Cape Town: A first-timer’s guide to the Mother City - United Hub

Cape Town: A first-timer’s guide to the Mother City

By Eric Rubens , December 07, 2019

Eric Rubens (@erubes1) is a MileagePlus® member based in Southern California. He is a photographer/videographer who loves meeting new people and traveling the world.

When planning a vacation, one of the first steps is picking a theme. If you're in search of mountains, many look to the Rockies, Swiss Alps, or Dolomites. If a tropical vacation is desired, Hawaii, Mexico, or the Caribbean may be calling your name. There are so many beautiful destinations in this world, but is it possible for one of them to be blessed with incredible mountains, picturesque beaches, and some of the best wildlife viewing in the world?

Cape Town is one of the few places I've found that seems to have it all. With the iconic Table Mountain and Lion's Head rising out of the city, there are hikes leading up to majestic views down the African coastline. The beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay are some of the most incredible beaches on this planet. If wildlife peaks your interest, there's Boulder's Beach, home to one of the only land-based penguin colonies in the world. Did I mention the safari is a short trip away? Add in an exchange rate that is very favorable and you have all the makings of a trip you'll never forget.

Camps Bay Beach in Cape Town Camps Bay Beach

Planning a trip to Africa for the first time can be both intimidating and a bit challenging. I found very few of my friends or family had been, which made my voyage to South Africa even more exciting. Cape Town is home to a hip urban scene, a vibrant melting pot of culture, and jaw dropping landscapes that'll make you wonder why you didn't visit sooner. There's no city quite like it, and this list of top things to do will make sure you maximize your time in the Mother City. Several theories exist regarding the origin of Cape Town's nickname as "The Mother City." Some say it can be traced back to the beginning of the city's history as a trading hub in the 17th century, or its status as South Africa's first metropolis. But many locals have their own theories – one running joke is that it takes nine months to get anything done in the very laid back city.

View from the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town View from the top of Table Mountain

#1: Take a hike or tram up to the top of Table Mountain

This iconic mountain rising from the city is arguably home to Cape Town's best views. The 2 to 3-hour hike to the top makes for a fun activity if you're up for it. Otherwise, take in the view from the aerial cableway, complete with 360-degree rotating floor and running every 5 minutes from the base. Once up top, there's plenty of walking trails, souvenir shopping, and food and drinks. Table Mountain is known for the blanket of fog that rolls over the peak, so weather at the top can change quickly. Make sure to check the weather before heading up and bring a jacket, since the wind can be intense!

Penguins at Boulder Beach in Cape Town Penguins at Boulder Beach

#2: Visit the penguin colony at Boulder's Beach

Even though it's an hour or so drive from the city, visiting Boulder's Beach and its nearly 2,000 penguins is an unforgettable experience. Watching the penguins lounge on the beach and come in and out of the waves makes for some incredible pictures and a unique encounter. You can also swim in the nearby waters and will often come face to face with members of the colony.

#3: Wake up for a sunrise hike up Lion's Head

One of the most bucket list-worthy activities on a visit to Cape Town is catching sunrise atop Lion's Head. It's a challenging hike and not for those with a fear of heights, but you won't soon forget the view from the summit. If you're willing to scramble and make your way up the final ladders, 360-degree views of the city await, and the sunrise over the city is one for the ages.

#4: Explore the Cape Winelands and the beauty of Constantia

South Africa has some of the best vineyards in the world. Even though the towns of Franschooek and Stellenbosch get the majority of the press, nearby Constantia is home to the oldest wine estate in the country, Groot Constantia. Its proximity (just 15 minutes from the city center) makes it perfect for a day trip. The city sightseeing "Hop-On Hop-Off" bus tour has a purple line that connects through this region, so getting here is easy! If wine tasting isn't your thing, the Alphen Trail is a beautiful trek through the countryside and sure to put you in a relaxing mood.

