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Why go now?
Late August and September mark the onset of autumn in the Indian capital. The monsoon rains have freshened up things and temperatures are falling, making this an excellent time to explore the many dimensions of Delhi. And, starting on 3 October, Delhi hosts the 19th Commonwealth Games – attracting athletes, media and spectators to a 12-day celebration of sport.
Competition is intense from Heathrow to Delhi: you can fly non-stop on Air India (020-8560 9996; airindia.in), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com), Kingfisher (0800 047 0810; flykingfisher.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com).
From 10 September, the Delhi Airport Metro Express (or "Orange Line" – part of the city's smart modern metro system) will run to New Delhi railway station (1) in the heart of the city, taking around 20 minutes for a fare of 150 rupees (Rs150/£2). Until then, expect a slow taxi ride, or even slower bus.
Get your bearings
Delhi comprises two cities. New Delhi, built by the British in the early 20th century, is laid out with broad avenues radiating from the commercial hub of Connaught Place (2). The main way of getting around is aboard one of the city's innumerable auto-rickshaws, little black-and-yellow three-wheelers that dodge through the city's traffic like hyperactive beetles; they provide a noisy, exhilarating and occasionally downright scary taste of Indian street life. Rickshaws are fitted with meters, but it's almost impossible to get drivers to use them, so you'll have to agree a fare before you set off.
New Delhi railway station (1) is roughly midway between New Delhi and Old Delhi; Ajmere Gate (3), a short walk from the station, is one of a number of fine old Mughal-era gates that still survive on the edge of Old Delhi – a disorienting tangle of bazaars that is centred on the main thoroughfare of Chandni Chowk and the Red Fort (4).
Accommodation in Delhi can be pricey. If you're on a budget, try the inexpensive but smart, modern Ginger Hotel (5) on Bhav Bhutti Marg (opposite Ajmeri Gate), just 200m from New Delhi Railway Station (1). Doubles start at Rs1,199 (£16), without breakfast (00 91 11 6663 3333; gingerhotels.com).
To rub shoulders with the city's beautiful young people, head for the Park Hotel (6) at 15 Parliament Street in New Delhi (00 91 11 2374 3000; theparkhotels.com). This cool, contemporary hotel boasts suave modern rooms and some of the hippest hang-outs in town, including the Aqua poolside bar, the Conran-designed Agni bar-restaurant, and the gorgeous Aura spa. Doubles go for around Rs8,100 (£110), including breakfast.
If you have a robust credit card, stay at the Imperial (7) at 1 Janpath in New Delhi (00 91 11 2344 1234; theimperialindia.com). Designed by Edwin Lutyens, this Art Deco landmark has sweeping lawns and bags of colonial atmosphere. Double rooms from Rs12,600 (£171), including breakfast.
For an instant overview of Indian arts and crafts in all their extraordinary variety, head to Baba Kharak Singh (8), one of the main roads radiating from Connaught Place. Here you'll find no fewer than 28 State Government Emporiums, one from every state in the country, showcasing a boggling array of collectables from Buddha carvings to Darjeeling tea. They open around 10am-7pm, though some take a lunch hour from 1.30pm. Marked prices are final – there is no haggling.
Also worth checking out are the funkier modern shops in the nearby Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan (9), including Tribes of India (unusual tribal Indian handicrafts), Industree (quirky homeware and environmentally friendly furniture) and Kamala (jewellery, toys, paintings).
Lunch on the run
Visit an Old Delhi institution, Karim's (10), on Gali Kababian, the side street by the south gate of the Jama Masjid (11); any local will point you in the right direction. Karim's has been in business since 1913 and still dishes up the old city's best kebabs, tandooris and Mughlai-style curries (prepared, it's claimed, according to the original recipes). The simple dining hall offers pleasant respite from the crowds outside. Prices are a snip and half-portions are available if you want to pace yourself.
