There are so many things to do in Hyderabad! It has the rich history of Delhi, the relaxed attitude of Bangalore, and the heat of a thousand burning suns. It’s a city with a story like no other in India, a meeting of the clamorous modern and the prosperous ancient with a distinct food culture all of its own.
I spent two days here and loved everything except the heat- apparently, the temperate climate of Bangalore has made me soft. With a high of 40oC during the day and not much cooler during the night, if you’re unused to warm climates, get a room with AC. I didn’t and regretted it.
A Brief History of Hyderabad
The city dates back to 1591, when it was established by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah. Then, the Mughals took over in 1724 when Asif Jah I declared his sovereignty. In this form, it was its own country called ‘Deccan’, until it was made part of India in 1948 (this was when the British included Deccan in the map of India before the Indians kicked the British out). The Mughal influence has definitely influenced the culture of the region, with a strong Islamic influence on the architecture and food.
It’s known as the City of Pearls and still does a brisk trade of pearls and diamonds. In fact, the Hope, Koh-i-Noor, Nassak and the Noor-ul-Ain diamond were found very close to Hyderabad.
Things to do in Hyderabad: A Two-Day Itinerary
Day one, the old city:
Charminar (half an hour)
Mecca Mosque (ten minutes, both men and women must be well-covered in loose clothing)
Chowmahallah Palace (an hour)
One of the museums in the area, Salar Jung or The Nizam’s Museum (time varies)
Exploring the local markets around Charminar
Tea and biscuits at Nimrah Cafe or Karachi Bakery
Head to the north-west of the city.
Golconda Fort (at least an hour, likely two- three hours)
Qtub Shahi Tombs (half an hour to an hour)
Shah Ghouse for biryani
Golconda Fort was definitely one of my favourite things to do in Hyderabad. This fort and citadel was built in 1143 AD (ish) by the Kakatiya dynasty. It’s had a tumultuous history, being strengthened, damaged, changing ownership (a few times, from the Kakatiya dynasty to the Musuniru Nayaks, then the Bahamani Sultans, then the Qutb Shahi dynasty before finally the Mughal Empire wrest control), expanded so that the outer wall was 10km long, and finally was abandoned in 1687 after an eight year seige by Aurangzeb, a Mughal emperor. At that time, it had cannons, eight gates, four drawbridges, royal apartments, temples, mosques, stables, and everything else a dynasty could possible require. The most famous diamonds in the world were found here, and stored here for a long time.
These days, it’s still impressive, if needing more restoration work than is currently being carried out. You can still see the massive gates covered in spikes to keep out attacking elephants. There are still hints of the clever water supply, the beautiful Islamic/ Hindu designed palaces, and there is even rumours of a secret underground tunnel. To get to the fort, you drive through an old, dusty part of the city and it’s quite easy to feel how life would have been many years ago. As well as the customary cows and dogs, you may be lucky enough to spot same camels winding their way through the narrow ancient streets.
Qutb Shahi Tombs
This is about 1.5km from Golconda Fort. It’s a 50 rupee auto-rickshaw ride, or 100 rupees if the driver is mercenary and you’re white. The area contains eight tombs of note of the Kings of the Qutb Shahi dynasty. The tombs were originally carpeted, with chandeliers suspended from the vaulted ceilings, and copies of Quran kept on pedestals. These days, the buildings are still beautiful but in a faded, worn way. The lustrousness has been worn away by hundreds of years of neglect.
Shah Ghouse Restaurant
This restaurant is an institution of the area, first opened in 1984. It’s got a number of branches here and is famous for its mutton biryani and haleem. Haleem is a meat dish, traditionally eaten at Ramadan. It’s meat, slow cooked with herbs and spices and then pounded to a creamy pulp. It’s incredibly delicious. In this instance, I had a chicken starter and the biryani main. Hyderabad is the home of biryani so it’s quite important you eat it here (sacrilegious if you don’t…).
