With its sumptuous mix of traditions, spiritual beliefs, festivals, architecture and landscapes, your memories of India will blaze bright long after you've left its shores.
India's Great Outdoors
India's landscapes are as fantastically varied as its cultural traditions. From the snow-dusted peaks of the Himalaya to the sun-splashed beaches of the tropical south, the country has a bounty of outdoor attractions. You can scout for big jungle cats on scenic wildlife safaris, paddle in the shimmering waters of coastal retreats, take blood-pumping treks high in the mountains, or simply inhale pine-scented air on meditative forest walks. Among all these natural treasures is a wealth of architectural gems, from serene temples rising out of pancake-flat plains to crumbling forts peering over plunging ravines.
Indian cuisine is a scrumptious smorgasbord of regionally distinct recipes, each with their own traditional preparation techniques and presentation styles – from the competing flavours of masterfully marinated meats and thalis (plate meals) to the simple splendour of vegetarian curries and deep-sea delights. Spices lie at the heart of Indian cooking, with the crackle of cumin seeds in hot oil a familiar sound in most kitchens. The country is also renowned for its tempting array of street food, with vendors selling everything from spicy samosas and kebabs to cooling kulfi (ice cream) and lassi (yoghurt drink).
A go-with-the-flow attitude will help keep your sanity intact when traversing the chaotic canvas that is India. With its ability to inspire, exasperate, thrill and confound all at once, be prepared for unexpected surprises. This can be challenging, particularly for first-time visitors: despite India's wonders, the poverty is confronting, the bureaucracy can be frustrating and the crush of humanity may turn the simplest task into a frazzling epic. Even veteran travellers find their nerves frayed at some point. But love it or loathe it – and most visitors see-saw between the two – to embrace India's unpredictability is to embrace its soul.
Spirituality is the ubiquitous thread in India's richly diverse tapestry, weaving all the way from the snowy mountains of the far north to the tropical shores of the deep south. Hinduism and Islam have the most followers, while Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism are also widely practised. The array of sacred sites and rituals pay testament to the country's long and colourful religious history. And then there are its festivals! India has an abundance of devotional celebrations – from formidable city parades heralding auspicious religious events, to simple village harvest fairs that pay homage to a locally worshipped deity.
Why I Love India
By Sarina Singh, Writer
The moment I start to think I'm right on the precipice of unravelling one of India's deep mysteries, the country has an uncanny way of reminding me that it would take many lifetimes to do so. Indeed, demystifying India is a perpetual work in progress. And that is precisely what makes the country so alluring: the constant exploration; the playful unpredictability; and knowing that, just when it's least expected, you can find yourself up close and personal with moments that have the power to alter the way you view the world and your place in it.
Budget: Less than ₹3000
- Dorm bed: ₹400–₹600
- Double room in budget hotel: ₹400–₹1000
- All-you-can-eat thali (plate meal): ₹100–₹300
- Bus/train tickets: ₹300–₹500
- Double hotel room: ₹1500–₹5000
- Meal in midrange restaurant: ₹600–₹1500
- Admission to historic sight/museum: ₹500–₹1500
- Local taxi/autorickshaw: ₹500–₹2000
Top End: More than ₹10,000
- Deluxe hotel room: ₹5000–₹24,000
- Meal at superior restaurant: ₹2000–₹5000
- First-class train travel: ₹1000–₹8000
- Hire car and driver: from ₹2000 per day
Perhaps the single most famous building on the planet, the Taj Mahal is as much a monument to love as it is to death. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan constructed this magnificent mausoleum to honour his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died tragically in childbirth. Clad in pearlescent white marble, and intricately inlaid with calligraphy, semiprecious stones and intricate floral designs representing the eternal paradise, the Taj is the pinnacle of Mughal creativity, and one of the most perfectly proportioned buildings ever constructed, anywhere, ever.
Magnificent even in ruins, Hampi was once the cosmopolitan capital of a powerful Hindu empire, Vijayanagar, whose temples and water tanks sprawled for miles over a landscape of granite outcrops and boulders. Ransacked by warring armies, its toppled temples are today almost continuous with the rocky terrain. Indeed, look closely and you'll find that hardly an inch of Hampi has escaped the stonemason's chisel. Traverse the centuries on foot, rock-climb among the outcrops, or drift through the ruins by coracle on the Tungabhadra River: however you explore, Hampi will transport you to another world.
Rolling north from the sun-baked Indian plains, the air grows cooler and crisper and the terrain more rugged as you climb into the high Himalaya. In culture and topography, Ladakh is closer to Buddhist Tibet than Hindu India, and centuries-old monasteries cling on in its wild desert valleys. Snow closes off this former Buddhist kingdom for half the year, so most visitors come for the brief summer when the snow melts on the mountain passes and patches of greenery appear. Even in a country of superlatives, there's nowhere quite like Ladakh!
Caves of Ajanta
They may have lived a life of austere humility, but the 2nd-century-BC monks who created the Ajanta caves certainly had an eye for the dramatic. Thirty rock-cut forest grottoes worm through the face of a horseshoe-shaped cliff, protecting some of the finest carvings ever produced from the centuries and the elements. The caverns were originally hollowed out to provide peaceful spaces for meditation and contemplation, but later generations adorned the chambers with exquisite carvings and paintings depicting the Buddha’s former lives. Renunciation of the worldly life was never so serenely sophisticated.
Boating the Backwaters of Kerala
Lazily navigating the radiant backwaters of Kerala is like floating off into a dream. What is probably India's most laid-back state has 900km of interconnected rivers, lakes, canals and lagoons lined with swaying coconut palms and picturesque villages. Probably the most atmospheric way to explore Kerala's waterlogged rural heartland is on board a teak-and-palm-thatch houseboat. Spend the days watching village life drift past in a timeless tableau, before feasting on Keralan seafood curries and falling into a restful sleep beneath a canopy of twinkling stars. Who needs life on land?
Mumbai’s Architectural Visions
Mumbai is more than just a city. This frenetic, fabulous metropolis is the beating heart of Indian film, fashion and finance, built on the hopes and dreams of its 22 million inhabitants as much as with bricks and mortar. Sprawling over seven islands, Mumbai is prosperous and desperate, brash but also life-affirming. From the skyscraping towers of north Mumbai to the art deco apartments of Marine Drive and the faded Victoriana of Fort, Mumbai wears its history, and its ambitions, on its sleeve – come for the food and culture, and be seduced.
Spotting India's national animal in the wild takes perseverance and a bit of luck, but if you do spy a tiger burning bright in the Indian jungle, the experience will stay with you for a lifetime. Even if you don't encounter one of Shere Khan's cousins, look out for leopards, bears, monkeys, rhinos, elephants and a host of other wildlife in national parks such as Bandhavgarh, Kaziranga and Nagarhole. There's hardly a corner of India that doesn't have some kind of natural reserve where you can join a safari in search of adventure.
Cuppa in a Hill Station
India's lowlands are full of wonders, but come summer it can get darn hot down there. Indian royals and imported colonials escaped the heat by heading to cool mountain refuges, such as Darjeeling, Shimla and Kodaikanal, tucked into the forested foothills of the Himalaya or crowning the peaks of the Western Ghats down south. Dripping with Raj nostalgia, India's hill stations are places to curl up under a blanket with a steaming cup of locally grown tea, watching mist drift through the tea plantations beneath grandstand views of the peaks.
Life, death and all things in-between play out in vivid colour in Varanasi, India's most sacred city. Like the sacred Ganges that traces its eastern edge, centuries of ritual and tradition flow over Varanasi's riverside ghats, where holy men fill the air with incense, pilgrims bathe in a vast human tide, and devout Hindus pass into the life hereafter on funeral pyres. To be here is to witness India at its most open, so step into the dizzying spiritual whirlwind and get carried away by Varanasi's kaleidoscope of colours.
