New Delhi is the national capital of India and as such the administrative centre of the country and a modern city, which lives alongside the Old Delhi with narrow and chaotic streets. On the other side, Amritsar is a city close to the extremely guarded border with Pakistan and the holiest city of the Sikh religion with the magnificent Golden Temple.
New Delhi became the capital of modern India during the British empire. Since the move of the capital was planned, New Delhi was built accordingly, with big boulevards and imposing government buildings. However, the old city of Delhi with its small streets and historic buildings is still there.
Sightseeing in Delhi
We started sightseeing in Old Delhi. First we visited the Red Fort, which is an impressive fort, similar to the one in Agra. The entrance to the fort is through the imposing Lahori Gate, opening to a large complex of intricate buildings.
Directly in front of the Red Fort is the main street cutting through Old Delhi. It is worth walking up this street, discovering the busy life in Old Delhi, and having a quick look into the side streets. Most of this area is a compete chaos with cars, rickshaws and street vendors all over the place.
I usually like to take the public transportation in cities I visit, so I took the Delhi metro from Chandi Chowk to Rajiv Chowk. It was quite an experience. The metro system itself is relatively modern, but it’s extremely crowded and the security is a real concern. First you need to wait in a queue to buy your ticket and then everyone has to go through a metal detector, be patted down by the security guards and all your belonging have to be x-rayed. It is a real mess, everyone is rushing and pushing. There are even separate entrances for women and men. It is a really cool experience worth the hassle.
Rajiv Chowk (or Connaught Place as it was called by the British) is in New Delhi and is a huge roundabout with several concentric circles and circular buildings in between. It is all very British, almost disturbingly misplaced. In the centre of the circle there is a park with a huge Indian flag.
The centre of New Delhi is the so called Rajpath (the king’s way), an impressive mall stretching between India Gate and the Presidential Palace with many important buildings in between. It is nice to drive around and see the area, but I wouldn’t necessarily spend too much time exploring it. India Gate is particularly impressive at night, there are plenty of people hanging around, so it feels relatively safe.
I particularly enjoyed a visit to the Huyaman’s tomb in Delhi. This ancient complex is a nice display of Mughal era architecture in Delhi. Purana Quila is also from the same period.
Lodi Park is a nice park in the centre of New Delhi that provides a bit of a shelter from the very busy traffic and pollution.
All the way in the South of New Delhi is the famous Lotus temple that provides a space for all the religions in the world.
For the best use of your time in Delhi and the most efficient way to beat the traffic, I recommend renting a car with a driver. Someone that will have the patience to take you around in the traffic and you’ll be able to rest a bit. We had a nice driver with a very particular car.
Food in Delhi
Wagner’s bakery: Rajiw Chowk, block A, excellent paneer puffs.
Indian Accent: One of the top rated Indian restaurants. They offer a tasting menu of very innovative and modern Indian cuisine. A choice of veg or non-veg menu was available, the veg one was much better (as usual in India). Highly recommended.
Zaffran: North Indian food, very good for lunch. Recommended.
Hotel: Le Meridien New Delhi
Huge hotel, with an immense internal patio. Slightly impersonal but an excellent location.
Train to Amritsar
The train service to Amritsar is relatively good. There are express trains that stop at few places and make the journey in about 6h. We took the highest class of service, which was much better than my train from Agra, but still wasn’t that clean.
In this class of service they provide you with a complimentary meal service, which didn’t look that appetising.
Amritsar is mostly known for two things, the Golden Temple, the holiest temple for the Sikh religion, and the Wagah border ceremony on the Indian/Pakistani border. Apart from that, there is not much else to see in Amritsar and most of the town is quite sad.
Sightseeing in Amritsar
As already noted, the main thing to see is the Golden Temple. Actually, it is a whole complex of temples and other buildings, and most importantly the holy tank (pool) in the middle of it. Anyone can visit the Golden Temple, but before entering the complex you need to take your shoes off and leave them in a sort of shoe facility. The downside is that you need to walk across the whole esplanade and then the whole complex bare foot, which is not very hygienic in my perspective. To enter the complex everyone needs to cover their hair. You can buy some orange triangular pieces of cloth for 10 rupees, or take a used one from a bag at the entrance (yuck).
Inside you can walk around, observe people at their rituals, go to the Temple on the island, and see the holy book. Many men have a swim in the holy water. They also wear their swards at all times, even when they go into the water, they put their swords into their turban.
The complex is open 24h a day and I do recommend going there twice, once during the day and once at night. The sight of the illuminated Golden Temple at night is absolutely fascinating.
Every evening they perform a special ritual, whereby they take the holy book from the Golden Temple and store it in another building for the night. I don’t remember at what time it takes place, but try going there to see the ceremony. It is a bit hectic, there are many people and they are all pushing around. But it’s really interesting to see them carry the book on a special ‘carriage’ and the whole ritual performed around it.
Visiting the evening flag lowering ceremony on the India-Pakistan border at Wagah is an absolute must in Amritsar. It is well known that there are lots of tensions between India and Pakistan, and the nationalistic feelings come to the fore at the border ceremony every evening with a show of power.
Anyone can come and see the ceremony, just bring your passport. They have a special section for foreigners, but I would still recommend arriving at least an hour before the ceremony as huge crowds gather. There is a spontaneous (or staged) show coming up to the time of the actual lowering of the flags. There’s lots of shouting, Bollywood-style dancing and general provoking the other side. Same happens on the Pakistani side, with the difference that there are less people there (they don’t get that many foreign tourists in Pakistan).
At the time of the closing of the border, soldiers take extremely threatening positions against each other. It is a dance of which side has taller men and their feathered hats, and who kicks higher in the air directly in front of the other side, while NOT crossing the line even an inch. At sunset, the gate closes and the flags are lowered with military precision and absolute coordination between the two sides so that neither flag lowers before or after the other one. The ceremony is really something very unique (and bizarre) but really worth seeing.
Food in Amritsar
Crystal restaurant: Good food, good option for dinner.
Veg McDonald’s: I don’t like McDonald’s at all and I’m definitely not encouraging anyone to go to McDonald’s or eat fast food. However, it is quite an interesting sight of a vegetarian McDonald’s in India. Instead of the BigMac there is the MaharajaMac with paneer cheese.
Hotel Ramada Amritsar: Basic but good hotel. Very well located, only 10 min walk from the Golden Temple. However, the area around the hotel is a bit sketchy at night.
Overall trip evaluation
It was a really great and well organised trip around India in 10 days. India is a huge and diverse country, so 10 days is far from enough to see it all. But at least in 10 days I have the impression we saw the most important parts of Northern India, but we still have the whole South left to see.