Visit India's vibrant cities
India’s great cities each have a distinctive character: Mumbai overwhelms with its humming street-life and shimmering financial center; Delhi impresses with its Mughal history and colonial geometry; Kolkata beguiles with faded grandeur and Bengali street-food; and Chennai amazes with its cultural treasures and magnificent beaches. What these vast metropolises all have in common, though, is their dynamic mix of old and new—an intoxicating blend of India’s rich heritage and its burgeoning modernization. Even if you’re destined for more serene, rural settings, it’s worth taking the plunge, if only to marvel at the non-stop action.
Hike the incredible Himalayas
Northern India is home to many of the most spectacular regions of the world’s highest mountain range, which traces a crescent from Kashmir in the northwest to Arunchal Pradesh in the remote east. The mountains offer endless opportunities for adventure, such as mountain climbing and trekking in Leh-Ladakh. Two prime times to visit are spring, when blooming rhododendron forests swathe the lower altitudes in color, and in October, after the Indian summer monsoon recedes and the resulting clear skies reveal crystalline views. Choice trekking routes include Uttarakhand’s paradisiac Valley of Flowers, and the 11-day Goecha La Trek in Sikkim, in the shadow of mighty Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.
Journey across India by train
The world's second biggest railways system is also among its most atmospheric and busiest; its thousands of trains carrying an estimated 23 million passengers a day. New luxury carriages, upgraded cars are among the many innovative ways Indian Railways is enhancing train travel. A long overnight train ride remains a quintessential Indian experience, and one of the very best ways to rub shoulders with local people. Experience the historic charms of chugging across huge distances on an 18-carriage cross-country express. For a scenic, high-altitude train trek, hop aboard the narrow-gauge Matheran line or any of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites Mountain Railways of India: Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, Nilgiri Mountain Railway, and Kalka Shimla Railway.
Take a tiger reserve safari
There are about 50 natural reserves in India dedicated to the conservation of the nation’s most iconic animal. The reserves typically are open to visitors from around October to June. Tiger sightings are most likely in larger national parks, such as Ranthambore, Bandhavgarh, and Jim Corbett. Book a jeep safari with an experienced guide on board to help spy clues—like fresh pugmarks or a clawed tree—signaling a tiger could be close by. While even local expertise won’t guarantee an encounter with the cats, most parks are teeming with other wildlife to see. Arguably the biggest reward, however, is knowing that tourism-based conservation is working. The ongoing census of the country’s tiger population suggests that numbers of the magnificent cats increased from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,226 in 2014.
Revel in a cultural festival
India, exuberant and vivid every day, hits a crescendo during its myriad festivals. In a country where the dominant Hindu religion boasts tens of thousands of gods, it can sometimes feel as though every town, village, and street corner have some pageant to celebrate. Festivities tend to involve fire, food, and votive offerings. Most also feature a profusion of color, as in the Chaitra Poornima festival (pictured), at the Jyotiba Temple in Kolhapur, where revelers celebrate by throwing gulal, a powdered purple dye. The sacred Hindu festival Ardh Kumbh Mela, which takes place every six years, is expected to draw tens of millions of pilgrims to Prayagraj (Allahabad) from January to March, 2019.
See the sacred Ganges River
From its wellsprings in the high, snow-capped Himalayas of Uttarakhand to its sprawling delta on the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges River is the lifeblood of northern India. For people of all backgrounds and faith traditions, seeing the river for the first time is a moving experience. Sites of Hindu veneration can be found along all 1,500 miles of the Ganges. Every evening, lamps are lit and the Ganga Aarti devotional ritual is performed on the banks of the holy river in the sacred cities of Rishikesh (pictured), Haridwar, and Varanasi. Throughout the year, tens of thousands of pilgrims immerse themselves in the sacred river.
Seek inner peace at a monastery
Perched among the high floodplains of the Indus Valley, on the southern rim of the Karakoram Mountains, Ladakh is a world apart. A Buddhist enclave for the last thousand years, it’s culturally more akin to neighboring Tibet than to the rest of India. Monasteries like Hemis and Thiksey, built in the multi-storied whitewashed style of Tibetan gompas (spiritual communities), are open to visitors, who come to marvel at the ancient wood statuary, prayer-wheels, and Buddhist shrines, often guarded by gargantuan outdoor statues of Buddha facing out across the stark, high-altitude desert. The one-hour flight from Delhi to the regional capital Leh alone is worth the journey for the exhilarating, above-the-clouds views of the Great Himalayan Range.
Go whitewater rafting
By the time they tumble out of the high Himalayan valleys, North India’s rivers froth into some of the world’s most exhilarating white-water. Experienced rafting outfitters now forge the middle reaches of the Ganges, north of Rishikesh, with some offering multi-day excursions featuring rafting by day and camping overnight on riverside sandbanks. Those craving an even greater challenge can venture to India’s northeastern corner, where the Brahmaputra, nicknamed “The Everest of Rivers,” presents a formidable menu of rapids as it rages through the canyons of Arunachal Pradesh.
Tour the grandeur of Hampi
The Taj Mahal might steal most of the Instagram bandwidth, but arguably India’s most evocative archeological marvel is a thousand miles south, in the boulder-fields of Central Karnataka. The Hampi UNESCO World Heritage Site dates from the Vijayanagar dynasty, which dominated southern India’s Deccan Plateau for three hundred years. What remains of their bathhouses, elephant stables, and royal enclosures now dot an undulating landscape of paddy fields and umber stone. Much of the complex is an archeological site, its original structures razed by successive enemy raids. However, some buildings are still gloriously intact, recalling the seventeenth century apotheosis of Indo-Islamic architecture. For the more adventurous, the surrounding rock formations are a climber’s dream.
Experience traditional folk dancing
Few areas of Indian culture better testify to the country’s than the endless variety of its traditional dance. A staple component of local festivals, folk dancing provides a focal point for traditional music and an opportunity to assert regional identity. It’s also often used as a form of visual storytelling—colorfully and dramatically relating historic events or religious legends. In Rajasthan, traditional Gair dance performers (pictured) respond to the raucous melodies of flutes and cymbals by spinning in circular formation, intermittently clashing sticks in time with the music.
Cross living root bridges
Few tourists to India's northeast corner venture much beyond Kolkata, but the small hill states encircling Bangladesh are an intriguing mix of landscapes and tribal cultures. The small province of Meghalaya, sometimes called the "Scotland of the East” because of its Caledonian climate, is the wettest place on earth. But it is also home to the root bridges of Cherrapunji, walkable bridges that have been crafted from the muscular roots of strangler fig trees, braided together by generations of locals to span canyon streams. The steep hike to reach them is an adrenaline-pumping challenge, but the reward is surely one of the most curious sights in India.
See a legendary Golden Temple
No amount of foreknowledge can prepare you for a day inside Northern India’s Golden Temple, the holiest site in Sikhism. Established in 1577 by the fourth Sikh guru, Ram Das, the complex is a crucible of worship and communion; ritual chanting, a hallmark of Sikh devotion, reverberates around the marble causeways for 24 hours a day. Consider getting here before dawn to witness the Granth Sahib, Sikhism’s Holy Book, as it’s carried to the Harmandir, the central shrine surrounded by the Amrit Sarovar, a limpid geometrical pool. The pool waters form the spiritual heart of the temple and are believed to be blessed with miraculous powers of healing.