With swishing palms sandwiched between sugar-white sands and lapping kingfisher-blue waves, Goa's coastline has a laid-back, hedonistic charm that's like nowhere else in India. With a string of what could be India's most beautiful beaches, this is no undiscovered escape, but the coastal strip bustles with beachside snack shacks, accommodation for every taste and budget, and markets full of blissed-out tie-dye-clad travellers. It's a slice of paradise that appeals to social animals and fans of creature comforts who like their seafood fresh and their holidays easy.
Jaisalmer’s Desert Mirage
A gigantic golden sandcastle that rises like a mirage from Rajasthan's Thar Desert, the 12th-century citadel of Jaisalmer is almost impossibly romantic and picturesque. With its crenellated ramparts and barrel-shaped towers, this is the very vision of a desert fortress, emerging from and almost continuous with the camel-coloured scrub landscape on all sides. Inside, a royal palace, atmospheric old havelis (merchants' mansions), delicately chiselled Jain temples and maze-like lanes conspire to create one of the country's most atmospheric places to get lost.
Ever fancied being a fly on the wall at an orgy? Where couples intertwine in positions that defy the physically possible? Khajuraho could well be your place. Some say the sensuous carvings on Khajuraho’s temples depict the Kamasutra, or tantric practices for initiates; others claim they're a reminder to the faithful to set lust aside before entering holy places. But pretty much everyone agrees that they’re delightfully mischievous. Once the titillation wanes, you’ll notice that the skill and delicacy of the carving on these historic temples is even more impressive than the subject matter.
Epic Rail Journeys
A train journey across India, passing lime-green rice paddies, jungle-cloaked hills and jutting temple spires, is an epic experience. Sure, you could save time by flying, but it's tricky to mix with the masses and soak up India's dramatically diverse scenery from 35,000ft. Riding the rails is a chance to chit-chat with locals over a hot cup of chai, or gaze out the window at the ever-changing landscape, contemplating India's contradictions. Ramp up the romance on the toy train from Kalka to Shimla, or one of India's other delightful mountain railways.
India’s captivating capital bears the scars of a string of former empires, from tombs and fortresses left behind by sultans and warlords to the broad streets laid out by British colonials. Delhi may be chaotic today, but it rewards visitors with an abundance of riches: fabulous food and culture; Mughal relics and maze-like markets; New Delhi, with its political monuments and museums; the ancient forts of Tughlaqabad and Purana Qila; and ruined wonders at the Qutb Minar and Mehrauli. Come and be mesmerised by 3000 years of history.
Amritsar’s Golden Temple
The holiest Sikh shrine, Amritsar's Golden Temple is a place where spirituality pushes through into the material world. A continuous chain of pilgrims circles the Sarovar, a water tank excavated by the fourth Sikh guru in 1577, while priests chant passages from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, in the gold-encased chapel at the centre of the pool. To visit is to glimpse the soul of the Sikh religion, characterised by honour, courage and hospitality – best exemplified by the Guru-Ka-Langar, the vast kitchen for pilgrims that feeds 100,000 people daily.
Where else in the world could you start the day with Ashtanga yoga, breakfast on pain au chocolat, wander streets full of French-colonial villas, glean spiritual tips at a legendary ashram, then dine on fabulous Indian fusion food before strolling beside the tropical ocean? In this former French colony, mustard-coloured houses line cobblestone streets, grand cathedrals overflow with architectural frou-frou, and the croissants are the real deal. But Puducherry (Pondicherry) is also a Tamil town – with all the history, temples and hustle and bustle that go along with that.
India is awash with magnificent fortresses, but Jodhpur's Mehrangarh is particularly humbling, rearing up from an outcrop like a rock-cut statement of intent. A Rajput maharaja raised this mighty bastion to defend his newly founded capital at Jodhpur, and the fortress saw a string of bloody battles as rival powers eyed its magnificence. With its inlaid interiors and gateways big enough to accommodate war elephants, Mehrangarh showcases Rajasthan's grandeur but also its tragedies – the handprints of royal wives who immolated themselves on the funeral pyre of Maharaja Man Sing still mark the walls.
Tribal Northeast India
If the crowds wear you down in Rajasthan or Kerala, point your compass northeast to India's rugged tribal states, linked to the rest of India by just a narrow strip of land, and culturally closer to Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh. For decades the region was off-limits due to colonial-era red tape, but visiting is getting easier all the time. If you venture to the mountainous north of Arunachal Pradesh, or former headhunter villages in forested Nagaland, you'll be stepping off the tourist map into a world of tribal customs and untamed scenery.
The Wild Western Ghats
Stretching like an emerald scarf from Maharashtra to Tamil Nadu, the Western Ghats are the south's answer to the Himalaya, but instead of snow-capped peaks you'll find ridges choked in jungle, nostalgic hill stations, scattered tea and spice plantations, and national parks teeming with elephants, leopards and tigers. There's even a charming, steam-powered miniature train, chugging uphill to Ooty (Udhagamandalam) via Coonoor. As in the north, you'll find plenty of colonial bungalows turned hotels, where you can sit with a cup of Indian tea and watch the mists swirl over the mountains.
An ice-white city of faded splendours, sitting on the bank of a mirror-like lake, Udaipur is one of India's most romantic locations. As the sun sets over its turreted palaces, reflected in the millpond-calm waters of Lake Pichola, and voices float upwards from its busy bazaars, Udaipur will transport you to the India of fables. Sure, you'll have company on the journey, but as you look out over the Rajput elegance of the graceful Lake Palace or wander Udaipur's backstreet mansions and gardens, you certainly won't mind!
India's self-styled yoga capital has been a source of enlightenment since long before the Beatles stopped by in full-blown hippie mode. Blessed with a glorious setting in the Himalayan foothills, tracing the banks of the Ganges, Rishikesh is the perfect place to settle for a time to practise your downward dog, try some laughter therapy, ritually bathe in the Ganges or whatever else floats your spiritual boat. Then there's that mountain air, blissfully fresh and clean after the polluted fug of the plains.
The Golden Triangle & the Land of the Kings
- 2 Weeks
Linking Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, India's Golden Triangle combines some of India's most jaw-dropping sights. The princely splendours of Rajasthan make for a natural extension.
Kick off in Delhi, soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of Old Delhi. Explore its Mughal-era Red Fort and Jama Masjid, and experience living Islamic culture at the captivating Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Dargah. Next, catch a train to Agra and gasp at the beauty of the Taj Mahal. Explore Agra Fort and devote a day to the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri. Continue on to the Pink City of Jaipur; don't miss the City Palace, Hawa Mahal and Amber Fort.
Return to Delhi, or travel on to Pushkar for a few days of chilling out around lakeside temples. Drop into Ranthambhore National Park to spot tigers, then roll south to elegant Udaipur, with its floating palace and serene lake. Next, visit magnificent hilltop Kumbhalgarh and the temple at Ranakpur, en route to Jodhpur; Mehrangarh fort offers the definitive view over Rajasthan's Brahmin-blue city.
Enjoy a camel trek through the dunes in fortified Jaisalmer before looping back to Delhi for an early-morning trip to the ruins of Qutb Minar.
North & South
- 6 Months
Tourist visas last six months, allowing you to explore some of the highlights of the north and south, and go off the established tourist grid.
Start by exploring Delhi, then ride the rails north to Amritsar to see Sikhism's most holy site, the glittering Golden Temple. Connect through Chandigarh to lofty Shimla; from this classic hill station you can roam northwest to Buddhist McLeod Ganj and Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama, before doubling back to Manali, starting point for the thrilling but gruelling overland journey to rugged Ladakh (June to September). When you've had your fill of mountain air, head south for some yoga in Rishikesh, and descend to Agra to admire the vision-like Taj Mahal. Next, go south to Khajuraho, with its risqué temples, and scan the jungle for tigers in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. Continue to the holy city of Varanasi for a mesmerising boat trip along the sacred Ganges.
