There are so many ways to experience India, where diversity abounds in every way. Here are a few highlights to kindle your wanderlust, help you focus your interests, and inspire you to create your dream trip to a land alive with color and remarkable adventures.
CHARTING YOUR TRIP
You can’t take in all India has to offer in one visit. It’s a huge country, a third the size of the United States, yet home to more than 1 billion people. It’s divided into 29 states and is bordered by the Himalaya mountain range to the north, and extends south into the Indian Ocean between the Bay of Bengal on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west.
Experiences: India offers every kind of travel experience imaginable, from active adventures, cultural celebrations, luxury indulgences, journeys by train, yoga retreats, incredible wildlife excursions, and more than two dozen UNESCO World Heritage sites. There are 104 National Parks in India and more than 500 wildlife sanctuaries. Or time your trip to experience one of India’s sacred celebrations and famous festivals, such as Holi (February/March), Ganpati (September), or Diwali (October/November).
Old and New Delhi
India’s bustling capital is one of the oldest cities in the world, and the main spoke of the county’s famous Golden Triangle. Formed by the three most visited cities in the northwest–Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur–the triangle is aptly called “golden” for the collective abundance of cultural and historical treasures. In Agra, tour the magnificent Taj Mahal and the fortified ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri. Visit the mesmerizing Pink City of Jaipur to see architecturally stunning forts and monuments. Shop the amazing Khari Baoli spice markets Old Delhi and tour Delhi’s imposing Mughal Red Fort. As you travel, catch a cricket match and sample regional specialties like soft and sweet petha, a traditional Agra candy made from winter melon.
The charming and capital city of the northern state of Rajasthan is Jaipur. It is a crown jewel and now known for its luxurious palaces-turned-hotels with impeccable services to match. Explore Jaipur’s temples, museums, and markets and get a sense of classic India that prospered along the trade route centuries ago. For a more tranquil experience, stay at the lovely Lake Palace in nearby Udaipur.
There’s plenty to see and do in the thriving hub of Mumbai. Catch a Bollywood movie at one of the old Art Deco theaters. Enjoy the cosmopolitan restaurants and nightlife scene, but take time for afternoon (chai) tea or a special cocktail at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Hunt for antiques in the Chor Bazaar. Hop the ferry to Elephanta Island to see one of India’s early Hindu cave temples. For a peaceful time out explore the nearby Ajanta Caves, built into the rock by Buddhist monks centuries ago.
Rich in history, densely populated, and full of extremes, today’s Kolkata is reinventing itself in the modern era. One must see the public buildings, landmarks, and churches of its Colonial heyday, especially the Victoria Memorial Hall. Try to time your trip to experience Durga Puja, the city’s most spectacular (and creative) festival, held in September and October. Kolkata is the eastern springboard to many other experiences for travelers interested in spiritual and mountain adventures.
Water rules in this distinctive state in southwest India, known for its beaches, fishing, and backwater boating. There are many ways to explore Kerala. It’s many islands, lagoons, rivers, and tributaries. Hop a public ferry or motorboat for hire. Rent a houseboat, complete with crew, for multi-day tours. Or paddle through this watery paradise at your own pace. Pamper yourself by staying at an upscale hotel in overlooking Lake Vembanad in Kumarakom.
PARKS & WILDLIFE
India is home to numerous national parks and some of the most important nature reserves on the planet. There are also wild places for adventures on land, air, and sea. To accommodate travelers interested in sustainability, eco-lodges have sprouted up in recent years that offer nature tours and the chance to view tigers, wild elephants, and even the rare Asiatic lion, all in their natural habitats. March through June are generally the best wildlife viewing months. Winter (October – February) is also a good time to visit, when sightings are plentiful and the forests are inviting and beautiful.
A number of the larger National Parks are accessible from India’s major gateways – for example:
From Delhi: Kanha is one of India’s best and largest national parks, and nearby Bandhavgarh National Park offer idlyllic fauna-rich jungles where Royal Bengal Tigers are found and you just might spot an elusive leopard. The bird sanctuary at Keoladeo National Park is home to more than a thousand species of resident and migrating birds. Jim Corbett National Park was India’s first wildlife sanctuary and its first tiger reserve, and is now home to elusive tigers, Himalayan black bears, wild boar, rhesus monkeys, crocodiles, river turtles, and more.
