India’s astonishing variety of sights has to be seen to be believed. Travelers have devoted lifetimes to exploring the famous places and forgotten corners of India, driven onwards by the certainty that there’s always more to see.
Mughal palaces, towering Hindu temples, mountain monasteries, lost kingdoms, cultured cities, and genteel hill stations in the foothills of the Himalayas all jostle for attention in a country that is proudly shaking off the legacy of colonialism and repositioning itself as a global superpower. With such incredible diversity on offer, there’s just one question – where do you start?
Well, our advice is to not take on too much during a single visit. Pick an area – the tropical south perhaps, or the northern plains, or the mountain valleys of the Himalayas – and give yourself time to pause and soak up the atmosphere as well as rushing around the sights.
Wherever you go, you’re guaranteed a mind-expanding and exhilarating blast of color, soul-soaring splendor, earth-shaking history and moments of pure serenity. Equal parts magic and mayhem, this mix of the intense and the sublime is what makes traveling to India such an intense and addictive experience.
While this was no easy list to compile, we’re proud to present our pick of the 10 best places to visit in India.
1. Agra, Uttar Pradesh
Best for romantics and fans of Mughal history
At the top of everyone’s bucket list, the Taj Mahal is every bit as glorious as people imagine it would be – a magnificent monument to lost love, executed in pearl-white marble. Views of the world’s most beautiful building framed by a Mughal archway or floating above the misty Yamuna River will be one of the defining moments of any trip to India.
But there’s more to the former Mughal capital than the Taj. Add on a couple of days and you can tack on a visit to the architecturally stunning tomb of the Emperor Akbar, his rose-red sandstone former capital at Fatehpur Sikri and sprawling Agra Fort, one of India’s most epic fortifications. Thronged by millions of visitors, Agra is not always relaxing, but it’s always fascinating.
2. Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Best for intense spirituality
There are few places as beguiling and bewitching as the sacred Hindu city of Varanasi. Millennia-old death rituals play out daily at the cremation ghats that line the bank of the sacred River Ganges, while the maze-like alleyways of the nearby old town reveal dizzying surprises at every turn. We defy anyone to visit without some internal soul-searching about their place in the universe.
Be ready for some challenges. The hard-edged realities of life and death and the inequalities that continue to cause hardship for many in India play out daily on the streets of the world’s oldest living city. But there are also moments of gentleness – rise at dawn and wander the ghats (riverside steps) and you’ll see Varanasi at its most spiritual, with its attention focused on the sacred river, before the tourist bustle changes the mood.
Planning tip: The best way to appreciate Varanasi’s famous ghats is from a rowboat. Boatmen offer their services from first light at boat stations along the west bank of the Ganges, providing views of a riverfront that has changed only superficially in seven centuries.
3. Mumbai, Maharashtra
Best for urban explorers and Bollywood hopefuls
Dubbed Bombay back in the British era, Mumbai is the perfect place to take the pulse of modern India. The most densely populated city in the subcontinent is home to Bollywood film stars, enterprising market vendors, bankers and executives rushing to work in time-scuffed British-era offices and fishing families who can trace their origins back to the days when this mighty metropolis was just a humble village.
To understand more about the disparities of life in contemporary Mumbai, take a socially responsible tour through the city’s huge and disadvantaged Dharavi district with Reality Tours & Travel; 80% of the profits go back to social projects providing opportunities for those left behind by Mumbai’s push for success.
The city’s can’t-miss excursion is the boat trip to the 1500-year-old, Unesco World Heritage-listed rock-cut temples of Elephanta Island, but fantastic street food is the city’s great leveler. Don’t leave without sampling the city’s signature snack, bhel poori – puffed rice and fried dough with lentils, onions, herbs and savory chutneys, best sampled on the beach at Chowpatty or Juhu.
Detour: With time to spare in Mumbai, head to the northern suburbs, where Sanjay Gandhi National Park protects a sprawl of dry forest, home to leopards, deer, monkeys and serene Buddhist cave temples.
4. Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir
Best for an extraordinary taste of Tibet
In the far northwest of India, sheltered from the monsoon by the rain shadow of the Himalayas, the former Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh is culturally and geographically closer to western Tibet than anywhere in India. In this high-altitude moonscape, towering Tibetan monasteries melt into a landscape of barren rock and wind-sculpted hoodoos (don’t miss fabulous Hemis and Thiksey on the road linking Ladakh to Himachal Pradesh).
Most visitors start in the atmospheric capital, Leh, before roaming to neighboring valleys for homestay treks and trips to view turquoise salt lakes and colorful masked dances at ancient monasteries. Ladakh wasn’t touched by China’s Cultural Revolution, so this is perhaps the closest independent travelers can come to experiencing the original culture of Tibet.
Planning tip: Getting to Ladakh is half the fun. Flights run to Leh even in the depths of winter, but the fun way in is overland, by road from either Srinagar in Kashmir or Manali in Himachal Pradesh. Buses and shared 4WDs run as long as the passes are open from June to the end of September, or you can tackle the route on a rented Enfield motorcycle.
