Spice, smoke, and diesel perfume the air. Motorbikes and auto rickshaws dodge as you make your way to a coconut cart. A man chases you through the traffic, wearing a display of “Ray Bans”. A boy cuts in front of you carting smoking nuts and seeds as stacks of glass bangles glitter in your periphery. You make it through the chaos whirring in a circle around the four minarets and giant granite arches rising up into the hazy sky.
Welcome to Hyderabad.
This Hyderabad Guide will help you make the most out of your visit to this old, yet high-tech city and more importantly, help you decide if you should go. Hyderabad has some unique sights and experiences you won’t find anywhere else. I’ll warn you now, though, it’s not an easy city to get around! So be sure to read the “Getting Around” tips at the end!
Hyderabad is chaos and beauty, it is history and culture, it is high tech and third world. Each part of Hyderabad feels like a completely different city. Charminar feels like old India, with heavy Muslim influences. Birla Mandir Temple and Hussain Sagar Lake evokes the peaceful, meditative calmness of India. Other parts of Hyderabad are technology hot spots, growing faster than the city’s infrastructure can handle. Hyderabad is huge, sprawling, and full of contrasts.
Since each area is so different, and the city so vast, it’s best to break up your itinerary by spending a day in each area.
Hyderabad Guide, by Area
If you’re on a tight schedule, you can see all of these sights in three full days. Of course, there’s much more to Hyderabad than what I have here, but these are the highlights for a first timer. Give yourself one day in Charminar, another day around Hussain Sagar Lake, and a third day exploring Golconda Fort. You really shouldn’t combine these three locations into one or two days because your time would be dominated by sitting in traffic.
Sights Around Charminar
Charminar is an Islamic four-towered monument and mosque rising up in the center of a large roundabout surrounded by hundreds of stalls and vendors selling fruit, street food, bangles, sunglasses, and junk. It’s four grand arches and four tall minarets are iconic to the city of Hyderabad. A sea of auto rickshaws, motorbikes, and hand-drawn carts lugging huge loads circle the monument and tons of people meander in and out of the traffic in a seemingly impossible manner.
You can climb up and walk around above the arches. The architecture is most impressive from the outside, but you can’t beat the vantage point of Charminar’s minarets. Climb up to the top for the best view of the area and be mesmerized by the organized chaos of it all.
Entry fee is 100 rupees (Only 5 rupees for Indians).
This market is really a series of stalls, carts, and shops surrounding the Charminar monument. It is THE place to go for glass bangles. I found myself thinking of the line in the movie, Notting Hill, where Hugh Grant says the Market on Portobello Road is known for antiques, ” some of them genuine, and some… not so… genuine” as the camera pans from beautiful antiques to Beavis and Butthead immortalized in stained glass. Laad Bazaar is like that. You can find some great authentic, and beautiful things at great prices but you’ll have to sift through the knock off Ray Bans and plastic bracelets.
Shopkeepers will shout for your attention. If you so much as accidentally glance at a shop or stack of bangles, be prepared for the hardest sell of your life. If you don’t want to be hassled just ignore and walk away. With that said, I thought it was a really fun experience. Shop if you dare, and don’t forget to haggle!
I didn’t see a big sign marking the entrance to Laad Bazaar anywhere so don’t expect to find one. Also, Google Maps doesn’t have the correct location. Just use Charminar as your landmark and Laad Bazaar is the collection of shops and stands around the monument and spilling down the road to the west.
Another Islamic architectural site, this palace complex is a quiet, peaceful respite from the madness outside. We went late in the day and were practically the only ones there. The palace was built in the 1700’s and 1800’s and was the official residence of the Nizams of Hyderabad. Chowmahalla has impressive architecture, a huge throne, a beautiful courtyard, and cute white ducks that play in the fountain. What more could you want from a palace?
Entry fee is 150 rupees (Only 40 rupees for Indians). Extra fee for cameras is 50 rupees and video cameras are 100 rupees. We weren’t charged extra for our iPhones so I guess those don’t count, and my video-capable camera was only charged 50 rupees. No tripods allowed.
Eating Around Charminar
Grab a coconut to quench your thirst or some pomegranates for a healthy snack from the carts around Charminar. Don’t forget to bargain!
Try haleem if you get the chance! This area has a large Muslim population and that means there are lots of opportunities to try this famous dish. It’s a meat, lentil and pounded wheat stew that is a staple in Hyderabadi cuisine. Sadly, I didn’t get to try it because I was too busy eating biryani, but more on that later.
Sights Around Hussain Sagar Lake
This modern Hindu temple was one of my favorite Hyderabad sights. Perched at the top of a hill overlooking Hussain Sagar Lake, it is built entirely from white marble, and carved with intricate patterns. The best time to visit is around sunset, when the white marble takes on a warm glow. It’s a great place to meditate. If that’s not your thing, do what I did and just appreciate it for its beautiful architecture, fantastic view, and the calm and happy atmosphere.
Visiting the temple is free and is open to everyone regardless of caste, religion, or gender. Shoes, phones, cameras, and video equipment, however, are not allowed inside. Lockers are available.
