India’s array of world-class sights and experiences is astonishing – and overwhelming.
Mughal palaces, sacred Hindu temples, lost Indian kingdoms and British imperial remnants all jostle for attention in a land that ranges from Himalayan peaks to Indian Ocean beaches. It’s hard to think of another country with such a diversity of sights and landscapes. So where do you start?
Subcontinent-sized India is a huge place, so the best advice for any traveler might be to focus on one region rather than try to cover the entire country in a single, exhausting trip. Wherever you go, you are guaranteed a mind-spinning and exhilarating daily blast of color and chaos alongside soul-soaring splendor and earth-shaking history. Equal parts magic and mayhem, this mix 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 picks 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 fantastic as you imagine. The views of the world’s most beautiful building framed in a Central Asian-style portal or floating above the misty Yamuna River will be a defining moment of any trip to India (or anywhere in the world, for that matter).
But there’s more to the former Mughal capital than the Taj. Add on a couple of days and visit the architecturally stunning tomb of Emperor Akbar, his rose-red sandstone former capital at Fatehpur Sikri and the sprawling Agra Fort, one of India’s most epic.
2. Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Best for spiritual seekers and lovers of the intense
There are few places as beguiling, challenging and potentially perspective-changing as the sacred Hindu city of Varanasi. Millennia-old death rituals play out daily at the string of burning cremation ghats that line the bank of the sacred Ganges, while the bewildering maze of nearby old-town alleys reveals further dizzying surprises at every turn.
This is one place where you are guaranteed to come face to face with the hard-edged realities of life and death. Take a deep breath, join the yogis – and throw yourself in at the deep end.
3. Mumbai, Maharashtra
Best for urban explorers and Bollywood hopefuls
Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is India’s most exciting, energetic and glamorous city – the perfect place to take the pulse of modern India. Home to Bollywood film stars, British-era architecture and web-like backstreet bazaars, it’s also a city of often uncomfortable extremes.
To understand more about the disparities in Mumbai, you can take a socially responsible tour through the city’s huge Dharavi slum with Reality Tours & Travel; 80% of the profits go back to social projects.
Mumbai’s fantastic street food is the city’s great leveler, so don’t leave without sampling the city’s signature snack, bhel poori: puffed rice and fried dough with lentils, onions, herbs and savory chutneys. The city’s can’t-miss excursion is to the 1500-year-old rock-cut temples of Elephanta Island, a World Heritage Site accessed by an hour-long ferry ride.
4. Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir
Best for an extraordinary taste of Tibet
To the far northwest of India, beyond the main Himalayan range, lies the former kingdom of Ladakh, culturally and geographically closer to western Tibet than anywhere in India. Here you’ll find a high-altitude moonscape of towering Tibetan monasteries (don’t miss fabulous Hemis and Thikse), excellent homestay trekking, colorful monastic masked dance festivals and horizon-spanning, high-altitude turquoise salt lakes. These days, it’s the closest independent travelers can come to actually setting foot in Tibet.
Getting here is half the fun: you’ll fly over Himalayan peaks into the main town of Leh, or you can make the epic multi-day overland adventure over high passes (June to October) by bus, jeep or (best of all) classic Enfield motorbike.
Want some help? Let Elsewhere plan your next trip.
5. Kolkata, West Bengal
Best for evoking the ghosts of the British Raj
The capital of British India until 1911 and still India’s second-biggest city, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is India’s intellectual and artistic capital. You could easily spend days here, wandering the former buildings of the East India Company in BBD Bagh or sensing the city’s cosmopolitan heyday through its Jewish synagogues, Armenian churches and Chinese emporiums in Barabazar.
To really get under the skin of the city, you can sign up for a Bengali cooking course or even volunteer at Mother Teresa’s famous Missionaries of Charity. Either way, don’t miss an overnight wildlife-watching tour to the nearby Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, home to one of the largest concentrations of royal Bengal tigers on earth.
6. Jaisalmer, Rajasthan
Best for color, drama and some epic shopping
The desert state of Rajasthan is India at its most romantic and soft-filtered. Expect a mirage of camel caravans, ornate palaces, mighty forts, extravagantly turbaned traders and intense colors, all against a backdrop of the Thar Desert’s shifting sands.
The romantic lake palace of Udaipur and the fort of blue-hued Jodhpur are both stunning, but the city that truly delivers is Jaisalmer, which is dominated by a fairy-tale fort and palace complex and is home to hundreds of beautifully ornate haveli (traditional houses), many of which have been converted into charming accommodations. It doesn’t hurt that Rajasthan also offers some of India’s most eye-catching arts and crafts – the embroideries and leather goods here are simply irresistible.
7. The Kerala Backwaters
Best for relaxation, romance and the joy of slow travel
Tropical southern India offers a lusher, noticeably more laid-back travel experience than the dusty, densely populated northern plains. The quintessential trip here is a slow-paced canal cruise through the emerald-green Keralan backwaters, a 900-mile network of languid, coconut-fringed aquatic highways.
Hire a traditional houseboat in Alleppey for a multiday trip, then pinch yourself as you tuck into a succulent Keralan seafood curry prepared by your personal chef as the sunset blushes over shimmering waters and silhouetted palm fronds.
8. Bodhgaya, Bihar
Best for budding Buddhists
As the birthplace of both Hinduism and Buddhism, India is defined by its sacred geography, yet even here, few places resonate more than the Bodhi tree under which Prince Siddhartha achieved enlightenment to become the Buddha (Awakened One).
Today, the town is home to dozens of Tibetan and Southeast Asian–style temples, alongside a thriving dharma scene of Buddhist teachings and courses. It’s the ideal destination for any spiritual explorer.
Sit yourself in the Mahabodhi complex alongside chanting Tibetan pilgrims and meditate on the nature of impermanence. Travel experiences don’t get much more profound than this.
9. Darjeeling, West Bengal
Best for superlative tea drinking, delightful weather and cozy nostalgia
Graced by the cool breezes of the eastern Himalayas, surrounded by manicured tea estates and framed by epic views of the world’s third-highest mountain, Darjeeling isn’t hard to fall for, as the British did. For a perfect day, watch the dawn break over Kangchenjunga, learn the difference between first-flush and white teas, linger over afternoon tea at the colonial-era Windamere Hotel and then learn about the Tibetan experience at the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre.
The classiest way to arrive in town is via the nostalgic, narrow-gauge toy train, so book tickets in advance and check to see if the steam service is running.
10. Hampi, Karnataka
Best for history, archeology and rock climbing
Between the 14th and 16th centuries CE, the former capital of Vijayanagar at Hampi was home to half a million people. Even today, there are 3700 monuments scattered across the surreal plain of boulders that also makes Hampi the bouldering capital of India. A visit here offers the perfect workout for both mind and body.
Get here on a classic overnight train ride from Goa’s beaches, historic Hyderabad or the cosmopolitan southern city of Bengaluru (Bangalore).