Chapman's Peak Drive in Cape Town Chapman's Peak Drive

#5: Take a road trip down Chapman's Peak Drive

One of the most beautiful drives awaits just south of Cape Town. Carved into the cliffs and winding along the ocean, this road between Hout Bay and Noordhoek offers majestic views of the coastline. Just make sure to keep your eyes on the road since the sheer beauty can be distracting!

#6: View the diversity of flora throughout Kirstenbosch Gardens

The flora and fauna of South Africa is some of the most diverse in the world, and no place showcases it better than Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Tucked along the slopes of Table Mountain and widely recognized as one of the most impressive gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch is home to over 7,000 species of plants. The newly completed Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway allows you to walk above the tree line. If you visit in summer, try to make one of the Sunday concerts in the gardens, which are a hit with locals and visitors.

V & A waterfront in Cape Town V & A waterfront

#7: Shop your heart out along the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront

Known as one of the biggest tourism hubs of the city, the always bustling V&A Waterfront is home to many of Cape Town's finest restaurants, shopping, and the launching point of many tours. There are countless ways to spend your time here, but make sure to stop by the V&A food market, where over 40 vendors sell gourmet street food from around the world.

#8: Make your way to the Southern tip of Africa

If you're up for an adventure, take a trip to The Cape of Good Hope. You'll most likely encounter penguins, baboons, and who knows what else along the 1.5-hour drive. The weather can be very unpredictable, so make sure to check it before making the trip south. While there, visit the lighthouse and if you're hungry grab a bite at the appropriately named Two Oceans Restaurant.

#9 Take a tour of historical Robben Island

Even though the prison has been shut down since 1996, a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Cape Town's most popular tours. Tours take around 4 hours including a ferry ride to the island famous for housing Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned.

Insider tips:

  • Use the "hop on hop off" bus for an easy guided tour of the city. The route takes you to many of the best spots throughout Cape Town and allows you to explore at your own pace. Buy tickets ahead of time to save on fare!
  • Cape Town has some incredible boutique hotels and bed & breakfasts. My favorites are: Tintswalo Atlantic, 52 De Wet Luxury Boutique Hotel, and Derwent House Boutique Hotel.
  • Make sure you don't carry too many valuables on you if you're walking around at night. Although beautiful and mostly safe, there is still a good amount of opportunistic crime throughout the city. Always pay attention to your surroundings.

You can purchase tickets now at united.com or on the United app for three weekly nonstop flights from New York/Newark to Cape Town beginning December 15.

**Opinions expressed by the author are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of United.

Finding our heart in Peru

By Kelsey + Courtney Montague , February 14, 2020

Sisters and United MileagePlus® Premier® 1k members, Kelsey and Courtney Montague, are constantly traveling to create street art pieces for communities around the world. This year they teamed up with us to travel to Peru to explore the beautiful country, and to create a custom mural for a very special group of young women participating in the Peruvian Hearts program. Peruvian Hearts, now part of our Miles on a Mission program, works to support female leaders with access to education, counseling and peer support

Finding tranquility at Machu Picchu

As we hiked up the ancient steps of Machu Picchu, we were surrounded by Incan merchants, servants and townsfolk climbing the stairs to start their day. As foreigners not used to hiking at 7,9000 feet, the locals sprinted by us as we struggled up the steep steps, with the lush rainforest behind us and ancient city just beyond. But even with burning legs and straining lungs, it's likely anyone's breath would be taken away (as ours was) once they reached the clearing above this sprawling city in the clouds. All thoughts of the slightly tortuous route we took to this dazzling ancient city were forgotten the second we laid eyes on this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Along with my sister Kelsey, our Dad and our friend Clay felt the power and mystery when we all arrived at the vantage point over the city of Machu Picchu. The day before we had traveled all day from Denver flying in United's stunning United Polaris®. We slept fully flat on two excellent flights, curled up on down pillows and wrapped in Saks Fifth Avenue comforters. We slept soundly after feasting on steak and chocolate sundaes and spent a layover chatting with bartender, Steven, as he made us cosmos at the United Polaris lounge in Houston. It was wonderful, but the best part? Arriving in Peru so rested and relaxed we were able to completely savor this moment at Machu Picchu. A moment only made sweeter when our Dad turned to us and thanked us for taking him on the trip of a lifetime and giving him the opportunity to see a place he never thought he'd get to visit.

