Better Indian city to visit: New Delhi or Mumbai?

Better Indian city to visit: New Delhi or Mumbai?

India's big cities have swapped stereotypes. Time for a review of conventional travel wisdom
Delhi Metro
The Delhi Metro, serving New Delhi, Gurgaon, Noida and Ghaziabad, is a major plus point for the city in its one-upmanship with Mumbai.

Hari MenonSay you’ve got one Indian urban hot spot to visit, which would you choose? Only two realistically offer the sort of interesting urban experience that true city-lovers seek: Mumbai and New Delhi.

Conventional wisdom would have it that Delhi, with its magnificent old ruins and history that goes back thousands of years, is where you go for a cultural fix that few cities in the world can equal.

Mumbai, with its buzzing nightlife and edgy urban energy, is what you want when you’re looking for an invigorating city experience.

Delhi is the city where you always need to be on guard while you enjoy its gardens, museums and theatres; against the thrusting aggressiveness of its citizenry, against nasty cab drivers and surly service staff, against the sheer parvenu philistinism of its social life.

Mumbai is famously the egalitarian city where cosmopolitan sophisticates discuss Argentine beef and Japanese pillow books with equal felicity when they’re not making fortunes in the corporate world, all against the impossible-to-match glamour of Bollywood, the popular name for the city’s huge film industry.

Stereotypes don’t exist because they are inaccurate. In fact, the opposite is true.

It remains a struggle for the unprepared visitor to see the sort of historical treasures that make Delhi special; simply organizing a taxi to travel about can be a deeply stressful experience.

Also on CNNGo: Insider Guide: Best of Delhi

While on the surface Mumbai remains as user-friendly for a visitor as an Indian city can get.

Mumbai’s professional culture is still India’s most professional, and this means that whether you’re at work or at play, what you see is generally what you get.

Experienced India hands will know that this quality is not to be sneered at.

Still, the conventional wisdom about Mumbai is actually both misleading and more than a little unfair to New Delhi.

Mumbai: No New York

Mumbai’s reputation for being a New York-style potpourri is actually quite undeserved, because only south Mumbai (coined SoBo, for south Bombay) and pockets of some of the city’s western suburbs (like Bandra and Juhu) are remotely the sort of cosmopolitan melting pots they are cracked up to be.

The remaining 95 percent of the city is a lot more insular than the media might suggest.

Here, in the city’s slums and one-room tenements, or chawls, and in the vast dormitory colonies that fill up every available bit of land hours to the north and east of the city center, there are arguably fewer interesting diversions for a visitor than there are in many provincial Indian towns.

For such a large city with such a big reputation, Mumbai’s less fashionable areas feature remarkably few museums, parks, bars, restaurants, art galleries or theaters that stand out sufficiently to be worth recommending.

Equally, Delhi, which is able to hide its slums a lot better than Mumbai, has wonderful public spaces, a disproportionate number of India’s finest eateries and nightclubs, and almost as many options for the outdoorsy traveller as the rest of India put together.

In a sign of where the balance is shifting, when Wasabi, the Japanese restaurant at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace hotel was eclipsed in critical acclaim as India’s best restaurant, it was bettered by its sister establishment in Delhi.

And yet the greatness of many of the world’s most famous cities lies at least partly in how they can enchant you with the unexpected jewel in the rough that’s not in the guidebooks.

Swapping stereotypes

There’s more to the two cities’ dichotomy between image and reality, though, and this adds another ironic little twist to the tale.

Through most of the 1980s and 1990s, Delhi was a city that offered much to the wealthy and privileged and very little to anyone else.

Your quality of life was directly proportional to your ability to comfortably insulate yourself from the city’s problems.  

In contrast, Mumbai dispensed with insulation entirely. It was the city that gave everybody a chance to find their dreams.

In the last decade, though, each city has slowly turned into a stereotype of the other.

Mumbai’s divisive identity politics is slowly grinding down its wonderfully stimulating diversity. Meanwhile, its real estate costs (in purchasing power parity terms, among the highest in the world) are making the sort of public spaces and facilities that establish a great city’s character simply unaffordable for all but the very wealthy.

There is still a lot of fun to be had in Mumbai, but the relevance any of it has to the everyday life of the average Mumbaikar is almost absurdly small. In some ways it has actually become a caricature of what Delhi was once vilified for: a great playground for the privileged; mostly tough and awful otherwise.

At the same time, it is Delhi that has improbably, turned into the sort of city where a even a small gathering of friends will feature several religions and ethnicities, where getting around by public transport is much less of a nightmare thanks to the Metro and smart new bus services, and where you can actually make great conversation with someone you randomly met at a nice bar. About Argentine beef, Japanese pillow books and much, much more.

Story originally published December 2011. Updated April 6, 2012.

Indian journalist and writer.

Read more about Hari Menon
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