5. Kolkata, West Bengal
Best for culture vultures
The capital of British India until 1911, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is India’s third-biggest metropolis, an the country’s intellectual and artistic capital. The city’s reputation as a place of poverty and hardship is undeserved; spend a few days exploring the city’s energetic bazaars, cultured museums and British-era landmarks, and you’ll soon fall in love with Kolkata’s irrepressible energy.
To really get under the skin of the city, sign up for a Bengali cooking course, visit Mother Teresa’s thought-provoking Missionaries of Charity mission, and visit the revered temple at Kalighat, where the mother goddess is appeased with sacrifices. With more time to spare, book an overnight wildlife-watching tour to the nearby Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, a legendary stalking ground for royal Bengal tigers.
Planning tip: Try to time your visit to coincide with the festival of Durga Puja in September or October, when vividly colorful effigies of the mother goddess are displayed in pandals (ceremonial tents) all over the city.
6. Jaisalmer, Rajasthan
Best for desert drama
The desert state of Rajasthan shows India at its most romantic and soft-filtered. Expect a mirage of camel caravans, ornate palaces, mighty forts, turbaned traders and intense colors, set against a backdrop of shifting desert sands. It’s unbelievably photogenic, but also firmly on the tourist map, so expect to share the experience with a crowd.
The pink-sandstone monuments of Jaipur, the ice-white lakeside palaces of Udaipur, and views of blue-hued Jodhpur from its lofty fort are all stunning experiences, but the city that delivers the biggest jolt to the senses is Jaisalmer, seeming sculpted from the living rock of the desert.
Its tangled lanes, towering fortress and beautifully ornate haveli (traditional houses) could have been plucked from the pages of One Thousand and One Nights, and the surrounding desert is the evocative setting for overnight camel safaris.
Planning tip: While it is possible to stay inside the fortified city, visitor numbers are having an impact on Jaisalmer’s historic heart. We recommend staying outside the walls instead – there are plenty of hotels and guesthouses within strolling distance of the fort.
7. The Kerala Backwaters
Best for lovers of slow travel
After the dusty, densely populated northern plains, tropical South India offers a lusher, more laid-back travel experience. The quintessential trip here is a slow-paced canal cruise through the emerald-green backwaters of Kerala, a 900-mile network of languid, coconut-fringed waterways, offering views of an ever-changing tableaux of South Indian life.
Hire a traditional houseboat in Alleppey for a multiday trip, then settle in for a succulent Keralan seafood curry prepared by your personal chef as the sunset blushes over shimmering waters and silhouetted palm fronds. Post-cruise, it’s just a short hop up the coast to historic Kochi (Cochin), with its cantilevered fishing nets and Kathakali dance theaters.
8. Bodhgaya, Bihar
Best for budding Buddhists
As the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism (plus countless smaller faiths), India is defined by sacred geography. Even here, however, few places resonate more powerfully than the Bodhi tree where Prince Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment to become the Buddha (Awakened One).
The town that has grown up around this sacred spot is home to dozens of Tibetan and Southeast Asian-style temples and monasteries, with a busy program of Buddhist teachings and courses. It’s the ideal destination for any spiritual explorer.
To get a feel for Bodhgaya’s rhythms, come early to the Mahabodhi complex and settle in beside chanting Tibetan pilgrims to meditate on the nature of impermanence. Travel experiences don’t get much more profound than this.
Planning tip: Bodhgaya is just one stop on the so-called “Buddhist circuit,” taking in key locations from the life of the historical Buddha. Local buses run to nearby Rajgir, site of one of the first Buddhist monasteries, and the ancient Buddhist university complex at Nalanda.
9. Darjeeling, West Bengal
Best for a premium cup of tea with a view
Fanned by the cool breezes of the eastern Himalayas, surrounded by manicured tea estates and basking in front of epic Himalayan views, Darjeeling is easy to fall for, as the British did in the 19th century. For a perfect day, watch the dawn break over 8586m Kangchenjunga, learn the difference between first-flush and white teas on a plantation tour, linger over an afternoon cuppa at the colonial-era Windamere Hotel, then learn about the Tibetan experience at the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre.
The classiest way to arrive is via the nostalgic, narrow-gauge toy train; book tickets in advance and check to see if the steam service is running (the diesel train follows the same route, but has less charm). Don’t miss the Buddhist gompas (monasteries) dotted around the city. Below Darjeeling on the fringes of Ghum, historic Yiga Choeling Gompa has a special magic.
Planning tip: Darjeeling isn’t the only interesting stop in the area. Shared 4WDs buzz from Darjeeling to Kalimpong, another historic township with colorful Buddhist monasteries, Himalayan views and pretty flower nurseries.
10. Hampi, Karnataka
Best for a full immersion in history
Between the 14th and 16th centuries CE, the capital of the Vijayanagar empire at Hampi was home to half a million people, but this ancient metropolis was almost completely abandoned, leaving 3700 stone monuments scattered across a surreal plain of boulders. This is a place to linger, strolling between the boulders to find carved masonry, forgotten shrines and the handsome remains of some of South India’s most dramatic stone temples.
