You’ve pictured the palaces, the sunsets, the rickshaws and the raucous markets. Maybe even the heaving cities or the rattling trains, rolling past dense forest and barren desert. But which trip brings what? And how do you connect the dots? Here, our expert writers have selected the best 8 trips to take in India. Sit back, take your pick and assemble your dream journey…
First-timer’s tick list
Ultimate Golden Triangle
Days 1-3: Delhi
No matter how many times you’ve watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, nothing will prepare you for the intensity of heat, dust, smell and teeming humanity of the subcontinent, so take it easy on day one. Stay in the elegant environs of the Lutyens-designed New Delhi district – try the colonial grandeur of the Maidens, waiting until day two to hit the streets of Old Delhi, ideally at daybreak by rickshaw. Your first stop is the Red Fort, the citadel of the Mughal emperors. Next door is the Chandni Chowk market, an ants’ nest of alleys selling everything from refurbed typewriters to hand-built laptops and designer fakes. The street food is tempting – especially the cheese parathas on ‘fried bread street’, Paranthe Wali Gali, but approach with caution: best if you have a local to steer you, to lessen the chance of an upset stomach. Relax at your hotel that afternoon, then at sunset, head to Humayun’s Tomb, inspiration for the Taj Mahal. No need to go in: the magic is in its exotic gardens. On day three, visit the magnificent Jama Masjid mosque, built by emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century – a wonderful place to sit and watch India pour past. And don’t miss an authentic North Indian dinner at Moti Mahal Delux (Greater Kailash 1): Indian foodies say it’s as important a stop as the Taj itself.
Days 4-5: Agra
A four-hour drive southeast, Agra is dirty, crowded and full of hustlers. But it’s also home to the Taj Mahal, the world’s most dazzling monument to lost love. You’re only here for one night, so splurge on the Oberoi Amarvilas for the best rooms, service and, above all, views of the Taj. Wait until late afternoon before visiting the complex. By then, the coach parties, selfie-takers and backpackers will have left, the light will be softer and there’ll be no queues at either gate. Don’t bother with a guide – the flood of information detracts from the beauty and you can always find the history online – and remember it’s closed on Fridays. Next day, rise before dawn and get your driver to take you over the Yamuna river, past the Mehtab Bagh, the pleasure gardens created by Jahan as the perfect viewpoint for the Taj Mahal, and out into the onion fields of Kachhpura village. If you time your trip right, for mid-March or mid-October, the view from here will make you weak at the knees. Green fields dotted with white egrets run down to a distant row of trees, and rising behind, a mist-swathed hint of Taj that turns from orange to apricot to lychee as the sun rises. Get your snaps, then get out of Agra.
Days 6-7: Jaipur
It’s a five-hour drive west to the Pink City of Jaipur: an exemplar of self-ordering chaos that’s part traffic jam, part Bollywood extravaganza and part Arabian Nights. You’ll see the pink Palace of Winds (from where the Maharajah’s harem could observe the life of the city without being seen); the exquisite City Palace (allow at least half a day to explore its gardens, galleries, courtyards and museums); the extraordinary collection of giant astronomical instruments at the Jantar Mantar observatory; and, a half-hour’s drive out of town, the Disneyesque Amber Fort. Don’t forget to try Jaipur’s incandescent speciality, laal maas. It’s made from mutton, ghee, yoghurt and an extraordinary amount of chillies.
The spiritual voyage
Cruising the Ganges
Descending rapidly from the icy peaks of the Himalayas before winding across the fertile floodplain to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges is India’s most sacred river. Here and there its banks thrum with cities, which slowly fade to long expanses of emptiness.
While tourists are rarely seen in these remote parts, in recent years, several cruises have launched, running mainly from Kolkata to Varanasi (sometimes on to Sundarbans National Park). Each delivers a fascinating snapshot of rural river life: women in sun-bright saris bathing by the banks, men vigorously scrubbing away their sins, and fishermen hauling in their nets. Villagers worship at terracotta temples squeezed in beside other remnants of the past: abandoned mosques, Mughal mausoleums and crumbling British palaces. (Find a cruise that stops at the Hazarduari Palace in Murshidabad, and you’ll get to see the world’s second-largest chandelier.)