We explore the ruins with the wide eyes of children, enjoying every view and savoring every piece of information from our guide. Llamas 'own' the ruins and gently nudge tourists aside as they scamper between buildings to their favorite pasture. The terraces on the outskirts of the town were used to prevent soil erosion and to farm maize and beans. Condors soar above our heads, their keen eyes hunting for chinchillas tucked into the terrace rock walls.

Incan community members that lived or worked in Machu Picchu must have felt the same way we felt the first time they came across this thriving metropolis, situated on top of a mountain. Incan urban planners neatly organized centers for astrological studies, religious ceremonies, sports, commerce and farming. The buildings were built from granite and limestone, likely from a quarry located on the same mountaintop. Some buildings were so finely constructed scientists still don't quite know how the Incans did it.

At the end of the tour we come to the sacred rock — a perfect, flat replica of the Yanantin mountain behind it. Some mystical members of society believe that touching the rock transmits tremendous power. I won't lie that I quietly let my fingers graze the stone as a I walked by. Did I feel a sudden power rush? No. But did I leave Machu Picchu filled with a sense of wonder and a reaffirmed belief that anything is possible? Yes.

Partnering with Peruvian Hearts

The next morning, we awoke ready to tackle the most meaningful part of our trip to Peru — working with Peruvian Hearts.

Peruvian Hearts works to support women by giving them access to education, counseling and peer support. They are currently working with 32 talented, bright young women who they have hand-picked from secondary institutions across Cusco. They focus on supporting brilliant engineers, psychologists, teachers, scientists and doctors. These are the future female leaders that will change their communities, their country and the world for the better.

When we arrive to meet these scholars, they cheer, and each young woman gives Kelsey and me a hug. Overwhelmed, we both begin to cry. We are so grateful for our job as a traveling street art team, but we are on the road so much we are often very lonely. We can't remember the last time we received so many hugs or saw so many bright smiles.

When we arrive to the Peruvian Hearts headquarters a number of the young women tell us how they found Peruvian Hearts. Aldi, a brilliant engineer in training, was asked to join this special organization because she was first in her class in secondary school. She grew up in tough financial circumstances — her mother is ill and unable to work, and her father works in construction. As the only person in her family who has attended university, she is the primary hope of her family. Tears stream down her face as she describes how tough it has been for her family to survive. So many of these young women tell similar stories and carry the weight of their entire family's future squarely and proudly on their shoulders.

These stories reaffirm the reason Kelsey and I decided to join forces with United — we hope to make that weight on their shoulders a little lighter. As we worked on the mock-up for the mural to commemorate Peruvian Hearts, United decided to help in another way by including Peruvian Hearts in their new Miles on a Mission program. A first of its kind program, United MileagePlus members can now donate their miles to nonprofits they care about. Miles that will help young women like Aldi attend conferences in the United States or study abroad in Mexico.

Other women will be able to travel more freely between their studies in Lima and their families in Cusco. The young scholars were so excited to now be part of the United family and to have access to the connections a major airline can bring.

After an ideation period Kelsey decided to create a large-scale heart flock mural with 32 hearts on one side to represent the young women in the program and 32 hearts on the other side to represent those to come. Over two days we painted the piece and filled it with items that represent Peru (a llama, a condor, Peru's national flower and butterflies), Peruvian Hearts (pencils, books, and a shooting star) and a United airplane. As we worked on the piece the ladies sang, danced and told us their dreams. Dreams to travel, learn new languages, start meaningful careers and change their communities for the better.

