India is huge and diverse country, from the Himalayas in the north to the heat of Kerala in the south, and the global cities of Delhi and Mumbai in the centre. There is so much to see and different areas have different cultures and weather so it is best to think of India as regions when planning a trip as different parts will be best at different times of the year, and hoping to see all of the country in one trip is extremely ambitious.
Beach Holidays in India
Whether you are only looking for a beach holiday, or just want to add on a few days of beach time to a trip around India there are several high quality options. Most of the beach resorts in India are on the west coast – taking advantage of the warm waters of the Arabian Sea.
Kerala Beach Holidays
Kerala – to the south of the country – has over 600km of coast line. The most popular beaches are located around the city of Kovalam. To the south of the city is Lighthouse Beach – a lively area with lots of bars and restaurants. There is a good range of hotels in the area to choose from.
To the north of Kovalam there are quieter, less visited beaches. The area around Mararikulam has great beaches that you may have completely to yourself. There are less hotels than to the south, but if you are looking for quiet and beautiful beaches then Marari Beach may be better suited than Lighthouse Beach.
Goa Beach Holidays
Goa is to the north of Kerala, and is India’s most popular beach holiday destination. The beaches to the north tend to be livelier with lots of bars and hotels, whilst the south is quieter and the hotels are more spread out.
Morjim Beach to the north has a number of beach bars and is a nesting place for sea turtles. The nearby beaches of Candolim and Calangute are popular and have a good range of luxury beach resorts.
Further south the beaches of Mobor and Palolem offer a beautiful and quiet setting for a beach holiday, with a choice of a few luxury resorts.
Cities and Cultural Sites in India
India is one of the best and most varied countries in the world to travel round. It has some of the oldest surviving cities in the world, a large part of the highest mountain range in the world, and national parks with tigers and leopards. Add to that a culture influenced over the years by Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam and a tumultuous history including being the home of the Mughal Empire and the jewel in the crown of the British Empire and it is clear to see why it is so popular.
Himalayas and Foothills
In the far north of the country are the Himalayas. These mountains and their foothills are home to secluded monasteries, cool hill towns and tea plantations. This is a great area to go trekking.
The city of Leh is the capital of the Ladakh region and sits at 3500m above sea level. The town centre is a great example of medieval Tibetan architecture, and there are lots of monasteries in the surrounding mountains.
Alchi is a village home to an old Buddhist monastery and temple complex. Construction on the complex is believed to have started in the 10th Century and the site is one of the most important in the region.
At over 3000m above sea level treks from Alchi to nearby villages afford great views and access to other mountain monasteries.
Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj
Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj are best known for their preservation of Tibetan life and culture – and particularly as the location of the Tibetan government in exile. The Tsuglagkhang Complex in Dharamshala is the Dalai Lama’s Monastery and the largest Tibetan Monastery outside of Tibet. The Dalai Lama usually lives at the monastery for a couple of months each year.
Although the town and monastery are the main reason for visiting, the forests around the towns are home to leopards as well Himalayan Eagles, and are great for trekking.
Shimla is over 2000m above sea level and was used as colonial retreat to get away from the heat. The town still has lots of remnants of its colonial past including churches, schools, town hall, and a post office.
Apart from wandering through the colonial centre, many people visit Shimla for its access to the Himalayan foothills. Climbing the surrounding hills gives great views, and you are likely to stumble upon old temples.
Darjeeling is a colonial hill town in the north east of country, at the foot of the Himalayas. The town had two uses – one as a hub for tea plantations and the second was to allow the British to escape the summer heat. Many of the colonial estates and bungalows are still intact.
The town is overlooked by Mt. Kanchenjunga – the third highest mountain in the world. The area around Darjeeling has lots of monasteries – both trekking and mountain biking are popular.
Northern India and The Golden Triangle
Northern India is home to India’s most visited sites – Agra, Delhi and Jaipur, which make up The Golden Triangle. However, the area has a lot more than just those sites to offer – from colonial Calcutta to rural Rajasthan and the Sikh holy city of Amritsar.
