Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi)
Still surrounded by crumbling city walls and three surviving gates, the vibrant, bustling Shahjahanabad, built over a period of 10 years by Emperor Shah Jahan, is very much a separate city -- predominantly a labyrinth of tiny lanes crowded with rickshaws, and lined with 17th-century havelis (Indian mansions), their balustrades broken and once-ornate facades defaced with rusted signs and sprouting satellite dishes. Old Delhi is inhabited by a predominantly Muslim population whose lives revolve around work and the local mosque, much as it was a century ago.
The best way to explore the area is to catch a taxi or auto-rickshaw to Red Fort, then set off within Shahjahanbad in a cycle-rickshaw (agree on Rs 100), or on foot if it's too congested. Head down the principal street, Chandni Chowk, which leads from the main entrance to Red Fort. Along this busy commercial street are mosques, a church, and a number of temples. First up, opposite the fort, is Digambar Jain Temple, the oldest of its kind in Delhi and surprisingly simple compared with other Jain temples, which are renowned for the intricacy of their carvings. Attached is a bird hospital, which smells less charming than it sounds. If you're pressed for time, skip these and proceed to vibrant Gauri Shankar Temple (look for the mounds of marigolds, sold to worshipers as they enter), which has an 800-year-old lingam. Or stop at Sisganj Gurudwara, an unassuming but superbly atmospheric and welcoming Sikh temple, which marks the spot where Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru, was beheaded by the fundamentalist Aurangzeb (Shah Jahan's intolerant son). You will be expected to hand over your shoes at a superefficient kiosk and wash your hands and feet at the cheap taps plumbed right at the temple entrance; on the way out you may be offered food -- no harm in indulging, if not for the food, then to appreciate the generosity that permeates Sikh culture, and to experience the rare joy of receiving sustenance from a stranger, which can be both uplifting and humbling. Then, either turn left into Kinari Bazaar or head the length of Chandni Chowk to Fatehpuri Masjid, designed by one of Shah Jahan's wives. Take a detour to the right into Church Mission Marg and then left into Khari Baoli -- reputed to be Asia's biggest spice market -- the colors, textures, and aromas that literally spill out into the street are worth the side trip, but be careful with your belongings in these packed streets. Then double back down Chandni Chowk, turn right into jam-packed Kinari Bazaar, and stop to admire the cheap gold (we're talking mostly tinsel) and silver trinkets and accessories. Or keep going until the right turn into Dariba Kalan, "the jewelers' lane," where you can bargain hard for gorgeous baubles. Go south down Dariba Kalan to reach Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque, keeping an eye out on the right for the tall spire of Shiv Temple. Having explored Jama Masjid, you can head west down Chawri Bazaar for brass and copper icons and other souvenirs, then up Nai Sarak (which specializes in the most magnificent stationery, some bound into diaries). Or head south to Churiwali Galli, the "lane of bangle-sellers," and make a final stop at Karim's to sample the authentic Mughlai cooking that has kept patrons coming back for over 100 years. A little farther along is Sunehri Masjid, recognizable by its three gilt domes from where the Persian invader Nadir Shah enjoyed a bird's-eye view as his men massacred some 3,000 of Shahjahanabad's citizens in 1739.
This done, you've pretty much covered Shahjahanabad's top attractions by rickshaw; the last remaining sights of interest that lie further south within the old city walls are the pretty Zinat-ul Masjid (Daryaganj), or "Cloud Mosque," built in 1710 by one of Aurangzeb's daughters, and nearby Rajghat (Mahatma Gandhi Rd.; daily sunrise-sunset; leave shoes outside with attendant for a small tip), where Mahatma Gandhi, "Father of the Nation," was cremated. There's not much to see besides the black granite plinth inscribed with his last words, "Hé Ram!" ("Hail God!"), but it's worth getting here at 5pm on Friday (the day of the week he was assassinated), when devotees gather to sing melancholic bhajans. Nearby, Gandhi Memorial Museum (tel. 011/2331-1793; Tues-Sun 9:30am-5:30pm) documents his life and last rites, which must have been immensely moving. Also within the old city walls is Feroze Shah Kotla (Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg), the ruins of the palace of the fifth city, Ferozabad. The principal attraction here is the pristine polished sandstone pillar from the 3rd century B.C. that rises from the palace's crumbling remains. One of many pillars left by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka throughout North India, it was moved from the Punjab and erected here in 1356. North of Red Fort is St. James Church (Lothian Rd. near Kashmiri Gate; daily 8am-noon and 2-5pm). Consecrated in 1836, Delhi's oldest church was built by Col. James Skinner -- the son of a Scotsman and his Rajput wife, who became one of Delhi's most flamboyant 19th-century characters -- to repay a promise made during battle. (Note: For good tours within the old city, we recommend Tallis & Company.)
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.