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Joe Meredith

Best places to visit in India

For dazzling colour and contrasts, where better to go than India? Here, streets are full of the chorus of life, the clatter of steaming chaiwallahs and the sizzle of tawas laden with food. There is food for the soul, too, as daily rituals play out in candlelit temples and mountain monasteries. Not to forget the treats for the eyes – the Taj Mahal at sunset, the scenic hill stations of the Himalaya, the Bengal tigers roaming the wilds...

But where does one begin to explore what Mark Twain called "the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues”? That is where this India travel guide can help. Read on to discover the best places to visit in India, from princely cities in Rajasthan to the tranquil backwaters of Kerala.

The Himalaya

The mountain beauty and enchanting greenery of the Himalaya make this region one of the best places to go in India. It offers vast panoramas dotted with villages, tea plantations and colonial hill stations, alongside stunning views across snow-capped peaks. It’s an area that wills you to relax and soak in the spirituality of the beautiful Buddhist monasteries that scatter the landscape.

Where to go in the Indian Himalaya…

Amritsar

Amritsar is a gateway to the Himalayan foothills. This vibrant city’s greatest landmark is the Golden Temple, a vast, gilded gurdwara that is one of most visited and spectacular Sikh temples in the world. Go here to admire its glittering exterior, which shimmers in a pool of sacred water; Cox & Kings can even arrange for you to attend the nightly Palki Sahib ceremony.

Amritsar lies just 30 kilometres from the India-Pakistan border, meaning you can also witness the pomp of the daily flag ceremony at Wagah, conducted jointly by the two countries’ militaries.

Foothills & hill stations

In the Himalaya, you’ll find a different sort of India: a land of charming hill stations, Buddhist stupas, and narrow-gauge railways.

Explore ancient monasteries and be immersed in the spirituality of Haridwar, Rishikesh, Ladakh, and Dharamsala – whose suburb of McLeod Ganj is home to the Tibetan government-in-exile, including the 14th Dalai Lama.

Ride the scenic ‘toy train’ to Shimla, the summer capital of the British Raj and still a picturesque place to retreat. Or take a ‘toy train’ to Darjeeling, instead, where you can relax amongst exotic tea gardens, and admire the highest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest, from the vantage point of Tiger Hill. 

Northern India

The north of India contains some of the most iconic and memorable sights in the country, making it one of the best places to travel in India for first-time visitors. This region reveals the exceptional wealth of cultural, historical and architectural splendour on offer. Imposing forts, captivating temples and tranquil lakes are contrasted with sun-kissed desert, lush wildlife reserves, holy cities and off-the-beaten track destinations. Northern India represents the essence of a bygone era – and travelling through the region (especially on a luxury train) is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in its regal past.

Where to go in Northern India…

The Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle is an ideal itinerary for first-time visitors. This popular Indian tourist circuit encompasses the thrumming capital of Delhi with its Mughal architecture, alongside the iconic Taj Mahal in Agra, and the pink city of Jaipur. It’s the perfect taste of what India can offer.

Rajasthan’s desert cities

In addition to Jaipur, Rajasthan is the home of blue-washed Jodhpur, the glistening lake city of Udaipur, the ornate havelis (traditional townhouses) of Shekhawati, and Bundi – birthplace of Rudyard Kipling. Then there are the remote, romantic desert stops of Bikaner, Pushkar and the Golden City of Jaisalmer – idyllic places to begin adventurous camel safaris.

National parks & wildlife

Some exceptional wildlife habitats exist in the north, and many are open to visitors for safaris and nature walks. For tiger spotting in India, visit Ranthambore, Bandhavgarh, Panna and Jim Corbett national parks. Birders, meanwhile, will find dazzling birdlife in Bharatpur; while lion lovers should consider Sasan Gir in Gujurat, home to over 300 Asiatic lions.


Holy Varanasi, Kolkata & beyond

Indulge your spiritual side in the holy city of Varanasi, set on the sacred Ganges and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The nightly Hindu ritual of aarti floods Varanasi’s ghats – waterfront steps – with atmospheric candlelight.

To admire some of India’s best-preserved colonial-era architecture, visiting Kolkata (Calcutta) is a must. Stately relics of the Raj include the Victoria Memorial, the imposingly gothic St. Paul’s Cathedral, Calcutta High Court, and Marble Palace.

Then there are the rest of Gujurat’s off-the-beaten-track attractions, from Bhuj’s historic buildings to Bhavnagar’s vibrant bazaars and breathtaking views; not to forget Ahmedabad, with its striking collection of Jain and Hindu temples, Islamic Mosques and exquisite stepwells.

Suggested tour of Northern India: The Golden Triangle & Shimla

 

Central India

Central India is home to wonders that are well off the main tourist routes. While it plays host to famously vibrant Mumbai, there is much more to central India than the bustling city. Heavy with history, the region is scattered with remnants of ancient kingdoms, from spectacular forts and palaces to rock-cut temples and impressive Islamic architecture. Uncover off-the-beaten track UNESCO World Heritage Sites and little-known national parks where tigers, leopards and sloth bears roam. There is even India’s leading wine region to visit. One of the best places to go in India, yet so often overlooked, Central India will reward you for your stay – and surprise you, too.

Where to go in Central India…

Mumbai and neighbouring cities

Central India is dominated by the vibrant city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), considered by many to be the cultural capital of the country. UNESCO World Heritage Sites are strewn across the region from east to west, from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (previously Victoria Station) to the monumental Ellora and Ajunta caves, and from an art historian’s dream of Pattadkal to the Sun Temple in Konark.

