In India, every journey is an experience, whether you rumble across the subcontinent on a classic Enfield motorcycle or rattle through the hills in a chartered 4WD.

The simple act of traveling from A to B will immerse you in the sights, sounds and sensations of the world’s most colorful country. Plenty of people get around by bus and train, but taking a road trip will give you extra control over your itinerary, letting you choose where to stop and which route to follow.

The good news is that you don’t need to drive yourself – it’s easy to hire a car or 4WD with a driver almost everywhere in India, meaning you can concentrate on the scenery while your driver deals with the sometimes challenging road conditions. 

If you prefer to take the driving seat, renting a motorcycle is a wonderful way to explore the subcontinent, particularly if you stick to the backroads. Self-drive car rental is harder to arrange, but some adventurous souls travel around India with their own vehicles – a few hardy travelers have even navigated India in a modified autorickshaw!

Grab your sense of adventure and get ready to hit the road with this guide to the best road trips in India. 

A magnificent red-stone fort with people walking in its gates
Experience the best of the Golden Triangle on a road trip © Christophe Boisvieux / Getty Images

1. India’s Golden Triangle 

Best road trip for Mughal monuments
Delhi–Delhi; 1120km (696 miles); allow five days

Short and sweet, the loop from Delhi to Agra and Jaipur packs a lot of wonders into a few days of driving. Your adventure begins in Delhi, where the ruins of eight cities tell the story of India’s great Islamic empires. Hit the city's highlights, including Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, the Jama Masjid and the bazaars of Chandni Chowk, which have changed only superficially since Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s time.

With a chartered vehicle or rented motorcycle, it’s easy to swing by the sacred cities of Mathura and Vrindavan, where Krishna frolicked with milkmaids in the Hindu epics. After these peaceful stops, steel yourself for a mix of the stressful and sublime in Agra, where the glorious Taj Mahal more than lives up to its reputation.

Find more Mughal magnificence at nearby Fatehpur Sikri, the red sandstone city founded and later abandoned by emperor Akbar the Great. Once you follow the NH21 to Jaipur, you’ll share every fort, palace and mystical observatory with a crowd, so consider making the odd detour before you hit the Pink City’s palaces and bazaars. 

Detour: Before zooming west from Fatehpur Sikri to Jaipur, consider a detour south to Gwalior, whose beautiful fort is less mobbed than other stops on this circuit. Before you complete the third side of the triangle, tack on one more detour to spot tigers stalking ruined battlements in Ranthambhore National Park before diving back into urban life.

2. Manali to Ladakh across the Himalaya

Best road trip for silence and serenity
Manali–Srinagar; 800km (497 miles); allow ten days

Many people follow the mountain circuit from Manali to Ladakh and on to Kashmir in a chartered 4WD, but we strongly recommend traveling by rented Enfield Bullet motorcycle. This allows you the life-affirming thrill of pulling over by the roadside to find yourself alone in the silence of these high-altitude deserts in the rain shadow of the Himalayas.

From the hippie hill resort of Manali, it’s a two-day slog over the 3978m (13,051ft) Rohtang La to Leh, through a landscape plucked straight from the heyday of the Silk Road. There’s little vegetation and even less shade, and the cold and altitude will hit you like a sledgehammer. Recuperate with trips to Buddhist monasteries and yoga classes in Leh, then hit the road again for a different take on the Himalayas in Kashmir.

The highway west to Srinagar weaves between ancient villages, but as the hills turn from dust-yellow to lush green, the culture shifts from Buddhism to Islam before the minarets of Srinagar loom into view. The Kashmir valley is sometimes troubled, but when it’s calm, the experience of watching Dal Lake appearing slowly through the morning mist from the deck of a houseboat is simply sublime. 

Planning tip: Whether you drive yourself or let someone else take the wheel, it's imperative to respect the mountain climate. Snow closes the high passes into Ladakh in winter, and road travel is usually only possible from June to late September or early October.

A camel draws a cart on a road through a desert landscape
You'll share the road with camel carts in Rajasthan's desert © Dchauy / Shutterstock

3. Rajasthan’s colored cities 

Best road trip for desert colors
Jaipur–Jaipur; 1630km (1012 miles); allow ten days

Desert driving in Rajasthan is an incredible experience. Mighty fortresses loom dramatically out of the landscape, and you’ll share the dusty highways with camel carts and old-timers, some with vividly colored turbans and handsome mustaches. Kick-off in Jaipur – the pink city – touring pink-sandstone palaces, bustling bazaars and the awe-inspiring fortress at Amber.

Follow NH48 to the Jain and Muslim pilgrimage center of Ajmer, and duck west to reach the famous Pushkar, with its temple-circled lake and legendary camel fair in October or November. Return to NH48 for the rumbling ride to Udaipur, the white city – draped like a silk scarf on the shores of tranquil Lake Pichola. Dose up on ice-white palaces, then deviate west to the temple-strewn hill station of Mt Abu

Veering north to Jodhpur, you’ll immediately spot the lapis-colored buildings that earned the Blue City its name. Get another blast of military might at Mehrangarh Fort, then drive west through serious desert country to the sand-yellow city of Jaisalmer, whose fortified walls look almost carved from the desert itself. Close off the loop via Bikaner, where you’ll leave the tourist crowds behind before diving back into the thick of things in Jaipur.