Roam east to Kolkata, bustling capital of West Bengal. Swing north as far as Darjeeling or Sikkim for sweeping Himalayan views, then drift down the coast to the temple towns of Konark and Puri in Odisha (Orissa). Consider a flight to whisk you south and through the looking glass to Chennai for a different view of India.
From Chennai it's an easy detour south to the temple wonders of Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), continuing to Puducherry (Pondicherry) for colonial-era heritage combined with contemporary chic. Rumble on to Madurai, with its deity-encrusted temple towers. At this point you've earned some beach time in Kerala before you take a trip inland to nostalgic Mysuru (Mysore) to see how maharajas lived.
Continuing north, head to Hampi, where collapsed temples and ruined palaces lie strewn among the boulders, then get a second dose of beach life on the sun-stroked coast of Goa. Wine, fine-dine and go Bollywood-crazy in Mumbai, India's film and fashion capital, then admire the glorious cave paintings and carvings at Ajanta and Ellora.
Finish on a high with Rajasthan's triumvirate of coloured cities – pink Jaipur, blue Jodhpur and white Udaipur. There might just be time to detour to the fascinating temples, exquisite embroidery villages and nature reserves of Gujarat before you close the circle with a last train ride to Delhi.
Mountains & Tribal Culture
- 1 Month
Sikkim and the Northeast States, with their incredible mountain scenery, are still a well-kept secret for many travellers. However, permit requirements are changing and India's last frontier is slowly opening up to the outside world. Planning is essential, as some permits are still mandatory and security can be an issue.
Starting in Kolkata, make your first stop genteel Darjeeling – here you can sample the subcontinent's finest teas and pick up a permit for Sikkim, one of the most serene retreats in the country. Rumble by jeep to Gangtok, the Sikkimese capital, for trips to historic Buddhist monasteries and views over epic mountain scenery. Roll on to Namchi to see giant statues of Shiva and Padmasambhava, and to Pelling for inspiring views of the white-peaked Khangchendzonga and the beautiful Pemayangtse Gompa, ringed by gardens and monks’ cottages. Take the weeklong trek from Yuksom to Goecha La, a 4940m pass with incredible views, then exit Sikkim via Tashiding, with more wonderful views and another stunning gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery), before you travel to Siliguri for the train journey east.
Arrange tours for the Northeast States (including permits for Arunachal Pradesh) in Guwahati or online. Then head from Guwahati to Arunachal Pradesh to admire the stunning, city-size Buddhist monastery at Tawang, before exploring the tribal villages around the Ziro Valley, where elders sport dramatic facial tattoos and piercings. A visit to Nagaland opens up fascinating tribal villages around Mon, dotted with traditional longhouses and squeezed into remote forested valleys, and the capital, Kohima, with its moving WWII relics. Going south, you can encounter Meitei culture in newly accessible Imphal in Manipur and Mizo culture in Aizawl in Mizoram before you fly back to Kolkata.
As an alternative, you could try this classic loop (for which Arunachal Pradesh permits are not required): from Guwahati, head to Kaziranga National Park to spot rare rhinos. Detour to sleepy Shillong, and hike to the waterfalls and incredible living root bridges of Cherrapunjee (Sohra). Take the long overland road trip to Agartala, dusty capital of Tripura, before you return to Kolkata by air or overland through Bangladesh.
The Spiritual Centre
- 3 Weeks
India has a wealth of temples, and this trip around the central plains takes you to some of the most fabulous.
Start amid the chaos and culture of dignified Kolkata, then swap the big-city bustle for the peace and contemplation of Bodhgaya, where the historical Buddha attained enlightenment. Roll across the plains to Sarnath, where Buddha later gave his first dharma lesson.
Move on to one of Hinduism's most sacred spots, ancient Varanasi, to see timeless rituals unfurl on the banks of the Ganges. Swap living history for ancient erotica at the Hindu temples of Khajuraho, then head southwest to Sanchi, where Emperor Ashoka first embraced Buddhism. Zip on through Bhopal to the caves of Ajanta, filled with carvings by 2nd-century-BC Buddhist monks.
Moving on to Rajasthan, stop off in whimsical Udaipur, with its lakes and palaces, then explore the milky-marble Jain temples of Ranakpur or Mt Abu. Continue to Pushkar, coiled around its sacred lake, and trip out to nearby Ajmer, one of India’s key Islamic pilgrimage sites. Swing through atmospheric Jaipur to end the trip in Delhi, with its magnificent Mughal ruins and living Islamic traditions, including haunting qawwali singing at the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin.
- 4 Weeks
The heart-stopping Himalayan views you'll see on this mountainous loop will stay with you forever.
Ride the rails from Delhi to Kalka, to board the cute-as-a-button narrow-gauge train to colonial-era Shimla. From here you can start your mountain exploration with some gentle hill rambles, then join the backpacker pilgrimage north to the Kullu Valley, stepping up a gear with thrilling mountain sports such as rafting and paragliding.
From the hill resort of Manali, embark on the epic, winding, two-day journey to Leh in Ladakh (July to September), to hike to precariously poised Buddhist monasteries and summit snow-capped peaks. For the classic Himalayan loop, continue from Leh to Kargil and on to Kashmir (checking first that it's safe to travel). Stay on a Srinagar houseboat, then loop through Jammu to elegant Dalhousie, and soak up Buddhist culture in nearby Dharamsala, before returning to Delhi.
To mix things up, consider heading southeast from Leh into the dramatic Spiti Valley, where centuries-old monasteries melt into the stony landscape. Ride the rattletrap bus to vertiginous Kinnaur, with its orchards and plunging valleys, and make stops in Dehra Dun and Rishikesh to brush up on your yoga, before closing the loop in Delhi.
Beaches & Southern Cities
- 2 Weeks
This laid-back meander allows you to relax on some of India’s finest beaches and chill out in charismatic coastal towns.
Start in Mumbai and people-watch, amble and sample bhelpuri (crisp noodle salad) on the sands at Girgaum Chowpatty and Juhu. Take a boat trip to the rock-cut temples on Elephanta Island, then travel south by train to beach-blessed Goa.
Take your pick from tropical sands at Arambol (Harmal), Vagator and Palolem, then continue along the coast to the sacred town of Gokarna. For a change of pace, detour inland to Hampi, with its serene Vijayanagar ruins, and witness the zenith of medieval stone carving in the temples of Belur and Halebid. Return by train to Mangaluru (Mangalore) to gorge on spectacular seafood, then chug south to lovely, laid-back Kochi (Cochin), a mix of influences from as far afield as China and the Mediterranean.
Cruise Kerala’s languorous backwaters from Alappuzha (Alleppey), before dipping your toes in the warm waters around beach resorts Varkala and Kovalam. End the journey south at Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), home to fascinating, often-overlooked museums. Fly to historic Hyderabad for a contrasting taste of Islamic India, before one last atmospheric train ride across the south to Mumbai.
A Southern Loop
- 3 Weeks
Chennai, the fast-changing capital of the south, is the easiest starting point for exploring India’s southern tip. Ideal timing weather wise is from October to February, when skies are clear and temperatures manageable.
Next, amble around French-flavoured Puducherry (Pondicherry), with its villas and churches, before leaving the coast behind for the temple towns of Tamil Nadu. Essential stops include boulder-covered Trichy (Tiruchirappalli) and Madurai, with its soaring, deity-covered gopuram (temple towers). From here it's easy to zip down to Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin), India's southernmost point.
Now it's time to unwind: kick back on the sand at beach-tastic Kovalam or Varkala, then trade the palms for jungle vines in steamy Periyar Tiger Reserve as you scan the forest for elusive tigers and wild elephants. Allow time for a trip to Munnar, for tranquil rambles though hills painted green by tea plantations.
Heading north, visit colourful Mysuru (Mysore), with its fabulously flamboyant maharaja's palace, and stop in at cosmopolitan Bengaluru (Bangalore) to sample its craft beers and buzzing nightlife before looping back to Chennai.