Islamic history and architecture is proudly on display in Bijapur, home to some of the finest mosques in India; and in Hyderabad, described by 16th-century founder Muhammed Quli Qutb Shah as a ‘replica of paradise itself’, and where Dakhni culture blends Hindu and Muslim traditions.
Legendary historical cities abound, such as Kolhapur with its mythical links to Shakti the goddess of power; and Maheshwar, a historic fort-city mentioned in the epics of Ramayana.

Lastly, unwind in the holy city of Nashik and wander the source of the holy Godavari River at Trimbakeshwar Fort. Then take a tour in this unexpected wine territory – Nashik is nicknamed the ‘wine capital of India’, and Nashik Valley wines enjoy special state protection.

National parks & wildlife

Central India boasts a number of excellent national parks, including two with a literary claim to fame; it is thought that the wilds of Pench National Park and Kanha Tiger Reserve inspired the settings and characters of Rudyard Kipling‘s The Jungle Book. Today, both of these areas are among the very best places to see tigers in India. Other worthy destinations for tiger spotting here include Satpura Tiger Reserve and Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. You can also hope to see Indian leopards, sloth bears, chital, sambar, Indian wolves, nilgai, jackals, striped hyenas, gaurs, countless exotic birds, and many other creatures great and small.

 

Southern India

The south of India offers a completely different experience. This tranquil region is a combination of beautiful natural environments, laidback cultures and historical sites that are a match for those up north. Seaside villages and towns are dotted with remnants of Portuguese and French cultures, crumbling temples and spice ports. Sleepy backwaters and palm-fringed beaches let you embrace the tropical climes, while colonial hill stations and tea stations help you escape it. Meanwhile, impressive temples and palaces nestle sit in the midst of medieval capitals, providing a glimpse into past grandeur. The ultimate region for relaxation amid interesting surrounds, the south is one of the finest places to finish a tour of India.

Where to go in Southern India…

Kerala

Set on the Malabar Coast and lapped by the Arabian Sea, Kerala promises the quintessential South India experience. Here, houseboats and converted rice barges cruise past swaying palms along tranquil tributaries, and offer visitors an unforgettable form of both transportation and accommodation.

You’re spoilt for places to sink your toes into soft sand. Among the best beaches in Kerala are Kovalam, with its two lively coves and surf-perfect waves; and lesser-visited Varkala, whose romantic shoreline is sheltered by a shallow cliff.

Tropical climes give way to tea plantations and mountain scenery in Munnar and the spice-growing region of Thekkady. While in Thekkady, be sure to visit the lush green slopes of the Cardamom Hills, home to some of the highest plantations in India; and Periyar National Park, famous for its elephants.

Another of the best places to go in Kerala is Kochi, a vibrant city and spice port that displays an eclectic blend of influences, including Dutch, Arabian, British, Portuguese and Chinese.

Goa

Goa may be India’s smallest state, but it offers an abundance of seaside towns and golden beaches worth exploring, alongside an idiosyncratic history. An overseas territory of Portugal for some 450 years, Goa only came under Indian control in 1961, meaning its distinctly Portuguese culture remains readily apparent – not least in the cities of Margao and Old Goa, both replete with handsome colonial architecture. Visit the villages for a flavour of laid-back rural living, enjoy the bustle of the markets, sample perfectly spiced seafood, and – of course – unwind on idyllic sandy shores.

Tamil Nadu

Situated in the southernmost part of the Indian Peninsula, the state of Tamil Nadu is famous for its temples, churches, attractive hill stations, and home-grown, Tamil-language film industry.

Tamil Nadu’s coastal capital is Chennai (formerly Madras), a worthy stop on a tour of South India. Here you can see excellent examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture, and admire St Mary’s Church – dubbed the ‘Westminster Abbey of the East’ and the oldest British building in India. Pre-colonial highlights include the Kapaleeshwarar Temple; the Brihadisvara Temple; and the Chola Bronzes displayed in the Government Museum, including the iconic dancing Shiva. Just 60 kilometres to Chennai’s south, you’ll find the 40 ancient temples and monuments of Mahabalipuram, including the ‘Descent of the Ganges’, one of the world’s largest open-air rock reliefs.

If in Madurai, be sure to visit Meenakshi Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Hindu place of pilgrimage. Its towering gopuras (‘gateways’) dazzle with tier upon tier of colourful statues and ornate sculptures.

Among the best things to do in Tamil Nadu is to ride the ‘toy train’ along the narrow-gauge Nilgiri Mountain Railway, all the way to Ooty – ‘queen of the hill stations’. As the train wends around the forested slopes, simply relax and admire the views sweeping past your window.

Karnataka

The south-western state of Karnataka is a treasure trove of ancient and medieval history. The sprawling ruins of Hampi offer insight into the 14th-century Vijayanagara Empire, while Mysore’s palaces and gardens reflect the splendour of the past – the Maharaja’s Palace here is one of the largest palaces in India. Known as ‘the jewel of Karnataka’, Mysore also makes for a great shopping destination, famed for its vibrant silks and sandalwood-infused produce, from soaps to incense.

To admire wildlife in Karnataka, head to Nagarhole National Park, one of India’s 53 tiger reserves. The verdant forests of this lesser-visited national park provide sanctuary to Bengal tigers, Indian elephants, golden jackals, grey langurs, sambar deer, Indian leopards, and much more.

Suggested tour of Southern India: Passage through Kerala

Still not sure where to start? India is at the heart of the Cox & Kings story, and our guides can reveal its hidden depths to you better than anyone. Call us or enquire online to speak to one of our India travel specialists, and begin planning your journey to India.