SD › Best Places in India
Updated: September 10, 2020
Where To Go in India
Extraordinarily vast and astoundingly diverse, the statistics are mind-blowing: 1.35 billion people (about 1 in every 6 on the planet); 22 languages recognized in the constitution (and hundreds more spoken); 6 major religions, including the world’s second-largest population of Muslims; a railway system that employs about 1.5 million; and some of the most crowded cities in the world.
The choice of places to visit across India is also astonishing, but when planning:
• Choose the best time to visit India for weather: consider heat, rain, cyclones, snow, and even fog
• Allow plenty of time to get around, especially if traveling by train
• Book decent hotels to escape the crowds, traffic, pollution, and poverty that can sometimes overwhelm even the most experienced traveler
With world-class beaches, a laidback lifestyle to rival Bali, and Portuguese colonial history, Goa is uniquely different. Also high on the agenda for most is Agra for one justifiable reason: the majestic Taj Mahal, the ultimate monument to love. In the desert of Rajasthan (the ‘Land of the Kings’) is the ‘Blue City’ of Jodhpur, dominated by a magnificent fort, and further south, Udaipur provides a spectacular and romantic lakeside setting.
Perched among the Himalayas to the far northeast is the colonial ‘summer capital’ of Darjeeling, also famous for its tea plantations. Along the western end of these mighty mountains but remarkably different is Ladakh, packed with Buddhist temples and Tibetan monasteries tiered along cliffs and mountaintops. More accessible (including by the incredible ‘toy train’), the adorable hill station of Shimla is dotted with colonial-era buildings.
To the far south, Kerala boasts beaches similar to Goa, as well as undeveloped canals and backwaters that can be explored by houseboat. Impressively positioned along the sacred Ganges River is the holy city of Varanasi, while Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is the largest, most developed, and historic of India’s many mesmerizing metropolises, and worth visiting for its seaside position and colonial history.
The Best Places to Stay in India
- Best Luxury Hotels in India
The Oberoi Amarvilas (Agra) • Taj West End (Bengaluru) • Taj Connemara (Chennai) • The Imperial (New Delhi) • The Diwa Club (Goa) • The Raj Palace (Jaipur) • Pal Haveli (Jodhpur) • The Oberoi Grand (Kolkata) • Taj Mahal Palace (Mumbai) • Forte Kochi (Kerala) • Taj Lake Palace (Udaipur) • Mayfair (Darjeeling) • The Grand Dragon Ladakh (Leh) • Taj Nadesar Palace (Varanasi) • The Oberoi Cecil (Shimla)
- Best Family Hotels in India
Trident Hotel (Agra) • Oakwood Premier Prestige (Bengaluru) • Alila Diwa (Goa) • Novotel Candolim (Goa) • Dera Mandawa (Jaipur) • The Oberoi (Mumbai)
- Best Boutique Hotels in India
St. Mark’s Hotel (Bengaluru) • B Nineteen Luxury Hotel (New Delhi) • Radisson Blu Marina Hotel Connaught Place (Delhi) • Mateus Boutique Hotel (Goa) • Bissau Palace (Jaipur) • Ratan Vilas (Jodhpur) • The Elgin Fairlawn (Kolkata) • Abode Bombay (Mumbai) • Titardi Garh – Heritage 18th Century Castle (Udaipur) • Gomang Boutique Hotel (Ladakh) • Via Varanasi (Varanasi)
- Best Moderate Hotels in India
Adarsh Hamilton (Bengaluru) • Residency Towers (Chennai) • Santana Beach Resort (Goa) • Jhankar Haveli (Jodhpur) • Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel (Jaipur) • Kenilworth, (Kolkata) • Citizen Hotel (Mumbai) • Black Beach Resort (Kerala) • Little Singamari Home Stay (Darjeeling) • WoodVista Cottages (Shimla)
- Best Cheap Hotels in India
Casa Cottage (Bengaluru) • Avenue 11 Boutique Residences (Chennai) • Hospedaria Abrigo de Botelho (Goa) • John’s Highland Comfort Guest House (Goa) • Arya Niwas (Jaipur) • Jewel Palace Haweli (Jodhpur) • The Ivy House (Kolkata) • Hari Cottages (Kerala) • Mimosa (Udaipur) • Rambler’s Nesting Homestay (Darjeeling) • Granny’s Inn (Varanasi) • Sai Cottage (Shimla)
Where to Travel in India for…
- Where to Stay in India for Beaches: Goa
Most of the coastline along India’s smallest state is lined with gorgeous coves of white sands dotted with bamboo cafés offering the country’s cheapest beer and fieriest sunsets. The lifestyle is as laidback as anything in more fancied parts of Southeast Asia, and such a stark contrast to the overbuilt and overcrowded cities across India. It is still easy to find vast stretches of empty sand (less so, however, during the peak times of December and January), while many visitors are also attracted by the water sports, outdoor activities (like paragliding), beachside rave parties, and yoga retreats.