Month by Month
Holi, February or March
Ganesh Chaturthi, August or September
Onam, August or September
Navratri & Dussehra, September or October
Diwali, October or November
Post-monsoon cool lingers throughout the country, with downright cold in the mountains. Moderate weather and several festivals make it a popular time to travel (book ahead!), while Delhi hosts big Republic Day celebrations.
Republic Day commemorates the founding of the Republic of India on 26 January 1950; the biggest celebrations are in Delhi, with a vast military parade along Rajpath, and the Beating of the Retreat ceremony three days later. There are pigeon races in Old Delhi.
Sankranti, the Hindu festival marking the sun’s passage into Capricorn, takes place on 14 or 15 January, and is celebrated in many ways across India – from banana-giving to decorating sacred cows. But it’s the mass kite-flying in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra that's most spectacular.
The Tamil festival of Pongal, equivalent to Sankranti, marks the end of the harvest season. Families prepare pots of pongal (a mixture of rice, sugar, dhal and milk), symbolic of prosperity and abundance, then feed them to decorated and adorned cows.
Hindus dress in yellow and place books, musical instruments and other educational objects in front of idols of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, to receive her blessing. The holiday sometimes falls in February.
The huge Hindu pilgrimage of Kumbh Mela takes place every three years, rotating between Haridwar, Prayagraj (Allahabad), Nashik and Ujjain. Focused on ritual immersion in sacred rivers, the celebrations attract tens of millions of devotees. It'll next be held in Haridwar (2022). See https://kumbh.gov.in/en/ for the latest.
This is a good time to be in India, with balmy weather in most non-mountainous areas. It’s still peak travel season, and sunbathing and skiing are still on.
Losar (Tibetan New Year)
Losar is celebrated by Tantric Buddhists all over India – particularly in Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Ladakh and Zanskar – for 15 days. The event usually falls in February or March, though dates can vary between regions.
Skiing the Northern Slopes
Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have some fine skiing and snowboarding for all levels. Snow season tends to be January to March; February's a safe bet.
Held in February or March, Shivaratri, a day of Hindu fasting, recalls the tandava (cosmic victory dance) of Lord Shiva. Temple processions are followed by the chanting of mantras and the anointing of linga (phallic images of Shiva). Upcoming dates: 21 February 2020, 11 March 2021.
Carnival in Goa
The four-day party kicking off Lent is particularly big in Goa. Sabado Gordo (Fat Saturday) gets the festivities going with elaborate parades, and the revelry continues with street parties, concerts and general merrymaking. Can also fall in March.
This 10-day carnival of culture, cuisine and crafts is Agra's biggest and best party. Held at Shilpgram, it features 400 artisans from all over India, a potpourri of folk and classical music, dances from various regions, and enough regional food to induce a curry coma.
The last month of high season, March is full-on hot in most of India, with rains starting in the Northeast Region. Wildlife is easier to spot, as animals emerge to find water ahead of the monsoon.
In February or March, Hindus celebrate the beginning of spring according to the lunar calendar by throwing coloured water and gulal (powder) at anyone within range. Bonfires the night before symbolise the demise of demoness Holika. Upcoming dates: 9 March 2020, 28 March 2021.
When the weather warms up, water sources dry out and animals venture into the open to find refreshment, making this a prime time to spot elephants and, if you’re lucky, tigers and leopards. Consult nature portal www.sanctuaryasia.com for detailed info.
The heat has officially arrived in most places, which means you can get deals and avoid tourist crowds. The Northeast, meanwhile, is wet, but it’s peak time for visiting Sikkim and highland West Bengal.
Mahavir Jayanti commemorates the birth of Jainism’s 24th and most important tirthankar (teacher and enlightened being). Temples are decorated and visited, Mahavir statues are given ritual baths, processions are held and offerings are given to the poor. Upcoming dates: 6 April 2020, 25 April 2021.
The Christian holiday marking the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated simply in Christian communities with prayer and good food, particularly in Goa and Kerala. Upcoming dates for Easter Sunday: 12 April 2020, 4 April 2021.
Thirty days of dawn-to-dusk fasting mark the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Muslims traditionally turn their attention to God, with a focus on prayer and ritual purification. Ramadan begins around 24 April 2020 and 13 April 2021.
It's hot almost everywhere – incendiary, in fact. Festivals take a back seat as humidity builds up, awaiting the release of the rain. Hill stations are hopping, though, and in the mountains it’s pre-monsoon trekking season.
The celebration of Buddha’s birth, nirvana (enlightenment) and parinirvana (total liberation from the cycle of existence, or passing away) is calm but moving: devotees dress simply, eat vegetarian food, listen to dharma talks and visit monasteries or temples. Upcoming dates: 7 May 2020, 26 May 2021.
May and June, the months preceding the rains in the northern mountains, are prime times for trekking, with clear skies and temperate weather. Consider Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir (but not Ladakh) and Uttarakhand.
Mangoes are indigenous to India, which is why they’re so ridiculously good here. The season starts in March; in May the fruit is sweet, juicy and everywhere, but it's particularly prevalent in Maharashtra, where locals go crazy for Alphonso mangoes.
Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan with three days of festivities. Prayers, shopping, gift-giving and, for women and girls, mehndi (henna designs) may all be part of the celebrations. Upcoming dates: 24 May 2020, 13 May 2021.
June is low season because of the heat, but it's a good time to trek up north, as the passes open to Ladakh. The rainy season starts just about everywhere else, making national-park access tricky.
The Chariot Festival in June or July sees effigies of Lord Jagannath (Vishnu incarnated as Lord of the Universe) and his siblings carried on vast, colourful chariots, most famously in Puri, Odisha (Orissa). Millions come to see the festivities. Upcoming dates: 23 June 2020, 12 July 2021.
It should be raining almost everywhere now, but flooding causes problems in many regions. Consider visiting Ladakh, where the weather’s surprisingly dry and pleasant, or do a rainy-season meditation retreat, an ancient Indian tradition.
Held in July or August, Naag Panchami, particularly vibrant in Pune and Kolhapur (Maharashtra) and Karnataka, is dedicated to Ananta, the serpent upon whose coils Vishnu rested between universes. Women fast at home, while serpents are venerated as totems. Upcoming dates: 25 July 2020 and 13 August 2021.
Commemorates Ibrahim’s readiness to sacrifice his son to God; Muslims slaughter a goat or sheep and share it with family, the community and the poor. Upcoming dates: 31 July 2020, 19 July 2021.
Monsoon should be still going strong, but this is the best time to visit Ladakh. Tropical areas such as Kerala and Goa boast lush, green jungle, and it's often raining only a few hours a day.
This public holiday on 15 August celebrates India’s independence from Britain in 1947. Celebrations include flag-hoisting ceremonies and parades. The biggest celebrations are in Delhi, where the prime minister addresses the nation from the Red Fort, and there events such as pigeon racing and kite flying in Old Delhi.
Drupka Teshi commemorates Buddha’s first teaching, in which he explained the Four Noble Truths to disciples in Sarnath. Celebrations are big in Sikkim. The festival may also fall in July.
Krishna's birthday celebrations can last a week in Krishna’s birthplace, Mathura; elsewhere the festivities range from fasting to puja (prayers) and offering sweets, to drawing elaborate rangoli (rice-paste designs) outside homes. Janmastami is held in August or September. Upcoming dates: 11 August 2020, 30 August 2021.
Pateti (Parsi New Year)
This Parsi celebration of the Zoroastrian New Year is especially big in Mumbai. Houses are cleaned and decorated with flowers and rangoli, the family dresses up and eats special fish dishes and sweets, and offerings are made at fire temples.
In August or September, Onam is Kerala’s biggest cultural celebration. The entire state celebrates the golden age of mythical King Mahabali for 10 days. Upcoming dates: 30 August 2020, 21 August 2021.
