Travel review: 36 hours in Jaipur

Gems, palaces and a riot of sights and smells await visitors to the capital of India’s Rajasthan state

Jaipur

The Amber Fort

Nearly 300 years ago, an enlightened maharajah with a penchant for jewels and an eye for architecture built a planned city amid the arid hills of northwest India.

Called Jaipur after the city’s founder, Jai Singh II, it arose on a grid of urban sectors not just for royal palaces but also for the workshops of artisans recruited to establish a new commercial hub.

These days, gem cutters, jewelry designers and garment-makers are still flourishing in one of India’s most popular tourist and shopping destinations, part of the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur Golden Triangle. This is a city where the royals, to this day, occupy a wing of the City Palace and where mid-rise towers and a new subway system are muscling in on a proud past.

Street markets are awash in color and handicrafts, and Hindu temples can be found nearly every 100 yards. Although the streets seethe with beeping and belching traffic, tourists and dung-dropping cows, you can find bliss amid the commotion.

FRIDAY

3pm: Divinity tour

Hinduism permeates everyday life, so dive in with a visit to Birla Temple, a domed, white-marble building with an airy main hall, stained-glass windows and a shrine to the god Vishnu, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. From Birla, it is a 20-minute drive to Govind Dev Ji Temple, built in view of the emperor’s City Palace windows. Get there for the 5.30pm ceremony when priests in saffron robes pull back the curtains to the altar holding Lord Krishna, playing the flute under golden umbrellas. People pour into an open-walled hall by the hundreds, clapping and chanting while making circuits around the shrine, banging knockers on its wooden side doors to let Krishna know they have arrived. Free entry.

Jaipur
Birla Temple

8pm: Ramparts and lentils

You can dine like royalty at 1135 AD, a restaurant in a palace perched atop Amber Fort, a magnificent hybrid of Hindu and Mughal architecture. Walk through the main courtyard up to a terrace with candlelit tables and scattered rose petals. A thali, or meal, served on a silver platter lets you sample a variety of dishes, from goat in red sauce to black lentil dal and a spinach and corn purée (1,750 rupees, or about $24). Ask for a tour of the glittering private dining room upstairs, with silver-backed chairs under chandeliers and a ceiling embellished with mirror fragments. The fort is popular among filmmakers. If you are lucky, it will be alive with turbaned extras, white horses and adorned camels re-enacting a scene from a historical drama.

 

SATURDAY

9am: Buttery ballast

Ghee, a form of clarified butter, is essential to the fare at Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar, a landmark hotel, bakery and vegetarian restaurant. Go for the Rajasthani Special breakfast platter, which includes Badvi Bhaji (potatoes, tomatoes, coriander and green hot chilies) and Poori Aloo Mattar (potatoes in tomato stew with peas), with fried wheat pockets, are served by efficient waiters in brown jackets with epaulets (breakfast for two, 750 rupees). The décor feels early 1980s — purple and teal wallpaper, and abstract Hindu wall hangings — but it has been around since 1954, frequented by the jewelers and gem wholesalers taking a break from their workstations in the nearby back alleys.

10am: Mind the cattle

Step back into the history of clan-warring Rajasthan, long before Jaipur became its capital, on a tour of the Albert Hall Museum. Or, step into the frenetic present, exploring the boulevards and back lanes of the old city. Walk under the porticos of sidewalk bazaars festooned with everything from puppets to pajama pants; around the horned bulls wandering the narrow roads; past the carts of fried chickpea cakes, and marble-lined shrines with statues of gods; through an arched doorway into a four-story courtyard with intricate floral railings; and into a crowd of men polishing brass prayer cups.

11am: Pink city

Jaipur is known as the Pink City, built with sandstone and blushed with paint in 1876 to welcome the Prince of Wales. It is epitomised by the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of Winds. The five-story facade of protruding bays with lattice stonework and 365 windows is said to have been built as a screen for the women of the royal court so they could watch unobserved the parades of soldiers and elephants below. It is a steep climb to the top, where it is only one room deep, but the views are worth it (entrance: 50 rupees for foreigners).

