Central India is simply the heart of the country, a soft and mystical land peppered with ancient temples and majestic forts, whose forests and jungle teem with wildlife and punctuated by some of her most vibrant and historical cities.
Although one of the least explored regions of the country, Central India has a huge amount to offer the modern traveller. Jumping off the busier tourist trails of Rajasthan and the Ganges River plain, here you will find many stunning historical monuments, a plethora of national parks and a rural life-style that will take you back to the Kipling-esque India of our childhood.
Here are our Top 10 Places to Visit in Central India:
1. Explore the ruins of Hampi
Perfect Jungle Book territory, Hampi's spectacular ruins, decorated with the finest carvings, are associated with Kishkinda, the fabled monkey kingdom in the Ramayana. Early settlements here date to the 1st Century AD, but by 1300 Hampi was a stronghold of the Vijayanagara Empire, protected by the Tungabhadra River and easily defended surrounding hills. With rare architectural gems like the 'musical pillared' Vithala Temple, the Virupaksha Temple, the Hampi Bazaar and the Monolith Bull, spread out across 26 square kilometres of evocative Indian plains, Hampi is an unmissable explorer's dream.
2. Track Tigers in Madhya Pradesh - Bandhavgarh National Park
The days of Tiger hunting are thankfully gone, but you can still experience the rare thrill of a photographic chase, in the true 'Kipling Country' of Madhya Pradesh. On foot, in jeeps or even on the back of a majestic elephant, you're safe to follow in the paw pads of the world's most magnificent animal, the wild tigers that roam India's most magnificent national parks. A quintessential travel experience, these safaris take you through some of the region's most beautiful scenery, offering an opportunity to glimpse any other animals and some 175 species of Indian bird. Deep in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, with a touch of that old Maharajah spirit, you can turn a new page in this living Jungle Book.
3. Shop in the City of Pearls – Hyderabad
Though now a gaudy fusion of ancient and hyper-modern, the once richest city in India, so-called City of Pearls, is famous for its bustling bazaars. A shopping trip through the labyrinth of jewelers shops, bangle merchants, sari sellers, spice traders, and dealers specialising in Nirmal and Kalamakari paintings, is such a riot of life and colour, it feels like walking straight into a film set. Still largely beyond the tourists trails, this is one of India's most lively and fascinating urban centres and for any Indiaphile is well worth a visit.
4. Stay at the world’s most lavish heritage hotel – Hyderabad
Perched on a hill above the old town, the Falaknuma Palace has to be the most extraordinary place you will have ever stayed. Designed by British architect, William Merritt, built in striking Louie XIV style between 1884 and 1893, the 120 room building was the sixth nizam’s favourite pleasure dome, housing his harem and place he came to party. It fell derelict after the war, only to be rejuvenated by the Taj Group of hotels who, with the help of the former princess, have managed in our opinion to turn it into the most spectacular heritage hotel in the world. When you arrive, probably tired after a long journey, you will be taken by horse drawn carriage up the hill to the palace, where you will be escorted like two heads of state from some bygone era into the palace’s luxurious halls. The palace has libraries, Japanese drawing rooms, a snooker room and bar, a vast marble staircase, and a dining room with the longest table in the world – it seats 101 for dinner! One of the problems of coming to Hyderabad was the rather corporate style accommodation... not any longer; this hotel is worth coming to just for itself.
5. Explore Hyderabad
With the help of one the country’s best guides, enjoy a day out and about in this impressive historical metropolis. After breakfast your guide meet you at your hotel, first explain the history and geography of the city, filling you in on how the nizams accrued such wealth, before taking you off on an in-depth tour. You will visit the weavers of the region, famed for their unique stitch, followed by a visit to the Golconda Fort. From here you will visit the sixth nizam’s palace, Chowmahalla, where you’ll take local chai, before continuing on to a family home to enjoy a home-cooked lunch of the town’s famous biriyani. In the afternoon you’ll visit the Char Minar, the Makka Majid and explore the old bazaar where you will meet bangle makers and sari embroiderers. You might also like to add some white mogul sites to your tour, with visits to some of the old British mansions. Hyderabad is a fascinating city, offering history at every corner. With the help of our wonderful guide, you’ll have a day to remember.
