There are many Indias within India. This land of ancient temples and opulent palaces, forgotten cities and lost traditions, spice markets and spicy food is almost a world unto itself. For many travelers, a visit here is the trip of a lifetime.

Such expectations can make it hard to decide what experiences you should prioritize, and that's exactly why we’ve created this list of the best things to do in India. When planning an extensive India itinerary, keep the following stops in mind.

1. Experience Varanasi at dawn

The best way to experience the timelessness of Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, is to start just before dawn breaks. At Assi Ghat, the devotional Ganga Aarti ceremony performed on the banks of the Ganges will mesmerize as participants intone rhythmic chants and hymns on the steps that descend to the holy river.

Next, take to the water in a small boat, watching the sun rise as life slowly starts to stir along the river. Suddenly, there will be a burst of activity as saffron-clad sadhus (holy men), vendors, devotees and tourists begin performing rituals, including yoga and ritual singing. A boat ride along the Ganges will pass the main Dashashwamedh Ghat toward Manikarnika Ghat, where funeral pyres burn as the dead are cremated. In Varanasi, death is a way of life.

Planning tip: We recommend a visit to an akhara (wrestling center) to see wrestlers practice their traditional sport in a mud pit in the early morning light. End your tour with some soulful food: a typical Varanasi breakfast of kachoris (deep-fried pastries) stuffed with lentils and served with spicy potato gravy. Finish the meal on a sweet note with melt-in-mouth jalebis (fried whorls of dough).

A woman in traditional Indian dress smiles as she rides in a boat towards the epic white marble Taj Mahal
A visit to the Taj Mahal is a highlight of any trip to India © Pete Seaward / Lonely Planet

2. Set your eyes – and lens – on the iconic Taj Mahal

The iconic, romantic symbol pictured on every India travel brochure, the Taj Mahal in Agra really is a reliable highlight of any trip here. Despite incessant tourist crowds, you can't help but gaze in wonder at this marbled mausoleum built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his wife, Mumtaz.

While it’s hard to get a bad shot of the Taj, the most vivid photos are usually taken at sunrise and sunset from Mehtab Bagh, the Mughal garden across the Yamuna River. Arrive just before dawn and watch the colors change on this sublime monument dedicated to eternal love. Over the course of a day, the sun paints the marble in different hues, transforming the dome from pale pink at sunrise to orange at sunset.

Pay a visit to the eye-catching tomb of Itimad-Ud-Daulah – a precursor to the Taj Mahal, constructed in the 1620s and dubbed the “Baby Taj” – created for Mumtaz’s grandfather, Mirza Ghiyas Beg by his daughter, Nur Jahan.

Planning tip: Special tickets are sold for visits on an evening with a full moon. They can be bought in person 24 hours in advance at the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) offices on Mall Road, and you will need to bring your passport as ID.

3. Demystify the Kama Sutra story behind Khajuraho

As you stand in front of erotic sculptures of figures locked in improbable positions at Khajuraho, you can almost feel the passion. Perhaps no other heritage destination evokes as much wonder and curiosity as these famous temples, built nearly 1000 years ago. And yet guides will painstakingly tell you that barely a tenth of the master carvings in the 22 temples that have been excavated here are dedicated to the Kama Sutra.

As you immerse yourself in these three-dimensional narratives, you can decide for yourself why the Chandela, an ancient Rajput clan, chose to depict eroticism on the walls of their temples, which are dedicated to both Hindu and Jain deities. Be sure not to miss one of India’s oldest surviving Tantric temples, dedicated to the Chausath Yogini – the 64 Tantric goddesses. The cells may be bereft of the idols, yet the architecture, in ruins, is fascinating.

Planning tip: You will need a day to explore all of Khajuraho’s temples; start as early as possible to capture the dawn light in your photos, or come in the afternoon when the warm sunlight makes for evocative shadows.

4. Explore the world’s largest mangrove forests in the Sundarbans

The wild and remote biodiversity hotspot of Sundarbans National Park is where three mighty rivers – the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna – join the Bay of Bengal. A maze of mangrove forests, swamps and mudflats, riverine islands and numerous canals that you can explore by boat, the Sundarbans is perhaps most famous for its population of Bengal tigers that roam its brackish channels.