Glance up as you wander and you’ll see rock climbers tackling bouldering routes using chisel marks made by ancient masons. Rent a motorcycle or scooter and you can roam further afield, taking in the hilltop temple marking the spot where the monkey god Hanuman first met Lord Rama.
Planning tip: Hampi is a short bus ride from the town of Hosapete – get here by overnight train from Goa’s beaches, historic Hyderabad or the cosmopolitan southern city of Bengaluru (Bangalore).
11. Arunachal Pradesh
Best for stepping off the map
Tucked away near Bangladesh, the eight Northeast States – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim – are India’s wild frontier. Until the 1990s, this region of rugged mountain valleys was mostly off-limits to foreigners, and visitor numbers are still small – people who travel here earn the right to call themselves proper explorers.
Sikkim is the most famous destination in the Northeast, but we’d coax you east towards the forested foothills and jagged mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, where tribal communities follow a diverse range of traditional belief systems, from the Buddhist Monpa people of Tawang to the animist Apatani people of the Ziro valley.
Planning tip: Travel takes a bit of effort in Arunachal Pradesh; you’ll need to apply for a permit to enter the state, and local transport is patchy. By far the easiest way to explore is with a chartered 4WD and driver (easily arranged in Guwahati in Assam).
12. Amritsar, Punjab
Best for experiencing the power of devotion
India has pilgrimage destinations to spare, but few come close to the vibrant energy of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The most sacred site for the Sikh religion is a gleaming jewel box, floating in a mirror-like sacred pool, thronged day and night by an unbelievable mass of pilgrims. You don’t have to be spiritually inclined to feel its powerful rhythms.
Joining devotees at the Sri Harmandir Sahib – the gold-paneled shrine at the heart of the complex – is incredibly moving. Staying overnight in the pilgrims’ hostels that flank the temple compound only adds to the intensity. Rooms are available for a donation, and you can sit down for meals at the temple langar (kitchen), which provides cost-free nourishment to a staggering 50,000 people per day (making a donation is appropriate).
Planning tip: Don’t limit your explorations to the Golden Temple – the surrounding bazaars buzz with energy and atmosphere, with vendors selling everything from embroidered chappals (slippers) to brass and polished steel pots and pans.
13. Mysuru (Mysore), Karnataka
Best for feeling like a Maharaja
The atmospheric South India city of Mysuru has multiple charms: towering temples, one of India’s most evocative marketplaces, and the almost impossibly extravagant crib that is Mysuru Palace, the ancestral home of the Wodeyar maharajas. No building conjures up the extravagant lives of India’s royal rulers quite so vividly – every room is a fantasy, every ornament an heirloom.
Around the palace are busy bazaars, rewarding museums and a string of Hindu temples in the classic South Indian style. Devote several days to wandering the streets, hiking up to the Sri Chamundeswari Temple on Chamundi Hill and feasting on fiery vegetarian thalis (plate meals) in Mysuru’s pure-veg restaurants.
14. Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh
Best for tiger encounters
The national parks of Madhya Pradesh are some of the best places on the planet to get close to royal Bengal tigers. Seeing one of these striped superstars loping out of the jungle will stay with you for a lifetime – as well as leaving you heartbroken at the thought of how few tigers still survive in the wild.
Everyone has their favorite tiger reserve, but we rate Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve near Jabalpur for the density of wildlife in its central Tala range. Around 70 tigers roam these dry forests, alongside leopards, monkeys, deer and gaur – India’s gigantic wild buffalo. There’s a high likelihood of sightings if you devote several days to 4WD safaris (elephant safaris should be avoided as riding can be harmful to these vulnerable animals).
Planning tip: The best time to see tigers is first thing in the morning – safaris start at 5:30am to catch tigers before they stake out a shady spot in the undergrowth to sleep through the heat of the day.
15. Madurai, Tamil Nadu
Best for religious splendor
South India’s Hindu temples are a joyous celebration of the divine, decorated inside and out with vividly colorful depictions of deities and supernatural beings, both fearsome and sublime. In the southern city of Madurai, the towering gopurams (gateway towers) of the Meenakshi Amman Temple provide a three-dimensional guide to the main deities of the Hindu pantheon.
The current temple was constructed in the 17th century, but the site has been sacred to Meenakshi, the queen of the Pandya kingdom and an incarnation of the goddess Parvati, for at least 2000 years. Come early in the morning to watch sunrise bring the temple to life, then pop to the nearest branch of Murugan Idli Shop for some of the south’s best idli (steamed rice and lentil cakes).
Detour: A short bus or train ride from Madurai, Tiruchirappalli – aka Trichy – is another top spot for temple enthusiasts. The looming Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is one of the world’s largest Hindu shrines, covering 155 acres (63 hectares) and topped by 21 deity-encrusted towers. More temples crown the rocky outcrop at the heart of the city, offering epic views over the rooftops.