- Where to Stay in India for Outdoor Activities: Kerala
Along the slender beaches in this southwestern state are numerous things to do in and on the water, such as parasailing, surfing (for novices and experts), and scuba-diving (particularly at the Lakshadweep Islands, 300km offshore). The famous backwaters and canals can be explored by traditional houseboats, while the fitter can discover the sights by canoe and the more frugal by public ferry. The national parks – home to a wide selection of wild creatures such as elephants, tigers, and crocodiles, as well as more approachable deer and monkeys – can be explored via jeep safaris, lake cruises, or guided hikes.
- Where to Stay in India for Landscapes: Ladakh
Stretching alongside the magnificent Himalayas, the landscape around this remote region in the far northwest is very similar to Tibet and like nowhere else in India. Imagine whitewashed monasteries and centuries-old temples perched precariously on mountaintops where shaven-headed Buddhist novices in orange robes and schoolchildren in triple layers of jumpers use ropes and pulleys to get across staggeringly deep valleys. With little rain, the landscape is also remarkably arid, but the occasional fields flourish with flowers and trees unseen elsewhere in the country. And the isolation will ensure that little will ever change; because of the extreme weather, the roads linking Ladkah to the rest of India are usually impassable for about 6 months a year, and even the airport is sometimes closed.
- Where to Stay in India for National Parks: Kerala
India is home to an admirable range of national parks but many are difficult to reach and, often, frustratingly hard to explore. Renowned for its beaches and backwaters, this state to the southwest also features several wildlife sanctuaries which are reasonably accessible. Roaming the often-ignored hills, which can be explored by jeep safaris or guided hikes, are wild elephants, tigers, monkeys, and deer. Other reserves among wetlands of protected birds, otters, and turtles can be admired by boat.
- Where to Stay in India for Spirituality: Varanasi
One of the most mystical cities on earth, Varanasi is spread along the banks of the sacred Ganges River. It attracts countless devout pilgrims and more ordinary Hindus who visit temples, pray, meditate, make offerings, and bathe in the river to cleanse themselves of sins. Many foreigners – devout or not, Hindu or Christian – are drawn to this city of 2 million to watch the incredible spectacles; join the various yoga, meditation, and religious classes and retreats; and to attend numerous spiritual festivals.
- Where to Stay in India for Yoga & Meditation: Goa
While the more devout may flock to the sacred Hindu city of Varanasi (see above) or the Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, others are likely to increase their spiritual awareness and improve their mental and physical state while in Goa, if only because the state is so laidback and accessible. All sorts of ad hoc and organized classes in yoga and meditation along with Ayurveda massages and alternative therapies are offered along the scenic coastline. Increasingly more special retreats are being built each year, some offering resort-like facilities and others providing more eco-friendly guesthouses.
- Where to Stay in India for Pre-Colonial History: Agra
So many remnants of Indian history before the British arrived in the early 17th century were destroyed during the Raj era or completely neglected beyond repair since. In Agra, many majestic pre-colonial buildings not only remain but have been beautifully restored and are lovingly maintained. Home to the Taj Mahal, built by a heartbroken Mughal emperor, visitors should also visit Agra Fort and the ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri nearby, as well as various other tombs, mausoleums, mosques, and gardens that pre-date the arrival of British colonialists. What’s more, all sites are easily accessible – often within walking distance of numerous hotels.
- Where to Stay in India for Colonial History: Delhi
Although the British first arrived in India during the early 17th century, Delhi wasn’t built as the colonial capital until 1911, and was then abandoned less than 40 years later. During this short period, an entire city called New Delhi was designed by the still-revered architect, Edwin Lutyens. Shady broad boulevards radiating from the circular financial/business hub are still lined with imperial-style hotels and bungalows. Must-sees around the city include the India Gate war memorial, Rashtrapati Bhavan presidential palace, Connaught Place and its chic boutiques and trendy bistros, and numerous well-maintained gardens and museums. With infinitely more traffic and pollution than anyone could possibly imagine 100 years ago, these colonial-era sights are easily accessible, often via the sleek new metro.