With its serpentine network of roots, the dark and dense undergrowth provides hiding spots for crocodiles, snakes and other predators. Look out for the different varieties of kingfishers, raptors and water birds from observation towers that give you a bird’s-eye view of the swamps. Village walks are possible on a handful of islands and resilient locals will tell you harrowing tales of living amid devastating cyclones and treacherous wildlife in this delicate and unforgettable ecosystem.

5. Camp under the stars in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan

With an entire galaxy to keep you entertained for the night, sleeping among the wavy, undulating sand dunes of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert is something that stays with you forever. Near Jaisalmer, a number of desert camps are pitched across the windswept Sam Sand Dunes, which rise to more than 50m (164ft) in height and create magical mirages before your eyes. Go on a camel safari along with a caravan to experience the sunset as you’ve never seen it.

Planning tip: In town, take an unmissable wander through the old temples and colorful markets of majestic Jaisalmer Fort, which 5000 people still call home. If you’re fascinated by the supernatural, head southwest of the walled city to the abandoned ghost town of Kuldhara – it's said to be haunted, especially after dark.

Pilgrims lining walkway across the water from the Golden Temple, a grand square building with a gold facade
Amritsar’s Golden Temple has an astounding spiritual energy © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

6. Feel the presence of the divine at the Golden Temple, Amritsar

The best time to experience Amritsar’s sublime Golden Temple is at 4am (5am in winter) when the revered scripture of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, is installed inside the temple for the day amid the hum of ritual chanting. With the moon still shining, the entire complex is lit up as the shimmering gold of the dome reflects in the surrounding pond, Amrit Sarovar (the Reservoir of Nectar).

Hospitality and charity are key values for Sikhs, and this famous gurdwara (place of worship) is open to anyone of any faith. The incredible community kitchen known as the Guru-Ka-Langar offers simple, vegetarian meals throughout the day for up to 100,000 devotees (meals are free but a donation is appropriate).

7. Cruise the Kerala backwaters

A maze of small canals, brackish lagoons, silent rivers and still rivulets interconnected with the Arabian Sea, the backwaters of Kerala offer a completely different view of India for travelers and a lifeline of farming and fishing for locals. You can choose your own adventure as you make your way through this tangle of channels and lakes.

During an overnight cruise on a kettuvallam (houseboat), you can pass the hours by fishing, visiting small villages, bird watching or sitting back and watching the world go slowly by.

Planning tip: Many cruise itineraries start in Alappuzha, to the south of Kochi, but the quality of houseboats varies significantly – your best bet is to head to the dock and view a selection of houseboats one or two days in advance. If you’re booking online using an aggregator such as, be sure to read plenty of reviews before you book.

8. Visit the ancient monasteries of Ladakh

Touching the high Himalayas, the mountain valleys of Ladakh leave people breathless – both figuratively and literally. You’ll need time to acclimatize in this state that was once a Buddhist kingdom, with stark and vivid landscapes that sit between 3000–6000m (9842–19,685ft) above sea level.

Dotted with snow-clad mountains, icy glaciers, wild meadows, and valleys in the lowlands, plus rivers and high-altitude lakes that change color depending on the light, the region is a natural playground for hikers, bikers and adventure enthusiasts. In winter, travelers come here for expeditions to seek snow leopards and treks along the frozen Zanskar River.

Chortens (Tibetan Buddhist stupas) and gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries) are scattered across this cold desert and visiting these sacred sites will help you learn more about the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. The region’s oldest monastery is at Alchi, though Thiksey, Stok, and Hemis gompas, closer to the capital Leh, are the most popular stops for visitors.

Planning tip: Don’t miss views of Ladakh’s moonscapes from Lamayuru Monastery, a convenient stop when traveling west from Leh to Srinagar in Kashmir. Remember to cover your shoulders and legs while visiting the monastery, and observe the ban on photography within the premises.