Nehru Trophy Boat Race
The most popular of Kerala’s boat races, the Nehru Trophy is held In Alappuzha (Alleppey) on the second Saturday of August. See http://nehrutrophy.nic.in for details.
Raksha Bandhan (Narial Purnima)
Girls tie rakhis (amulets) to the wrists of brothers and male friends to protect them in the coming year. Brothers reciprocate with gifts and promises to take care of their sisters. The festival's name means 'protective tie'. Upcoming dates: 3 August 2020, 21 August 2021.)
The birth of the much-loved elephant-headed god is celebrated over 10 days, particularly in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai. Clay idols of Ganesh are paraded through the streets before being ceremonially immersed in rivers, sacred temple tanks or the sea. Upcoming dates: 22 August 2020, 10 September 2021.
Shiite Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson Imam Hussain on the 10th day of Muharram with beautiful processions, especially in Hyderabad. Sunni Muslims commemorate the fast of Moses (Moosa) when Allah saved the Israelites from their enemy in Egypt. Upcoming dates: around 28 August 2020 and 18 August 2021.
The rain is petering out (but temperatures are still relatively high), and the monsoon is usually finished in places such as Rajasthan, which can be surprisingly green. Autumn trekking season begins mid-month in the Himalaya.
This is when the travel season starts to kick off in earnest. October, also known as shoulder season, brings festivals and mostly good weather, with reasonably comfy temperatures and lots of post-rain greenery.
This national holiday is a solemn celebration of Mohandas Gandhi’s birth, on 2 October, with prayer meetings at his cremation site in Delhi, Raj Ghat.
Rafting & White Water
Rivers are full up after the rains, making for spectacular, thundering white-water falls. This is also the season for rafting in some areas; visit www.indiarafting.com.
Colourful Dussehra celebrates the victory of Hindu god Rama over demon-king Ravana and the triumph of good over evil. It's big in Kullu: more than 200 deities are carried into the town on palanquins, and festivities last a week. Upcoming dates: 8 October 2019, 25 October 2020, 14 October 2021.
The conquest of good over evil is exemplified by the goddess Durga’s victory over buffalo-headed demon Mahishasura. Celebrations occur around the time of Dussehra in October, particularly in Kolkata, where thousands of images of the goddess are displayed, then ritually immersed in rivers and water tanks.
In the lunar month of Kartika, in October or November, Hindus celebrate the Festival of Lights for five days. There's massive build-up, and on the day people exchange gifts, let off unbelievable amounts of fireworks, and light lamps to lead Lord Rama home from exile. Upcoming dates: 27 October 2019, 14 November 2020, 4 November 2021.
The climate is blissful in most places – still hot, but not uncomfortably so – but the southern monsoon sweeps through Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The Islamic festival of Eid-Milad-un-Nabi celebrates the birth of the Prophet with prayers and processions. Upcoming dates: around 10 November 2019, 29 October 2020, 19 October 2021.
The birthday of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, is celebrated with prayer, kirtan (devotional singing) and processions for three days, especially in Punjab and Haryana. Upcoming dates: around 12 November 2019, 30 November 2020 and 19 November 2021, but some mark the festival on 14 April, possibly Nanak’s actual 1469 birth date.
Many people head to the beach in December and January, but if you like a little space with your sea, go in November or February, when the skies are clear and it’s sunny but still comfortable.
Pushkar Camel Fair
Held during Kartika (the eighth lunar month, usually falling in October or November), this fair attracts 200,000 people, who bring some 50,000 camels, horses and cattle. It's a swirl of colour, magic and mayhem, thronged with musicians, mystics, tourists, camera crews, traders, devotees and animals.
International Film Festival of India
Held in Panaji (Panjim) in Goa in late November, India's largest film festival draws Bollywood’s finest for premieres, parties, screenings and ceremonies. See www.iffigoa.org for details.
December is peak tourist season, and no wonder: you're guaranteed glorious weather (except in the chilly mountains), the humidity’s low, the mood's festive and the beaches are blissful.
Marriage ceremonies peak in December, and you may see many a baraat (bridegroom’s procession), featuring white horse, nervous protagonist and fireworks, on your travels. Across the country, loud music and spectacular several-day-long parties abound, with brides adorned with mehndi and pure gold regalia.
Many of India’s 1250-plus bird species perform their winter migration from November to January or February, and excellent birdwatching spots are peppered across the country; www.birding.in is an excellent resource.
Camel Treks in Rajasthan
The cool winter (November to February) is the time to mount a camel and ride through the Rajasthani desert. Setting out from Jaisalmer or Bikaner, you can explore the Thar Desert and sleep under a sky full of stars.
Christian Goa, and parts of Kerala and the Northeast Region, come alive in the lead-up to Christmas, Mass is celebrated on 24 December,;and Christmas Day is celebrated with feasting and fireworks.
Islamic Calendar & Indian Lunar Calendar
Many festivals follow the Indian lunar calendar (a complex system based on astrology) or the Islamic calendar (which shifts 11 days earlier each year relative to the Gregorian calendar). Because of this, the dates of many festivals change annually. Contact local tourist offices for current dates, or see www.india.gov.in/calendar for a list of the year's gazetted government holidays.
Regions at a Glance
From 21st-century cities to tribal villages, from palm-fringed backwaters to knife-edge mountain ranges, and from ancient temples to sun-scoured desert fortresses, India's regions are an astounding cocktail of contrasts, colours and experiences.
From Street Food to Modern Indian
Delhi serves up a stunning calvacade of flavour; sample fabulous Indian fine dining or munch on fresh-from-the-fire Dilli-ka-Chaat (Delhi's delectable street food).
Bazaars & Boutiques
Delhi is a wonderland of bazaars, boutiques and emporiums. Leave space in your luggage for intricately wrought handicrafts, Indian clothing, exotic homewares, prints and paintings, musical instruments and all manner of religious paraphernalia.
The ruins of seven imperial cities are scattered throughout Delhi, and its Mughal relics rank among India's finest: wander in and out of centuries of history at the Red Fort, Humayun's tomb, Hauz Khas, Qutb Minar, Mehrauli, Purana Qila and time-scarred Tughlaqabad.
Reasons to Go
Delhi will transport you back in time, from the magnificent ruins of medieval empires to the timeless to and fro of Old Delhi's bazaars. In-between, make time to feast on taste bud tingling street food and haggle in Delhi's markets and emporiums.
Palaces & Forts
Arts & Crafts
Rajasthan's most iconic attraction is the architecture left behind by its flamboyant warrior maharajas. An incredible collection of forts, palaces and mansions lies strewn across its mountains and deserts.
Paintings & Puppets
From exquisite miniature paintings and jewellery fit for royalty to camel-hide slippers, traditional puppets and block-printed fabrics, Rajasthani creativity will bring vivid colour to your living space back home.
There's more to Rajasthan than forts and deserts: the state's former royal hunting reservations are now protected national parks, where the jungle teems with tigers, monkeys, deer and crocodiles, and a kaleidoscope of birds.
Reasons to Go
Rajasthan's forts and palaces are the crowning glory of this Land of Kings, and former royal hunting reservations have been reborn as national parks – prime places to spot tigers. You'll also find princely legacies in Rajasthan's bazaars, from miniature paintings to traditional puppets.
Punjab & Haryana
The stunning Golden Temple in Amritsar is just one of the region's treasures. Punjab is dotted with palaces and follies dating back to the glorious reigns of the dynasties who ruled here before and during the Raj era.
Not many border crossings are tourist attractions, but the Attari–Wagah border post is the setting for a fabulous piece of pomp and circumstance, where guards from India and Pakistan compete to outdo each other with high steps and chest thrusting.
Glories of the Tandoor
You'll eat very well in Punjab and Haryana, birthplace of butter chicken, basmati rice, naan and tarka dhal, and all the wonders to emerge from the tandoor (clay oven).