- Where to Stay in India for Shopping: Jaipur
Every town and village has a bustling market, mostly selling vegetables, and all cities have at least one mall offering western-style products. For something more authentic, however, visit Jaipur, named the ‘Pink City’ after the colors of the buildings throughout the vast 18th-century heart of the Rajasthan capital. Visitors can experience a genuine slice of traditional commerce: spice bazaars (markets) that have barely changed in 200 years, camels transporting figs and dates from across the desert, and meandering lanes overflowing with stalls specializing in regional products from across India. Popular souvenirs include handwoven rugs, leather goods, tie-dyed fabrics, special Rajasthani shoes called jutti, and, especially, gemstones.
- Where to Stay in India for Families: Goa
With so much sand, sea, and sunshine, India’s smallest state is understandably a hugely popular destination for families – including Indians who flock there from across the country, especially nearby Mumbai. While not as enticing for children as those in Bali and Thailand, some resorts and larger hotels do offer kids’ clubs (although often modest), sizable children’s pools (usually fenced), bicycle rentals, and day trips. For the younger ones, the main attractions may simply be swimming and enjoying water sports along the wide, clean, and (mostly) uncrowded beaches. Parents may also appreciate the lack of pollution, crowds, and traffic that haunts Indian cities, as well as the cheap beer and mouth-watering Goan cuisine that includes meat and seafood.
- Where to Stay in India for Food & Restaurants: Mumbai
With an extended population almost equal to that of Australia, the number and variety of places to eat in Mumbai is simply mind-boggling. Happily, a wonderful selection of restaurants can be found in compact and tourist-oriented areas such as the historic hub of Colaba and the ritzy esplanade of Marine Drive. Along with French-style delicatessens, Italian-influenced bistros, and US-like pizza joints, Mumbai is an ideal place to try street food. This is often different to, and more authentic and cheaper than, westernized versions of curries and biryanis offered at hotel restaurants.
- Where to Stay in India for Nightlife: Mumbai
For the same reason that India’s largest city offers a superior range of cuisines and restaurants, the nightlife in Mumbai is also particularly vibrant – and increasingly so as the number of more affluent residents grows. Well-heeled locals familiar with the unfriendly public transport system may flock to chic nightclubs in the suburbs, but tourists can enjoy a more convenient range of things to do after dark – from sipping cocktails at a glamorous hotel along the inner-city esplanade to chatting over coffee in downtown Colaba. Others may check out a Bollywood movie (probably made in or around the city) or attend a cultural event during one of the numerous festivals often held in downtown.
- Where to Stay in India for Vibe & Culture: Varanasi
The majority of India’s immense population adheres (often strictly) to the Hindu faith, which is an inseparable part of India’s culture and lifestyle in most places. This is most evident in the holy city of Varanasi, spread along the sacred Ganges River. Foreigners flock there to witness pilgrims undertaking Hindu rituals, such as bathing in the river, cremating the dead, and making offerings to the river and at the multitude of temples. Meandering alleys overflow with market stalls selling a mix of authentic and fake items rarely found elsewhere. Regardless of religion or beliefs, many visitors stay longer than intended, drawn by the history, setting, and intense spirituality of the city, and, perhaps, to attend classes in meditation, yoga, or philosophy.
- Where to Stay in India for Festivals: Jodhpur
There is obviously a greater number and variety of festivals in the larger cities, but these are often set up for locals (which presents possible language and cultural barriers) and/or in distant suburbs perhaps difficult to reach. In contrast, the remarkable ‘Blue City’ of Jodhpur offers a range of fascinating festivals, mostly designed for the enjoyment of tourists. These include events based around Rajasthan music, dance, and games, including a polo tournament featuring camels. What’s more, many are held in the majestic 16th-century Mehrangarh Fort that’s perched on a rocky hilltop and looms over the blue-washed old city.