9. Spend a day at Raghurajpur Arts and Crafts Village in Odisha

Located near the temple town of Puri in Odisha, the colorful Raghurajpur Arts and Crafts Village is a living gallery maintained by local chitrakaars (folk artists). The village showcases the traditional art of pata chitra painting, paying tribute to the triad deities from the Puri Jagannath Temple. Each canvas is specially prepared with layers of cotton cloth, and tribal motifs, folk stories, myths and legends are the subjects of the artworks. Expect the artists here to invite you into their homes to see the murals that cover the walls.

As well as pata chitra, you can see tussar silk paintings, toys and palm-leaf engravings. You can also see live demonstrations or try your hand at creating your own piece of art. Try to see a traditional performance of the Gotipua dance; young men from the community can be seen practicing at local gurukul (dance academies).

Beautiful columns at the ruins of the Vittala Temple in Hampi, Karnataka, India
The architecture of Hampi is simply extraordinary © Dmytro Gilitukha / Shutterstock

10. Explore the ruins of Hampi

If the ruins of Hampi could speak, they would tell a glorious tale of a powerful and prosperous kingdom whose rulers built magnificent temples, palaces and monuments, traded precious stones in vast bazaars, and contributed immensely to the art, architecture, culture and literature of India. Founded 600 years ago by two brothers, working under the guidance of their spiritual guru, Sri Vidyaranya, Hampi was once the capital of the Vijayanagar Empire, which ruled the Deccan Plateau of South India for centuries.

The site sprawls for miles, centered on several important groups of monuments, including the Royal Enclosure and the Temple Trail. The still-active Virupaksha Temple is the nucleus of spiritual activity at Hampi, but the most striking structure is the Vittala Temple, an architectural marvel featuring an elaborately carved stone chariot that is illustrated on India’s 50-rupee note.

Planning tip: Allow at least three to four days to fully explore this special place. The center of Hampi can be explored on foot; to explore surrounding areas, rent a bicycle or motorbike, or hire an auto-rickshaw on either side of the Tungabhadra River.

11. Explore Goa beyond the beaches

Goa is not just a destination; it’s a state of mind. The very name evokes images of sun, sand and sea, and while Goa’s beaches are the main attraction here (tip: opt for the less-crowded shores of South Goa), the small state’s riverine islands, mangrove swamps, dense forests, and spice and cashew plantations are memorable and sensuous experiences in themselves.

Cruise the Zuari River and narrow canals bordered by mangroves at dawn to spot six varieties of kingfishers, among other water birds. In the inland forests, hidden temples reward hikers. For more nature, visit Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary with its mighty Dudhsagar Falls – especially post-monsoon, when they’re at full force.

12. Be dazzled by the Rann of Kachchh salt desert

Be sure to pack your sunglasses: the sparkling sodium chloride crystals of the White Rann, one of the world’s largest salt deserts, will literally dazzle you. The Rann of Kachchh (Kutch) in Gujarat is divided into the Greater and Lesser Rann (the White Rann is part of the former), a unique ecosystem in which shallow salt marshes are submerged during the monsoons. As they evaporate, the wetlands transform into an arid ocean of salt, a seasonal phenomenon seen only in winter, from October to March.

We recommend staying in Hodka or Dhordo, where resorts are composed of Kutchi (Kutch-style) bhungas – circular-walled thatched mud huts that offer a welcome respite from the harsh desert heat. While you’re in the area, head to the nearby ruins of the ancient Indus Valley civilization at Dholavira to the east, and the 18th-century Aaina Mahal Palace in Bhuj, to the southwest.

Planning tip: The landscape is especially mesmerizing at sunrise and sunset; evening visits during full-moon evenings are another treat. Gujarat Tourism hosts the annual Rann Ustav, a fascinating cultural festival that runs between November and February. Expect a flood of food and local handicraft stalls as well as Sufi and indigenous Kutchi folk music performances.