When we finished the piece — two massive streams of hearts that appear to be coming from the person standing in the middle of the mural — the girls came to thank us. With cheers, hugs and kisses they explained how proud they were that this mural was for them and how it would continue to lift them up as they work hard to improve their circumstances.

At the end of this project Kelsey and I felt so blessed to be connected to such a wonderful group of women. At that moment we realized that is what art and travel should be about. Art and travel should connect us to each other as humans and to something deeper within ourselves — a desire to lift each other up.

Visit United's Miles on a Mission program to support Peruvian Hearts .

We suspend travel to China and Hong Kong

By The Hub team

February 12, 2020

As we continue to evaluate our operation between our U.S. airport hub locations and Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai as well as Hong Kong, we have decided to extend the suspension of those flights until April 24. We will continue to monitor the situation and will evaluate our schedule as we remain in close contact with the CDC and other public health experts around the globe.

We suspend travel to Hong Kong

February 4, 2020

In response to the continued drop in demand, we are suspending travel to Hong Kong beginning February 8 until February 20. Our last flights will depart San Francisco on February 5 (flight 877 and flight 869) and the last returning flight will depart Hong Kong on February 7 (flight 862).

Please check united.com for important travel information as well as current travel waivers.

Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Delhi

By Hemispheres Magazine

Story by Priya Krishna | Photography by Marco Arguello | Hemispheres February 2020

A term that's often used to describe India's capital city is “organized chaos." This concept applies to every aspect of Delhi: the crowded streets, the boutiques and art galleries coexisting with centuries-old ruins, even the steady rhythms of the fruit vendors and chaiwalas traversing the city with their wares. As the capital, Delhi is home to some of the subcontinent's most famous sites, such as India Gate and Red Fort, but it also bears the scars of colonization—centuries during which it was divided and redeveloped in the name of the British Raj. In recent years, however, the city has undergone a transformation. Interwoven among the stately buildings and relics and beloved food stalls are new restaurants, markets, and developments that are leaning into India's bountiful heritage. Instead of gazing outward, Delhi, it seems, is finally looking inward.

Day 1: Exploring Old Delhi's mosques, street food stalls, and spice markets

There is no better way to deal with jet lag than to dive headfirst into the belly of the beast. Here, that means Old Delhi—the former capital of the Mughal Empire and, as the name suggests, the oldest part of the city. Old Delhi is 1,500 acres of sensory overload: rickshaw horns blaring, frying pooris giving off their nutty scent, and throngs of people (about 20 percent of the city lives here) weaving through narrow alleys and bustling streets.

But first, I load up on breakfast at The Oberoi, New Delhi, a venerable hotel right in the heart of the city. The spread is vast and varied, but I'm here for the idli, fluffy steamed rice cakes that taste like miniature clouds, served with a side of sambar (a tangy lentil and tamarind soup) and coconut chutney. To drink, a cup of milky, cardamom-laced chai. No one does mornings quite like Indians.

I've been visiting this city every couple of years since I was a kid. Also, I recently wrote a cookbook, Indian-ish, which features recipes partially inspired by what my parents ate growing up near Delhi. Indian culture normally dictates that I stay at my aunt's place, so it'll take some time to adjust to having a spacious room (and an automated toilet!) all to myself. But I'm excited to explore the city on my own for the first time.

Jantar Mantar, an astronomical observatory that dates to the 1700s
A breakfast of idli and chutneys at the Oberoi

After breakfast, I meet up with a Tours by Locals guide, Vishnu, and we take a short drive to Old Delhi. Along the way, we pass seventh-century ruins and the moat-lined stone wall that separated the palace complex from the rest of the city during Mughal times. I know we've reached our destination when we begin to share the road with cows and sugarcane juice vendors. Our first stop is one of India's largest mosques, the Jama Masjid, which was completed in 1656 to house relics of the prophet Muhammad. I can't help but compare the breathtaking structure—soaring red sandstone minarets, white marble domes, lines from the Quran carved in black onyx, a wide courtyard—to the Taj Mahal. “There's a reason for that," Vishnu says. “Same architect." That is, Persian visionary Ustad Ahmad Lahori, whom emperor Shah Jahan commissioned to design both.