6. Enjoy a dawn walk in Satpura National Park
Although definitely not the place to come if ‘bagging’ a tiger is your raison d’etre, Satpura National Park is a glorious place to visit, offering a magical, off-beat wilderness experience, without the madding crowds. And the best way to see it is to take a dawn walk through the jungle. With the sun sliding up from behind the Pachmarhi Hills, cross the Denwa River and into the jungle, the early morning light dances through the foliage. Crystal dew hangs like jewels on the intricate cobwebs that stretched between the trees. Out of the corner of your eye you’ll catch langaur monkeys flit between the shadows. You’ll hear the breaking of twigs, of leaves rustling; the bark of a samba deer alerting others to your presence. High above, a giant squirrel will scurry along a branch. This is India of the storybooks, of your childhood imagination; this is an India as old as the hills that surround you and the rock art painted on them.
7. Enjoy a heritage walk to Bhopal
By using an expert local guide it is possible to take an early morning tour of Bhopal’s many historical sites. Echoing the mogul magnificence of Lahore, Peshawar and old Delhi, the streets of the old town are a colourful labyrinth of narrow alleys and noisy bazaars, spectacular mosques and exquisite palaces – albeit in a shocking state of repair. Nowhere was this more in evidence than the extraordinary Taj Mahal. With your guide procure the keys from the nazwar seller on the right of the entrance and walk into one of the most amazing buildings you’ll have ever seen. A palace built in the 19th century, it is now so dilapidated that the town council wanted to pull it down. You will also be able to visit various other palaces and mosques, including the towering Taj-ul-Majid, its reflection shimmering in the adjacent lake. En route grab a fresh pomegranate juice from one of the many sellers!
8. Explore Pachmarhi – Bhopal
Situated more than a thousand meters above the plains, in the heart of the Satpura Range, this pretty Victorian hill station was founded by Captain James Forsyth in 1857. It is home to one of the finest colonial churches in the country, made of sandstone and terracotta tiles with a tall spire and exquisite stain glass windows, and a number of elegant British mansions, some of which have been turned into small local guesthouses. There are plenty of local attractions in the form of five caves – from which the town takes its name – a number of spectacular waterfalls and mountain views and some interesting troglodyte temples. But the best thing to do here is get out of town, into the hills with your guide and go on a day trek into the jungle. By doing so you can visit some more remote cave paintings, the jungle villages of the Adavasi tribal people and of distant hilltop temple.
9. Explore Palaeolithic Caves – Bhopal
Although the civilisation of the Indian subcontinent often carries you back a very long way, it’s not often it takes you to Palaeolithic times. But the extraordinary maze of rocks that make up Bhembetka, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site, does just that, as cave after cave offer up a staggering array of rock art varying in age from some 12,000BC to 300AD. One of our favourites was from the Neolithic period (between 5,000 and 2,500BC), as it showed people dancing to a drummer in the exact same style as the Kalash in Northern Pakistan – a favourite WF haunt. Other scenes show hunters, people riding horses and elephants, using bows and arrows. But apart from the cave paints the place itself is immensely captivating, and wandering through the semi enclosed tunnels, or standing on the high rocks looking out over the plains below, it’s not hard to let your imagination carry you back to a very different time.
10. Enjoy sunset on a Goan beach
Goa has a reputation for parties, hippy living, and the psychedelic dreams of generations of pleasure seekers. But peace and solitude is what this equally relaxed tropical paradise offers, with delicious seafood food, local wine and a chance to plant bare feet firmly in Goa's warm sands, and whispering surf. After a day's swimming, walking and shopping from one of the many entertaining beach traders, just stop and enjoy the fiery glory of a triumphant Indian sunset rising above the mellowing waters of the Arabian Sea.
Many of the top 10 places to visit in Central India are included in our Central India Odyssey tour.