13. See larger-than-life sculptures at the Great Living Chola Temples

Located in Tamil Nadu, the 1200-year-old Great Living Chola Temples leave visitors both spellbound and humbled. These mighty monuments include Brihadeeshwara Temple in the southern city of Thanjavur, built by King Raja Raja Chola I in the 10th century. The soaring 63.4m-high (208ft) vimana (tower above the shrine) is one of the largest of any Hindu temple anywhere, hence its nickname, the Big Temple.

Raja Raja Chola I’s son, Rajendra Chola, ambitiously set out to create a bigger version of his father’s temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram, but for mysterious reasons never completed the complex. A century later, in a small town called Darasuram, the third temple was erected by Raja Raja Chola II. If the first two Brihadeshwara temples are larger-than-life marvels, the Airavateswarar Temple is an ode to mastery on a smaller scale and a tribute to the craftsmanship of the era. Each of the temples is dedicated primarily to Shiva, although carvings depict a pantheon of other Hindu deities.

Planning tip: You’ll need a day to explore all three temples, which are still in active use. It's best to visit either early in the morning or in the evenings.

14. Discover hidden treasures in the villages of Chettinadu

A cultural and colorful mosaic of arts, crafts, architecture, food and traditions, Chettinadu is a collection of 75 villages in Tamil Nadu that were once home to an affluent mercantile community called the Nagarathar Chettiars. The merchants grew rich off trading in jewelry and spices; when most of them left for better prospects elsewhere, they left behind their homes – a cultural reminder of their cosmopolitan community and the wealth they accumulated.

Aptly titled nattukottai (country forts), each home is a larger-than-life fortified palace; some cover more than 3700 sq meters (39,826 sq ft). Colorful facades feature arches, pillars, sculptures and friezes but it’s the interiors that truly amaze, with Belgian mirrors and chandeliers, Italian marble, Japanese artworks, Spanish tiles, Burmese teak and other luxurious components sourced from around the world.

Villages such as Karaikudi, Kanadukathan, Devakottai, Kothamangalam, Pallathur and Kottaiyur feature grand houses that are up to 200 years old. While most of them have been abandoned, a few have been converted into luxury hotels. A fusion of Art Deco, Dravidian and colonial architectural styles, these houses are fascinating to explore and some can be entered for a small fee.

A Bengal tiger with muddy paws sits on the edge of a mangrove forest
Go on a safari to discover India's Big Five © Soumyajit Nandy / Shutterstock

15. Look for India’s Big Five

On thrilling 4WD safaris through the dense forests of wildlife sanctuaries, you can look out for India’s Big Five: tigers, elephants, leopards, sloth bears and gaur (Indian bison). There are more than 100 national parks and tiger reserves spread across the country, including venerable Jim Corbett National Park; Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna in Madhya Pradesh; Pench and Tadoba-Andhari in Maharashtra; Ranthambore in Rajasthan; Nagarhole and Bandipur in Karnataka; Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu, and many, many more.

Farther afield, Kaziranga National Park in Assam provides sightings of the critically endangered one-horned rhinoceros, while elusive snow leopards populate Hemis National Park in Ladakh and Asiatic lions congregate in Gujarat’s Gir National Park. The Kabini Reservoir in Karnataka draws massive herds of elephants, especially in summer; bird watchers are also in for a delight as more than 1300 species are found here.

Planning tip: Throughout the country, early-morning safaris tend to be the most rewarding, although evening safaris bring magic light. Late summer is the best time for spotting wildlife, but many national parks are closed during the early-summer monsoon. Many parks offer elephant safaris, but these are not recommended as carrying passengers can be harmful to elephants.

16. Get a taste of “orthodox tea” country in Darjeeling

The quaint, verdant hill station of Darjeeling, West Bengal is an idyllic town, towered over by snow-capped Himalayan peaks, nestled amongst rolling hills of rhododendron and pines, and overflowing with tea plantations. Although Indian-style chai is readily available, this is “orthodox” tea country – the term refers to loose-leaf tea that’s brewed in a teapot with hot water, unlike chai, which is made from CTC (crush, tear, curl) tea. With plenty of hole-in-the-wall cafes and eateries within the town, and hiking trails and Buddhist monasteries nearby, Darjeeling offers a welcome change of pace for every palate.