A 58 foot tall, 350 ton solid white granite Buddha stands on a platform on Hussain Sagar Lake. Inspired by the Statue of Liberty on a visit to New York City, the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh had this massive Buddha commissioned to represent his people’s cultural heritage. At night, the statue is lit up in all different colors.
You can enjoy it from shore or from the platform on which it sits. It’s a quick and easy boat ride to reach the Buddha. While you ferry out to the statue, imagine the Buddha tipping off your boat to the bottom of the lake, as it did in 1990 when it was almost installed. It sat at the bottom of the lake for 2 years before it was pulled out and erected where you see it now.
Catch a boat out to the statue (50 rupees) by entering Lumbini Park (10 rupees) and heading to the docks. Bring bug spray or long sleeves – the mosquitos were killer at night.
Eating Around Hussain Sagar Lake
Paradise Food Court
This is the place to get your fill of the world-famous Hyderabadi Biryani. It’s a dish with mutton, chicken or goat marinated in spices, soaked in yogurt, and then buried in basmati rice. The pot is sealed with dough and cooked over coals. I had mutton and chicken, but the chicken was my favorite! It isn’t really a food court, but actually a sit-down restaurant. I went there twice (to two different locations – both excellent) and wish I could have gone a third time.
Paradise Food Court is right down the street from Lumbini Park, where you can take the boat to the Buddha statue. There are other locations throughout the city as well but this one is the most convenient to the sites I have recommended.
Outside the City
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a massive granite fort built on a large hill in the outskirts of Hyderabad. I didn’t get the chance to visit Golconda Fort, but my sister, Andrea visited and thought it was a nice little adventure. With wide sweeping views of the city and a lot of history, it makes for a great visit if you have a full day to spare.
Golconda Fort is far from the center of Hyderabad, out on the western side of the city. Entry fee is 100 rupees (only 5 rupees for Indians) and an extra 25 rupees to bring a camera.
Sleeping in Hyderabad
This hotel served as my sanctuary after long harried days exploring the streets of Hyderabad. ITC Kakatiya is a luxury hotel brand in India that is part of the Starwood Preferred Guest program. The ITC name is well known in India, and this hotel was all luxury, comfort, and elegance. It’s the same hotel brand that Barack Obama stayed with when he visited New Delhi. We stayed here for 4,000 Starpoints/night, and it was a great deal. As a comparison, a similar hotel in New York City would run between 12,000-20,000 Starpoints/night. If you have the American Express Starwood card, and want to use your Starpoints, this hotel is a fantastic option in Hyderabad.
ITC Kakatiya is in Begumpet, a commercial area on the west side of Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad. Rates start around 6,000 rupees ($100).
Shopping in Hyderabad
This is where I went for cute tunics and kurtis and beautiful dupattas (like a big scarf). They have traditional Indian patterns for men and women but with a more Western-friendly style. It’s a fun store, and they have a lot more than just clothes. Some of the bigger stores even have home goods and bath products.
A few on the west side of the lake. One in GVK One Mall and another down the street from ITC Kakatiya hotel.
As I mentioned above, Laad Bazaar is another great place to shop for glass bangles at a great price (if you can haggle a bit).
Laad Bazaar fills the streets around and to the west of Charminar.
Hyderabad is not built for tourists. If you are traveling to Hyderabad and it is your first time in India, I cannot stress enough how crucial it is for you to figure out your transportation in advance. Hire a driver for the whole time you are there. You want to have the same person the whole time, and this person should speak English, really know their way around the city, and be recommended by a non-biased party. Just trust me on this one. It’s not like other Indian cities. The Lonely Planet forums or other travel forums should have some good leads.
If you can’t find someone in advance, you could try booking a taxi for a set number of hours and if you get along well with the driver, you can ask him if he’s available for the rest of your stay. We did that toward the end of our time in Hyderabad and it worked out very well.
Auto rickshaws are the most available form of transit to travelers, but I highly recommend you only use them if you are traveling a very short distance. Being jostled amongst the crazy traffic for 15 minutes is an experience, but 1 hour and 15 minutes is a nightmare. Only use them to go to well-known places, too, or you’ll be wandering around for hours as your driver pretends to know where he’s going. Hotel-arranged drivers are a rip off, and don’t even think about trying to hail a taxi on the street. It doesn’t work that way.
Should You Go?
Hyderabad was my introduction to India and it was a really tough city to start out in. The traffic is crippling, the city is dusty and dirty, and there wasn’t much infrastructure for travelers. I wouldn’t recommend Hyderabad for those on a very short itinerary.
But if you’re on a longer trip through India and you hire a driver who knows his way around, Hyderabad opens up its doors and has a lot to offer. For me, the highlights were Charminar, Laad Bazaar, and Birla Mandir Temple. But if I’m being totally honest, the biryani alone is enough to make Hyderabad worth a visit.
Have you been to Hyderabad? What are your favorite things to do in the city?
All expenses were paid on our own dime (or starpoints!). As always, you receive my honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill. Feel free to book your stay at ITC Kakatiya Hotel using this link. At no extra cost to you, a small percentage of the booking will go toward keeping this site up and running. Thanks for your support!