Reasons to Go
Besides the stunning Golden Temple, the Punjab has forts and palaces to spare, and fabulous cuisine to feast on while you explore. Leave time to pop up to the Attari–Wagah Border crossing for a fabulous piece of transborder pomp.
Kashmir & Ladakh
From the alpine meadows of Kashmir to the high-altitude deserts of Ladakh and Zanskar, nature's awesome scale will humble you here. Dotted around this rugged territory are centuries-old Buddhist monasteries and villages that almost vanish into the craggy landscape.
Dramatic hikes link mountain passes and monasteries, viewpoints and ancient Buddhist villages. Trekking here is made even more culturally fascinating by overnight stops in traditional Ladakhi and Zanskari farmsteads.
The Spirit of the Mountains
This lofty enclave is one of India's religious melting pots; murmured mantras fill Ladakh's gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries), Hindu pilgrims converge on Amarnath's ice lingam, and the Muslim call to prayer rings out over the Kashmir Valley, where, some believe, you'll find the grave of Jesus Christ.
Reasons to Go
From alpine Kashmir to the moonscapes of Ladakh and Zanskar, nature's awesome scale will humble you here. Connect with the region's soul through treks to ancient Buddhist villages and respectful visits to Kashmir's papier mâché–lined mosques.
Himachal’s mountains offer the best combination of awesome scenery and easy accessibility anywhere in India. Trekking routes crisscross the state, and rock climbing, rafting, mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding and paragliding are all on the menu of adventures.
Towering snow-covered peaks, plunging green valleys, raging mountain rivers, ancient villages and temples perched atop impossible slopes, and some of the world's most hair-raising, gravity-defying roads – wherever you look, Himachal will take your breath away.
The exile community founded by the Dalai Lama at McLeod Ganj and the ancient Buddhist cultures of Spiti and Lahaul are like mini-Tibets, providing fascinating contrasts with traditional Hindu areas such as Kinnaur and the Kullu and Chamba Valleys.
Reasons to Go
High Himalayan passes connect plunging valleys, creating a vast natural playground for trekking, climbing, motorcycling, paragliding and skiing. The scenery is consistently awe-inspiring, and diverse Hindu and Buddhist communities follow customs and traditions that have hardly altered in centuries.
Agra & the Taj Mahal
Agra has India's finest Mughal remains – not just the Taj Mahal but also a trump hand of fortresses, mosques and mausoleums, and even a vast, ruined city at eroded Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar's abandoned capital.
World's Finest Mausoleums
The Taj Mahal, built for Shah Jahan's lamented wife, is the pinnacle of Mughal architectural achievement, but don't miss Akbar's mausoleum, another decorative masterpiece, or the dainty Itimad-ud-Daulah.
Robust and resilient, Agra Fort is surrounded by 2.5km of towering sandstone walls, providing protection for a string of beautiful palaces and mosques that hint at the complex, structured lives of its Mughal inhabitants.
Reasons to Go
Agra's Mughal architecture is the height of imperial grandeur; the awesome symmetry of the Taj Mahal will simply take your breath away. And don't miss other local masterpieces, such as Akbar's Mausoleum and the mighty buttresses of Agra Fort.
Everyone knows about the Taj Mahal, but the rest of Uttar Pradesh (UP) offers some of India's most spectacular and spiritual cities: sacred Varanasi, historic Prayagraj (Allahabad), Islamic Lucknow and the birthplaces of Lord Rama and Krishna – at Ayodhya and Mathura, respectively.
India's great melting pot of religions and cultures is exemplified in UP. The state boasts ancient Islamic cities, two of Buddhism’s most sacred pilgrimage centres, and two of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism.
The Banks of the Ganges
The mighty Ganges and its tributaries flow across UP, lined, wherever there is human habitation, with holy ghats – ceremonial steps used for rituals, bathing and contemplation. Watch the intense spiritual activity unfold in startling colour on the river banks at Prayagraj (Allahabad) and Varanasi.
Reasons to Go
Uttar Pradesh is sublimely religious. Dotted across its plains are ancient Islamic cities, Buddhist pilgrimage centres, and two of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism. Follow the holy Ganges and its tributaries across the state, finishing at Varanasi, India's most spiritual city.
Mountains, Lakes & Meadows
Despite new camping restrictions, trekkers can still take their pick from lofty temples, sacred lakes, remote glaciers and rolling alpine meadows, joining the crowds of devotees on some of India's most breathtaking pilgrimage routes.
India's Yoga Capital
India is the birthplace of yoga, and Rishikesh proudly passes on the wisdom as India's yoga capital. Basic courses, drop-in classes, advanced tuition and teacher training – wherever you are on the yoga journey, you'll find guidance where the Ganges meets the Indian plains.
Seek tigers, leopards and wild elephants in the steamy jungles of Corbett Tiger Reserve and the forests of Rajaji National Park, or strike north to alpine valleys, where snow leopards and sloth bears roam in parks such as Gangotri and Valley of Flowers.
Reasons to Go
Trekkers can take their pick from timeless temples, sacred lakes, remote glaciers and rolling alpine meadows. Head to Rishikesh for a spiritual tune-up or seek snow leopards, sloth bears and blue sheep in Uttarakhand's national parks.
Arts & Festivals
Kolkata is renowned as India's cultural and intellectual capital, with a rich heritage of Bengali music, poetry, literature and film. Drop in on its jazz, book, film and religious festivals to experience India's cultured side.
Fish and prawns hauled fresh from the Bay of Bengal are the central building blocks of a rich, delicious cuisine that's renowned across the subcontinent.
During their time in colonial India, the British filled Kolkata with grand monuments. The city's streets are crowded with stately civic buildings and monumental office blocks that created the template for India's legendary bureaucracy.
Reasons to Go
Once the capital of the British Raj, Kolkata is stuffed full of colonial-era architecture, but the modern city is a very Indian mix of chaos, commerce and sophisticated culture. Food here is renowned across the subcontinent, with the focus on fresh seafood.
Blown by winds that slide down from the high Himalaya, Darjeeling is the quintessential hill station. Stay in faded Raj-era cottages, sip brews fresh from India's most elegant tea gardens and promenade in front of spectacular Himalayan views.
Where better to spot an awesome Royal Bengal tiger than the state that gave this jungle giant its name? Nearly 300 tigers roam the waterlogged wonderland of Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, open to visitors on atmospheric riverboat tours.
Historic accommodation is West Bengal's stock in trade; take your pick from faded Raj-era cottages, grand colonial residences and elegant tea estates, where you can sip fine teas or G&Ts on the terrace in front of mountain vistas.
Reasons to Go
Darjeeling is the definitive Indian hill station, offering spectacular Himalayan views, tea tasting and all sorts of nostalgic Raj-era accommodation. At the state's other extreme, drop down to waterlogged Sunderbans Tiger Reserve to spot an awesome Royal Bengal tiger.
Bihar & Jharkhand
Bodhgaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment, is a magnet for Buddhist pilgrims, while Jain devotees wake before dawn to begin the merit-earning climb to the summit of Jharkhand's tallest peak.
Bihar is dotted with pivotal locations from the life of the historical Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment at Bodhgaya and meditated at Rajgir; his ashes were enshrined at Vaishali. Devotees furthered his work at the historic, now ruined university at Nalanda.
Jharkhand’s Betla (Palamau) National Park offers one of the best chances to peer at wild pachyderms. And even if the elephants prove elusive, an overnight stay amid its bamboo thickets and forest groves is blissfully serene.
Reasons to Go
Bodhgaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment, is a magnet for Buddhist pilgrims, while Jains flock to sacred Parasnath Hill. Trace key events in Buddha's life at Bodhgaya, Rajgir, Vaishali and Nalanda, or search for wild elephants at Betla (Palamau) National Park.
A Buddhist kingdom that was semi-independent until 1975, Sikkim is a tempest-tossed sea of steep forested ridges and deep river valleys rising to a wall of soaring snow-topped peaks.