Similarly, Kangra – another important Indian tea-growing region in Himachal Pradesh – offers relaxed views of Himalayan foothills that can be easily reached via the nearby hill station of Dharamshala, and the adjacent settlement of McLeod Ganj. Currently, Dharamshala is home to the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government, and the town is rich with Tibetan influence.

Planning tip: The famous narrow-gauge Toy Train to Darjeeling runs uphill from New Jalpaiguri station, following the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many tourists opt for two-hour 'joy rides' on the steam locos from Darjeeling to Ghum (India's highest railway station) and back. October to January are peak months for the Toy Train, so book your seats in advance via the IRCTC website.

17. Travel on a sleeper train

Strikingly scenic and luxuriously slow, rail travel in India offers a pleasant change of pace from the vibrant cacophony of urban tourist hubs. Heading from Delhi to Rishikesh via the overnight Shatabdi train, carefully poke your head out to watch the length of the train curve through the rural countryside. As the views roll by, expect to be generously supplied with railway snacks – from samosas and poha (flattened rice) to full meals, if you so choose – and topped up with extra hot, extra sweet chai, as chaiwalas saunter by with a kettle and paper cups.

If you’re looking to explore southwestern parts of the country, there are several dramatic train routes connecting the busy city of Mumbai with the historic port city of Kochi, whooshing past swathes of the lush green Konkan region and offering glimpses of the Arabian Sea.

Planning tip: Seats on popular routes fill up fast, so it’s worth booking your ticket online in advance via the IRCTC website. For maximum privacy and comfort for long overnight journeys, book an AC-class ticket (you can choose from four-bed, three-bed or two-bed cabins). If you’re keen to meet local people, opt for a Sleeper class ticket (but don’t expect to get too much sleep). Although you’ll find sit-down toilets on board, it’s advisable to carry your own toilet paper.

18. Practice Yoga in Rishikesh

Tucked away in the Himalayan foothills upon the banks of the Ganges, Rishikesh is a renowned spiritual hub, famed for its ashrams and yoga and meditation centers. Beyond the oft-discussed “Beatles Ashram” – a now-abandoned ashram visited by the Beatles in the '60s when they were learning Transcendental Meditation – Rishikesh is also the setting for the annual International Yoga Festival in March.

There are a plethora of yoga courses available, taught by both Indian and foreign teachers. For beginners, we recommend signing up for a course at the Sivananda Ashram, where you can learn surya namaskars (sun salutations) and basic asanas on the river bank. There are also several women-only yoga courses available, at a variety of price points.

Planning tip: If you’re planning to visit during the International Yoga Festival, book yourself a spot online. Most yoga centers are located between Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula, so book your accommodation at least a few months in advance. Note that Rishikesh is a vegetarian city; for non-veg dishes, head to the nearby town of Haridwar.

19. Immerse yourself in the diversity of northeastern India

Considering how diverse the northeastern states of India are, it seems almost unfair how frequently they are grouped together. India’s northeast has an offbeat experience for every traveler, from the annual Hornbill Festival in Kohima, Nagaland, which showcases the ethnic diversity of the state’s 17 main tribes every December, to the unparalleled views of 8586m (28,169ft) Khangchendzonga (the world’s third-highest mountain) from Gangtok in Sikkim.

We recommend starting your tour of the region in Guwahati in Assam, heading on a safari to Kaziranga National Park, where you can see one-horned rhinos, and then traveling onward to Majuli, the world’s largest river island. In Meghalaya, start in Shillong and loop towards the scenic town of Cherrapunji, lush with waterfalls and living root bridges – wondrous pedestrian bridges engineered by intertwining rubber tree roots over time. Further northeast, Arunachal Pradesh’s atmospheric Ziro Valley offers beginner-friendly treks through bamboo and pine forests.

Planning tip: The busiest time to visit the northeast is March to June when there’s still a slight coolness in the air. Accommodation during these months is more expensive; if you’re looking for a more affordable trip, the weather during the summer months – with the exception of lowland areas affected by the monsoon – is pleasant too.

