Delhi’s World Heritage Sites—the Red Fort, the Tomb of Humayun and the Qutub Minar—are ticketed monuments, so if you’re visiting them you’ll have to shell out money. Fortunately, Delhi has hundreds of other sights that aren’t ticketed. There are medieval tombs and mosques, temples, gardens, museums and galleries, colonial churches and innumerable other attractions that are historic, interesting, beautiful—and free. I’ve written about many over the years I’ve been a member of IgoUgo, so the list that follows has links to my reviews of the corresponding attractions.
1. Museums: Delhi isn’t really bursting with museums, and in any case, you’ll have to pay to get into the premier museum, the National Museum. But there are other museums that welcome visitors for free. My favourite is the lovely Crafts Museum in Pragati Maidan, with a stunning range of Indian handicrafts, including sculpture, ivory, religious art, and an exquisite collection of textiles. On the road to Gurgaon, in the Sanskriti complex, are twin museums: The Museums of Indian Terracotta and of Everyday Art. Though privately owned, these don’t charge entry fees. In a different vein, but also arty is the National Gallery of Modern Art, which has a fine collection of works by some of India’s best modern artists.
If you aren’t particularly keen on crafts, try something wacky: the International Museum of Toilets, perhaps? Or, if you’ve got kids along and you want to give them a dose of education with a difference, there’s the National Science Centre.
2. Gardens: Delhi is one of the greenest national capitals of the world, with its own reserve forests and lots of parks and gardens scattered across the city. While the majority are modern plantations, some have been around for centuries and are also home to some fabulous monuments. The best of the lot is by far the vast Lodhi Gardens, which has some of Delhi’s most splendid medieval tombs—some half a dozen emperors are buried here. The gardens also include the National Bonsai Garden, and are popular with joggers, morning walkers and picnicking families.
Other less fine medieval gardens include Shalimar Bagh and Qudsia Bagh, both dating back to Mughal times, and both with remains of Mughal pavilions and mosques. The Deer Park at Hauz Khas includes a number of interesting tombs and mosques, plus is adjacent to the imposing madarsa and tomb of the medieval Delhi Sultan Firuzshah Tughlaq—all with free entry.
If you’re in Delhi during the early spring, do check if the Mughal Gardens at the Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President’s estate) are open: they open for a month for the public, are free, and are a mass of really gorgeous flowers.
3. Mosques: Along with tombs, the one type of monument which Delhi is really rich in, is mosques. Thanks to a very long period of domination by a Muslim ruling class (beginning with the Slave Sultans in the late 12th century, up to 1857, when the British formally took over), Delhi has dozens of mosques, some of them magnificent, and none of them requiring payment for entry. The oldest include the massive Begumpuri Masjid, so large that for many years it provided shelter to an entire village, and the fortress-like Khirki Masjid, with its 81 domes. There’s the smaller but more elegantly decorated Moth ki Masjid
(‘the mosque of the lentil seed’), supposedly so named because it was made from the money made by cropping a single grain of lentil. There is India’s largest congregational mosque, the impressive 17th century Jama Masjid, with its eleven-arched facade and its three massive domes of white marble. The mosque can be entered free of charge if you aren’t carrying a camera, and do not wish to climb the tower of the mosque—both attract a fee. Also in the vicinity of the Jama Masjid are a couple of other smaller mosques that date back to later Mughal times: the Sunehri Masjid near the Red Fort; and the Zeenat-ul-Masajid in Daryaganj, superficially reminiscent of the Jama Masjid, but less elegant.
4. Tombs and dargahs: Like mosques, tombs too are a dime a dozen in Delhi. A dargah—the tomb of a holy person, which has acquired the status of a shrine, is typically supposed to confer sanctity on the surrounding area, so major dargahs, like those of Nizamuddin Auliya, Mahmud Roshan Chirag-e-Dehli and Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, act as magnets for the tombs of the rich and famous. Nizamuddin’s dargah, especially, is worth a visit—not just because the dargah itself is highly venerated, but also because it’s surrounded by a number of other fascinating tomb, such as the gorgeously inlaid and carved one of the 16th century nobleman Atgah Khan, and the rectangular marble hall, with its carved screen ‘walls’, which is Chaunsath Khamba, the tomb of Atgah Khan’s son, Mirza Aziz Kokaltash. While the tomb of Mughal emperor Humayun—also buried near Nizamuddin—is a World Heritage Site and therefore ticketed, the eye-catching blue domed Sabz Burj outside is free, and worth a look: it has some of the best-preserved and loveliest painted plaster to be seen in Delhi. The nearby Sundarwala Burj (like Sabz Burj, the tomb of an unknown aristocrat) has arguably the most beautiful example of incised plaster in Delhi.
Further south, away from the environs of Nizamuddin’s dargah, another small but spectacular tomb, its ceiling and walls decorated profusely with paint, is that of Jamali-Kamali. The mosque and tomb of Jamali-Kamali lie within the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, which also contains other sights worth a visit: the tomb of the pre-Mughal emperor Balban; a grand stepwell; some unidentified tombs, and a collection of structures dating from the early days of the British in Delhi. Scattered across south and central Delhi are other tombs too: for instance, the tomb of the ambitious yet ill-fated Adham Khan, in Mehrauli; the tomb of Yusuf Qattal, and the nearby tomb known as Lal Gumbad (‘red dome’, even though the dome is of blackened organic mortar), near Malviya Nagar; and the dargahs of the Sufi saints Mehmood Roshan Chirag-e-Dehli and Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki.
5. Miscellaneous Structures: Along with the tombs and the mosques, there are other structures, generally of a secular nature, that lie outside ticketed monuments. The range is pretty wide: Satpula, for instance, is a waterworks; Jahaz Mahal may have been a travellers’ inn; Zafar Mahal was a palace owned by Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal emperor. The madarsa of Ghaziuddin Khan—once a college—is even today a school. Bang next to the madarsa of Ghaziuddin is the Ajmeri Gate, one of the extant 17th gates of the walled city of Shahjahanabad. This, along with other gates such as Kashmere Gate and Delhi Gate, and a short stretch of wall punctuated by a mortella tower, is all that remains of the wall, even though this area of Delhi is still popularly known as the Walled City.
The Walled City, or Shahjahanabad, is among Delhi’s most colourful and interesting areas, with attractions as varied as 17th century mosques (like the Jama Masjid and the Fatehpuri Masjid) to colonial buildings, street food, and some of the best shopping in town. If you’re looking for saris, bolts of silk and satin, jewellery—this is where you come to get the best bargains and the most exhaustive range of goodies. Walk down Kinari Bazaar just for the glitter of it all; stroll through Katra Khushal Rai to catch a glimpse of the grand old mansions that used to once dominate this area—or feed the birds at the amazing Jain Bird Hospital.
Last but by no means the least, are the colonial buildings across Delhi, many of them grand official structures. India Gate, the memorial to the Unknown Soldier, commemorates the dead of the First World War and marks the centre of New Delhi. Around it are other buildings that comprise Lutyens’s Delhi: Parliament House, Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President’s Estate), and the Secretariat buildings, all very imposing and historical, though out of bounds for the average visitor. Also part of Lutyens’s Delhi (and open to visitors) is the Cathedral Church of the Redemption, ashlar-built of the same golden-buff stone as that used in all the official buildings. Another landmark church in Delhi is St James’s, near Kashmere Gate: it’s Delhi’s oldest church, and has a fascinating history to it.
This isn’t an all-there-is list, not by any stretch of imagination; but if you’re trying to save rupees but don’t want to skimp on sightseeing, make a start by visiting these places.