From there, we take a brisk walk into Chandni Chowk, a busy stretch of markets where people are hawking everything from silver jewelry to gulab jamun (rosewater-dipped milk balls). I want to stop and browse at every stand, but Vishnu is on a mission—he wants to show me the havelis, centuries-old townhouses known for their elaborately decorated doors. I see one etched with incredibly detailed roses, another that's bright blue and outlined in mint-green vines. It's amazing that these painstakingly crafted relics are lingering in plain sight—you just have to know which alley to duck into.

A bathtub with a view at The Oberoi, New Delhi
Photo: Phruetthiphong Pawarachan/Getty Images

That last part is tricky, because Chandni Chowk has a lot of alleyways (galis, in Hindi). I have my stomach set on one in particular: Paranthe Wale Gali, which is home to a cluster of stands that sell only stuffed breads called parathas. Vishnu directs me to the oldest of them, a simple setup with just a few tables and no decorations that dates back to 1872. The sign out front says, “Minimum Two Parathas are Necessary." That won't be a problem. I order two stuffed with paneer, a mild, non-melting Indian cheese, and watch as a cook rolls out the dough, folds in crumbled paneer dotted with fenugreek and coriander, rolls it out again, and then slides it into a pan filled with ghee. It's served alongside sabzis (stewed vegetables). I tear a piece off and dip it into a pumpkin sabzi. It's a rich, crisp, spicy, and slightly sweet mess.

I'm struggling to keep up as Vishnu bounds through the crowded streets. Here, pedestrians occupy the same space as animals, rickshaws, and cars. “Walk like an Indian," Vishnu advises as he charges into traffic. Rickshaws magically get out of the way. “It's about walking confidently." I try my best to mimic him, but I can't help but flinch at oncoming cows.

A Chandni Chowk spice market

On Khari Baoli, one of the district's most bustling streets (and that's saying something), we browse a spice market, with its fragrant bags of cardamom pods and saffron threads, and then I pick up a vial of saffron perfume at a 100-year-old perfumery. My stomach rumbles. After all that walking, I'm hungry again.

I've been told that Karim's kebab house in Chandni Chowk is the spot for the city's finest grilled meats. The unadorned restaurant was started more than 100 years ago by the son of a chef who had been a cook in the court of the Mughal emperor, and the seekh kebabs are appropriately splendid. The glistening cubes of beef speckled with cumin and coriander are so tender they literally fall off the skewer.

After our (second) lunch, Vishnu motions me to follow him up a flight of stairs a few blocks from the restaurant. We ascend all the way to the rooftop, which yields a spectacular view. The entire city unfolds before me, from the grandeur of the Jama Masjid to the ornately decorated balconies of Chandni Chowk to the palatial government buildings freckled throughout New Delhi.

Parathas in Paranthe Wale Gali
Pepper crab at Indian Accent

Back at street level, I spy a group of plumbers, electricians, and carpenters napping in the shade, awaiting customers. “It's a good system," Vishnu insists. “If you need a plumber, you know exactly where to find one." I've started adjusting to the pace of Old Delhi, but looking at those snoozing handymen, I'm reminded that I could use a nap too. Back to the hotel.

When I wake up, it's time for dinner at Indian Accent. The famed tasting menu restaurant by globe-trotting chef Manish Mehrotra is a far cry from Old Delhi—the dining room is spacious, serene, and dimly lit, with a certain earthy glamour. A parade of dishes appears: pepper crab topped with idiyappam (crisp rice noodles); pork ribs laced with Old Monk rum and mango pickle; and for dessert, makhan malai, impossibly light saffron cream topped with rose-petal jiggery brittle and almonds. “The idea is to do pan-Indian regional food, but make it new," Mehrotra explains as he serves the last course. “The presentations and combinations are unique, but it is all rooted in the food I grew up eating."