This former Buddhist kingdom is dotted with Tibetan-style monasteries and monumental Buddhist statues. Across Sikkim, maroon-robed monks chant mantras in front of gilded altars, while prayer flags flutter serenely in breezes that float down from the Himalaya.
Gentle Strolls & Khangchendzonga Trips
Yuksom, Sikkim’s original capital, offers glorious hiking options, from gentle half-day strolls to majestic week-long treks. The classic Goecha La trek gets acclimatised walkers up close and personal with gigantic Khangchendzonga, the world’s third-highest peak.
Reasons to Go
The towering forested ridges of this former Buddhist kingdom are studded with Tibetan-style Buddhist monasteries, Hindu temples and the odd gleaming mega-statue. This is just a warm-up act for Sikkim's Himalayan peaks, with mesmerising Khangchendzonga calling out to trekkers like a beacon.
The Northeast is India’s tribal heartland. Visitors who don't mind skipping creature comforts can get truly off the beaten track on this remote frontier, where villages preserve pockets of ancient indigenous cultures.
The one-horned Indian rhino is just one glamorous character on a long roll-call of exotic animals that can be seen in the Northeast's magnificent national parks, which feature some of the highest biodiversity in India.
With permit restrictions slipping away, now is the prime time to explore India's least-visited quarter, where some remote valleys and mountain trails have yet to see an outsider's footprint. Forge an expedition to where India, Tibet and Southeast Asia meet.
Reasons to Go
The Northeast is home to some of India's most enigmatic tribes, who follow ancient customs in villages of grass-thatched, bamboo houses tucked into remote valleys. The one-horned Indian rhino is just one of the exotic animals on this wild frontier.
Inspired by profound devotion, Odisha's stunning temples are masterpieces of the stonemason's art. A carved stone chariot rolls through the centuries at Konark, while wooden chariots are hauled through the streets by devotees during Puri's Rath Yatra festival.
The markets of Onkadelli and Chatikona offer fascinating opportunities to mingle with members of Adivasi tribes, who staunchly maintain a fiercely traditional way of life.
Tigers, Crocodiles & Birds
Odisha is a playground for nature-lovers: take your pick from tiger reserves, crocodile-filled mangrove forests, coastal wetlands, and a brackish lake thronged with dolphins and migratory birds.
Reasons to Go
Odisha's dazzling temples were the work of rulers who spared no expense in their veneration of the divine. For contrast, tribal markets offer fascinating opportunities to mingle with Odisha's indigenous inhabitants, while nature-lovers can enjoy tiger reserves and coastal wetlands.
Madhya Pradesh & Chhattisgarh
Madhya is home to some of India's top tiger habitats, offering perhaps your best shot at getting up close to a wild tiger. Even if these elusive customers stay out of sight, you'll see plenty of other wildlife, from monkeys and sloth bears to antelopes, deer and gaurs (Indian bison).
Khajuraho & More
The raunchy relief work on the World Heritage–listed Khajuraho temples is just the start; visit Orchha, Sanchi, Mandu and Gwalior for more spectacular architecture from bygone civilisations.
Adivasi Villages & Festivals
Southern Chhattisgarh is home to myriad tribes. It's one of India's best areas for visiting tribal markets and villages and experiencing thrillingly brilliant-hued local festivals.
Reasons to Go
A region of eclectic attractions, with India's most famous tiger reserves, erotic carvings on the World Heritage–listed Khajuraho temples, fascinating old forts and palaces, and a wealth of tribal villages, markets and crafts.
Gujarat & Diu
Wild Lions & Asses
In Gujarat's sparsely inhabited interior you can see Asia’s only wild lions – at verdant Gir National Park – and India’s only wild asses, on the other-worldly salt plains of the Little Rann of Kachchh (Kutch).
Gujarati embroiderers, weavers, printers and dyers produce some of the most colourful, intricate clothing and textiles in India; markets in the western region of Kachchh are a riot of mirrored spangles.
In this predominantly flat state, mountains act as spiritual magnets; join Hindu and Jain pilgrims on treks up stunning, temple-topped peaks such as Shatrunjaya, Girnar Hill and Pavagadh.
Reasons to Go
Gujarat's national parks protect Asiatic lions and wild asses, while weavers and embroiderers transform every human settlement into a riot of colour. To feel Gujarat's spiritual pulse, visit Gandhi's ashram at Ahmedabad, or join pilgrims on treks up temple-topped peaks.
Indian stonemasons and the British share honours for Mumbai's glorious colonial-era architecture, merging grandiose Gothic flourishes with local motifs and adornments. Chhatrapati Shvaji Maharaj train terminus is the pinnacle of the form.
Street Food to Haute Cuisine
Mumbai has some of India's most spectacular dining options, from humble street carts to five-star sophistication. Sample hot and sour dhansak (curried lentil stew) in Parsi canteens, munch bhelpuri (crisp noodle salad) on Chowpatty Beach, or go all out in the city's top dining rooms.
Bollywood & Partying
The glitz and glamour of the world’s most prolific film industry spills over into real life: Mumbaikars are enthusiastic party people, and you may spot the odd Bollywood celeb among the beautiful people in Mumbai's sleek bars and neon-filled nightclubs.
Reasons to Go
Blending British grandeur and Indian exuberance, Mumbai's architecture is a fabulous fusion of styles. Global flavours mingle at the city's excellent restaurants, canteens and food stands. After hours, look out for Bollywood stars and sporting celebs in Mumbai's ritzy clubs and bars.
Unesco World Heritage sites Ajanta and Ellora are renowned for their incredible, elaborate cave paintings and temples whittled from the living rock. Ellora's Kailasa Temple is the largest structure ever hewn from a single piece of stone.
Maharashtra’s Konkan Coast harbours some of the most secluded beaches in India, just made for romantics, adventurers, and lovers of fresh seafood.
Nashik, the grand cru of India’s up-and-coming wine industry, boasts vineyards that blend California-style New World attitude with Indian atmosphere.
Reasons to Go
Ajanta and Ellora hide exquisite cave paintings and rock sculptures, while the Konkan Coast has some of the most secluded beaches in India. Inland, Nashik is the epicentre of India's burgeoning wine industry, producing exciting vintages that are causing an international stir.
Palms & Golden Sands
Goa’s beaches are no secret, but with palms swaying overhead and warm, golden sand underfoot, you won't mind a bit of company, and there are still places where you can escape the crowds. Be sure to explore the markets inland from the sand.
Goa has fresh-off-the-boat seafood, and cooks who blend techniques and ingredients from India and Portugal to create a fabulous medley of flavours that perfectly complements the laid-back beachside lifestyle.
The Portuguese left Goa in 1961, but a grand colonial-era legacy remains: mansions in Quepem and Chandor, graceful shop-houses in Panaji (Panjim), stately basilicas in Old Goa and villas scattered along the coastline.
Reasons to Go
Goa’s beaches are no secret, but with palm fronds swishing overhead and sugar-sand under your feet, you won't really mind. Add fresh seafood, magical markets and beautiful colonial-era architecture, and it's easy to see what all the fuss is about.
The temples of Karnataka are a riot of carving and ornamentation, crowned by intricate figures of mythical beasts, deities and demons. Take your pick from ancient stone-carved interpretations or the saturated-colour versions on towering South Indian super-temples.
Tigers, Elephants & More
Draped in tropical vines, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve harbours some of the best-preserved tropical forest in India. Dive into the jungle in national parks such as Bandipur and Nagarhole to seek out tigers, elephants, sloth bears and deer.
Vegetarian Dishes & Splendid Seafood
Depending on your dietary preferences, you can kick off with a delectable Udupi vegetarian thali, then move on to some fiery Mangalorean seafood, washing it all down with craft ales in cosmopolitan Bengaluru (Bangalore).