Agra and the Taj Mahal
Agra is a city set on the Yamuna River that is most famous for the Taj Mahal. However, it has more than just that – there is also a fort and other Mughal monuments and tombs.
The Taj Mahal, which means Crown Palace, is a memorial to Emperor Shah Jahan’s wife. Construction began in 1623 and it took thousands of people 20 years to build. Today it is the most iconic site in India thanks to its scale and the intricacy of its decoration.
Across the river from the Taj Mahal is Kachpura Village. The area has a number of ancient Mughal Monuments, including a mosque, as well as great views over the river of the Taj Mahal.
Agra Fort is a few kilometres away from the Taj Mahal. The large 16th Century fort was built using sandstone. The fort contains several palaces including the Mirror Palace, which was used as a prison for Shah Jahan (the Emperor who built the Taj Mahal) when he was imprisoned by his son. The Shah Burj – a tower at the fort – was also used as a prison for him, and from there he spent his days looking across at the Taj Mahal.
The Itimad-ud-Daulah, known as the Baby Taj, is the mausoleum of an important official in the Mughal Empire. It is thought to be the inspiration for the real Taj Mahal and is quieter than the main site.
Delhi is the capital and political centre of India. It has been a powerful city for over 1000 years, and is one of the oldest surviving cities in the world – having been destroyed and rebuilt 11 times.
Delhi has two main parts. Old Delhi was the capital during the Mughal period and today is a chaotic area with lots of bazaars. New Delhi was the capital built by the British – this area of the city has colonial-era parliament buildings and most of the luxury accommodation.
The Jama Masjid is the largest mosque in India. The mosque was built in the 17th Century under orders from Emperor Shah Jahan and took 6 years to build. The huge inner courtyard can hold 20 thousand people and you can climb the minaret for great views of the city. The mosque is in the Chandi Chowk area of the city, which has lots of lively bazaars.
Near to the Jama Masjid is the Red Fort. Also built by Shah Jahan, the fort was the Emperor’s ruling palace. The scale of the fort is impressive, and the gardens within its walls are well kept. The buildings within the fort include a bazaar, official functions rooms and the residences of the imperial family.
Humayun’s tomb was the first large Mughal Structure built in Delhi asa memorial to Emperor Humayun. Its design has similar elements to the Taj Mahal, although it was built around 50 years before. The gardens of the tomb are immaculate and the whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Qutub Complex is a group of 13th Century Buildings that include a mosque and some tombs, and most notably the Qutub Minar. The Qutub Minar is a minaret that at 72.5m was the highest building in the world when it was built.
Other sites that are worth visiting in Delhi include the huge Gurudwara Bangla Sahib – the main place of Sikh worship in the city – and the Raj Ghat – a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi.
In New Delhi the Rajpath is a boulevard along which major national processions take place. The road is surrounded by green lawns and colonial buildings and runs from the President’s residence to India Gate (a WWI memorial to Indian Soldiers).
The third corner of the Golden Triangle (after Agra and Delhi) is Jaipur. Designed by an 18th Century Maharaja to be his perfect city, Jaipur has lots of Royal Palaces and Gardens. The city is nicknamed the Pink City because it was painted pink in 1876 in celebration of the Prince of Wales’ visit and the tradition has lived on.
The city has a network of wide streets ideal for Royal processions that link the central palace to other palaces and temples. In the older, narrower streets there are several bazaars that were originally used to sell decorative artwork for the Royal Palaces. Artists continue to use the same techniques today and sell their products at these bazaars.
The Amber Fort is 11km from Jaipur and was the seat of power for Rajasthan in the 17th Century. The Palace is a large network of passageways around three courtyards, linking temples and royal quarters. The most famous room is the Sheesh Mahal or Mirror Palace – filled with thousands of mirrors so it can be lit with a single candle.