Take a view
The magnificent Jama Masjid (11), the Friday Mosque, is the largest Islamic place of worship in India: the four soaring minarets tower over the old city. You can clamber up the 120 narrow and twisting stairs to the top of the south minaret for matchless bird's-eye views over the labyrinthine streets of the old city below. It opens 8.30am-12.30pm (to 11am on Fridays) and 2-4.30pm, admission Rs100 (£1.40)
Take a hike
Walk north from the Jama Masjid (11), past the fireworks shops of Guliyan Bazaar (12) and on to Dariba Kalan (13), Old Delhi's foremost jewellery bazaar, with shops selling a glittering array of silverware and precious stones. On your left you pass Kinari Bazaar (14), whose shops peddle wedding paraphernalia and other "fancy goods".
At the end of Dariba Kalan, you'll emerge on to the heaving Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi's principle thoroughfare and a fascinating slice of sub-continental life. Roughly opposite Dariba Kalan stands the unassuming little Central Baptist Church (15), founded in 1814 and the oldest Christian mission in north India. Turn right, passing the vibrant Gauri Shankar Hindu temple (16) and, almost next door, the Lal Mandir Jain temple, with its distinctive cluster of red towers. Ahead you can see the long, high walls of the huge Red Fort (4).
For a glimpse of Raj-era Delhi in all its pomp and circumstance, head for a drink in the 1911 Bar at the Imperial Hotel (7) at 1 Janpath. Seating is either in the quaint old bar, a time-warped period piece full of buffed mahogany, squeaky leather armchairs and colonial-era portraits, or grab a chair in the lounge overlooking the spacious lawns outside.
Dining with locals
For a fascinating corner of the city that few foreign tourists ever see, head to Paranthe wali Gali (17) ("Alley of the Parantha-makers"), an edible slice of city history, dating back to Mughal times. The alley is lined with small cafés selling all sorts of paranthas (thick, unleavened breads), served with yogurt, pickles or vegetarian curries and usually thronged with locals – aficionados claim Pandit Babu Ram to be the best. So cheap, it's almost free. Entrance to the gali is opposite the Natraj Restaurant at 1396 Chandni Chowk.
Sunday morning: go to church
Near Kashmere Gate, the Church of St James (18) was commissioned by the Anglo-Indian soldier James Skinner (1778-1841), son of Hercules Skinner, a Scottish lieutenant-colonel, and a Rajput princess. This little neo-classical gem is easily the most attractive church in Delhi. It has a chaste yellow exterior and a time-warped interior, with old wooden seats under a high dome and a number of moving memorials to British civilians killed in Delhi during the 1857 Uprising.
Just down the road from St James, the Red Fort (4) is Delhi's showpiece attraction; the former home to India's Mughal emperors, provides a fascinating glimpse into the opulent and cultured world of the country's most charismatic rulers. The spacious grounds inside are dotted with beautiful gateways, pavilions and mosques, including the grand Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) – an elegant red sandstone pavilion where the emperor once heard pleas and petitions from his subjects, and the exquisite, marble-clad Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque). It opens from sunrise to sunset every day except Monday, admission Rs250 (£3.30).
Out to brunch
Grab a table at the idyllic Lodi – The Garden Restaurant (19), located near gate number 1 of the lovely Lodi Gardens, a short hop south of the centre (00 91 11 2465 2808). Food leans towards European and Mediterranean, with some Indian touches, with good pastas, salads and tasty mezze platters. Sit either in the smart dining room within or in the lush gardens outside.
A walk in the park
Stretch your legs in the beautiful Lodi Gardens, easily the most attractive bit of green space in Delhi. Quiet paths wind between abundant tropical trees, with plentiful bird life in the branches. A grand series of medieval tombs is dotted among the trees and lawns; they were erected by nobles of the Lodi and Sayyid dynasties during the later years of the Delhi Sultanate.
Icing on the cake
End your stay in Delhi with the ideal evening. Start with a walk down Rajpath, Delhi's finest boulevard and the centrepiece of Lutyens' triumphalist vision for the new imperial capital. The experience is particularly magical towards dusk. Catch a rickshaw down to India Gate (20), a sub-continental Arc de Triomphe, then walk up the road's wide, grassy verges, usually busy with picnicking locals. Climb Raisina Hill (21), lined with Herbert Baker's two overblown Secretariat buildings, to the gates of vast Rashtrapati Bhavan (22), formerly home to the Viceroy of India and now occupied by the nation's president.
Gavin Thomas is author of the new DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Delhi (£7.99)
Additional research by Alexandra Kelsall