Two men carrying baskets in Crawford Market in Mumbai, India
Wandering through one of India's incredible markets is a sensory overload © Getty Images

20. Visit a bustling local market

Wherever you go in India, from Kashmir in the north to the tip of Kanyakumari in the south, no trip would be complete without a visit to a market. This is true whether you take a shikara (wooden boat) to watch the chaos of the early morning floating vegetable market on Dal Lake in Srinagar or go bargaining for jhumkas (earrings) in Chandni Chowk in Delhi.

Markets in India are worth visiting partly because they’re authentically Indian – they’re frequented by local people year round, regardless of whether tourists visit them or not. We recommend starting off with a few of Delhi’s favorite bazaars – browse for clothes and attars (scents) in Chandni Chowk, Tibetan-style jewelry in Majnu-ka-Tila, and spices in Khari Baoli, Asia's largest spice market (your clothes will smell of ground cinnamon and cardamom for days, even after being laundered). Other rewarding markets include Mysore’s Devaraja Market, Jaipur’s Johri Bazar, and Kolkata’s Mullick Ghat – Asia’s largest flower market.

Planning tip: Markets are high pedestrian traffic areas and can be overwhelming; new-to-India travelers may want to book a guided tour. Be sure to keep your valuables in a concealed money belt (or similar), as pickpockets are common in these markets.

21. Tour Rajasthan’s historic forts and palaces

Thanks to a rich history of intertwined kingdoms and local battles, Rajasthan is home to some of India’s most spectacular forts and palaces. Over the centuries, neighboring kingdoms tried to one-up each other in fabulous displays of ostentation, and fought countless battles amongst themselves and against outsiders. It was only in the mid-1500s that the region – then called “Rajputana” – was brought together under the Mughal emperor Akbar.

Start with the Amber Fort in Amer (outside Jaipur) with its honeyed pink-and-yellow walls standing stark against cloudless blue skies. Inside, the palace walls are intricately painted, and the Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace) brings the stars indoors as candlelight twinkles on mirror mosaics. Other forts and palaces to check off your list include Mehrangarh in the blue city of Jodhpur, Ranthambhore Fort inside Ranthambhore National Park, Chittor in Chittorgarh, and Kumbhalgarh in the Aravali Hills.

Planning tip: Plan to visit Rajasthan when the weather is at its coolest, between October and March. Keep some small change handy for camera fees if you want to use a camera inside most fort complexes (you can often shoot on your phone for free). Although many forts (including Amber Fort) offer elephant rides for sightseeing, these have been banned by the government since 2005 as they are harmful to elephants.

22. Experience the energy of India’s festivals

With an almost impossibly diverse population, religion is the core of India’s social fabric, and religious festivals pulse through the country’s calendar. Celebrated enthusiastically by the majority Hindu population, Holi – the festival of colors in the spring – and Diwali – the festival of lights – are major events across the country. In the east, Durga Puja is a grand celebration of the Hindu goddess Durga and brings Kolkata to a standstill.

Similarly, Ganesh Chaturthi – celebrating the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh – is of paramount significance in Mumbai, where crowds accompany giant statues of the deity as they are paraded through the city and submerged in the sea.

The Muslim celebrations for Eid (at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan) are memorable in Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, and Hyderabad – people open up intricate late-night markets and street-food stalls showcasing Muslim delicacies native to each area.

There are dozens of other region- and religion-specific festivals, so be sure to do your homework on festival dates. The harvest festival of Onam brings bursts of color across the southern state of Kerala in August or September. If you’re headed to Ladakh or other places with large Tibetan Buddhist populations such as Dharamshala or Arunachal Pradesh, the Tibetan New Year festival of Losar in February or March brings three full days of festivities, including masked Buddhist dances at monasteries.

Planning tip: Many Indian festivals follow the lunar calendar, so dates change every year. Islamic festivals move forward by 11 days each year, relative to the Gregorian calendar. Always check the dates of festivals locally to avoid missing significant events.

This article was first published April 2022 and updated December 2023

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