10th April 2019
India is pretty much a travellers haven, catering to the spiritual and laidback, to the chaotic and thrilling. But across the entire nation, India has a charm that you can feel in every smile, every iconic headshake and every piece of history you uncover. We’ve summed up the best places in India that everyone should see, and for those who have seen them, or wish to stray from the India bucket list, the best alternatives for a stroll down the path less trodden.
The sight of pilgrims lining the stepped ghats on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi has to be up there with the Taj Mahal when it comes to India’s most iconic scenes.
Considering it’s one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi has more than earned that recognisable status. Pilgrims and tourists alike flock to this sacred site to cleanse themselves of their sins in the holy Ganges, to die and escape the cycle of reincarnation, or simply to contemplate the enigma of life and mortality.
Best Tour: India: Slowly Down the Ganges
Travel further north to Rishikesh and you’ll find that the water of the Ganges flows greener, clearer and more enticing. The cool breeze from the Himalayan foothills is almost purifying as it whistles down the valley.
Known as the yoga capital of India, you’ll still find an abundance of spirituality here, just in more peaceful surroundings, fewer people (although you’ll still find sadhus a-plenty) and all the yoga and meditation you can fit into one day. Rishikesh is the third of these holy cities where Ganga Aarti (river prayer ceremonies) takes place at night along the river's edge.
Best Tour: Himalayan Villages Walking Adventure
Languorously chugging along the narrow, palm tree-lined backwaters of Kerala is a quintessential veer towards the other side of India, in that, in a land of extremes, this is on the tranquil end of the spectrum.
With chefs keeping you fueled and the open deck of the traditional rice barges providing you with panoramic views, there couldn’t be a more idyllic way to unwind. You'll most likely be sharing this scene with a few neighbours floating on the horizon, but the boats themselves are so picturesque, it does little to disrupt your Zen.
Known as the Venice of the East, the scenic backwaters of Kashmir also provide a welcome respite from tuk-tuk horns and frenetic traffic. Instead, relish in the sights and sounds of locals drifting past peacefully on canoes and boats, some heading to hawk their wares in the floating markets or eager children on their way to school.
An elegant stay on the characterful houseboats on Dal Lake make for a romantic experience and provides a good base from which to explore the canals on a shikara. You’ll feel like you’re a part of an elegant painting.
Best Group Tour: Hill Stations to Kashmir
Ranthambore National Park is the largest in the north of India and one of the best-known tiger reserves in the world. Used as a royal hunting ground at the beginning of the 20th century, it became a sanctuary for wildlife in 1955. With a goal to increase the wild Bengal tiger population, conservation efforts have seen their habitat protected and tiger numbers increase.
Sightings aren’t guaranteed on the safaris as great effort is put into allocating certain jeeps to certain ‘zones’ in order to not saturate the park with tourists and increase the chances of poachers slipping through the net.
Best Tour: Rajasthan: Taj, Temples and Tigers
Joining Ranthambore as one of the 28 Project Tiger Reserves in India, the tigers at Maharastra’s Tadoba National Park aren’t as used to human presence as its Rajasthani counterpart, but perhaps that is where the charm lies. The tigers may be more elusive but there are plenty of them and nothing can beat that genuine safari feel, undisturbed by jeeps full of fellow tourists. And tigers aren’t the only lure here. Try to spot a leopard, sloth bear, wild dog, striped hyena or jungle cat amongst the bamboo!
Best Tour: India: Luxury Jungle Tiger Tour
Consisting of 64 rock-cut caves, it’s no wonder the Ajanta and Ellora archaeological sites have attained UNESCO World Heritage status. The Buddhist sculptures, murals and art found inside the caves exquisitely depicts the life of Buddha. The monastery was excavated between the 2nd and 7th century.
The slightly newer Ellora caves (5th to 10th century) were hand-crafted from the top of the mountain, down, which somehow makes the level of detail all the more impressive. With caves dedicated to Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, it’s not only a sight to behold but also happens to be the largest single monolithic excavation in the world.
Best Tour: Heart of India
In Northern Karnataka, carved into the almond coloured sandstone cliffs are the Badami caves. There are only four caves so it’s a lot easier to explore and pay extra special attention to the ornate carvings and sculptures of deities that the caves house.
Dating back from the 6th century, the caves are also dedicated to Hinduism and Jainism. The climb to the temples is steep but worth the effort. Of particular note is the carving of 81 different dance poses of Lord Shiva found within the first cave. The views from the top, overlooking Lake Agastya and Badami village, are rather pleasant too.
Best Tour: Central India Odyssey
Few people can deny the absolute wonder that is the Taj Mahal. It was made to impress, and it doesn’t fall short in the slightest. Made for Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj is a mausoleum and was designed to be her final resting place in what is perhaps the most widely recognized monument of love that exists today.
Whether the allure is down to its beauty, the impressive symmetry or simply to marvel at the seemingly impossible feats that people are capable of in the name of love, anyone and everyone wants to bask in its ethereal charm. While it’s difficult to mar the experience at all, the crowds can be overwhelming.
Best Tour: India: Classical Rajasthan
With striking parallels to the story behind the Taj Mahal, Bibi Ka Magbara was also built for a greatly-loved wife and it happened to be Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s very own son that followed in his father’s footsteps on how to handle his grief.
Aurangzeb lost his wife after she succumbed to complications one month after giving birth to her fifth child. The pearly white marble mausoleum could be mistaken for the Taj, only half the size and, if you look really closely, not quite as intricate but the lack of crowds will make the experience all the more intimate.
Best Tour: Heart of India
In the north of Madhya Pradesh is the beautiful temple complex of Khajuraho.
Boasting around twenty sun-bleached sandstone temples with elaborately carved exteriors, this site is renowned for its erotic sculptures with controversial depictions of all manners of sexual goings-on. Although, this is displayed on only 10% of the temples so those of delicate dispositions need not worry. Other sculptures within the complex expertly illustrate scenes from Hindu life in the 10th – 11th century, real and mythical beasts and beautiful, sultry women.
In Rajasthan, you can find ‘mini Khajurajo’ set amongst the verdant emerald forests with its waterfall neighbour complimenting the picturesque temples. The main temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is from the 11th century but some parts of the temple site date all the way back to 6th century.
With very few tourists to bump into, it’s easy to imagine you’re the first person to gaze upon these architectural intricacies. Wander around the complex and take everything in at a pace that suits you and maybe even bring a picnic to enjoy in the company of guardian deities.
Best Tour: Village India
Like most festivals and celebrations in India, the famous camel fair in the deserts of Pushkar, Rajasthan is vivacious, picturesque and chaotic. For up to ten days, witness the most colourful and beautifully decorated camels you may ever see (indeed, such a claim calls for an actual camel beauty contest of course!), camel races, the best moustache competition and plenty of temple dancing and folk music.
What used to be primarily a business event centred around livestock trading, it’s become more of a tourist attraction and these days you’ll notice the photographers outnumbering the camels.
Best Tour: The Great Indian Adventure
Further south in Rajasthan you’ll find the city of Jhalawar, and a week after the Pushkar fair they hold the significantly less famous Chandrabhaga animal fair. Slightly smaller and almost completely devoid of foreign tourists, it’s a good opportunity to see such a trading tradition as it pretty much always has been celebrated.
Between open fires, some full-lipped, eyelash-batting camels and cantering horses distinguishable through the haze, the busy fair which is just as enthusiastically celebrated, coincides with the full moon of Kartik Purnima. So, if the throngs of buffalo, camels and horses aren’t enough to tempt you, perhaps the thousands of devotees gathered on the banks of the Chandravati river will.