The Akshardham temple in Delhi lit up in the evening

My Secret City: New Delhi

India’s capital city has a unique charm – steeped in history yet bustling with modern life, noise and colour. Alumna Kritika Narula (MSc 2018) takes us on a journey through her vibrant home city.

New Delhi has a blink-and-you-miss-it beauty. It’s crowded, it’s busy. But even amid the concrete jungle, we find respite in the hubs that punctuate the cityscape. There’s the Connaught Place market in the centre, nightlife in Hauz Khas Village and the iconic Khan Market shopping district for restaurants, bookshops and establishments that offer a taste of the city’s historic charm.

"New Delhi changes its colour with the weather – scorching yellows in the sunny and sweaty summers, breezy and ominous greys in the monsoon rains, and the spring flowers paint the city in all colours at once."

For each popular market, there are nearby nooks I love to explore. In Hauz Khas neighbourhood in the south of the city, there’s Shahpur Jat, a tiny hip and bohemian urban village that’s home to designers’ studios and quirky shops. Close to Connaught Place, one of the main financial and commercial centres of New Delhi, there’s Paharganj, a bustling area full of tiny shops selling everything from boots to local dishes. To contrast the malls and complexes in Saket, there’s Champa Gali, a pretty area with cafe-lined lanes. As much as I love exploring the mainstream, it’s these hideout places that I truly enjoy.

Another trademark of the city’s personality is its flowers. Pale purple periwinkles are ubiquitous and evergreen, while the amaltas flowers herald New Delhi summers. In the spring months, bougainvillea thickets line up, along with kusum trees, and the city’s autumn is marked by the strong scents of raat ki rani (night-blooming jasmine).

The Tibetan settlement colony of Majnu-ka-tila in the north of the city is a special place for me. A refugee settlement, MKT or 'Little Tibet', feels like a world of its own. The colony houses a monastery, several street vendors, small shops in alleyways selling winter gear and kitschy accessories, and more recently, stores that sell Tibetan and Korean foods, ingredients and snacks. If you can get yourself out of bed early enough, you should head there to see the colourful colony, strewn with Tibetan prayer flags, as hawkers and vendors set out their shops, and the sun rises across the Yamuna River.

New Delhi is home to some of the most iconic bookshops. As an avid reader, I have seen the city through the lens of its bookshops. One of my favourite ways to spend a day is a bookshop hop. I make a map of all the stores I want to visit and then browse through their collections, inevitably picking up new finds, from graphic novels and pop fiction to comics and rare editions. This trail includes the Oxford Bookstore in Connaught Place, Bahrisons Bookstore in Saket, the iconic Faqir Chand Books in Khan Market, Midland Bookstore in Hauz Khas, May Day Bookstore in Shadipur, and the recently opened chain of Kunzum Bookstores across multiple locations. It is an excellent way to spend my weekends.

"Each part of the city is rich in history, personality and culinary pleasures."

If there’s one thing New Delhi does better than any other city, it’s the seamless connectivity through the Delhi Metro. The clean, spacious stations connecting most corners of the city are a commuter’s delight. This connectivity across the city opens up economic opportunities for all. Travelling on the metro is an essential part of the Delhi experience, and make sure you travel on as many lines on the subway as you can – yellow, pink, red, green, violet … and we are still waiting for more! After decades of metro travel, my muscle memory takes care of my commute.

You haven’t enjoyed India’s capital city until you have experienced the winters here. It’s the only time New Delhi becomes amenable to a stroll. The area of the city called Lutyens’ Delhi — including the sites of India Gate, Lodhi Gardens, Nehru Park, Khan Market and Sunder Nursery – is ideal for soaking in the balmy, comforting sun on long winter walks.

The city is just as generous in giving us an escape. When I only have a day, I take the Vande Bharat Express to Chandigarh and visit friends in the city known for its architecture. Wide roads, lush greenery and Sukhna Lake make for a wonderful distraction from the New Delhi heat and dust. If I have more days to spare, I hop on one of the buses going to Himachal Pradesh for a taste of our mountains and valleys. The hill stations there (towns located at a higher elevation than the nearby plain or valley) are perfect for a scenic getaway with bonfires, hikes and local cuisine – with a special mention for siddu, a lentil-wheat flour dish made locally. My favourite hill stations include Jibhi, Shimla, Barog, Dharamkot and Mcleodganj.

My food & drink hit list

Culinary experiences not to miss
It took me some time to try all the classic New Delhi culinary experiences, but it was easy to see what the hype was about when I finally did. For truly delicious chole bhature (spiced tangy chickpea curry with fried leavened bread), head over to Sita Ram Diwan Chand in Paharganj. The Potbelly Rooftop Cafe in Shahpur Jat offers the best litti chokha (dough balls stuffed with gram flour, pulses, herbs and spices). For dabeli (soft rolls filled with spicy and tangy mashed potato, peanuts and chutney), try Gujarati Namkeen in Kamla Nagar. Other classic experiences include trying dishes from every state in India at the food court in Dilli Haat and gorging on waffles at Wenger's Bakery in Connaught Place.