Days on board unspool over fiery Bengali delicacies, such as catfish curry, and swapping stories with fellow passengers, a 30-strong crowd of intelligent, adventurous Europeans who have seen the Golden Triangle and now want something earthier. From its serene platform you can take in the messy vitality on the riverbanks as far as Varanasi. Here Hindus cremate the deceased by the Ganges, an intimate ritual, as corpses are cleansed, flames licking flesh on funeral pyres – all in plain sight. Feral pi-dogs, wild cows, holy sadhus and street children wander among the cinders. But peace descends each evening as worshippers float diyas – candle-holders made of dried leaves, containing marigold petals – towards the horizon, as
Look in the wrong places and Goa is going, going, gone: scarred by cheap tourism, raves and flatpack hotels. But north and south of the offending bits (Calangute, Candolim), the boho vibe that pinned it to the map in the ’60s is alive, and lazing over nicely spiced prawns…
Northwards first: Vagator Beach parties with panache at W Goa, a good-looking big-brand resort on a palmy headland. It’ll suit first-timers who want exotic flair (ethnic-print fabrics, searing curries, flamboyant crowds from Mumbai and Delhi) with international airbrushing (white décor, gentle clubby sounds). Try its Rock Pool bar, overlooking strawberry-pink horizons. Take a rickshaw south to neighbouring Anjuna for its sprawling flea market, a crucial hippie-Goa stop.
Get into Goa’s boho-chic vibe on the virgin sands of Ashwem Beach, 15km north along roads lined with tall palms. It’s the tranquil antithesis of Vagator and Anjuna, with rudimentary loungers staked out by elegant French, Russian and Italian bronzers. There’s a Jade Jagger jewellery kiosk and a sand-between-the-toes café, La Plage, for lazy seafood lunches. It has simple rooms, too.
Switch lodgings to Ahilya by the Sea, further south: a nine-room retreat
with antiques, pools and lawns for candlelit shellfish dinners. Across the water, the Goan capital, Panaji, is a must: see the Portuguese churches of Old Goa behind warped ebony doors, then drink coffee at a
tiled café in the European-feel Fontainhas quarter.
Head inland, beyond the dewy hill flanks of the Western Ghats. At Ponda, snap the slurries of weird fish in the Saturday market. Swim
in the cool Dudhsagar Falls, 60km inland. Then wander around Braganza House in Chandor: a mansion museum (free entry, tips welcome) full of Portuguese porcelain and antiques amassed by the ancestors of its now-more-impecunious owners.
Take a car-trawl of the beachy south, almost desert-island-remote in parts. If you find the parasols and lunch shacks of Palolem and Agonda too lively, hit the Cola Beach tented resort for lunch (or a few nights) and you could be back in the Goa of the ’60s: hammocks, yoga, whispering shallows and solitude.
In the country’s mountainous northernmost reaches, you’ll discover a whole different India – high-altitude and spiritual, stalked by snow leopards.
Days 1-2: Amritsar, Punjab
Punjab’s iconic city, Amritsar, is a thrilling starting point, home to one of India’s most spectacular sites: the shimmering Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine. There’s also a bubbling food scene (find freshly baked kulcha, leavened flatbread cooked in a tandoor oven) in the colourful market, as well as the Partition Museum, documenting the division of this region between India and Pakistan in 1947. Don’t miss the daily Wagah border ceremony, involving a Bollywood-style dance-off (4.15pm in winter; 5.15pm summer).
Days 3-4: Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh
Home to the Dalai Lama (normally in residence in May – check at dalailama. com), this quaint hill station is surrounded by cedar forests in the Himalayan foothills, and has a rich Tibetan feel. Crimson-robed monks meander to monasteries, plaintive Buddhist chants fill the air and a muddle of small streets overflow with shops selling handicrafts.
