A stunning introduction to southern India, Karnataka is a prosperous, compelling state loaded with a winning blend of urban cool, glittering palaces, national parks, ancient ruins, beaches, yoga centres and legendary travelers' hang-outs.
At its nerve centre is the capital, Bengaluru (Bangalore), a progressive cybercity famous for its craft-beer and restaurant scene. Heading out of town you'll encounter the evergreen rolling hills of Kodagu, dotted with spice and coffee plantations, the regal splendour of Mysuru (Mysore), and jungles teeming with monkeys, tigers and Asia’s biggest population of elephants.
If that all sounds too mainstream, head to the countercultural enclave of tranquil Hampi, with hammocks, psychedelic sunsets and boulder-strewn ruins. Or the blissful, virtually untouched coastline around Gokarna, blessed with beautiful coves and empty sands. Or leave the tourist trail behind entirely and take a journey to the evocative Islamic ruins of northern Karnataka.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Karnataka.
The second-most-visited sight in India (after the Taj Mahal), this palace is among the very grandest of India’s royal buildings and was the seat of the Wodeyar maharajas. The original palace was gutted by fire in 1897; today's structure was completed in 1912. The lavish Indo-Saracenic interior – a kaleidoscope of stained glass, mirrors and gaudy colours – is undoubtedly over the top. It's further embellished by carved wooden doors, mosaic floors and a series of paintings depicting life here during the Raj.
Hampi's most exquisite structure, the 16th-century Vittala Temple stands amid boulders 2.5km from Hampi Bazaar. Work possibly started on the temple during the reign of Krishnadevaraya (r 1509–29). The structure was never finished or consecrated, yet its incredible sculptural work remains the pinnacle of Vijayanagar art. The courtyard's ornate stone chariot (illustrated on the ₹50 note) is the temple’s showpiece and represents Vishnu’s vehicle with an image of Garuda within. Its wheels were once capable of turning.
Badami’s highlights are its beautiful cave temples, three Hindu and one Jain, which display exquisite sculptures and intricate carvings. They're a magnificent example of Chalukya architecture and date to the 6th century. All have a columned verandah, an interior hall and a shrine at the rear.
In the heart of Bengaluru’s business district is Cubbon Park, a well-maintained 120-hectare garden where Bengaluru’s residents converge to steal a moment from the rat race that rages outside. The gardens encompass the red-painted Gothic-style State Central Library. Unfortunately, Cubbon is not completely closed to traffic, except on Sundays, when there are concerts, fun runs, yoga and even a small farmers market.
For a taste of traditional urban India, dive into the bustling, gritty Krishnarajendra Market and the dense grid of commercial streets that surround it. Weave your way around the lively, colourful stalls, past fresh produce, piles of vibrant dyes, spices and copper ware. The vibrant flower market in the centre is the highlight.
A steep climb up 614 steps takes you to the top of Vindhyagiri Hill, the summit of which is lorded over by a towering naked statue of Jain deity Gomateshvara (Bahubali). Commissioned by a military commander in the service of the Ganga king Rachamalla and carved out of a single piece of granite by sculptor Aristenemi in AD 98, it is said to be the world’s tallest monolithic statue. Leave your shoes at the foot of the hill.
West of the Kabini River is the 643-sq-km wildlife sanctuary of Nagarhole National Park (pronounced nag -ar-hole-eh). The lush forests here are home to tigers, leopards, elephants, gaurs, muntjacs (barking deer), wild dogs, bonnet macaques and common langurs, and 270 species of bird. The park can remain closed for long stretches between July and October, when the rains transform the forests into a giant slush pit.
The remnants of this magnificent 15th-century fort, the largest in South India – and once the administrative capital of much of the region – constitute Bidar's most famous historic site. Surrounded by a triple moat hewn out of solid red rock and many kilometres of defensive walls, the fort has a fairy-tale entrance that twists in an elaborate chicane through three gateways. Bidar Fort once had 37 bastions, several wells and a vast magazine. Reckon on a couple of hours to explore it properly.
Set in tranquil gardens, the magnificent Golgumbaz houses the tombs of emperor Mohammed Adil Shah (r 1627–56), his two wives, his mistress (Rambha), one of his daughters and a grandson. Octagonal seven-storey towers stand at each corner of the monument, which is capped by an enormous dome. Once you're inside the sheer scale of the structure becomes apparent: its cavernous interior has a powerful, austere beauty. Climb the steep, narrow steps up one of the towers to reach the ‘whispering gallery’.