Editor's Note — CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN) — The best of Delhi is where the new Indian cool is being born. Once dismissed as a town of bureaucrats as inspiring as a damp sock, India's capital city is slowly but surely shedding its frumpy image. Delhi has the basic hallmarks of a buzzing world city: posh new hotels, glam restaurants and a huge and growing population.
To entertain the new throngs, amped-up venues are cropping up in Delhi like green grass after a monsoon. And if Mumbai has Bollywood, Delhi has high culture. Performing arts, book launches and tons of art galleries make the best of Delhi an Indian culture home base.
Meanwhile, the stunning architecture of the Mughal Raj and other older relics are stalwart anchors to the giddiness of development, making Delhi as attractive to business travelers as it is to camera-clicking tourists.
The Leela Palace
The Leela Palace: sexy with substance.
The Leela Palace
Recently opened, The Leela Palace does a modern take on Indian majesty, with gilt doors, velour and brocade, flowers everywhere and the quintessential fawning staff. Given its location in the heart of the Diplomatic Enclave, well-heeled locals frequent this best of Delhi hotel for the restaurants Le Cirque and Megu, guaranteeing a social buzz in the air.
The Leela Palace prides itself on its hotel-within-a-hotel. Guests staying in Royal Club rooms, as well as the Royal Club Parlor, enjoy a whole other level of hospitality. Limousine service to and from the airport, exclusive check-in and check-out, 24-hour butler service as well as complimentary welcome drink and meals are taken for granted.
Aman New Delhi: modernized northern Indian beauty.
Delhi's other hospitality giant is The Lodhi, an almost minimalist take on contemporary Indian luxury. The 67 rooms are done in stone floors and wood-panelled walls with muted patterns. Everything is pared down to a sleek contemporary design of typical North Indian aesthetics, softened by jaali screens and handmade rugs.
Though located on the edge of New Delhi,The Lod is great for first-time visitors who want to spend time in the adjacent Nizamuddin complex or play a few rounds at the nearby New Delhi Golf Course. This best of Delhi hotel is a resort-like, self-contained destination, complete with a steller spa, tennis and squash courts and gym.
The Oberoi, Gurgaon
The Oberoi, Gurgaon: business made beautiful.
The Oberoi makes business trips feel like vacations. Located in Delhi's satellite town and business center, Gurgaon, this branch of The Oberoi has the most spacious rooms of any best of Delhi business hotel. The smallest start at 58 square meters. The hotel also has a larger-than-Olympic-size heated swimming pool, 24-hour spa and what it claims is India's only cigar lounge. The Oberoi has a great location for conventions, with conference and banquet facilities that can accomodate up to 1,000 people.
New Delhi's Imperial Hotel is an art deco treasure. Grand white columns and rococo interiors are reminders of India's colonial era. Rooms are decked out in luxury, including Fragonard and Bvlgari toiletries. The ultimate in the best of New Delhi hospitality is the all-white Royal Imperial Suite, among one of Asia's largest luxury suites (approximately US$4,000 per night).
Colaba House, an expat operation in tree-lined Safdarjung Enclave run by Frenchman Pio Coffrant, is everything you'd wish a South Delhi bungalow to be. The boho boutique lodging is warm and comfortable, done over in generous doses of white interspersed with bolts of India-inspired colors. Rooms are bright, spacious and airy. The Greenhouse is a lovely lounge/dining area, which the owners encourage guests to treat as their own home.
One of Delhi's hottest new restaurants is the outpost of the New York institution Le Cirque. Famous for its mix of French and Italian cuisine, Le Cirque is also known for great people watching. In Delhi, it's no different. Le Cirque draws the city's fashionable and elite to munch on paupiette of black cod, foie gras, lobster risotto and creme brulee. The wine list features more than 100 choices. One thing about this best of Delhi restaurant: it's not too haughty to adjust dishes to suit diners' dietary restrictions.
With the top floor of The Leela Palace as its home, Le Cirque also has one of Delhi's best addresses. Children under the age of 12 are not permitted. Le Cirque serves dinner only, 7 p.m.-midnight.
Olive Bar & Kitchen
Practice your pout at the Olive.