Jodhpur is to the south west of the Golden Triangle but is a good choice if you have a few additional days. The city is dominated by the Mehrangarh Fort, which was built in the 15th Century on top of a rock, and now overlooks the city. A short walk from the fort is the senic Jaswant Thada – a collection of Royal cenotaphs next to a small lake.
The old town of Jodhpur is full of blue buildings and a lively market connected by narrow passages. There are lots of historical buildings and monuments dotted amongst the city and it is a great place to wander round.
To the south east of the Golden Triangle is the temple complex of Khajuraho. Dating back to the 10th Century the complex has 21 temples – they are most famous for their intricate Kama Sutra stone carvings. The complex is better preserved than buildings from the same period elsewhere in India due to its remote location protecting it from attack.
Amritsar is Sikhism’s most holy city. The highlight of the city is the Golden Temple, which is the spiritual home of Sikhism. The temple was built over 400 years ago and over 100kg of gold was used in its construction. Surrounding the temple is the Amrit Sarovar – a lake that pilgrims bathe in.
The ‘Going to Bed’ ceremony is a must see if you are in Amritsar. The Sikh Holy Book is taken in a Palanquin through the crowds before returning to its overnight location. Thousands of pilgrims attend the ceremony daily.
Varanasi is one of the oldest still surviving cities in the world, and is the holiest city in the world for Hindus. The city is on The Ganges River, which is the scene of daily ceremonies – from morning ablutions to puja chanting in the evening. Families come to Varanasi to cremate relatives on the Ganges. Leading down to the river are 84 sets of steps or Ghats that are the main location for the religious activities.
The buildings of the town are colourful and the streets are extremely lively. The experience of visiting Varanasi is best described as intense.
Central India is less visited than both the north and the south. Whilst the north has the Golden Triangle and Himalayas, and the South has the beaches and backwaters of Kerala, central India has the best wildlife and national parks.
Mumbai is the largest city in India and its commercial centre. The sprawling city has lots of different areas – some of which are more worth exploring than others.
South Mumbai is the most popular place for tourists, and is the most desirable place to live (real estate is priced similar to Manhattan). There are lots of bars, restaurants and shops and most of the tourist sights are in this area. There are a number of colonial buildings including the Fort St. George, Mumbai Railway Station and The Gateway of India. The Gateway was built to commemorate the visit of King George V. For a more modern view, Marine Drive is worth a visit for its Art Deco architecture. There are also lots of lively street markets around the city.
One of the best sights in Mumbai is the Haji Ali Dargah: a mosque and tomb located on a small island in Worli Bay, just off of south Mumbai. This 19th Century Tomb was built to house the remains of a Muslim Saint and is visited by thousands of pilgrims everyday. You can reach the island at low tide across a causeway from south Mumbai.
To the north of the city there are some ancient sites including the ancient Buddhist cave temples of Kanheri, and the Ancient Hindu Temples at Jogeshwari.
Mumbai has a number of beaches but the sea is dirty and the currents can be strong, and wearing swimsuits is not seen as acceptable on these beaches. However, walking along the seafront is a good way to spend a few hours.
Ahmedabad is the largest city in Gujarat, a state in the West of India. The city centre is filled with old, narrow streets lined with lots of wooden buildings, including ornately carved temples. The old town is filled with lively bazaars – especially the night market – that are famous for selling textiles.
One of the most important sites in Ahmedabad is the Sabarmati Ashram. Gandhi lived here twelve years and was the start point for his 1930 march for Independence.
Calcutta was the capital of India under the British Raj during the 19th Century. The city still retains a lot of its colonial heritage – including the Victoria Memorial and the churches of St John and St Andrew.
The city is built on the banks of the Hugli River, an offshoot of the Ganges as it makes its way into the Bay of Bengal. Stretching over the river is the Howrah Bridge leading to Howrah Junction Railway Station – India’s oldest train station.
