10 best things to do in India
India: one of the six cradles of human civilisation, and as varied as it is vast. Prepare to be dazzled by a peacock plume of colours, sounds and aromas.
In this country of a billion people, cities sizzling with spice and chatter give way to serene hill stations. Sun-beaten forests shelter all stripes of animal, including prowling Bengal tigers and tramping Indian elephants. Temples and palaces draw you into their ornate chambers, while hospitable locals prove the adage that, here, ‘the guest is god’ (‘atithi devo bhava’).
With so much to see and do, it’s easy to feel bewildered. This guide on the 10 best things to do in India will give you a starting point for your perfect India holiday.
Go on a Bengal tiger safari
Where better to go tiger spotting than the hunting ground of Shere Khan? Seeing this majestic big cat in its natural habitat is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in India.
Unsurprisingly, the best places to see tigers in India are the national tiger reserves. These dot the length and breadth of the country, from the northern state of Uttarakhand down to the southern state of Kerala. Pench National Park and Kanha Tiger Reserve are thought to have directly inspired Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, so are the natural choice. But other reserves promise equally rewarding visits, such as the national parks of Ranthambore, Bandhavgarh, and Jim Corbett.
Explore the wilds safely in a 4x4, seeking out the unmistakable liquorice stripes, auburn coat and piercing eyes amid the long grass. Along the way, you’ve the chance to admire more of India’s wildlife, including the sloth bear, blue kingfisher, peafowl, chital, guar, Indian leopard and Indian wolf.
Stay on an Indian houseboat
The Keralan coast feels a world away from the bustling streets of Delhi, the billowing dunes of the Thar Desert, and the iced peaks of the Himalaya. Down here in the far south, the landscape is a patchwork of lush valleys, tropical mangroves, and golden beaches. In the shade of swaying palms, life is a little more laid back.
An iconic sight in this region, houseboats gently navigate Kerala’s waterways, which extend from Cochin to Kollam. Converted rice barges (kettuvallam), replete with rattan, offer languid backwater cruises as well a novel form of accommodation. Watch the riverine scenery slip by, explore sleepy villages during shore excursions, and drift off to sleep as your boat drifts over lagoons. A Kerala backwater cruise or houseboat stay is a must during a visit to southern India.
Suggested India tour: Passage Through Kerala, which includes an atmospheric canal cruise by shikara boat.
Take an Indian streetfood tour
Food is one of India’s greatest cultural exports, and has enriched the culinary landscape of Britain since the 19th century. Yet there truly is no better place to sample authentic Indian food than India itself.
In Delhi, locals on the go are well catered for by roadside food and drink vendors, and a Delhi streetfood tour is an excellent way to sample a little of a lot. Chandni Chowk, home to the world’s largest spice market, is a veritable smorgasbord of savoury and sweet bites for you to try. Other excellent Delhi streetfood spots include Connaught Place, Karol Bagh and Chawri Bazar.
Meanwhile, in the desert state of Rajasthan, you’ll find all manner of tempting chaats – small savoury snacks. In Agra, between visiting the Taj Mahal and the imposing Fort, you can embark on a carefully curated chaat-crawl – a safe, hygienic way to sample the best of Indian street food. Whereas in Amritsar, you can sink your sweet tooth into traditional jalebi sweets at Jabeliwala Chowk.
Suggested India tour: The Grand Tour of India, which visits Jabeliwala Chowk in Amritsar, as well as Old and New Delhi.
All aboard India’s toy trains
During Crown rule, the British Raj commissioned the construction of several mountain railways – extraordinary feats of engineering at the time. These routes traverse some of India’s most dramatic and beautiful scenery. Locals dubbed the small, colourful engines running on narrow-gauge rail lines ‘toy trains’ – and the nickname stuck.
Today, most of India’s narrow-gauge railways have been converted to broader gauges, but some have been preserved for their historical significance. Three have even earnt UNESCO World Heritage status: Kalka-Shimla Railway, Nilgiri Mountain Railway, and Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. A ride on one of India’s toy trains is an excellent way to admire mountain scenery at a gentle pace, while enjoying a little national heritage.
Suggested India tour: Journey Through the Himalayan Foothills, which features rides on the Kangra Mountain Railway and Kalka-Shimla toy train.
Experience India’s biggest festivals
India’s calendar is chock-full of festivals, ranging from small-scale, local affairs to subcontinent-wide extravaganzas. Most of India’s major festivals are rooted in the scriptures and traditions of Hinduism, the predominant religion. Joining in with these celebrations is an immersive way to get to know the culture and the people – and something to consider when deciding your holiday departure dates.
The two most famous festivals in India are Diwali and Holi. Diwali (or Dipawali) is the Festival of Light, and as significant to Hindus as Christmas is to Christians. During this five-day family celebration, held between late October and early November, the country is illuminated by candles, oil lamps, electric light displays and fireworks – all signifying good overcoming evil. Garlands of fragrant flowers festoon the markets, doorsteps are decorated with coloured sand, and locals dressed in their best flock to the temples. Held between February and March, Holi is the Festival of Colour, and heralds the arrival of spring. During the day, crowds gather to play with coloured pigments, marking themselves and each other in a rainbow of vivid hues. Expect an explosion of colour rivalling the fresh springtime blooms.
Suggested India tour: The Grand Tour of India, which features departures that coincide with the major festivals.