"In New Delhi, food is not just a culinary indulgence; it is an experience."

Must-try street foods
In New Delhi, it is hard to go wrong with street food. From pav bhaji (thick vegetable curry served with a soft bread roll) to pani puri (deep-fried crispy puffed balls filled with potato, onion and chickpeas that you can pop into your mouth whole), each dish is deeply flavourful and tickles my taste buds. I recommend trying dahi papdi chaat (crackers layered with curd, chutney and spices), aloo tikki (potato patties with peas and spices) and jalebi (a deep-fried Indian sweet). Fancy outlets sell these dishes too, but nothing comes close to the real street food experience of eating by the roadside.

Time for tea (or coffee!)
We are a nation of tea drinkers, so you can best experience cutting chai (masala chai that’s been simmered and cut to half its serving size) from a 'tapri' or chai stall. There’s also the famous Cha Bar in Connaught Place with the widest variety of teas you’ve ever seen. But for caffeine enthusiasts like me, I highly recommend visiting Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters or Third Wave Coffee, both of which have branches spread across the city. Or, if you are feeling experimental, try Roastery Coffee House in Noida, in the National Capital Region – not only does it have the most experimental cold brews, it’s also an architectural delight. Imagine your cold brews with guava, pomegranate, coconut, cranberry and the like!

"I catch up with friends over drinks at Sidecar or The Turkey Project, both serving the most exotic and whimsical cocktails."

Best for brunch
Ama Cafe in Majnu-ka-tila (MKT) used to be a single-storey cafe that served the most amazing desserts and coffees. As a teenager, I’d spend hours there, cosy with a book, sipping coffee. Now, it’s a sprawling, multi-storey establishment with an expanded menu that attracts people from all over, and for good reason. Their brunch options are incomparable, and my first choice is always their banana pancakes paired with maple syrup.

Comfort food
Beyond brunch, you have the whole of Tibetan cuisine available in MKT. Kalsang Cafe’s momo (steamed dumpling) platter, the mud cake (rich chocolate dessert) at Lhasa Cafe, the shabhalay (fried bread stuffed with meat and cabbage) at Tee Dee Restaurant, and the thenthuk (hand-pulled noodle soup) at Rigo Restaurant are my go-to comfort foods.

A musical accompaniment
If you are looking for a calm place with melodious regional music playing, drop by Kham Coffee House in MKT and order a cuppa. Talking of a cuppa, Wongdhen Cafe, just down the street, serves excellent mocha. It hosts karaoke nights and live music, too!

This article was first published January 2024. All opinions expressed are the views of the author and are not endorsed by the University of Glasgow.

The India Gate arch monument with pink sky in the background [Photo: Shalender Kumar, Unsplash]

India Gate stands as a memorial to 84,000 soldiers of the Indian Army who died in conflicts between 1914 and 1921.

Woman sitting at a marketplace stall selling a very colourful selection of goods such as wool and clothing [Photo: Alin Andersen, Unsplash]

Colourful market stalls selling a vast range of products are a browser's paradise in New Delhi.

The Red Fort with an Indian flag flying against blue sky [Photo: Shutterstock]

The Red Fort is a historic fort, commissioned in 1639, that originally served as the main residence of the Mughal Emperors.

Dome an minaret of Jama Masjid Mosque with the city of Delhi in the background [Photo: Shutterstock]

The city of New Delhi stretches out beneath the domes of the Jama Masjid mosque, the capital's largest mosque.

People in Urdu Bazar or market street of historical part of Chandni Chowk locality of Old Delhi in the evening [Photo: Shutterstock]

The Urdu Bazaar is a bright, colourful market located in the historical part of Chandni Chowk.

Outside of the Lotus Temple which is shaped like a flower, with a blue water pool in front [Photo: Shutterstock]

The Lotus Temple is one of seven temples of the Baháʼí Faith in the world. Like all Baháʼí temples, its structure is a nine-sided shape.

A man cooking a large pan of street snacks on a busy street in Delhi [Photo: Shutterstock]

Fresh street snacks are readily available in the market streets of New Delhi.

Papdi chaat street food on a platter with a dip (crackers layered with curd, chutney and spices) [Photo: Shutterstock]

Dahi papdi chaat are delicious crackers layered with curd, chutney and spices – Kritika's must-try street food recommendation.

aerial landscape of local homes in the mountain village and hill station of Jibhi surrounded by greenery and cedar forest [Photo: Shutterstock]

The beautiful hill station of Jibhi is situated among lush green cedar forest, surrounded by variegated mountains.