Stretching from the frozen summits of the Himalayas to the tropical greenery of Kerala, India’s expansive borders encompass an incomparable range of landscapes, cultures and people. Due the countries immense size and variety of cultures, it is impossible to experience all of India, or even half, in one trip. The north of the country is made up of Mughal and Rajput architecture, ancient cities and temples, deserts and Buddhism while the south is a haven of scenic beaches, Hinduism, colonial coastal towns and a much more easy-going approach. New Delhi, the heart of India, sits in the North, with Mumbai in the West, Goa in the east and popular tourist regions Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south. Here are the best places to visit in India.
Delhi: India’s capital, Delhi is the hub of the country: a buzzing international metropolis which draws people from across India and the globe. Tucked away inside Delhi’s modern suburbs and developments are tombs, temples and ruins dating back centuries.
Delhi is divided into two main parts. Old Delhi is the city of the Mughals and dates back to the seventeenth century. Old Delhi’s teeming bazaars have a tale to tell, its greatest monuments are undoubtedly the magnificent constructions of the Mughals, most notably the mighty Red Fort, and the Jama Masjid, India’s largest and most impressive mosque.
To the south, encompassing the modern city centre is New Delhi, built by the British to be the capital of their empire’s key possession. A spacious city of tree-lined boulevards, New Delhi is also impressive in its own way. The Rajpath, stretching from India Gate to the Presidential Palace, is at least as mighty a statement of imperial power as the Red Fort, and it is among the broad avenues of New Delhi that you will find most of the city’s museums, and its prime shopping area, centered around the colonnaded facades of Connaught Place.
Quite apart from its historical treasures, the city has a host of museums and art treasures, cultural performances and crafts that showcase the country’s diverse heritage. Its growing nightlife scene boasts designer bars, chic cafés and decent clubs.
Rajasthan: The state of Rajasthan is a mosaic of twenty-two feudal kingdoms, known in the British era as Rajputana, ‘Land of Kings’. Running northeast from Mount Abu, near the border with Gujarat, to within a stone’s throw of the ruins of ancient Delhi, its backbone is formed by the bare brown hills of the Aravalli Range, which divide the fertile Dhundar basin from the shifting sands of the mighty Thar Desert, one of the driest places on earth.
Rajasthan’s extravagant palaces, forts and finely carved temples comprise one of the country’s richest crops of architectural monuments. Color also distinguishes Rajasthan’s most important tourist cities. Jaipur, the vibrant state capital, is known as the ‘Pink City’ thanks to the reddish paint applied to its ornate facades and palaces. Jodhpur, the ‘Blue City’, is centered on a labyrinthine old walled town, whose sky-blue mass of cubic houses is overlooked by India’s most imposing hilltop fort. Further west, the magical desert city of Jaisalmer, built from local sandstone, is termed the ‘Golden City’. In the far south of the state, Udaipur hasn’t gained a color tag yet, but it could be called the ‘White City’: coated in decaying limewash, its waterside palaces and havelis are framed by a distant vista of sawtooth hills.
Another attraction is Rajasthan’s wonderful wildlife sanctuaries. Of these, the tiger sanctuary at Ranthambore is deservedly the most popular, while Keoladeo National Park, on the eastern border of Rajasthan near Agra, is unmatched in South Asia for its incredible avian population.
Maharashtra: Vast and rugged, the modern state of Maharashtra is the third largest in India and one of the most visited by foreign tourists, though most people venture no further than its seething port capital, Mumbai. Maharashtra’s greatest treasures are its extraordinary cave temples and monasteries; the finest of all are found near Aurangabad, renamed after the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and home to the Bibi-ka-Maqbara, dedicated to his wife. The busy commercial city is the obvious base for visits to the Buddhist caves at Ajanta, with their fabulous and still-vibrant murals, and the monolithic temples of Ellora, where the astonishing Hindu Kailash temple was carved in its entirety from one single rock.
Away from the cities, one of the most characteristic features of the landscape is a plenitude of forts. Rising abruptly a short distance inland from the sea, the Sahyadri Hills – part of the Western Ghats – form a series of huge steps that march up from the narrow coastal strip to the edge of the Deccan plateau.
To the west, Maharashtra occupies 500km of the Konkan coast on the Arabian Sea, from Gujarat to Goa. The little-explored palm-fringed coast winds back and forth with countless inlets, ridges and valleys; highlights include Murud-Janjira, whose extraordinary fortress was the only one never conquered by the Mughals, and Ganpatipule, the region’s chief pilgrimage centre, with kilometres of virtually deserted, palm-fringed beaches.
Tamil Nadu: The great Tamil temples are merely the largest landmarks in a vast network of sacred sites – shrines, bathing places, holy trees, rocks and rivers – interconnected by a web of ancient pilgrims’ routes. Tamil Nadu harbors 274 of India’s holiest Shiva temples, and 108 are dedicated to Vishnu. In addition, five shrines devoted to the five Vedic elements (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Ether) are to be found here, along with eight to the planets, as well as other places revered by Christians and Muslims. Scattered from the pale orange crags and forests of the Western Ghats, across the fertile deltas of the Vaigai and Kaveri rivers to the Coromandel coast on the Bay of Bengal, these sites were celebrated in the hymns of the Tamil saints, composed between one and two thousand years ago.
With its seafront fort, grand mansions and excellence as a centre for the performing arts, the state capital Chennai is nonetheless a hot, chaotic, noisy Indian metropolis that still carries faint echoes of the Raj. However, it can be used as a base for visiting Kanchipuram, a major pilgrimage and sari-weaving Centre, filled with reminders of an illustrious past.
While Tamil Nadu’s temples are undeniably its major attraction, the hill stations of Kodaikanal and Udhagamandalam (Ooty) in the west of the state are popular destinations on the well-beaten tourist trail between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The verdant, cool hills offer mountain views and gentle trails through the forests and tea and coffee plantations. You can also spot wildlife in the teak forests of Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and bamboo groves of Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary, situated in the Palani Hills.