From Rajasthan: Make reservations in advance to visit Ranthambore National Park, a popular tiger reserve in the Aravalli and Vindhya Hills area.
From Kolkata: Don’t miss Sundarbans National Park and Tiger Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the world’s largest mangrove eco-region. You can tour the islands by boat looking for Bengal tigers that have adjusted to this aquatic landscape by both swimming and eating fish.
Gain a deeper understanding of Buddhism by following the Buddha Trail. Visit sacred sites, such as the Bodh Gaya, and spiritual places such as Upper Dharamsala, the residence of the Dalai Lama located near the Tibetan border. Visit or spend the night at a tea garden, where the backdrop is snow-capped mountains and forests. Explore the spiritual town of Rishikesh, known as the “yoga capital of the world.” As the starting point for the Buddhist Char Dham pilgrimage, it’s an ideal destination to hike, trek, and explore ancient practices on your own or at meditation retreats.
HIMALAYAS AND MORE
The northeastern region splits off geographically and is indeed other-worldly. The eight states that make up this area are all diverse and stunning, offering travelers a range of experiences from extreme to serene.
In the monsoon-enriched region of Meghalaya, explore the verdant hills of East Khasi and canoe down the Brahmaputra River. Trek Sikkim’s lush forest to see Dzongri’s rhododendron forest in May. Ride the narrow-gauge Toy Train to Darjeeling or travel there by car from Shiliguri. Walk along the Chowrasta (mall) to get a sense of Darjeeling’s Victorian era, then to the Planter’s Club, founded in 1868. Watch the sun rise from atop Tiger Hill, with its views of the three tallest mountains on Earth. Treks to many eastern areas are offered, including to Everest that leave from Darjeeling. Daring skiers can heli-ski the Himalayas in Manali (bring your own gear). There's so much to explore in starkly beautiful Ladakh ("land of high mountain passes"), a great spot for trekkers, with routes that take you through medieval monasteries perched on craggy cliffs with sparkling mountain vistas.
India offers some of the best adventures in the world and many are located in the Himalayas. But you can also head to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal to enjoy their beautiful beaches, coral reefs, and the world’s best snorkeling and Scuba diving.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
There are a number of things you need to know before you travel to India and here are the most important:
Documents: You’ll need a valid passport and a visa obtained before arrival, plus any special permits for visiting restricted areas.
What to Pack: Helpful items to bring include sunscreen, lip balm, insect repellent, hand sanitizer, sterilized wet wipes, and antiseptic cream.
Altitude: Those venturing into high-altitude zones need to allow time for acclimatization, drink plenty of bottled water, and avoid overexertion during the first few days.
Technology: Internet cafes abound, and connectivity is generally good, but can be slow in some places.
Phone service: If your cell phone will not work in India, it makes sense to buy or rent a handset and a local SIM card. Check online or with your tour operator for which cell phone service is best for the areas you’ll be visiting. International roaming charges can cause post-vacation sticker shock, so be sure to check your service agreement before leaving home.
ATMs: India has a modern banking system with credit card facilities and ATM in all major cities and most towns. Currency is the Indian rupee.
Getting around: Most cities now have ride share services, but budget permitting, renting a car with a driver is the way to go. For longer distances, the subcontinent is connected by numerous domestic airlines as well as the world’s most extensive and amazing rail network, from budget options to extreme luxury.
Language: Hindi and English are the two main languages you’ll encounter in the cities, but throughout the country, Indians speak more than 20 languages and hundreds of dialects.
When to Go: The sweet spot for visiting most areas is November through March. Traveling in summer (April - July), can be hot. Monsoon season is July – September, except for in the mountains, when prime time to visit is May - October.
For more comprehensive travel planning, visit incredibleindia.org.
About the author: Tahir Shah is a journalist and documentary filmmaker of Afghan-Indian descent. He is the author of 20 books, has produced documentaries for National Geographic Channel and is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Travel. Follow his journeys on Twitter.