Jaipur
Hawa Mahal

12.30pm: Oasis of calm

The sound of cars, motorcycles, scooters and tuk tuks on Mirza Ismail Road is nonstop. Until you step into Niros, a garden of tranquility with yellow tablecloths, plush booths and mirrored walls and ceilings made to look like arched windows. Opened in 1949, it advertises itself as the city’s first to serve Chinese food. However, go local, with the Tandoori mixed grill — the goat kafta with chili and cardamom is exceptional — a spinach-and-cottage cheese Palak Paneer and yellow Dal Tadka (lunch for two 2,500 rupees).

2pm: Gems galore

Jaipur is a global center for cutting and polishing precious and semiprecious gems. Stop in Jewels Emporium’s stately white building and take a tour of the workshops, where cutters shape facets, and men at workbenches adorn gold settings with jewels and rinse the gold dust from their hands in wash basins (the water is later sold to extraction companies). Upstairs is the finished jewelry. Around the corner, at Gem Palace, owner, Sanjay Kasliwal and his son Samir might show you a frayed registry with signatures from customers like Jacqueline Kennedy, and a diamond and enamel turban ornament made by the family’s ancestors 300 years ago, valued at $7m.

Jaipur
Gem Palace

4pm: Garment hunting

Inside Saurashtra Impex, an explosion of colorful fabrics heaped in piles and stacked to the ceilings greets you, along with the owner, Kishor Maheshwari, and his staff. They will extricate antique cushion covers from Pakistan, tablecloths with block-printed blue elephants and vintage rugs from Afghanistan. For a more refined retail experience, RASA boutique makes its own mod-Mughal brand of exquisite silk, cotton and linen dresses, tops, scarves and bedding (silk scarves start at 4,400 rupees).

Jaipur
RASA Boutique

8pm: Finger food

The city is not exactly a hotbed of celebrity chefs, but the culinary scene is still lively. Options range from Meraaki Kitchen for dal fondue, or Virasat for traditional thali. For superb northern Indian cuisine, head to Peshawri, downstairs at the ITC Rajputana hotel. With its stone walls and mushroom-like stools, it serves dishes you eat with your hands (dinner for two, about 7,000 rupees).

10pm: Ice Cream time

At the famous Pandit Kulfi, servers prepare a frozen treat of milk, crushed almonds and cashews, sugar and cinnamon. They freeze it in metal cylinders and tap out the sweet and dense, double-sticked little rockets (20 to 50 rupees). For the international party scene, head to Bar Palladio, set in a former palace’s garden house with a dramatic Wedgwood blue interior and canopied tables in the garden. (500 rupees).

 

SUNDAY

9.30am: Heart of Jaipur

A 500 rupee ticket to the City Palace will get you into a museum with royal costumes and a courtyard displaying massive silver vessels that carried an emperor’s drinking water from the Ganges River to London in 1902 for Edward VII’s coronation. But splurge on the 2,500 rupee Royal Grandeur ticket to see where the monarchs lived. The sovereigns still entertain in an ornate dining room and parlor, where chairs have silver lions for armrests and walls are painted with gold dust and gem extracts. Have brunch in the complex at Baradari – try the smoked baingan bharta, a tower of spongy bread with roasted eggplant, chili powder, spinach greens and a fried egg (700 rupees).

Jaipur
City Palace

1pm: Kaleidoscopic

Return to the Amber Fort for some daytime atmosphere — the soft wind blowing through the open, pillared audience hall and the crisp vista of mountainsides sloping down to a green lake. In the Sheesh Mahal, an open-air hall of mirrors, the walls and ceilings are covered in geometric and floral patterns inlaid with thousands of tiny foil panels, as well as marble relief panels and larger mirrors. The effect is kaleidoscopic as the constellation of convex pieces above reflects the movement of the visitors below (entrance, 200 rupees).