Belly full, I head back to The Oberoi and crawl into bed. I may be stuffed, but I'm already looking forward to everything I'll eat tomorrow.

Day 2: Checking out a famous fort, a gorgeous garden, and a giant jewel

Today starts with another round of idli and sambar. I could get used to this. Post-breakfast, my driver (it's relatively cheap to hire one, and you can usually book through your hotel) takes me to Red Fort, a fortress that was the Mughal emperors' primary residence. Considered by many to be Delhi's most important monument, it's surrounded by a mile and a half of imposing red sandstone walls, with ornately carved domes and tall watchtowers. Inside, I explore the houses of the Mughal royals: Rang Mahal, which was home to the emperor's wives and was once painted in bright colors and decorated with mirrors; and Diwan-i-Khas, where the emperor doled out justice from his bejeweled Peacock Throne (which was stolen in the 18th century).

Next on my list: Humayun's Tomb, which was built in 1569 to honor Emperor Humayun. With its triptych-style facade capped by an imposing dome, the tomb served as inspiration for the Taj Mahal, which was erected nearly a century later. As I get closer, I can see all the tiny details that make the 154-foot-tall structure so stunning: the complicated marble inlay patterns that line the facade, the latticed windows where light streams in. Surrounding the building is an almost artificially green garden.

Café Lota, in the National Crafts Museum
India Gate

Speaking of gardens, you might be surprised to know that Delhi—a city known for its crowded streets—is full of public parks. I'm off to see the most famous one: Lodi Garden, which was both a garden and a tomb for the rulers of the 15th- and 16th-century Lodi dynasty. By the time I arrive, the sun is out, and the infamous Delhi heat is arresting. It's well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and I've soaked through my T-shirt before I pass the entrance. That doesn't stop me from being amazed by the little differences in design from all of the other structures I've seen. The tomb of the ruler Muhammad Shah, for example, is octagonal, and the dome is topped with a lotus flower. Around me, I see couples cuddling on benches and elderly aunties out for a stroll, admiring all the native tree varieties.

I'm melting, though. Time for indoor activities.

Back in the car, air conditioner blasting, we drive by India Gate, another of the country's most famous landmarks, a memorial to Indian soldiers who died fighting in World War I. A sturdy 138 feet in height, it's an anchoring point of the city. We drive around the entirety of the monument, which is crowded with tourists taking photos. I'd do the same, but I'm still drying out. Also, I'm hungry.

The grounds of Humayun's Tomb

I meet up with my aunt Manisha, who has lived her whole life in Delhi, at Café Lota. We're more than a decade apart in age, but when we're together we gab like old college friends. Warm, bubbly, and open to eating anything, she is also the perfect dining companion. Housed in the National Crafts Museum—a celebration of India's rich history of artisans and textiles—the breezy, indoor-outdoor café serves hyper-regional food showcasing the country's range of heritage lentils and grains. There's corn dhokla, savory fermented cakes from Gujarat adorned with crisped curry leaves, mustard seeds, and a fiery tomato chutney; cheela, a tangy pancake made of millet flour studded with chilies, paneer, cilantro, and green beans; and bhatt ki churkani, a stew of a local variety of black bean paired with rice and spicy potatoes. The flavors are wildly vibrant—unlike anything I've had before. I want to order even more food, but Manisha cuts me off. “We can barely fit what we have on the table," she points out.

The two of us digest our meals with a spin through the museum, where I find an early-20th-century purple sari embroidered with hunting scenes in gold thread. I'm also enamored of two hamsa (swan masks) from West Bengal, used in classical dance.

The Red Fort
The National Museum

I'm exhausted, but Manisha wants to check out the National Museum—an exhibit called Jewels of India is showing 173 gems and items of jewelry made of precious stones found in India. I'm dazzled by the main attraction, the 184.75-carat Jacob diamond. I also fall in love with a seven-string pearl necklace called a satlarah. Suddenly, my J. Crew silver chain isn't quite cutting it.

