When travelers think of India they could conjure up any number of images, but they most likely still think of it as a uniform destination – as if traveling to one part of India were the same as traveling to another. In reality, though, India is a vast country and its many different regions have entirely different feels when it comes to culture, cuisine and landscape.
Agra, Uttar Pradesh
[Also see our travel article "Agra and the Taj Mahal"]
Agra is the most significant city in India from a tourism perspective for a single reason: the Taj Mahal. Built in the 17th century to serve as a mausoleum for the wife of a Mughal emperor, the Taj Mahal is an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture and one of the world’s most iconic sights. It’s rare that a sight like the Taj Mahal lives up to the expectations that tourists have for it, but the Taj Mahal not only matches those expectations but blows them away. Visit just before sunrise when the crowds are at their smallest and watch the sun rise over the building for the full effect.
Most luxury India holidays tend to stick to the “Golden Triangle” region of Delhi, Agra and Jaisalmer, and while those are all great destinations – with Agra and Jaisalmer two of the best in the country – there’s no reason not to venture out a little further.
Amritsar, in Punjab and only a few kilometers from the Pakistani city of Lahore, is in the heart of Sikh country. Its Golden Temple – Harimandir Sahib – is the holiest site in the Sikh religion and each year it receives even more visitors than the Taj Mahal! People of all faith are welcome to visit the temple to mingle with the worshipping Sikhs and take in the atmosphere. One cool way to experience the Golden Temple is to spend the night at its dorm accommodations. Available free of charge to pilgrims and tourists, the temple offers basic accommodations in about as serene a setting as it gets.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Andaman and the Nicobar Islands, more than 1,000 kilometers east of the Indian mainland, have a very different feel than the rest of India, as crowded, hectic cities give way to pristine tropical islands with white-sand beaches and rainforest. Travelers can either fly or sail to Port Blair, the islands’ chief settlement, and from there it’s a matter of ferries and speedboats to see the outlying islands.
Darjeeling, West Bengal
Darjeeling, of The Darjeeling Limited fame, is a hill station situated in the foothills of the Himalayas at an elevation of 6,700 feet. It was founded by the British when they colonized India to serve as a summertime escape from the stifling heat of nearby Calcutta (now Kolkata). Though the Brits are long gone, they’ve left their colonial-era architecture and a heap of tea plantations in their place. The classic Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is the best way to reach the town, as it offers some pretty excellent views of the snow-capped Himalayas in the distance.
[Also see our travel article "Goa Travel Guide"]
Goa is a definite break from the traditional feel of India, as in lieu of temples and cultural charms Goa is more famous for beaches crowded with European backpackers and drug-fueled all-night raves. As one would expect, Goa is a bit of an acquired taste. But for travelers looking for a Southeast-Asian style beach holiday in an even more exotic locale, it’s a good option. Unlike many of the other destinations on this list, Goa is an entire Indian state. But it is the smallest state and it is very easy to move around within the state.
Jaisalmer is a small outpost in the west of Rajasthan, only a few kilometers from the border with Pakistan. Its hilltop fortress welcomes visitors to explore its palaces, twisting lanes and shops. Visitors can stay in guest houses inside the fortress walls and eat their meals at rooftop restaurants, which often have spectacular views over the fort’s walls of the Thar Desert and its sand dunes which literally surround the city in all directions.
Kerala is another entry on this list that’s a whole state, as most travelers who visit don’t confine themselves to just one city or town. Instead the real exploration takes place in the backwaters – a network of rivers and canals – that wind their way through the state. Here house boats make their way on the gentle waters and past the tea fields and spice plantations that line the green, picturesque hills, and offer tourists an altogether uniquely Kerala experience.
[Also see our travel article "Mumbai Travel Guide"]
Mumbai is India’s largest city –one of the world’s largest too – and is the country’s center of fashion, finance and entertainment (Bollywood). In India, Mumbai is as big as it gets and the city’s wealth and sense of unbridled excitement contrasts fascinatingly with the extreme poverty and slums that are unavoidable in a large Indian city. If this is where Indians go to make it, it’s also where dreams of Indian success stories go to die, but for tourists it’s an interesting glimpse into the making of one of the world’s next great cities.
Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan
[Also see our travel article "The Last Tigers of Rajasthan"]
Ranthambore breaks up the desert scenery of Rajasthan with a marshy forest whose abandoned temples and dense tree cover provide the perfect hiding grounds for Bengal tigers. The last place in Rajasthan with wild tigers, tourists – albeit too many – come to the park to take short four-hour safaris in the hopes of seeing a tiger in its natural habitat. Though the sheer numbers of tourists take a lot away from the experience, there’s no denying that the scenery is spectacular.
Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir
Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, is situated in a valley surrounded by the Himalayan Mountains and has long been one of the country’s famed tourist destinations. The region’s picturesque beauty is undeniable – in Bollywood films the region regularly substitutes for the Swiss Alps – but a decade of strife over the status of Kashmir has dampened the tourism trade a bit. Those who do come, however, can spend their days lounging on houseboats on Dal Lake and taking in views of the Himalayas from the city’s famed Mughal gardens.
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Varanasi is perhaps the most fantastical city in all of India. Holy men traipse along the streets, only a few miles away from where Buddhism was born, and the ghats are teeming with life – and death. Ghats are the name given to the areas of rivers that are accessible via steps from the city. In the case of Varanasi, the river is the holy Ganges, and there are an awful lot of ghats. Each one has its own purpose; some are simple like for bathing or washing clothes, while others have more spiritual purposes like ritual bathing or cremation. The “burning ghats of Varanasi,” as they’re known, see bodies of the newly departed placed in their waters and set on fire. At times visiting the city can be an overwhelming experience, but it’s an experience nonetheless.