you’re on a food tour. Food cooked by street vendors is often prepared using unhygienic practices and utensils washed in dirty water. As tourists, many of us come from developed countries and haven’t been exposed to conditions of developing nations. If you are really tempted, try a small amount and see if you are ok afterwards. You may be lucky and not get sick. Personally, I wouldn’t buy food sold on the ground or uncovered in busy streets, or from places that look dirty. I am vulnerable to food poisoning and have been sick in developing countries after eating food unhygienically prepared.
Also avoid very spicy food if you are not used to it and try not to overeat, as this creates havoc with your digestive system as well.
I enjoyed eating from the hotel restaurants where I stayed and had fabulous Indian food and other types of cuisines too, for a bit of variety.
Avoid eating salads or fresh fruit that has been cut for you, or anything raw. Only eat hot, cooked food. Also, do not have ice in drinks. Only drink bottled drinks, no fresh juices either. This may sound a bit extreme, but necessary and is not too difficult. Also, you may want to consider eating vegetarian, as meat is not as popular and often not prepared properly.
14. Customary practices
- When greeting people it is common practice to put both your hands together, bow slightly and say ‘namaste’, both on arrival and upon leaving. It is a sign of respect for the Indian culture. Men may shake hands with each other, but they should not touch females.
- Funnily enough, shaking of the head from side to side usually means ‘yes’ and conversely, nodding the head up and down can sometimes mean ‘no’.
- Don’t touch food with your left hand, as it is associated with cleaning oneself. Eat with right hand only.
- Tipping is not necessary, but it has come to be expected that tourists will give tips.
15. Female tourists
Much advice is given about safety for female tourists and I will give my own opinion on this matter.
My tips for surviving Delhi as a foreign woman is avoid going out alone. Some do, but you will get a lot of unwanted attention, which I personally don’t like. Especially avoid going out alone at night. If you have to go somewhere alone, use a hotel driver or one of the other apps I mentioned earlier. I always travelled with my husband and had no problems. Alternatively, go with a friend or a fellow traveller.
What clothing to wear is an issue for females. Men can wear whatever they want most of the time. Females unfortunately will be noticed more and be touched, grabbed or worse, if you stand out too much. So please wear clothing that is more to the standard of the local female dress code. Don’t wear any revealing clothing, shorts, mini skirts, or low necklines. Always wear clothing that covers your body and legs. Exposed arms are ok. Do not wear tight fitting clothing. These recommendations apply to everywhere you go as a female tourist.
Also, if you have long hair, you will attract more attention if it is down, so consider wearing it tied up most of the time. Keep a lightweight scarf and sunglasses handy for when you want to be less conspicuous.
If you are alone, have some pepper spray in your day bag. Keep this phone number for women’s helpline – WOMEN HELPLINE IN DELHI : 1091
Also, be sure to use the designated train carriage for women if you have to travel alone on the trains.
16. Petty crime
Be careful with your personal belongings as pickpockets are lurking around tourist areas. As with any big city, theft does occur. Don’t flaunt valuables and keep them close to your body, or leave them in a locked safe at your hotel.
17. Best time to visit
Temperature-wise, the best times to visit Delhi are September to November, or February to March. During these periods you will experience comfortable weather for travelling around. The hottest months are May and June. I went in July and it was very hot at 35 degrees celsius some days and high humid everyday. The monsoon periods are June to September. The coldest months are December to January.
Make your safety a priority at all times and always take precautions. Avoid going where there are mass gatherings of people. Try not to stay out too late. Avoid undesirable areas. Don’t put yourself in potentially dangerous situations.
I hope my tips for surviving Delhi help you on your travels in this amazing city. Don’t let the negative things stop you from enjoying all the wonderful things on offer.
If you have any questions or comments, you can leave them below.