Ranthambhore National Park
Ranthambhore National Park is to the south of Jaipur and Agra in Rajasthan. The park is one of the best places in the world to see tigers. It is one of India’s oldest tiger sanctuaries and is located on the former hunting grounds of the Maharaja of Jaipur. Monkeys, deer and lots of bird species also live in the park.
Sasan Gir National Park
Near to Ahmedabad, Sanan Gir National Park is unique in India. Instead of tigers the park is the last place where the Asiatic Lion can be found in the wild. The numbers of lions in the park has been increasing since its formation in 1980. Today the population is around 650, up from less than 300 in 1997.
Bandhavgarh National Park
Banhavgarh is relatively small national park to the west of Calcutta, buts its thick forest mixed with open marshland make it a good habitat for tigers, as well as boar, jackal and sambar.
Kanha National Park
Kanha is a large national park, many times the size of Bandhavgarh. The park contains lots of wildlife – including tigers, leopards, wild dogs, and sloth bears (although these are generally only seen at dawn or dusk).
Tadoba National Park
Tadoba National Park has one of the broadest ranges of wildlife in India. In addition to tigers, it has leopards, sloth bears, hyenas, wild dogs, jungle cats, and chausingha. The Andhari River flows through the park, and is surrounded by hills of teak and bamboo.
Pench Tiger Reserve
Pench Tiger Reserve is a relatively new national park. Apart from tigers, the park also has jungle cats and langurs.
Compared to Northern India, Southern India is very relaxed and peaceful. Whilst the north has the most famous sites (Taj Mahal, Jaipur etc.) the south has the natural beauty of the Kerala backwaters, well preserved colonial towns and lesser visited ancient monuments.
Kochi (also known as Cochin) is a city in Kerala, on the west coast of India. The city was an important spice trading port from as early as the 14th Century, and has been occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and British at different times.
The city is spread over several islands. The Fort has some well-preserved colonial buildings, and is the most historic area of the city. The wide, tree lined streets connect the major sites – including the Mattancherry Palace, old warehouses, churches and a synagogue.
Restaurants and stalls serve great fish, owing to the importance of fishing to modern day Cochin.
In the hills to the east of Kochi is the town of Munnar. The town is around 1500m above sea level, and has a cool climate that is great for growing tea. The hill town was a popular colonial escape from the heat, and is a great place for trekking. Nearby is Anamudi – the highest mountain in Southern India.
Many people come to southern India for the Kerala Backwaters. The backwaters are made up of 5 large lakes linked by thousands of kilometres of rivers and man-made canals. Most people choose to do either a single day or multi-day tour on a boat. You can also go shopping at floating markets or fishing.
Chennai – formerly known as Madras – was a key British colonial town, although its roots go back to Portuguese and Armenian traders. The British developed the town into a major trading centre in the 17th Century. As part of this they built Fort St George in 1644, making it the first British built fort in India.
There are temples in the area that pre-date the British Colonisation, including the 7th Century Kapaleeswarar Temple.
Mahabalipuram is an ancient stone carving centre. This legacy is shown through its impressive temples and bas-reliefs. There are many temples to explore in the area – from the large Shore Temple to many incomplete temples and ruins.
Pondicherry is a French colonial town that has retained a lot of its French influences – from buildings to police uniforms. It was also heavily featured in The Life of Pi. Pondicherry is one of the most relaxed towns in India, and is a great place to explore on bike.
Nearby is the Ashram (spiritual community) of Auroville – one of the most famous in India.
Madurai is one of the oldest cities in India – having been in existence for over 2000 years. The most important site is the huge Hindu Meenakshi Temple. The Temple consists of 9 Gopurams (towers) and the façade is decorated with lots of colourful religious images.
The town also has a museum dedicated to the life of Mahatma Gandhi that is a great place to learn about his life.
Mysore was the capital of the Kingdom of Mysore, which only joined India in 1950 after the country gained independence from Britain. The city is more relaxed than many others in India, and combined with a cooler climate makes it a great stop for a few days.