Days 5-6: Leh, Ladakh
With jagged peaks and blindingly blue sky, Ladakh’s landscape feels as mythical as Narnia. Strung with prayer flags whipping in the wind, the capital, Leh, is a laid-back frontier town with an ancient palace, whitewashed stupas and a thronging bazaar that fans out into barley fields. The Ultimate Travelling Camp at the base of Thiksey Monastery is pricey, but overwhelmingly peaceful.
Days 7-9: Hemis National Park, Ladakh
You’re here to spy one of the world’s biggest recluses – the powerful and elegant snow leopard. Around 200 of them live in Hemis National Park, a wild Eden of magnificent mountains, cobalt rivers and plunging ravines. Trek through deep snow with local trackers during the day, and bed down at night in a traditional homestay.
Days 10-11: Nubra Valley, Ladakh
A chunk of the ancient Silk Route with the highest drivable pass in the world, the astonishing Nubra Valley will make you gasp and gasp again: rolling patchwork fields, crystal-clear streams, carpets of wild lavender and desert sand dunes you can traverse by camel. Camp nearby at Turtuk (the last Indian outpost on the Pakistan border) to immerse yourself in Balti culture, with its distinct way of living, local language and exuberant traditional dress.
Days 12-14: Srinagar, Kashmir
Cross the pointed mountains to Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital. Framed by pristine alpine scenery, beautiful Dal Lake is the star of the show. Stay on evocative houseboat Sukoon, moored on the lake. And for transport? The multi-coloured, gondola-like shikaras will take you past the floating flower markets and into the city centre, dotted with historic mosques. However, it’s important to follow official travel guidelines before visiting the area.
The emerging region
A Tamil Nadu trail Ratatouille laced with olive oil, cheese as pungent as Napoleon’s boot, and ochre-washed buildings bursting with bougainvillea… It’s all gloriously French Med. But, wait: what’s with the rickshaws and the sweet scent of something decidedly un-French: tamarind? Coconut? More to the point, why is that guy with the henna-red beard intent on cleaning your ears with a stick?
The tour guides will tell you that former French colony Pondicherry is a corner of India that is forever France, but that’s doing this city pit stop, in the state of Tamil Nadu, a disservice. Sure, get your fix of the French Quarter’s cobblestone streets and froufrou architecture: stick around the quadrant of Dumas, Romain Rolland, Suffren and La Bourdonnais streets (try the flaky pain au chocolat at Suffren’s Café de Arts). But it’s the Tamil touches seen everywhere in this sultry city that’ll whet your appetite for the fun to come: the temple-going hustle, the grey-painted ashrams disgorging the faithful; the glass and steel of go-getting young India. It’s a leisurely intro to this rising star southern state. To modern India, Tamil Nadu is the keeper of the flame for ancient culture. Indian classical dance and music originated here and lives on at Chennai’s atmospheric Madras Musical Academy, while religious rites are a living (and hollering) thing. It’s the kind of place to head for, once you’ve crossed crowd-pleasing Rajasthan and easy Kerala off your list. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need to do the entire tour-operator-touted ‘temple trail’ – a two-week slog around Thanjavur (Tanjore) and boulder-dotted Tiruchirappalli (Trichy), with an unsavoury ‘holy dip’ in the sea at Dhanushkodi. But do make time for Madurai, where deity-covered gopurams (ornate temple towers) loom over the potash-painted faces of tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims. They cram into the temple of the ‘fish-eyed goddess’, Meenakshi, but you’ll find more breathing space at Alagar Kovil temple, with its serene green gardens. After Madurai, move along the coast to Mahabalipuram. Backpackers come here for the barefoot charm, sightseers for the art. From the epic open-air rock reliefs dating back to the Middle Ages (the 29m Descent of the Ganges is most impressive) to the narrow alleyways tap-tapping with craftsmen’s chisels on stone (Rajan at Rolling Stones will ship your souvenir home for a snip), stone sculpting has been in this town’s DNA for centuries.