Detour: Having your own transport opens up the opportunity to get off the tourist track in this heavily visited state. Consider tacking on a side-trip north from Jaipur to Shekhawati, famed for its mural-filled haveli mansions. 

4. Hampi and the Hoysalas

Best road trip for temples
Mysuru–Gokarna; 1060km (659 miles); allow ten days

For many travelers, visiting the time-tumbled ruins of the Vijayanagar kingdom at Hampi is the most memorable experience during a trip to India. Start off in Mysuru (formerly Mysore), with its mesmerizing markets, fiery vegetarian cuisine and famously extravagant palace. Rumble north on the backroads to fascinating Sravanabelagola with its naked 17m (56ft) statue of Gomateshvara, the first tirthankara (spiritual teacher) of the Jain religion.

The temples just keep on coming in Karnataka. Slingshot through Hassan to Belur and Halebid, where the temples of the Hoysala Empire represent perhaps the zenith of the Hindu temple-building art. A three-hour drive east will drop you in Karnataka’s capital, Bengaluru, known for its cosmopolitan dining, shopping and nightlife. Enjoy its comforts; it’s a long drive to reach Hosapete, the leaping-off point for the ruins at Hampi.

Once you roll into Hampi’s centuries-old bazaar, allow at least two days to explore toppled temples and time travel across centuries in a landscape of stacked granite boulders. For more timeless temple architecture, duck onto the backroads to reach Badami, where blood-colored cliffs are pock-marked with cave temples.

Detour: To mix things up, consider taking a side trip to Aihole, dotted with dusty ruins from the ancient Chalukya kingdom, then finish on the beach with some well-earned R&R in Gokarna – part pilgrim-town, part beach retreat. 

5. Kolkata to Darjeeling

Best road trip for Himalayan views and side treks
Kolkata–Yuksom; 808km (502 miles); allow eight days

The east of India is often overlooked by the crowds who surge north from Delhi, but the journey through West Bengal to the foothills of 8586m (28,169ft) Mt Khangchendzonga has an epic sense of mission. Start in crowded but cultured Kolkata, visiting ashrams, temples and striking civic buildings reclaimed from British rule. Fit in a tour of the tiger-stalked swamps of the Sunderbans before you head for the hills. 

The journey north takes you past little-visited country towns to intriguing Shantiniketan, a university town with a long history of dance, theater and poetry. From here, you’ll break north to reach the emerald-green tea plantations and delightfully dated grand hotels of Darjeeling, where you’ll likely catch your first up-close views of the Himalayas.

To get intimate with the snow peaks, walk the Singalila Ridge trekking route or edge even closer to Mt Khangchendzonga by picking up a permit to enter lofty Sikkim. A route through KalimpongGangtok and Pelling will reveal views that would make mountaineers itch for their ice axes. To cap it all off, you can get within touching distance of the snow on the trek to the Goecha La from Yuksom.

Planning tip: You’ll need a Restricted Areas Permit to enter Sikkim, but this is easily obtained in Kolkata, Siliguri or Darjeeling, or when crossing into Sikkim at Melli or Rangpo.

Cars and other vehicles are a blur on the streets of Mumbai
Head south from Mumbai for the ultimate drive down to Goa © Neil Emmerson / Getty Images

6. Mumbai to Goa 

Best road trip for beaches
Mumbai–Palolem; 650km (404 miles); allow one week

Short journeys don’t mean scrimping on excitement in India. From brash and brilliant Mumbai, pick up NH66 and head south, detouring down to the coast to explore fascinating forts such as Murud-Janjira, a legacy of centuries of coastal conquest. Pull into the low-key seaside resorts at Ganpatipule and Malvan before you hit the busy beaches of Goa

As you roll into northern Goa, swing by the famous market in Anjuna and the fun-filled beach hubs at Baga and Calangute. Head onward to Panaji, Goa’s charming Portuguese-colonial capital, and the timeworn basilicas of Old Goa.

The mood changes as you roll south to laid-back Agonda, the center of Goa’s nascent surfing scene. It changes again as you head inland through green hills dotted with spice farms for a peek at thundering Dudhsagar Falls, India’s second-highest cascade. Finish up on the sand-sprinkled shore at lovely Palolem (making time for a bird-spotting hike at the nearby Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary).  

7. A drive through the northeast

Best road trip for tribal encounters
Guwahati–Guwahati; 1700km (1056 miles); allow two weeks

With a hired 4WD and a driver who can speak local languages, a fascinating journey through the varied cultures of the northeast states awaits. Start in Guwahati, the under-explored capital of Assam, and follow the mighty Brahmaputra River northeast to Kaziranga National Park for close encounters with one-horned Indian rhinos.