Olive Bar & Kitchen
Housed in a converted Mughal mansion, the Olive Bar & Kitchen is a favorite of the capital's fashion industry. Decked out in a boho elegance worthy of the pages of Vogue Living, the Olive is a place to be seen, but not so much for chowing down. The Italian-French-Mediterranean menu caters to vegetarians, with creative dishes such as asparagus and fennel risotto. A wood-fired oven churns out thin-crust pizzas. But the food is underwhelming. Near the Qutub Minar, it has a beautiful setting for a long brunch getting into the thick of Delhi's scenesters.
Eat where Bill Clinton and Vladmir Putin sat down, at Bukhara, the pride of Delhi dining. Established in 1977, Bukhara's menu hasn't changed in years and it has maintained its reputation.The food originates from the Northwest Frontier, so this is the place to come for meats cooked in a tandoor oven, kebabs and Bukhara's famous dal. Vegetarians are certainly catered to, but it's the omnivores who win here. The raan, a slow-cooked shoulder of lamb, is a specialty with a cult following.
One of Delhi's most atmospheric restaurants, Circa 1193 has stunning views of the majestic Qutab Minar. The rooftop offers the best seats in the house. The menu is pan-Asian, with an emphasis on Thai and Japanese. We love the slow-cooked pork belly, buta no kakuini and cocktails with names like Geisha and Samurai. The service can be spotty, but nothing beats the ambience at Circa 1193. It's a great place to begin an evening with a drink and appetizer.
Chandni Chowk street food
Street food is Delhi's strong suit.
Built under the aegis of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the old city streets of Chandni Chowk are a hub for the city's best street food. You can start with a piquant dahi bhalla (spiced yogurt snack) from Natraj Dahi Bhalle Walle, before exploring the rambunctious lanes leading to Pandit Baburam Devidayal or Kanhaiya Lal Durga Prasad's in what's known as Paranthe Wale Gulli.
Paranthe Wale Gulli's fried, crisp parantha breads comes stuffed with the usual potato or paneer and the unusual banana or rabdi, a creamy Indian dessert. Nearby in Chawri Bazaar, Hira Lal Chaat Corner and Jugal Kishore Ramji Lal have perfected variations of fruit chaat.
Ashok Chaat and Shree Balaji Chaat Bhandar are go-to options for gol guppas and crispy papri chaat. The 200-year-old Ghantewala is Chandni Chowk's oldest sweet shop. Seasonal fruit-filled sandwich and cheeku fruit shakes are good at Anil Kumar Jain.
Smoke House Room
The psychedelic new Smoke House Room, aka Shroom, is a restaurant and club done all in white with curved forms and perforated screens meant to mimic the inside of a bunch of mushrooms.
With strategic colored lighting, the ambience of the Smoke House Room is supposed to remind one of being on actual magic mushrooms. The stunner here is the incredible view. A tinted-glass wall seperates clubbers from a panoramic view of the Qutub Minar. The Smoke House Room also enlists the country's best DJs to work the decks.
India's best live music venue, blueFROG opened its second branch in Delhi in late 2011. The club brings the best mix of local and international artists to the dance floor. As it became in Mumbai, blueFROG is now Delhi's nightlife benchmark. It's located in an old serai (traveler's inn) called The Kila, situated 100 meters from the Qutub Minar.
blueFROG, The Kila, Seven Style Mile, opposite the Qutub Minar, Mehrauli; +91 (0)11 3080 0300
Club circuit: Shiro, Lap, Hype
Though Kitty Su has hit all the right notes since opening in August with its pseudo-erotic Kama Sutra vibe, Champagne lounges and suspiciously large bathrooms, Shiro gets our vote for the most mad night out. With a Japanese name meaning "castle," the nightclub/restaurant draws regulars with an inventive drinks menu and pan-Asian bites.
Lap, also at the Samrat Hotel, and Hype, at the neighboring Shangri-La, cater to a younger crowd who prefer louder club beats. These two clubs are almost always filled to the brim -- the vibe borders on sordid after 3 a.m.
Shopping / Attractions
We dare you to bargain and not buy.
Your most comfortable clothes and hardest bargaining face are necessities when taking on the best of Delhi shopping. Delhi's best discoveries and bargains are hidden in the smallest streets and alleyways, such as the chaotic, camera-friendly byways of Old Delhi's Chawri Bazaar.