My dinner reservation is at NicoCaara, located in the Chanakya, an upscale mall in Chanakyapuri. The restaurant is a collaboration with the chic Delhi clothing brand Nicobar, and the space is appropriately stylish, with botanical wallpaper and plants in gold pots hanging from the ceiling. Cofounder Ambika Seth is one of only a few restaurateurs in India focusing on local sourcing: The goat cheese comes from Rajasthan, the avocados from Bengaluru. “We have this colonial hangover based on this strange complex that imported was always better," Seth tells me over a plate of nutty zarai cheese, made at a farm in Uttarakhand, near the Himalayas. “That's changing with my generation."

Dessert and design items at NicoCaara

The rest of the meal is a pageant of bold flavors—orecchiette with fresh pesto made using basil grown at Seth's organic farm, and a coconutty prawn stew from Malabar laced with rice noodles, lentils, and earthy mustard seeds. For dessert: a fluffy almond-orange cake with a dollop of not-too-sweet cream. I wish Manisha were here to try this—or at the very least to help me finish it all.

After dinner, I check into Bungalow 99, an apartment-style hotel centrally located in the Defence Colony neighborhood. The design here is minimalist and beautiful, but I barely have time to look around before my head hits the pillow.

Where to stay

Bungalow 99

More like a bed-and-breakfast than a hotel, Bungalow 99 is the kind of place that makes you feel like a local. This plant-filled family-run spot is wonderfully intimate, and Aditya, the owner, treats everyone like a guest in his home. A full breakfast is served in the dining room each morning, and every floor has a sun-filled living room and balcony, where you can lounge while looking out onto the lively area of Defence Colony.

The Oberoi, New Delhi

For a luxurious experience in a convenient location, there's no better place to stay than The Oberoi. Thanks to a 2016 renovation, the hotel has all the modern conveniences you could want—automated Toto toilets in suites, iPads in every room—but the design at this 50-plus-year-old institution still feels timeless. There are yoga classes every morning, and don't miss the breakfast buffet, with its unforgettable selection of regional Indian dishes.

Day 3: Marveling at the Lotus Temple, snacking on sweets, and shopping for saris

I've been told the place to be on Sunday is the farmers market at Bikaner House, a former palace of a maharaja that has been converted into an art gallery and cultural space. Every Sunday, vendors selling everything from fresh dosas to artisanal granola set up shop around the flower-lined entryway. Thankfully, the weather has cooled down, and I have my eye on a family-run stand called The Pickle Studio that specializes in achaar, or Indian pickles. I buy a pungent dry garlic version—whole cloves in chili powder and ghee. I can't wait to mix it into pasta sauce.

From there, I'm off to take in one last architectural marvel: the Lotus Temple, a house of worship for the Baha'i faith. Finished in 1986, it's new by Indian standards, but it's already an icon, drawing 3.5 million visitors a year. The flowering lotus shape, which reminds me of the Sydney Opera House, was chosen because it's a symbol of purity and peace. The petals of the temple are surrounded by nine pools and 26 acres of strikingly groomed gardens. Inside, light soars through the archways, directing my eye to the nine-pointed, gold-embossed star on the ceiling. Crowds of sari-clad elderly women stream by, elbowing me out of the way so they can take selfies against the backdrop of the temple.

Two of the Lotus Temple's 3.5 million annual visitors
The temple's signature petals

For lunch, a few local food writers told me that one of the best restaurants in town is a tiny spot called Little Saigon in upscale Hauz Khas. Vietnamese food in India? I'm surprised. That was also the thinking of Ho Chi Minh City native Hana Ho, who came to Delhi in 2010 to cook at the Taj Palace hotel and opened this place when she noticed that there wasn't anywhere in town to get a decent banh mi or bowl of pho. “I wanted Indian people to know Vietnamese food the same way they know Thai or Chinese," she says. I enjoy a round of summer rolls that are a respite from the heat outside, followed by a cold noodle salad with homemade pork patties dappled with herbs. “The finishing touch," Ho tells me as she drizzles fish sauce over the top. The noodles sing with sweetness and acidity.