The restaurant was not flash. I was seated in the AC section, upstairs at the back. At the time of the visit, only half the room had lighting (I think they may have been completing a refurbishment) and it sounded very much like a herd of elephants was doing ballet over my head… not sure what was going on but the noise was pretty intrusive. The food was tasty and the service polite and helpful, I wish I’d gone with friends and been able to try more dishes, the desserts looked interesting but I had no room left.
Salar Jung Museum
First point to note: In India, for almost every attraction, there is a ‘local’ price and a ‘tourist’ price to enter. I’m OK with it. You have to keep things affordable and accessible for the locals and most of the time I don’t resent the white tax at all. For this museum, locals pay Rs. 20 and foreigners pay Rs. 500, plus a camera fee. Be prepared for this because even I found the disparity hard to swallow. However, it’s still only about NZ$10 so maybe just take a deep breath, pay the fee, and carry on with your life.
This is an unusual museum in that it’s a hodge-podge of interesting collections. What I found fascinating was the information about the Nizams. They were a unique bunch, with tremendous wealth and odd proclivities. The Nizam Mir Usman Ali Khan used the fifth largest diamond in the world- the ‘Jacob Diamond’- as a paperweight. Nizam Mahboob Ali Khan never wore the same outfit twice, which meant he had a wardrobe over 50m long.
The Salar Jung museum has a few rooms devoted to that particular part of history of that area, and then a room of beautifully carved ivory, a room of walking sticks (which is surprisingly compelling), and a bunch of other unusual things, as well as weaponry, jewellery, rugs, and art. Upstairs there is a unique collection of ‘Western’ art and furniture. I spent a couple of hours here as it was intriguing.
Charminar (Four Minarets)
This was built in 1591 as a monument to celebrate the end of the cholera plague. It has a mosque on the top floor. It stands beautifully solid and calm in the centre of the square, with colourful chaos of traders and (while I was there, at least) road works all around it. It’s quite beautiful but the stairs up (and down) are small, a perilous winding ascent where you are hemmed in tightly by people in front and behind you. Take a few deep breaths and you’ll be fine but if you struggle in small spaces this may not be the place for you.
This mosque is famous due its age, large size, the bricks used in construction made from soil from Mecca, and also for the lavish chandeliers that hang in the prayer room. Unfortunately, it’s slowly becoming weathered and needs restoration work, and when I visited, the chandeliers were covered (and indeed I suspect that they have been covered for a long time). The place is home to a large population of pigeons. It’s a nice calm space, and on a hot day it was pleasant to walk through the graves.
I wore salwar kurta and a scarf covering my head. I was allowed in the courtyard and right up until the prayer hall (but not in the prayer hall itself).
Nimrah Cafe & Bakery
Then it was time for a snack. I was with a local and they directed me to Nimrah Cafe and Bakery. We were quickly greeted, orders taken, given warm biscuits (a coconut biscuit of some sort) and then some poor Uncle was kicked out of his booth and we were installed there. I ordered a sweet tea, was delicious. Without ordering anything, a plate of biscuits magically arrived on the table.
There were dates wrapped in a dough rolled in sesame seeds, (heavenly), a cookie that was ok, and a chewy macaron-esque coconut biscuit. I got ten biscuits to take home and it cost me 64 rupees, so this place makes me happy on all fronts! It’s crowded, filled with locals, it’s constantly noisy, but I recommend this place highly! A highlight of the trip for me. I’ve been told Karachi Bakery is better but I ran out of time. I suspect both are pretty fantastic.
This was the final stop on my itinerary. I had some friends join me- a local and two other ex-pats (Polish and French). Chowmahalla (char in Urdu/ Hindi = Four and Mahal = palace, therefore Chowmahalla = four palaces) was built by the Nizams and like much of what I saw in Hyderabad, it’s beautiful but starting to show signs of age-related degradation. We happily spent an hour here, but I was on the clock to get a cab to the airport. To explore the area, you need at least an hour but I think I could have spent more time. The gardens are lovely to sit in, and the beauty, grace and grandeur of the palace was charming.