200km (124 miles) NW of Agra; 261km (162 miles) NE of Jaipur; 604km (375 miles) NE of Jodhpur

The capital of the world's largest democracy has a fascinating history, but with a population of 14 million sprawling over some 1,500 sq. km (585 sq. miles), and plagued by the subcontinent's highest levels of pollution, growth, and poverty, Delhi's delights are not immediately apparent. Even Delhiites, many of whom were born elsewhere, seldom show pride in the city they now call home, bemoaning its drab mix of civil servants, aspiring politicians, and avaricious business folk; the ever-expanding slums and "unauthorized" colonies; the relatively high levels of crime; and the general demise of traditional ways. Yet Delhi is in many ways the essence of modern India, with its vivid paradox of old and new, rich and poor, foreign and familiar.

Today, to the return visitor, what is startlingly noticeable is the unprecedented growth; to some extent, this is a natural, organic expansion, but it's also part of a mapped-out initiative to prepare the city for its highly anticipated role as host of the 2010 Commonwealth Games and as a leading Asian capital. Beyond the "Games City" moniker, there's the somewhat draconian-sounding "Master Plan for Delhi 2021," which aims to thrust the capital -- kicking and screaming if need be -- into a better, brighter (and, perhaps sadly, thoroughly Westernized) future. It's clearly a role that local government is taking seriously, because the change is palpable. As the city spreads, giving rise to entire new cities like Gurgaon and Noida -- devoted almost entirely to economic growth -- high rises and malls and residential colonies are mushrooming everywhere. Some residents are left with their jaws hanging in disbelief, but most work furiously at the altar of capitalist expansion. The expanding megalopolis of Delhi really is more "National Capital Region" than mere city.

Some believe the mobilization of capital and resources is responsible for quite positive transformation. Pollution levels are supposedly dropping, and government officials seem to introduce new modernization schemes every week. You're unlikely to see cows roaming the streets of the capital any more; those that dare are rounded up and taken to stray cow facilities, and in May 2007, the traffic department vowed to crack down on all forms of dangerous driving. But there are ill-considered political choices, too. In 2007, street food was officially banned in the capital (although you still find it practically everywhere), and there was fervent talk of outlawing cycle-rickshaws in Old Delhi. Sadly, such decisions often come from wealthy politicos who have never been into the heart of the old city and have little idea how much a part of daily Delhi life roadside food stalls and rickshaws are. Regardless, Delhi is on the move, indifferent to the loss of tradition as it plays an impressive game of catch-up with the West.

Delhi is an excellent starting point for exploring North India, not only because of its ample transport connections and relatively sophisticated infrastructure, but because the history of Delhi, one of the oldest cities in the world, is essentially the history of India.

The city is littered with crumbling tombs and ruins, most of which are not even on the tourist map. They -- like the elephant trundling alongside a traffic-logged road, where handwritten posters for CUSTOM CONFISCATED GOODS SOLD HERE vie with glossy fashion billboards -- are just part of the strange fabric of Delhi. It doesn't have the vibrancy of Mumbai or the atmosphere of Kolkata, but in 1 day you can go from marveling at the sheer grace of the soaring Qutb Minar Tower, built in 1199 by the Turkish Slave King Qutb-ud-din Aibak to celebrate his victory over the Hindu Rajputs, to gawking at that 1920s British imperialist masterpiece, palatial Rashtrapati Bhavan. You can wander through the sculptural Jantar Mantar, a huge, open-air astronomy observatory built in 1725 by Jai Singh, creator and ruler of Jaipur, experience the tangibly sacred atmosphere surrounding the tomb of the 14th-century Sufi saint, Sheikh Nizamuddin Aulia, or admire the 16th-century garden tomb of Mughal Emperor Humayun, precursor to the Taj. Or, after the chaos of exploring the crowded streets of 17th-century Shahjahanabad, Delhi's oldest living city, you can escape to Rajghat, the park where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated in 1948; or to Lodi Gardens, where lawns and golfing greens are studded with the crumbling 15th-century tombs of once-powerful dynasties. And still you haven't covered the half of it . . .

But despite its host of attractions, unless you're staying in one of its top hotels (of which colonial-era Imperial and spanking-new Aman are almost destinations in their own right), Delhi is not a very relaxing destination, and it is as famous for its pollution (rated among the top 20 worst-polluted cities in the world for decades) as it is for its sights. Unless you're a history buff or here on business or like to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of a big city, spend as much time as you need to recover from jet lag, choosing to view only a few of its many attractions (the best of which are listed below), and then move on. The rest of India, with its awesome array of experiences and beauty, awaits you.