Capital of southern India's state of Andhra Pradesh, Hyderabad has a long and sporadically tumultuous history. Its origins lie with the 16th-century Qutb Shahi dynasty, whose founder came from Persia. Centuries of Muslim rule over a Hindu-majority population required some assimilation of cultures, yet a Persian-tinged aesthetic prevailed, particularly the nobles' food and etiquette, until the early 1900s.
Hyderabad's celebrated and wealthy nizams, or rulers, lent it glamour, influence and ultimately power during the British Raj. Much of their architectural heritage remains though Hyderabad (and its twin-city Secunderabad which lies on the northern side of Hussain Sagar lake) now prospers in the modern fields of computing and information technology and a thriving film industry that rivals Mumbai.
Business travellers are more likely to dwell in the administrative centre of Secunderabad and nearby "HITEC" City. For leisure travellers, the focus remains Hyderabad's sprawling old quarter, which straddles the Musi river. Teeming with people and traffic, this predominantly Muslim area is filled with colourful bazaars and lanes, dotted with monuments and a set of royal tombs.
A comfortable bed
When Taj Hotels Resorts & Palaces opened the Falaknuma Palace in 2010, it was an event. Owned by the titular nizam of Hyderabad and once used primarily as a royal guesthouse, the imposing Palladian villa had stood neglected on a hill on the edge of the old city for decades. A beautifully thorough (and colossally expensive) restoration project is reason enough to drop by for a meal, but in terms of a historical and sensual experience this is the top choice at a top price (www.tajhotels.com; doubles from Rs25,725 [Dh1,732]).
In complete contrast, the Park Hotel Hyderabad offers a strikingly modern and generally more youthful atmosphere with a building that is enveloped in a vast metallic mesh. The interiors cleverly reference Indian arts and crafts as well as the nizams' penchant for gems and jewellery (www.theparkhotels.com, doubles from Rs17,987 [Dh1,204]).
Find your feet
With four slender minarets soaring over the old city's heart, the Charminar is Hyderabad's defining monument and among India's most distinctive buildings. Built originally as a mosque to commemorate the elimination of plague, it is now primarily a secular attraction in the midst of a busy crossroads. Virtually alongside is the Mecca Masjid, a large 16th-century mosque that gets its name because of the use of soil from Mecca in some of its bricks. Off this area's main roads, bazaars and shopping lanes weave into residential suburbs; Laad Bazaar and its myriad little shops and boutiques is among the best known.
Famous for colourful bangles, you can also find fabric and textiles, silverware, costume jewellery and plenty of atmosphere. Formerly the nizam's official residence, the restored Chowmahalla Palace is now a fascinating museum with exhibits evoking the former ruling dynasty. Visitors can stroll through Mughal-domed, neoclassical halls, villas, courtyards and gardens.
By the southern banks of the Musi river, the High Court is a gorgeous confection of domes and cupolas in the Indo-Saracenic style. The nearby eponymous Salar Jung Museum houses a vast collection of weaponry, paintings, Qurans, clocks and garments assembled by a nizam's wealthy former prime minister.
Meet the locals
Hussain Sagar, a six square kilometre lake, offers respite from the busy city. Although ringed by roads, its shore-side Lumbini Park and 18 metre tall Buddha statue, perched on a nearby island, are popular with walkers. The western residential suburb of Banjara Hills boasts of upmarket restaurants and bars that encapsulate a modern India.
Book a table
For traditional Hyderabadi cuisine (where the emphasis is on rich biryanis and melt-in-your-mouth kebabs), Aish (in Park Hotel, 00 91 40 23 456 789) and Adaa (in Falaknuma Palace, 00 91 40 66 298 585) offer the most refined, if not rare, options.
The extensive menu at Aish includes starters such as magaz ke pakore (lamb brain fritters) and murgh mutabbak (layered chicken, egg and cheese "pie"). Their haleem (a rich, stew-like chicken dish traditionally served during Ramadan) is extraordinary. Adaa's menu of traditional desserts such as gil-e-firdaus (a milky kheer made from bottle gourd) and khubani ka meetha (apricot compote) is wonderful.
For an earthier vibe at a fraction of the price, Shadab Restaurant's upstairs eatery on High Court Road, near Charminar, is a good choice for Hyderabadi dishes and Indian staples. In the Banjara Hills, Fusion 9 (00 91 40 65 577 722) offers an eclectic mix of mostly European, Mediterranean and Asian fare.
Lepakshi (Abids Road near Mahboobia School, Gunfoundry) is a state government emporium with fixed-price handicrafts including leather lampshades, brassware, woodcarvings, toys, dhurries and decorative bidri metalware. Laad Bazaar lends a more authentic experience, though there's little in the way of conventional souvenirs.
What to avoid
Travelling during rush hour - although in the old city, there is a zany appeal in the sheer numbers, verve and manoeuvres of residents who seem cheerfully oblivious to danger.
About 10km west of Hyderabad, Golconda Fort was the Qutb Shahi kings' capital before it shifted to the present city in the 1590s. High walls, arched gateways and muscular bastions enclose a cluster of part-ruined buildings while two footpaths lead to the royal Durbar Hall on the hill's summit. Every evening there's a sound-and-light show. Avoid the weekend crowds.
Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Hyderabad in around 4 hours, from Dh1,490 return, including taxes.