Next, aim your sights north towards Arunachal Pradesh and the awesome Buddhist monasteries of the Tawang Valley (local travel agencies can arrange a permit).

Add on a wander through the tribal communities of Ziro and Daporijo, and loop back through Upper Assam, continuing east to the fascinating Konyak Naga villages around Mon in northern Nagaland. Slip back to the plains via Kohima (ideally in December to catch the Hornbill Festival), then climb up onto the high plateau of Meghalaya, where trees are woven into living bridges and markets sell bows and arrows as day-to-day essentials, before barrelling downhill from Shillong to Guwahati.

Planning tip: A Protected Area Permit is required to enter Arunachal Pradesh, and you may need to be in a group of two or more to visit some areas; contact travel agencies in Guwahati in advance to get the paperwork in place.

A road runs through lush green tea plantations
Stop for the ultimate cup of tea in the plantations of Munnar © Peter Zelei Images / Getty Images

8. Around the tip of India

Best road trip in the south
Kochi–Kochi; 807km (501 miles); allow 7 days

The bottom end of India feels like a different country. Start the journey through India’s steamy south in historic Kochi, whose ancient streets tell a timeless tale of seafaring, trade and Keralan spices. As you roam south to Alappuzha, park up for a day or two to explore the fascinating, waterlogged backwaters by boat.

As you pass through Amrithapuri, you can pause for a hug from a living guru before soaking up some rays on Kerala’s loveliest beaches at Varkala. Next, whoosh through Thiruvananthapuram (pause just long enough for some incendiary Keralan curries) to the southern tip of India. From here, you’ll head inland, through drier, rockier Tamil Nadu, to reach Madurai, whose temple towers are encrusted with brightly colored deities and demons.

The trip back to Kochi will take you through the Palani Hills, a side spur of the Western Ghats, where the landscape surges upwards to Kodaikanal, perhaps the most charming of India’s southern hill stations. Grab a cuppa amidst swirling tea plantations in Munnar, South India’s top tea-growing center, before you return to the coast. 

Planning tip: The monsoon obscures the views from the Western Ghats from June to September, but waterfalls run at full force, so this is still a rewarding time to come.

9. Chennai to Puducherry (Pondicherry)

Best road trip for cultural variety
Chennai–Puducherry; 232km (144 miles); allow 3 to 4 days

For a short, sweet and spicy trip along India’s southeast coast, consider the three-day trip from Chennai south to Puducherry (Pondicherry). Start in Chennai, with its vast beach, famous-name ashrams and delicious vegetarian cuisine, then track south along the coast, wedged between the sea and the salt lake.

Stop one is the surprising surf resort at Kovalam (Covelong), a worthy stop en route to Mamallapuram, where you can view a riot of carvings and temples created by the Pallava dynasty. Duck inland to see the ancient Pallava capital at Kanchipuram, then return to the coast to close out the trip at charming Puducherry, formerly Pondicherry.

A Gallic air pervades this seaside town – best experienced in heritage hotels in the old French Quarter. Just be warned: some spiritually-minded travelers pull into the famous ashram at Auroville just north of "Pondy" and never leave! 

A heavily loaded motorbike in the arid high-altitude mountains around Leh, India
Road tripping in India by motorcycle is not for newbie riders © May_Chanikran / Getty Images

Top tips for hiring a car and driver in India

You’ll find drivers-for-hire offering their services at taxi and 4WD stands all over India, or you can make arrangements through hotels and travel agencies. Check that the driver speaks enough English to understand where you want to go and where you want to stop, and confirm that the driver is able to cross state lines – some vehicles are only licensed to operate in certain areas. 

You’ll need to agree on a price for the trip before you start, and the cost should include fuel, accommodation and food for the driver for multi-day trips. Prices start at around US$40 per day, rising for 4WD vehicles. Be clear with your driver about what you want from your journey; if you want to avoid stops at tourist shops and commission-paying venues, make this clear from the outset.

Exploring India by motorcycle or bike is for experienced riders

India’s roads are not for fair-weather motorcyclists, but if you have a few miles under your belt and fancy a challenge, it’s a fabulous way to explore this enormous country. Veteran hire companies such as Lalli Singh Tours in Delhi have sent hundreds of travelers off on journeys across India, from the steamy southern jungles to the high passes of the Himalayas.  

The best advice we can give is to ride slowly and defensively, always give way to larger vehicles, and carry a full repair kit and spares – and know how to use them! The nostalgic British-designed Enfield Bullet is the vehicle of choice for many travelers, but it’s a heavy brute; newer machines from the likes of Bajaj are lighter and easier to handle.

If you plan to pedal your way around India by bicycle, carry plenty of puncture repair kits and bring lights and high visibility gear. If you don’t want to transport your own bike into the country, consider flying into Delhi and buying a bike at the Jhandewalan Cycle Market.

This article was first published Apr 7, 2022 and updated Dec 12, 2023.

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