Now leave these hot, dusty plains for the lush Western Ghats – formed of the soaring Nilgiri Hills in the north and the curvaceous Palanis, Cardamoms and Anaimalia to the south. It’s along this green stretch that the British located some of their prettiest hill stations – Ooty is the famous one, with its Gothic red-brick piles and immaculate gardens; but the forest hiking trails near laid-back Kodaikanal hill station are a ravishing way to explore the area. In this region, all roads lead to Chennai. The city’s heat and choc-abloc Grand Trunk Road can overwhelm fresh-from-the-plane newbies – but en route home, with new ‘India eyes’, you’ll see the best in this sleepless metropolis. Start with a fiery thali – those famous all-in-one curry feasts served on a banana leaf – then nose around wood-panelled Raj-era clubs such as the Madras, where loafers and moustaches still rule. Meanwhile, in the rising gastro-hub simmering around Cathedral Road in the Nungambakkam neighbourhood, and in lively Besant Nagar, you’ll find hip young Chennai sipping the local social lubricant and dancing. You’ll leave town with plenty of southern spirit.
The wildlife wonder
Tigers in the wild
It’s a few minutes after dawn at Bandhavgarh National Park, a sprawling wilderness 800km southeast of Delhi, in Madhya Pradesh. You’re sitting, shivering, in a line of open-topped Jeeps at the park gates. Officials are waving bits of paper and pocketing cash here and there as they decide which of the Forest Department’s guides will accompany which vehicle. Each has an assigned route, and if you get the wrong one, you’ll probably see some deer – maybe an owl. Get the right one, though, and you might see a tiger.
Welcome to India’s big-cat lottery. India has 50 tiger reserves of this kind – between them, they’re home to about 2,225 of the beasts. Bandhavgarh is one of the best, with an estimated 70 tigers, but finding them isn’t easy. Vehicles are allowed in twice a day: for five hours at dawn and three in the afternoon. Game drives involve following rutted tracks through dense, dry sal forest, over rocky hills, past lakes and ancient ruins, eyes straining to spot a predator designed to be invisible.
Radios are banned, but the guides use their mobiles to keep in contact and if one gets lucky, he’ll share the intel with his mates. But getting lucky is so rare that to pin your hopes on actually seeing a tiger is to set yourself up for almost certain disappointment.
Guides will emphasise the importance of focusing on the birdlife, the wild dogs, the deer and the incredible scenery. But deep down, we’re all praying for tigers.
Sometimes, those prayers are answered. You follow the vultures and spot a tigress and her cubs on a kill. You round a bend to find a male the size of a small horse standing in the road. Your first instinct is to pull out a camera. Don’t do it. Your hands will be shaking and the shots will be rubbish; burn the image into your memory instead. Look at the whiskers, the enormous paws, the rippling fur and big teeth. Finally, look into its amber eyes, meeting a deeply indifferent gaze – one that says you’re nothing but meat in too much packaging. Study every detail of this desperately endangered predator.
Your grandchildren may never see one in the wild, and you need to be able to describe it to them.
The rural cruise
This state’s name means ‘land of the coconut’, and if that conjures up images of palms on white-sand beaches, you’re bang on. A serene sliver on India’s southwest coast, it has beaches, then backwaters. The noise and crowds that dominate India dissipate here, making this the obvious spot for post-tour decompression.
Day 1 Kochi
India’s oldest European settlement is a crumbling mess of Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and British influences. A spice port in its heyday, it’s now simply a memento of an older India. Take in the ornate Mattancherry Palace; the spice warehouses on Jew Town Road; and the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets along River Road. Most tour operators use Kochi as an overnight base – the Old Courtyard Hotel is the handsomest crashpad – before the real joys of Kerala, so enjoy a stroll and an early night.