- Best Romantic Place in India: Udaipur
Translated as the ‘Land of the Kings’, the desert state of Rajasthan is home to camel markets, magnificent forts, and India’s most romantic city: Udaipur. Built in the 16th century, the setting is superb: alongside a scenic lake (best explored by boat) and with a backdrop of forests (that can be admired on horseback). The city is packed with extraordinary examples of traditional architecture, including royal palaces, hilltop temples, and busy markets, and, unlike others, it’s not too big or unwieldy for exploration, especially on foot. And along the winding alleys and beside the lake are charming guesthouses, many oozing history, intimacy, and elegance not found elsewhere in India.
- Best Place in India for First Timers: Goa
Popular with foreigners since the Hippy Trail of the 1960s, the laidback state of Goa has far less of the crowds, traffic, poverty, and pollution compared to the rest of India. Adding to the appeal for first timers are beaches that are wide, clean, often uncrowded, and usually safe for swimming, and a range of Indian and Western food dominated by meat and fish. The more developed regions offer plenty of tourist facilities within walking distance of hotels and most are linked by public bus – the only bus service in India recommended for any visitor, first time or not. Goa is also the only place in the country where it’s perfectly feasible to rent a car or motorbike.
- Safest Area in India: Goa
Pollution, traffic, and petty crime, which are prevalent in the more crowded Indian cities, are less problematic in Goa. While a few tourists do get into trouble, e.g. swimming in rough waves or taking drugs at rave parties, India’s smallest state is far less crowded because, in reality, the main danger anywhere in India may simply be walking along sidewalks (which are mostly non-existent) and crossing the road. Always remember: unlike in western countries, pedestrians do not have the right of way here.
The 10 Best Regions in India for Tourists
India’s prime beach region offers a laidback lifestyle so different to the overbuilt and overcrowded areas elsewhere in India. Many come for the endless sunshine (except during the monsoon season: June-September) and the wide, clean, and often, uncrowded beaches, which are sprinkled with bamboo cafés offering cheap beer and fiery sunsets. Other visitors (including families) stay longer than intended after joining a yoga retreat, enjoying water sports or becoming captivated by the all-night beachside parties. The unique Portuguese colonial history, which resulted in the state’s dominant Christianity, is most evident around the old section of the capital, Panaji. The slender alleys are full of delightful family-run guesthouses, whitewashed churches, and other beautifully-renovated buildings painted in the bright colors synonymous with Goa.
- Best Luxury Hotels: Alila Diwa Goa • ITC Grand Goa, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa • Taj Holiday Village Resort & Spa • Novotel Goa Dona Sylvia Resort • The Leela Goa
- Best Boutique/Moderate Hotels: Goa Villagio • Casablanca Resort • Beleza By The Beach • Mateus Boutique Hotel • Panjim Inn, Panjim Pousada & Panjim Peoples (3 hotels in one)
- Best Cheap Hotels: John’s Highland Comfort Guest House • Alagoa Resort • River Castle • Hospedaria Abrigo de Botelho • The Caravela Home Stay
Along the southwest coast, Kerala offers beaches as inviting and easy-going as those in Goa, with far fewer crowds and an impressive range of outdoor activities from surfing to scuba-diving. This state is more renowned, however, for its 900km of canals and backwaters. These are best explored by houseboat, although many can also admire the extraordinary scenery by kayak or public ferry. In addition, visitors are pleasantly surprised by the fiery yet tasty cuisine, likable and unhurried towns, and range of activities at accessible wildlife reserves and tea plantations that include jeep safaris, lake cruises, and guided hikes.
This otherwise under-represented city is home to the Taj Mahal – a Mughal emperor’s heartbroken memorial to a departed wife – and India’s most recognizable building very rarely disappoints. While many day-trip from Delhi, staying in Agra allows time to really capture the Taj’s majesty and history from rooftop cafés providing views (albeit distant and obstructed) after dark and additional visits at the special (and less crowded) times of sunrise or sunset. Often ignored, yet only 2km from the Taj, Agra Fort would be a prime attraction in any other city, while nearby is the amazing ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri. Happily, these attractions and the numerous pre-colonial tombs, mausoleums, mosques, and gardens around Agra are easily accessible, often by foot or even rented bicycle.
