“My first visit to Jaipur was in 1995, and my most vivid memory is of the Narain Niwas Palace – a yellow, slightly shabby-chic hotel surrounded by lush gardens. I was immediately taken by the terracotta-coloured buildings, as well as by the architecture from the 1930s and ’40s that you’ll find just outside the old city walls. And while India is sometimes overwhelming, in Jaipur you get a real sense of the country and the traditions of art and jewellery craftsmanship, but everything operates at a slightly slower pace than in the larger cities.
Back then you would see elephants and camels in the streets, but not so much any more – with a population of over 6.6m, there’s no room. But I’ll never forget being on the back of a motorbike with Gem Palace founder Munnu Kasliwal’s assistant, and being overtaken by a herd of camels.
The city is beautiful year-round, but October to mid-April is when to visit: the light is especially beautiful and there are many festivals and celebrations. In January, I love the Kite Festival because everyone becomes a child again, the skies are full of incredible, colourful kites during the day and the night sky is full of fireworks. Diwali, the Festival of Light, is a celebration of good over evil and there are candles and fireworks everywhere.
Visitors here are spoilt for choice with hotels of all sizes and for all tastes. The Narain Niwas Palace is wonderful, but not overly luxurious. It’s small and boutique in feel, and has authentic rooms with high, frescoed ceilings. It isn’t for everyone, but the spacious gardens with peacocks wandering about are a delight. I live in the gatehouse, as does my friend, designer Marie-Anne Oudejans, who created the Tocca brand and founded Caffé Palladio nearby. In the Palace you’ll find Hot Pink, a boutique that Munnu and I started years ago, and is now run by his son; it stocks clothing by Indian designer Pero, children’s things, bags, scarves and block-printed shirts.
I also recommend the more lavish Rambagh Palace, once the home of the Maharajah of Jaipur. It’s really the height of luxury – an incredible mix of Mughal and Rajput architectural styles, on 47 acres of beautiful gardens. The rooms are very conventional, but some of the suites are spectacular, and huge. The Oberoi Rajvilas is a more contemporary version of this – with its gold-etched frescoes, domed roofs and the wonderful, large guests’ tents spread across the lawn. In town, I also like Samode Haveli; once home to a prince, today it’s an urban oasis, with a swimming pool and ornate series of courtyards around which the rooms are arranged.
There are so many beautiful sites here it’s difficult to choose, but Amber Fort on the hill on the outskirts of Jaipur is where to start, with the light and sound shows that happen every night illuminating the entire palace and grounds. The Tiger Fort above the city has a maze of bedrooms – originally built to accommodate the Maharajah’s many queens – and it has an incredible collection of old murals. The City Palace has art and textile museums, as well as the Govind Dev Ji temple. And you must stop at Jantar Mantar, an observatory that dates from the 18th century but has contemporary, pure lines.
Totally worth a get-a-bit-lost wander are Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Wind, and the Gaitore Cenotaphs, the burial place of a maharajah. The Gem Palace is a must-see too: the showroom is full of heirloom pieces from the royal family and precious stones. In general, if you aren’t in the business, it’s difficult to buy rare stones, so stick to reputable experts. And go for classic Indian jewellery: flat-cut diamonds set in Jaipur enamel and 24ct gold, or Navaratna, the “nine gems”. These can be anything from a simple bracelet to an opulent, incredibly expensive necklace.
Some of the best things to buy here are textiles – shawls, block-printed fabrics, and made-to-measure clothing. Kashmir Loom, in the Suján Rajmahal Palace, a boutique hotel, does excellent Kani work – an amazing weave pattern. The other great resource is Andraab, specialists in super-fine wool and cashmere shawls. For a slightly more hippie vibe, try Anokhi. It specialises in hand-printed fabrics, and has a little café I love; the fresh pomegranate juice here is delicious.
Idli is one of the best shops for home decor – painted tables, printed fabrics inspired by chinoiserie – all designed by Thierry Journo. Anantaya is another; it’s also in the garden of the Narain Niwas Palace, and sells handmade papers and oil lamps – and it’s co-run by a Tom Dixon collaborator, so the aesthetic is lovely. Real antiques are scarce; there just aren’t many historic rugs, gems or ceramics left. One exception is Saroj Art & Antiques, with its great selection of old photographs, Raja Ravi Varma prints, textiles and china.
Jaipur markets are especially vibrant, with the Johari Bazaar in the old city a must. You’ll find a little lane devoted just to weddings, while just opposite, the kitchen bazaar has all things stainless steel: art, doorknobs, tiffin boxes – it’s a very fun atmosphere. The main market is also a great place to see traditional chikan work – white-on-white embroidery. And the Tripolia Bazaar is a wonderful sight in the early morning, where women sit out and make the ritual marigold necklaces.
People often ask about buying saris, which I think are difficult to carry off as a foreigner – Indian women hold themselves very straight – but I do highly recommend Rajasthani skirts embellished with gold embroidery for an evening out. One of the best places for them is Sattva Sarees, where I bought a skirt made from a 1940s-style ikat that is a hit in Paris whenever I wear it. Rasa is another, for printed silk tops and dresses; its quilts, a speciality of Jaipur, are magnificent.
All this shopping will make you hungry. Food isn’t a Jaipur forte, alas. I tend to eat vegetarian as we’re far from the sea and fresh seafood. I like both the Rambagh Palace and Caffé Palladio for afternoon tea, and The Kitchen at Jaipur Modern is a great spot for quinoa or a pizza. They also sell beautiful handicrafts, so you can shop after eating. For something quick on the go, I recommend Lassiwala, a tiny place on MI Road that sells creamy lassi drinks; or Lakshmi Misthan Bhandar – which everyone calls LMB – a very classic sweet shop where you eat paneer ghewar, a delicious fried wheat cake garnished with paneer.
Bar Palladio is my favourite place to sit outside for a good Italian meal or for a drink. Niros, one of Jaipur’s oldest restaurants, serves a great paneer tikka and daal, staples of the Rajasthani diet. Peshawri does a similarly excellent northern Indian cuisine; it’s in the ITC Rajputana hotel, so there is no atmosphere whatsoever, but the food is authentic and delicious. For similarly authentic cooking, then I recommend the slightly shabby Indian Coffee House, where the omelettes are superb.
If the city feels unrelenting, which it can after a couple of days, you might want to make an excursion out of town. At Dera Amer valley camp, you can ride elephants and then share a beautiful dinner with friends. There are several private tents here for guests to stay: you arrive by elephant, and are woken up the next morning by birds singing, so the whole experience is quite magical.
Jaipur is a unique place because of the mix of cultures and creative people who are drawn here. Much like Marrakech, it has a very international jet set, and also a literary crowd that comes for the annual festival: I’ve seen everyone from Salman Rushdie to Oprah Winfrey in town. And the craftsmanship is incredible – you can dream of something and have it made the next day. It isn’t always easy to work in Jaipur; this is because the craftspeople are so creative and it’s not in their nature to do repeats of things. But overall, and in part because of them, the economy is thriving, which is creating more of a middle class – one that I hope can, and will, maintain all of Jaipur’s magnificent buildings and sites and unique beauty.”