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.