Along with jostles and sharp elbows, you'll find everything from collectible LPs to vintage cameras, antique silver jewelry and colorful spice and sweets markets. Vintage junkies go to Krishna Opticians in the murky, hippie café-lined lanes of Pahargunj for rescued old-school spectacles; or Hauz Khas Village for rare classic Hollywood and Bollywood film posters.
Sarojini Nagar is an export surplus market favored by everyone from chi-chi socialites to average housewives looking for everyday kaftans and kurtas. A good buy are juttis, Indian embellished slippers. You'll find cheap juttis at touristy Janpath, but in Pahargunj, Vishal Footwear stocks exquisite handmade juttis, many of which are made-to-order by Delhiites.
Vishal Footwear, 5083, Main Bazaar, opposite Khanna cinema, Pahargunj, New Delhi; +91 (0)11 2358 1960, 98993 35010
Krishna Opticals, Rajnish Sharma, 1568, NR Khanna Cinema, Main Bazaar, Paharganj, New Delhi; +91 (0)11 6514 1995, +91 (0) 92132 99332
Ask any local about the most beautiful features of their city and you'll be pointed in the direction of Delhi's many Mughal-era monuments. Outside the usual monument circuit of Lal Qila (Red Fort) and Purana Qila (Old Fort) -- which stage impressive son et lumière shows every evening -- you can also pack a lunch for the lawns around Humayun's Tomb, the grassy hill behind Hauz Khas Village, or the Lodi Garden mausoleums. From the tallest brick minaret in the world, the 72.5-meter Qutub Minar, the nearby Olive Bar & Kitchen is great for lunch.
Recommended: HoHo bus ride. Taking off from the Coffee Home on Baba Kharak Singh Marg, the newly introduced HoHo bus stops at 18 tourist destinations on a 65-kilometer loop of Old and New Delhi, taking in the Red Fort, National Gallery of Modern Art, Humayun's Tomb, Purana Qila, Lotus Temple, Qutab Minar, Hauz Khas Village, Dilli Haat and the National Museum. It's touristy, but a highly efficient way to see the sights.
Guidebooks will point you to the National Gallery of Modern Art, National Museum and maybe even the National Handicrafts & Handlooms Museum. These days, however, private galleries and collectors exhibit the most exciting contemporary Indian art.
In the Delhi satellite town of Gurgaon, The Devi Art Foundation is run by mother and son Lekha and Anupam Poddar, who have earned a reputation for showcasing India's upcoming artists. Nadar, of the new Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, made headlines for the whopping Rs7 crore she paid for artist Bharti Kher's dotted sculpture, "The Skin Speaks a Language Not its Own." Her museum houses other grand depictions of India's social fabric, including Subodh Gupta's "Family on Scooter" and A. Ramachandran's "Genesis of Kurukshetra." The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts owns one of the largest collections of archival photographs in South Asia.
Urban transport cheat sheet
Because navigation in sprawling Delhi isn't as straightforward as it can be in other Asian capitals, we've added a section dedicated to the logistics of getting around. Delhi is built in concentric circles, and losing your way is an inevitable part of the India experience. Tea helps, at the end of such days.
There's no better way to navigate Delhi's heavily trafficked roads than by making use of the city's spanking new Metro line. Crisscrossing the city and diving deep into neighborhoods, the Delhi Metro is a gleaming symbol of the city's ascent to the rank of global metropolis. Its latest addition, the Delhi Airport Express shuttle, brings you to Connaught Place in 18 minutes flat, otherwise a harrowing one-hour-plus road journey.
While the Metro lines swiftly connect north and south, east and west, good intra-line connectivity is sorely lacking, meaning commuters still have to rely on radio cabs and autorickshaws to move within some sections of the city.
Radio cabs and rickshaws
Radio cabs, such as Meru Cabs and Easy Cabs, are safe and reliable and congregate at most major crossings and markets. Insist on the meter for autorickshaws. It's not a given that drivers will turn them on when you get in.
Bus if you must
Delhi is also proud of its new line of buses, which were rolled out for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The air-conditioned Red Line is a great way to get around once you have the hang of its routes. Pay Rs50 for an all-day pass to anywhere in the city.