For dessert, I must make a stop at Evergreen Sweet House, one of India's most famous sweetshops and a place I've been frequenting since I was a kid. The store, a five-minute drive from Little Saigon, is a Willy Wonka's factory of activity and color. People visit from all across the country to taste its fresh jalebis and ghee-soaked, fudge-like laddoos. I'm here for the kaju ki barfi, silver foil–topped diamonds of cashew, milk, and sugar. They're soft, creamy, and not too sweet. Just perfect.

Shopping fortunics at Anokhi

Now, time for a little shopping. First, I pop by Hauz Khas Village, where a string of eclectic shops have popped up around a historic reservoir. I duck into a vintage sign shop, Indian Art Collection, delighted by the old-school Bollywood posters, and then K.R. Stationers, where I pick up emerald-green envelopes embossed in gold lettering for friends back home.

Next, I head for nearby Khan Market—a posh retail district that's home to some of the most expensive boutiques in the city (as well as plenty of affordable shops). I pick up a few short kurtas (loose, collarless shirts) at FabIndia and tunics at Anokhi, which is known for melding traditional textile-making methods with modern designs.

While Delhi may not be India's epicenter of saris, thanks to the tucked-away shop Kamayani, you can peruse the full range of textiles the country has to offer, from the tie-dyed bandhani saris of Gujarat to the striped leheriya style of Rajasthan. The store's eponymous owner buys textiles from artisans all over India who have spent their lifetimes mastering classic sari-making traditions. She shows me close to 50 different pieces, each with its own story to tell. “These saris are works of art and treasures of our country," she says, unfolding a bright yellow linen garment adorned with orange diamonds and colorful tassels. “I am here to share those." I'm tempted to try one on, but I don't trust my clumsiness and mediocre sari-tying skills with the delicate fabric.

Bright saris at Kamayani

For dinner, I'm excited to try something new at Mizo Diner, which is devoted to the food of Mizoram, a part of northeast India bordering Myanmar and Bangladesh. The cuisine is heavy on rice, pork, and bamboo shoots, and it's not well represented in Indian restaurants, but owner and hip-hop/graffiti artist David Lalrammawia is out to change that. I enjoy vawska rap, a stick-to-your-ribs smoked pork stew with leafy greens, and sawhchiar, a chicken and rice porridge served with an addictive sweet-spicy onion jam. Drum-heavy Mizo music blares on the speakers, purple graffiti lines the walls, and the entrance to the kitchen is adorned with bamboo in a nod to the traditional homes of Mizoram—a region that's now high on my list to visit.

It's late by the time dinner wraps up, but even at 11 p.m. the city shows no sign of slowing. Car horns honk furiously, fruit vendors crowd around me to try and sell the last of their supply, and even with no sun, the air is hot and thick.

I gobbled up all the kaju ki barfi I meant to bring back to friends and family at home, so I make one last pit stop at Evergreen to pick up more sweets. Then I head back to Bungalow 99 and go to bed dreaming of smoky pork and saris the color of cotton candy and all the things I've discovered in a city I thought I knew, and where I've still barely scratched the surface.

The Taj Mahal

Photo: Phruetthiphong Pawarachan/Getty Images

If you're visiting Delhi, you really should plan a quick overnight trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, one of the world's great wonders. The most direct way to get there is to hire a driver—the trip can take anywhere from three and a half to five hours, or longer, depending on traffic. You can also hop on the train, which is less expensive, slightly faster, and an experience unto itself (the New Delhi train station at any time of day makes rush hour at Grand Central Terminal seem tame). It's best to arrive in Agra at night and wake up before sunrise to go to the Taj, as this is when the heat and the crowds are the most manageable. Also: Watching the sun rise over the mausoleum's white domes is one of the most serene, stunning experiences you'll ever have.

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