Planning a trip to India? It could take a lifetime to explore all that is on offer in this incredible country. Here’s our bucket list of the top places for any first-time visitor.
India’s capital city is renowned as being a loud, chaotic and overwhelming place, however its diverse charm and energy are absolutely intoxicating. It’s home to some of India’s most remarkable tourist sites and historic monuments such as the Red Fort, India Gate, Humayun's Tomb, Jama Masjid (India’s largest mosque) and Rashtrapati Bhawan (the official residence of India’s president). You can also take in several sights devoted to the inspirational Indian leader Mahatma Ghandi, including the Ghandi Remembrance museum and the Raj Ghat memorial where he was cremated.
The Red Fort
The sprawling metropolis also boasts world-class shopping, restaurants and nightlife. Don’t miss a rickshaw ride through the old city famed for its colourful bazaars in narrow lanes. If Delhi is your first port of call in India, be sure to either book a private tour before you depart (we did a tailored private tour with Trans India Holidays who were fantastic) or try out some of the day tours once you get there. It will help you acclimatise and not waste valuable time trying to navigate around on your own.
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Top Tip: If you’re looking for an authentic hidden gem that combines both old and new Delhi – check out Hauz Khas Village. Cute little restaurants, bars and boutiques line the narrow streets which are frequented by expats, travellers, designers and foodies. A great spot to explore for lunch or dinner. We loved the Himalayan restaurant, Yeti.
It’s almost impossible to visit India and leave Agra off the list, as the city is home to India’s most iconic building – the magnificent Taj Mahal. It truly is one of the world’s greatest wonders and you won’t be disappointed (even though the crowds are huge).
Agra itself is nothing to write home about, so incorporate your visit as part of a day trip from Delhi or stay for a maximum of one night. Be sure to take a guided tour to fully appreciate the epic love story behind the building. The huge red sandstone Agra Fort is also worth a visit on your way out of the city.
Credit: wassily architect
Top Tip: Visit the Taj at either sunrise or sunset as the golden colours and reflecting light makes for stunning photos.
Varanasi is considered to be one of the holiest cities in the world. While this fascinating place is a bit out of the way if you’re short on time, we promise the journey will be worth it. The Varanasi riverfront is a hive of activity with Hindus gathering to worship and pay homage to the gods and the great River Ganges. Jump on a boat and observe the unique ‘Ghats’ that are lined up along the river and used for bathing and cremation. The sacred Ganges is where many Hindus come to wash away their sins or live out their final days.
Explore the old city by foot, a series of narrow and winding alleyways dotted with homes, shops and hidden temples. Watch out for cows in your path and don’t be afraid of getting lost, as eventually you’ll end up back on a main street or at the river. Or better still book a walking tour with a knowledgeable local guide from Varanasi Walks to help you find your way. Finish up your walk with a refreshing drink and snack at one of the hotel rooftop terraces overlooking the mystical Ganges for a different perspective. Walk, sit, observe and soak in all that is on display in this amazing ancient city. If you can, visit Varanasi during a festival. We were there during Maha Shivaratri (March 7) and thousands of extra pilgrims poured in. The sheer volume of people and energy was incredible.
Top Tip: Don’t miss a magical boat ride on the Ganges at dawn. Watching the worshippers carry out their devotions as the sun rises is one of the most beautiful and spiritually uplifting sights you will ever see. There is also a Hindu Aarti fire ceremony performed every night at around 6pm at the Main Ghat that should not be missed. This performance is carried out by the Brahmins to honour the holy river and Gods and involves a ritual of dancing with fire, burning incense, chanting and ringing bells.
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Jaipur is the capital of the royal Rajasthan region, the cultural state of India famed for its desert, forts and palaces. It makes up one of the 3 cities in India’s ‘Golden Triangle’ – Delhi, Agra and Jaipur – which is a popular route for any classic first-time tour. The main attractions to cover in the ‘pink city’ are the Amber Fort, Hawa Mahal and the City Palace. It’s also renowned for its arts and crafts and is a great place to shop for jewellery and gemstones. Check out one of the bazaars, like the Johari Bazaar, or jump in a rickshaw and explore some of smaller shops in the outer streets.
Elephant ride at Amber Fort
Top Tip: Do yourself a favour and stay in one of the traditional heritage hotels. We loved our two nights at the beautifully restored Shahpura House that was once the residence of Maharaja rulers. The hotel is filled with old-world charm, antique furniture, terraces and a lovely swimming pool to cool off in after a long day of sightseeing.
Shahpura House hotel
After the hustle and bustle of the Golden Triangle take a deep breath and relax in India’s most romantic city. Built around shimmering Lake Pichola, Udaipur is known as the Venice of the east. Once again, there are several incredible palaces and tourist sites to explore but quite honestly, we found it difficult to tear ourselves away from the view of the lake from our Haveli terrace. So kick off your well-worn sandals, grab yourself a chai tea or Kingfisher beer and soak up the tranquility. The street market shopping is also worth a look.
Browse the streetside markets
Top Tip: While you could blow your entire holiday budget in one night and get a room at the super-luxurious Taj Lake Palace or the 6-star Oberoi Udaivilas, we were more than happy with the tiny three-room haveli, Raj Niwas Hotel. Perfectly located in central Udaipur next to the lake, if you can, book the Maharaja suite on the third floor and you’ll find yourself with a huge private terrace and arguably one of the best views in Udaipur.
The view from our haveli