For tourists on shoe-string budgets, Paharganj is usually the first introduction to India. Often it is a difficult and depressing introduction.
Located conveniently close to the railway station, this area of Delhi is a mess of ramshackle buildings, signalling quite clearly the tourist's arrival into the third world.
Main street area, just outside Delhi Railway station
Street view further ahead
There is a bazaar area near the station, where there are small eateries and many tour operators. This market has had a total make-over, and now houses a smart-looking set of shops that sell everything a tourist needs - inexpensive food, fruits, suitcases, chain padlocks for safety, money purses, toiletries etc. And of course, there are many shops offering hotel, road transport, train and flight ticket booking.
Amrit Kaur Market, with uniform facades in blue and grey
Vaishno Dhaba and Bajaj Hotel, offering pure vegetarian fare
A typical Paharganj scam is to have a signboard that lets tourists think they have walked into a government tourist office. Although frankly, you have to be a very naive tourist to actually believe the hole-in-the-wall shop in this photo is something official :)
Shops with misleading signboards - the usual Paharganj scam
Similarly, this shop below, which is opposite the exit gate of the Railway station, says "Government Authorised", but I wonder what exactly they are authorised for!
Once you move a little away from the station area, you can see lots of lanes which have hotels and guesthouses in them. As far as I can tell, there seems to be no local population in this area, it has only hotel after hotel, and the only people you see are cooks, waiters, doormen, touts and other tourists. There are very few women around either.
This to me is the most depressing aspect of Paharganj - everything and everybody is geared to make money off tourists. If travel is about understanding local culture, the last place on the planet where you will find it is Paharganj, because this area is like an artificial zone that came up just to deal with tourists. You have to develop rhino armor-plating to deal with the insistent touts.
Typical street with hotel after hotel, facing each other.
Rooms are usually small and dingy, and naturally there are no views.
In the middle of this stuff, you sometimes come across "nicer" buildings with higher tariffs. The Ajanta for instance, has a colonial facade and a moustachioed doorman. There is something incongruous about these hotels, actually, because they are located on these small lanes where everything else around them is seedy. My opinion is, if you can afford to pay a little more money, then get out of this area and stay elsewhere (the tripadvisor site has lots of inexpensive little B&Bs where you can stay in nicer areas, I've stayed at several of them myself).
The Ajanta Hotel, which has an amusing 'wannabe' website with an American host introducing the hotel :)
To me actually the most interesting place in Paharganj was this tiny shop, which serves food to the staff who work at the shops and hotels. Here I found a bunch of guys getting on with their daily routine of cutting and chopping onions. They have a make-shift gas burner and by noon, they will have piping hot food ready. I would have liked to come back here at lunch hour to catch real people eating real food, and perhaps I would have heard a couple of interesting stories of migrants to Delhi.
Maa Bhagvati Restaurant, named after the goddess Kali
In spite of Paharganj being what it is, there are still lots of people who stay here. It thrives because it is very convenient for the rail station, and also because there is no other place in Delhi that will give you rooms at Rs 1000 or even less. Another positive aspect is that you get to meet lots of other tourists, backpackers mostly, and there's a sense of community that you get from those interactions. You can trade 'survivor' stories, laugh off your Delhi Belly with other victims, and admire 'veteran' tourists who have met and conquered Paharganj's seedy scams. In fact, these veterans won't stay anywhere else even if they can afford it :)
If you've made up your mind to stay in Paharganj, then I've heard good recommendations for Hotel Cottage Yes Please or Hotel Hari Piorko on the tripadvisor forums, but I haven't been there, so I don't know the tariff. My own pick for an inexpensive hotel would be the Ginger Rail Yatri Niwas, the budget hotel chain of the Taj group. It is located at the Railway Station, and is very convenient if you want to take the morning train to Agra. I've stayed at other Ginger hotels in India and they are smart, inexpensive and safe.