Days 2-3 Head for the hills
Four hours’ drive east lies the hill station of Munnar, heart of South India’s tea trade. Top priority here is to find a base somewhere suitably EM Forster – perhaps the Windermere Estate, a plantation house surrounded by tea terraces – from which to hike the Letchmi Hills, visiting the tea fields.
Day 4-5 Periyar
Settle in on a bamboo-raft cruise along the shores of Periyar Lake, watching out for elephants, deer, otters and the great pied hornbill. Stay at the Spice Villagein Thekkady, in low, thatched cottages clustered around an old plantation house.
Day 6: The backwaters
Lazing on the bow of an Alappuzha (formerly Alleppey) houseboat, watching coconut palms reflected in the still waters, and waving to locals as you drift by, is one of the world’s most satisfying travel experiences. Kerala’s famed houseboats are converted rice barges staffed by a skipper, first mate and cook. Once aboard, this is your private cruise ship for 24 glorious hours. A good captain will make sure you end up on a west-facing lake in time to watch the sun set it ablaze.
Days 7-10 Beach lazing
Kovalam is Kerala’s beachy side –
but don’t expect the party set-up of Goa. Here you’ll find beaches peppered with temples; beaches frequented by cows; and beaches where fishermen call you over to help haul in their catch. It’s also the best place to try Kerala’s seafood-centric cuisine – prawn masalas; spiced-and-fried fish; and creamy mappas (coconut-milk-based) curries. Rooms cost from as little as $9 a night, but if you’re looking for luxury, Niraamaya is a collection of polished-dark-wood cottages beside two all-but-private beaches.
The far-flung oasis
Tranquil Tea Country
A carpet of cloud obscures the valley, glowing peach at dawn. Bamboo and pine trees huddle on the hillsides, from where cuckoos call out through the stillness. As the sun rises, the Himalayas emerge through the haze: jagged and glistening with snow. Sipping from a steaming cup of clear tea, made from the earliest buds and fledgling leaves, you’ll experience few calmer Indian mornings than this.
Once a summer retreat for the officers of the British Raj, Darjeeling is now a year-round favourite for Indian families on weekend breaks. They come to the green pastures of this far-northeastern slice to taste tea, shop for Tibetan trinkets, and ride the famous Toy Train, though you’d likely stop off only on a wider tour of this northeast corner – perhaps taking in Sikkim, or Kolkata. Colonial-era lodges still serve you tea on your veranda as you inhale the scent of magnolias. But Darjeeling town is now a patchwork of modern hotels, shops and cafés flung across the slopes, with a distinctly Indian slant. Here, you’re more likely to find hot samosas than scones for sale in the alleys strung with prayer flags.
Stay on a tea plantation and allow two to three days to get a feel for the town. For four-postered luxury, book into genteel Glenburn Tea Estate. Established in 1859, it still produces 150,000kg of tea per year – and encourages you to pick the leaves alongside working women, waist-deep in the shrubs, baskets strapped across heads. Follow the leaves as they’re withered, rolled, dried, sorted and graded, then learn how to taste that delicate infusion properly – by slurping it in through your teeth.
If you’d like to try some home cooking, you can volunteer on the Makaibari Tea Estate and stay with a family in one of its seven villages. Darjeeling’s high-altitude hotels have no central heating, so bring a hot-water bottle for bed, and layer up on chillier nights.
On your second or third morning, hire a shared 4WD from Chowk Bazaar to Tiger Hill to watch the 4am sunrise over Mounts Kanchenjunga and Everest, where vendors mill about serving tea as the sun tints the peaks. Head to Darjeeling town’s Bhutia Busty Gompa monastery, run by Tibetan refugee monks; later, trawl the town’s bazaars for Nepalese jewellery and Kashmiri shawls, before heading to Nathmulls on the mall for a slab of lemon cake and a glass of its ‘Champagne of teas’.
Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing
Inspired to go? Click here for the latest offers