The centre of the city is the Royal Palace. This large, extravagantly decorated building is still home to the Maharaja of Mysore, but much of the palace is open to tourists.
Ooty was a colonial hill station popular for its cooler climate – its popularity shown by the presence of a race track and a golf course. The town centre retains its colonial charm, but the main reason people visit the town is to go walking in the surrounding countryside. There are a number of peaks that you can climb, dense forests to explore, or tea plantations to wander through.
Possible India Itineraries
As India is such a large country with so many sites there are a huge number of possible itineraries. Below are some suggestions as a start point but please get in contact to discuss the perfect itinerary for your trip. These itineraries can also be combined with a holiday in The Maldives or Sri Lanka.
The Golden Triangle
The most popular India itinerary is based around the Golden Triangle. Fly into Delhi and spend a few days there visiting the sites of the old town before heading to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. From Agra finish off the triangle by heading to Jaipur.
If you have extra time them you can easily add on a beach holiday in Goa or Kerala, a trip to see tigers at Ranthambhore National Park, or head north to the Himalayas.
The Himalayas and Its Foothills
Heading into the Himalayas offers great trekking opportunities, amazing views and the ability to explore Tibetan Mountain monasteries. Delhi is the best starting point – from there head north to the town of Shimla – a colonial hill town at 2000m above sea level. From Shimla you can head further into the mountains to Leh, which at 3500m above sea level is a great place to explore the mountains, and you can also visit the Alchi Monastery. Heading back down from the mountains to the foothills you can stop off at Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj – the home of the Tibetan Government in exile. The Sikh Holy City of Amritsar, although not in the foothills, is a good place to stop on your way back to Delhi.
North East India
From Delhi head East, first stopping off at the Hindu Holy City of Varanasi on the Ganges River. From Varanasi you can continue heading east to the colonial city of Calcutta on the Bay of Bengal. After a few days in the city, head north to the foothills of the Himalayas and stay in the town of Darjeeling – surrounded by tea plantations.
Indian Tiger Safari
Central India has a large number of National Parks that are great places to spot tigers. From Delhi you can head south to Ranthambhore National Park (stopping at Agra on the way if you want to see the Taj Mahal). From Ranthambhore you can continue to head south to India’s largest national park – Kanha, where in addition to tigers you can see leopards and sloth bears.
From Kanha you can either head back north to Delhi, head west to Mumbai, or south to the beaches of Goa and Kerala.
Southern India and the Kerala Backwaters
If you want to explore the more relaxed southern part of India the best place to start is Chennai due to its flight connections (Bangalore is also well connected). From Chennai head south to the relaxed French Colonial town of Pondicherry. From Pondicherry you can head west to the ancient city of Mysore, before heading south to the cool hill town of Ooty.
After Ooty you can carry on south to the Kerala Backwaters for a few nights, and finish off your trip on the beaches near the city of Kochi.
Where to Stay in India
India has a large range of mid and upmarket hotels. There has been a lot of growth in luxury accommodation in recent years, and in particular places that let you stay in historical buildings – whether it is an old fort or a tea plantation bungalow.
When to Go to India
When to go to India is a complicated question and depends on the area you want to visit. From October to April is a good time to visit anywhere in India – it is hot enough in the south for a beach holiday, but not too hot in central and northern India to make sightseeing unbearable. May can be too hot and humid for many travellers.
June to August is monsoon time for most of India, however it is a great time to head to the Himalayas.
The best time to visit southern India is from November to January, when the weather is at its best for a beach holiday.
The best way to get around India is by private car with a driver for shorter distances, and flying for longer distances. Public transport can be chaotic, however there are some great luxury train options. River cruising is also a popular and luxurious way to get around – especially around the Kerala Backwaters.
Getting to India
Delhi and Mumbai are the easiest places to enter India – with many daily direct flights from the UK. Several other cities also have direct flights from the UK including Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad.