India’s simply too vast and too complex to explore in a single trip. It makes more sense to focus on one, two or perhaps three regions, depending on your time frame. The following itineraries showcase both the classic attractions and less well known gems of six distinct areas, from the icy heights of the Himalayas to the sweltering tropical backwaters of Kerala.
No other region of India packs in as many awe-inspiring monuments as the so-called “Golden Triangle” connecting Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Allow at least a week to complete the circuit, with a diversion south to the tiger reserve at Ranthambore if you’ve time to spare.
Start out at Shah Jahan’s mighty Red Fort in the Mughal Old City, then work your way south through the medieval monuments of the southern suburbs.
Cross the Yamuna River by boat in the early morning for an unforgettable view of the Taj just after sunrise, then spend the rest of the day ticking off the city’s other Mughal splendours.
3 Fatehpur Sikri
Overnight at a guesthouse below the deserted capital of emperor Akbar to see its deep red sandstone architecture at its most ethereal, in the diffuse light of dusk and dawn.
4 Keoladeo National Park
Bicycle safaris along the dirt tracks and banks that crisscross this teeming bird reserve offer a perfect antidote to the noise and traffic of India’s northern cities.
Approach the ochre-walled palace of Amber Fort on elephant back, before spending a day in the textile and gemstone bazaars of the Rajasthani capital – a riot of quintessentially Indian colour.
Set on the fringes of the Thar Desert, the painted havelis (walled mansions) in the market towns of this once rich area make the ideal stopover on the journey back to Delhi.
You’ll need at least a month to really do justice to India’s dazzling desert state, Rajasthan, or three weeks at a pinch.
The Pink City, with its hectic streets and flamboyant Rajput architecture, is a real baptism of fire.
If sighting a tiger is a priority, aim to spend at least a couple of nights at a camp near this world-famous reserve.
Ringed by the white domes and sacred ghats of Hindu shrines, Pushkar makes a perfect base for leisurely desert walks and souvenir hunts.
Dine by candlelight on a haveli rooftop for the ultimate view of the Sisodia maharanas’ fairytale palaces.
Rajasthan’s most spectacular medieval fortress, Mehrangarh, towers above the warren-like old city painted a hundred shades of sky blue.
A long trip across the Thar is rewarded by the sublime vision of Jai Sigh’s yellow-stone citadel floating above the sand flats.
Quirky architecture and a temple where thousands of rats run free are two vestiges of this city’s former prominence on the trans-Thar caravan route.
After a succession of big cities, this small town on the fringes of the desert makes an enjoyable base for trips to nearby forts and havelis.
The Deep South offers dramatic landscapes and world-class monuments. You’ll need at least three weeks to cover this route comfortably, or two at a rushed pace with your own transport.
The old colonial hub of Fort St George is the standout sight of the Tamil capital, but there’s also a wealth of succulent southern cuisine on offer.
Sculpted by the Pallava kings, Mamallapuram holds a tempting combination of ancient stonework and breezy tropical beaches.
Soak up the lingering Gallic ambience of France’s former colony on the Coromandel Coast, ideally from the confines of a heritage hotel.
The mighty Brihadishwara Temple and collection of Chola bronzes in the town’s art gallery make Thanjavur the perfect springboard for the Kaveri Delta region.
5 Tiruchirapalli (Trichy)
Gaze from the summit of Trichy’s exotic rock fort across the Kaveri River to the largest temple complex in India.
The shrine of the Fish-Eyed Goddess is Tamil Nadu’s greatest living monument, renowned for its multicoloured, deity-encrusted gateway towers.
Scale the Western Ghat range to enter Kerala’s Cardamom Hills, where the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary offers the chance to sight elephants.
This former colonial trading port provides the entry point for trips into the surrounding backwater region of Kuttanad – a watery world like no other in Asia.
9 Fort Cochin
The heritage hotels, arty cafés and funky boutiques of Kerala’s historic harbour town are the ideal end point for a tour of India’s far south.
Experience the contrasting landscapes of the world’s greatest mountain range with this two- to three-week journey from the northern plains to the fringes of the Tibetan Plateau and idyllic Vale of Kashmir.
Trundle on the toy train from Kalka through the foothills to this quintessentially Raj-era hill station.
Lush forests of deodar cedars, apple orchards and giant, ice-dusted summits flank the hill resort of Manali, in the Kullu Valley – starting point of the trans-Himalayan highway.
A breathless, two-day journey across a vast desert of scree and dizzying passes brings you to the capital of Ladakh, marooned in the high Indus Valley.
4 The Ladakhi lakes
Charter a jeep for the trip southeast to the hypnotically beautiful altitude lakes of Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri.
Fairytale Buddhist monasteries and stupendous mountain scenery characterize the long haul to the mid-point on the journey to Kashmir.
Laze on the deck of a houseboat sipping spiced tea while the shadows lengthen on the surrounding mountainsides and shikara canoes filled with fruit and flowers paddle past.
Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, is the launch pad for this classic trip through the tea estates around Darjeeling to Sikkim, a beautiful, predominantly Buddhist region in the lap of the Himalayas. You could cover the route in a fortnight; with an additional week, consider a multistage trek into the high country further north.
Join the flood of commuters crossing the Howrah Bridge, admire the spectacular monuments of the British Empire and discover one of India’s tastiest regional cuisines.
Amazing views of distant Kanchenjunga, a quaint Raj-era vibe and the famous Toy Train ride up from the plains account for the perennial appeal of India’s principal tea hub.
A quiet alternative to nearby Gangtok (the Sikkimese capital), Rumtek is also the site of a spectacular Buddhist monastery.
4 Maenam Sanctuary
Tackle the lung-stretching, 1000m ascent of Maenam mountain from Ravangla town for a tantalizing panoramic view of the snow peaks to the north.
The poster boy for northeast Himalayan monasteries, Pemayangtse offers the added bonus of spectacular vistas of Kanchenjunga.
6 Varshey Rhododendron Sanctuary
Travellers with a botanical bent shouldn’t miss the chance to trek through this tract of pristine rhododendron forest, home to red pandas and black bears.
Despite its extraordinary wealth of historic monuments, the Deccan region of central India sees comparatively few visitors. The rewards for those who do make it are considerable: a succession of astonishing temple sites, crumbling tombs, mosques and deserted capitals spanning sixteen centuries of civilization. Allow at least three weeks for this unforgettable trip.
The convoluted ruins of medieval Golconda, on the outskirts of the city, followed by a climb of the Charminar (“Four Minarets”) mosque and a slap-up Hyderabadi feast are the perfect preamble for what lies ahead.
Resembling a town on the Central Asian Silk Route, Bidar’s rambling fort-palace, madrasa, tombs and metal workshops recall this region’s medieval Persian roots.
3 Vijayapura (Bijapur)
For three centuries, Bijapur served as the capital of the Deccan. An unparalleled crop of monuments survive from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including India’s largest domed tomb, the mighty Gol Gumbaz.
4 Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal
The Deccan’s ancient Hindu heyday is represented by this trio of wonderful sites – a feast of enigmatic rock-cut caves, monkey-infested temples and tumbledown forts – in the middle of nowhere.
Rent a bicycle to explore the expansive, beautifully carved remains of medieval India’s most splendid city, set amid a dreamy landscape of banana groves and boulder hills.
This compact pilgrimage town on the Konkan coast holds plenty of traditional atmosphere, and a crop of gorgeous beaches around the headland to the south.
For a self-indulgent spell soaking up the rays and surf of the Konkan, Goa’s hard to beat. Aim for one of the less-developed resorts such as Agonda or Patnem in the south of the state.
Travelling across central India from Mumbai on the Arabian Sea to Puri on the Bay of Bengal gives you the chance to see some of the country’s most compelling attractions, relax by the beach, and then fly out from Kolkata. Realistically, you’ll need a month for this route, though it could be done in three weeks at a canter.
Dynamic and exhilarating, this vast megalopolis bombards the senses with the extremes of urban India, and is an excellent place to sample some of the country’s finest dining.
A superb base from which to visit the breathtaking cave sculptures and carvings at Ellora and Ajanta. Check out, too, the city’s own “false Taj”, the Bibi-ka-Maqbara.
Hidden away in India’s very centre, this medieval temple complex is decorated with the most eye-popping array of erotica you’ll find on any religious building anywhere.
Visit the now-ruined Residency in the capital of Uttar Pradesh, where a besieged British contingent famously held out for five months during the 1857 uprising. Don’t leave without sampling the city’s succulent dum pukht cuisine.
The spiritual capital of India, and one of the oldest cities on earth, where you can see bathing and cremations by the sacred River Ganges, and watch the kids fly their kites from your terrace while monkeys scurry around the rooftops.
The Buddha achieved enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, one of a trio of sacred Buddhist sites within easy striking distance of Varanasi.
Home of the famous annual Jagannath “Car Festival” (Rath Yatra), Puri is also a low-key beach resort, popular with Indian families and Western backpackers, and an excellent place to recharge your batteries.
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