Tour India’s Golden Triangle
The most famous of India’s tourist circuits, the Golden Triangle encompasses three stellar destinations in the north: Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. For first-time visitors, it provides an excellent introduction to the country.
Delhi, India’s capital and the second most populous city after Mumbai, is where you can witness the country at its most lively and chaotic. Established in 1911 by the British, New Delhi is the spacious, modern administrative centre, while Old Delhi is the historic quarter, characterised by centuries-old Mughal architecture, narrow, labyrinthine streets, and bustling markets. The city boasts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Humayun’s Tomb, Qutub Minar, and the Red Fort.
The city of Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal, India’s most famous landmark. This 17th-century UNESCO World Heritage Site is resplendent in gleaming white marble, and best admired at sunrise or sunset. While visiting the city, be sure to stop by the imposing 16th-century Agra Fort.
The third and final point on the Golden Triangle is Jaipur, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The capital of the state of Rajasthan is pretty in pink. It was painted the rosy hue by order of the Maharaja in the 19th century, to welcome Albert – then Prince of Wales and later King Edward VII. Handsome red-sandstone buildings such as the City Palace and Hawa Mahal add to the predominant colour scheme of the ‘Pink City’.
Witness sacred rituals
Outside of the headline festivals, there are the daily acts of worship that many Indians practise. These rituals can be as simple as lighting a candle, bathing in sacred waters, visiting a temple, or attending a reading of scripture. Visitors to India are often welcome to witness or partake in these spiritual acts, and it’s a great way to engage in a culture that remains firmly rooted in Eastern religion.
Aarti is one of the most common Hindu rituals in India, and can take the form of lighting a flame (jyot) – typically a ghee or oil lamp – as an expression of devotion to one of the pantheon of gods. Other symbols, such as flowers and feathers, are often included in the offering, and aarti songs are sung. Perhaps the most atmospheric place to conduct aarti is on the waterfront steps (ghats) of Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest cities. Here, the Ganges glitters with thousands of lights as the devout participate in evening aarti, the air filled with hymns and incense.
For a glimpse of Sikh spirituality, visit the Golden Temple of Amritsar. This gilded gurdwara is one of the holiest Sikh temples in the world, and an important place of pilgrimage. Visit the shrine, attend the evening ‘putting to bed’ ceremony, and see the community-run kitchen (langar) feeding thousands of the hungry daily.
Suggested India tour: The Grand Tour of India, which includes attending the evening Palki Sahib ceremony at the Golden Temple of Amritsar, and visiting Varanasi's lamp-lit waterfront.
Watch the Wagah Border Ceremony
The India-Pakistan border stretches for around 3,320 kilometres, and is even visible from space, thanks to the 150,000 floodlights which illuminate its perimeter. At several spots along this border, the military of both nations jointly conduct a daily flag ceremony. The most famous of these is the Attari-Wagah Border Ceremony, a popular spectacle for locals and tourists alike.
During this daily display, members of each nation’s border security perform marching manoeuvres in ceremonial dress. If you are visiting the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, the border is just a 25-kilometre journey away, making for an easy excursion. It’s also a great inclusion in a combined India and Pakistan tour, heralding your own border crossing with a little pomp and ceremony.
Suggested India tour: India & Pakistan – Splendours of the Mughal Empire, which includes the Attari-Wagah Changing of The Guards border ceremony.
Explore the Indian Himalaya
In the far north, amidst the peaks of the world’s highest mountain range, you’ll find a different sort of India: a land of charming hill stations, Buddhist stupas, and narrow-gauge railways. This is a hallowed place for the three major religions of ancient India – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism – and from these great heights flow the glacial waters that form the holy Ganges River.
Visitors can learn about Buddhism in India with a visit to McLeod Ganj in Dharamsala. This place of pilgrimage is home to the Tibetan government in exile, including the 14th Dalai Lama. You can visit the Dalai Lama’s monastic complex, Tsuglagkhang, which houses the Tibet Museum, and see monks processing and pilgrims prostrating.
Suggested India tour: Journey Through the Himalayan Foothills, which visits McLeod Ganj, including Tsuglagkhang – the Dalai Lama’s monastic complex.
Stay in an Indian heritage property
Whilst sleek, new hotels have their place, there is an added magic to staying somewhere authentically rooted in a destination’s history and character. India’s heritage hotels offer just that.
Across Northern India, you will find many havelis – traditional townhouses – that now offer characterful accommodation to visitors. These haveli hotels typically feature ornate, Mughal-inspired architecture, multi-foil archways, attractive courtyards and histories stretching back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. The nod to the Mughal era is contained in the very term haveli – derived from the Arabic word hawali, meaning ‘private space’.
Then there are the heritage properties with the royal seal of approval: the maharaja palaces. Prior to India’s independence in 1947, hundreds of maharajas and maharanis enjoyed fabulous wealth and power within their respective provinces. They commissioned grand palaces as both residences and holiday retreats. After independence, these dynastic rulers lost their status, but many of their stately homes survived, later becoming luxury hotels. Today, you can receive the royal treatment as a guest at one of these very palaces.
Suggested India tour: Passage Through Rajasthan, during which you stay at three former palaces: the Taj Hari Mahal, Narendra Bhawan, and Deogarh Mahal.
Still unsure where to begin? India is at the centre of the Cox & Kings story, and our experts can reveal its highlights and hidden depths better than anyone. Call us or enquire online to speak to an India travel specialist, and begin planning your adventure to India.