Reasons to Go
The temples of Karnataka overflow with carved deities and demons, while the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is home to abundant elephants, plus stalking tigers and leopards. The table is laden, too, with everything from Udupi vegetarian thalis to fresh Mangalorean seafood.
Telangana & Andhra Pradesh
Islamic, Buddhist & Hindu Sites
Islamic heritage reigns supreme in Hyderabad, where towering mosques and elegant palaces tell the tale of its dynastic Muslim rulers. Away from this hospitable metropolis, the countryside is dotted with ancient Buddhist remains, while Tirumala is a major Hindu pilgrimage site.
Biryani & Mutton Stew
Synonymous with Hyderabad, biryani (steamed rice with meat) is a local obsession. The similarly famous Hyderabadi haleem (mutton stew with pounded spiced wheat) has been patented so that it can’t be served unless it meets stringent local quality standards.
Local Resorts & Sublime Coastline
Beach tourism in Andhra Pradesh is geared towards the domestic market, lending a unique and festive atmosphere to its seaside resorts. Visakhapatnam has the most gorgeous stretch of coastline.
Reasons to Go
Hyderabad's past splendours and contemporary style make it one of India's most engaging cities, while its famed biryani ranks among India's best-loved dishes. Escape the city rush at peaceful rural Buddhist sites and beach retreats such as Visakhapatnam.
The inlets and lakes of Kerala’s backwaters spread far inland; exploring by local ferry, by canoe or on an overnight houseboat trip, with meals served on board, is one of India’s most relaxing pleasures.
Delicious, delicate dishes flavoured with coconut, chilli and myriad spices – the Keralan kitchen is a melting pot of international influences and local ingredients, including seafood netted just offshore.
Kerala has been dealt a fine hand of wildlife-filled national parks, where, amid lush mountain landscapes, you can spot wild elephants, tigers, leopards and other signature Indian species. Dotted between the parks are verdant tea, coffee and spice plantations.
Reasons to Go
Set back from idyllic beaches, the inlets and lakes of Kerala’s backwaters are a peaceful retreat from the modern age. Back on land, you'll find cultural riches, a lavish, coconut-flavoured cuisine, and wildlife-filled national parks in the hills of the Western Ghats.
Architecture & Festivals
The incredible architecture and spiritual significance of Tamil Nadu’s temples draw pilgrims from across India, especially at festival time. The grandest temples are topped by soaring, sculpture-studded gopuram (gateway towers) and graced by exquisitely carved mandapa (pavilions).
Ooty (Udhagamandalam), Kodaikanal and other hill stations of the Western Ghats offer wonderfully cool weather, cosy colonial-era guesthouses, and hikes to spectacular viewpoints overlooking the plains. French-flavoured Puducherry (Pondicherry) offers a different take on colonial history down by the shore.
Elegant spots to lay your head include the beautiful town houses of Puducherry’s French Quarter, grand old palace hotels in the hills, and Chettinadu’s historic teak-and-tile mansions.
Reasons to Go
Age-old tradition meets cosmopolitan flair in bustling Chennai, while Tamil Nadu’s intricately carved temples attract pilgrims from across India. For a peaceful escape, retreat to the Western Ghats' cool Raj-era hill stations or the pretty French Quarter of Puducherry (Pondicherry).
Diving & Snorkelling
Apart from fine snorkelling opportunities, this prime diving destination offers easy ocean dips for first-timers as well as more challenging drift dives for the experienced.
Blessed with deliciously lush jungle landscapes inland and utterly gorgeous strips of sand on the shore, the Andaman Islands make an ideal place to kick back under a palm.
The Andamans are home to dozens of fascinating tribal groups, including people who have yet to make formal contact with the outside world. Even on the most visited islands you'll find a captivating blend of tribal customs and South Asian and Southeast Asian culture.
Reasons to Go
With lush greenery, pristine waters and a sand-sprinkled shoreline, the Andamans are an ideal place to chill out. There's excellent snorkelling and diving offshore, and tribal people and settlers from India and Southeast Asia create a unique cultural mix inland.
Incredible India (www.incredibleindia.org) Official India tourism site.
Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com/india) Destination information, the Thorn Tree travel forum and more.
Templenet.com Temple talk.
Rediff News (www.rediff.com/news) Portal for India-wide news.
TheAlternative.in Green and socially conscious take on travel and Indian life.
- Make a plan, but don't be over-ambitious; take it slowly and factor in time to go off on tangents.
- Alternate between cities and laid-back small towns, beaches and the countryside so you get a chance to chill out.
- Take care to avoid getting sick: use hand sanitiser, eat freshly cooked food and never drink tap water.
- Book long-distance train journeys ahead, especially during festival times.
- Be ready for touts and hassle in touristy places; keep calm and don't judge India by these individuals.
- Dress to respect local culture.
- Bring clothes for the climate – thin, covering cotton for the plains, warm-weather gear for the hills.
- Bargaining is part of life in markets and many shops, but keep a sense of proportion about the amounts of money you're quibbling over.
- In large cities, a map on your smartphone is helpful for finding your way around.
- Handy Hostels
A reaction to rising hotel prices, India's hostel scene is going from strength to strength; Delhi's Madpackers and GoStops, Jaipur's Jaipur Janta, Mysuru's Beehive, Rishikesh's Live Free and Shalom Backpackers and Mumbai's Cohostel are leading the charge.
- Airports Everywhere
Kannur's new international airport took off in 2018, while Sikkim's sparkling new airfield at Pakyong promises one of India's most dramatic mountain flights. Even Hampi now has domestic links from upgraded Jindal Vijaynagar airport.
- Hassle-Free Andamans
- Taxi Apps
Uber and Ola Cabs are revolutionising city travel across India – no more brain-shattering haggling over cab fares! Both are banned in Goa, but Goa Tourism launched its own competitor, Goa Miles, in 2018.
- Colossal Statues
At 182m, Gujarat's new Statue of Unity is the biggest statue on earth, but it may soon be eclipsed by a rival in Mumbai. Over in Sikkim, Pelling's 42m-high statue of Chenrezig is just the latest in a string of giant deities.
- Unravelling Punjab's Secrets
Newly opened in Amritsar, the Golden Temple Interpretation Centre is doing amazing work demystifying Sikhism's rich history and traditions, while the new Partition Museum shines a light on Punjab's darkest days.
- Easier Northeast
Easing permit restrictions (now just required for Arunachal Pradesh) and improved transport links are opening up the Northeast. A 5km-long bridge over the Brahmaputra near Dibrugarh has shaved hours off the journey from Assam to AP, and border crossings now link Myanmar to Manipur and Mizoram.
- Goa's Craft Beer
Goa's love of beer has brought the craft movement to its tropical shores, with several new microbreweries flaunting sophisticated brews.
As Delhi's metro continues to expand, Hyderabad's newly opened metro offers a speedy, air-conditioned escape from the city's congestion; Kochi's much-anticipated metro opened in mid-2017, zipping above frenzied Ernakulam.
- Heritage Homestays
Homestays are going upmarket; the Keralan capital's fabulous Padmavilasom Palace, reborn in 2018, delights with banana-leaf feasts and boutiquey sleeps in a 150-year-old royal Travancore home.
- Goa Cruises
At last! As of 2018, Angriya Cruises transports travellers in style between Mumbai and Mormugao port, near Vasco da Gama in Goa.
When to Go
High Season (Dec–Mar)
- Pleasant weather – warm days, cool nights. Peak tourists, peak prices.
- Cold or freezing conditions from December to February at altitude.
- Temperatures climb steadily from February.
- Passes to Ladakh and high Himalaya open June to September.
- Monsoon rains persist through to September.
- Southeastern coast and southern Kerala see heavy rain October to December.
Low Season (Apr–Jun)
- April is hot; May and June scorching. Competitive hotel prices.
- From June, the monsoon brings draining humidity.
- Beat the heat (but not the crowds) in the cool hills.