This 15th-century desert city in the historic state of Rajasthan is nicknamed the ‘Blue City’ because of the multitude of homes, hotels, and shops painted in shades of the namesake color. On a rocky hilltop towering over the twisting alleys of the medieval-looking Old City is the extraordinary 16th-century Mehrangarh Fort which offers remarkable views, numerous festivals, and a fascinating museum. Allow plenty of time to explore the labyrinthine lanes, admire the breathtaking fort from a rooftop café/bar, and stay at one of the attractively-renovated and centuries-old havelis (guesthouses).
Particularly inviting and famously romantic is the 16th-century city of Udaipur in the southern part of Rajasthan, the ‘Land of the Kings’. Visitors rave about the sublime setting: alongside a glistening lake with an island that can be explored by boat, and surrounded by hills of pristine forests that can be admired on horseback. More manageable than most Indian cities, especially on foot, Udaipur is packed with gorgeous palaces, hilltop temples, and captivating museums. A highlight would be staying in a historic and elegant haveli (guesthouse) alongside the lake, while the frenetic bazaars (markets), fabulous artistic ambience, and edge-of-desert vibe add greatly to the appeal.
Squeezed between Nepal and Bhutan, this surprisingly undersized town covers numerous 2,000m-high ridges along the Himalayan rim. With a mild and dry summer that coincides with the heat, humidity, and monsoon along the plains of Delhi and Kolkata, Darjeeling developed as a hill station and ‘summer capital’ during the colonial era and is still a welcome respite for many. As well as an inconceivable number of guesthouses, Darjeeling offers vast panoramas of the permanently snow-topped mountains and bright-green tea plantations for which the area is also famous. Still accessible by road and air during the harsh winter, and especially romantic over Christmas, its added attractions are the colorful Buddhist monasteries, valley-stretching cable car, and outdoor activities such as rafting, hiking, and horse-riding.
In the far northwest, and so distant from the flooded cities and scorching plains, is Ladakh, only opened to tourism as recently as 1974. Boasting a remarkable position along the Himalayas, it is surprisingly close to China (Tibet) and Pakistan, but perfectly safe. Ladakh and, more particularly, its capital, Leh, are packed with Buddhist temples and Tibetan monasteries tiered along mountainsides and implausibly perched on peaks. Reliably accessible by road only from June to September, and sometimes inaccessible by air during the height of winter (November to February), the moon-like landscape is ideal for a range of adventurous activities, including rafting and mountain climbing.
India’s holiest city also claims to be one of the oldest on the planet. Impressively positioned along the sacred Ganges River, it is teeming with pilgrims and others who follow Hinduism, and oozes a culture and religious vibe rarely so evident elsewhere. From the expansive ghats (steps) alongside the revered river, thousands pray, make offerings, bathe in the hallowed water, and even cremate the dead. Indian and foreign visitors absorb this irresistible spirituality by visiting temples; joining classes in yoga, meditation, or philosophy; and attending numerous festivals. The old section overflows with market stalls selling items different to the rest of India, and the hordes include thousands of pious sadhus, recognizable by their dreadlocks, painted faces, and saffron-colored robes.
Many tourists avoid Indian cities, using them only as gateways for places with less pollution, crowds, and traffic, but these heaving metropolises do provide much history and numerous sights, facilities, and festivals. India’s finest city, Mumbai, is also the country’s largest. With a population of 22 million (and counting), this major colonial-era outpost boasts wonderful historical sights, majestic hotels, and a suburban beach almost as good as some in Goa. Although also home to disheartening slums, the city does offer a range of upmarket bistros, boutiques, and bars to rival anywhere in Asia, but local transport is limited for tourists. The several Metro lines under construction across the city should start operations by 2022.
Note: Mumbai was the focus of a series of terrorist attacks in 2008, but the targeted buildings have been rebuilt and the city recovered very quickly. As expected, security in major hotels and transport hubs in Mumbai, as well as other major cities, is tight.
The state of Himachal Pradesh stretches from the often-sweltering plains to the snowy foothills of the Himalayas. More accessible than the mountainside regions of Darjeeling and Ladakh (see #7), the state capital, Shimla, is still over 2,200m high. This erstwhile ‘summertime capital’ of British India and current hill station offers lovely mansions, crumbling lodges, and other remnants of the Raj era such as quaint tea rooms and bright-green cricket ovals. For many, the attractions are the mountain views and the amazing Toy Train, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that starts about halfway to Shimla from Delhi. Others come for the cleaner air and milder weather, although Shimla doesn’t escape the monsoon (July-September) or snow (January-March).
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