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Top Experiences in India

A Camel Ride in the Desert

What could be more spectacular than a windswept camel ride in Rajasthan's Thar Desert? The calm of the undulating dunes, the quiet of the landscape, perhaps the sun is just coming up over the horizon—it all contrasts so sharply with the commotion of urban India. The western desert town of Jaisalmer is a good place from which to venture out, but many other cities in Rajasthan, including Jaipur and Jodhpur, offer camel safaris. The town of Pushkar hosts a bustling and frenetic camel and livestock fair every November, which coincides with the peak travel season to northern India, and is another way to get up close to a camel.

Join in a Festival

There may be as many festivals in India as there are languages or gods (and that's a lot!), a concept that proves to what extent life in this huge country revolves around family, community, and devotion. Whether it's Diwali, the festival of lights, or the springtime holiday of Holi, where participants toss vibrantly colored powders and water balloons at one another, communities love to gather together and celebrate. During Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai, floatlike statues of the god are submerged into the water at Chowpatty Beach. Joining in on festivities that occur while you're in India is a great way to meet people and get a real feel for the country.

A Boat Ride along the Ganges

To sense the role the Ganges River plays in the lives of devout Hindus, take a dawn or dusk boat trip. Start from the sacred Dashashvamedha Ghat and head upstream or toward the southern end, near Assi Ghat. At sunrise, bathers flock to these 90 or so ghats, preparing for a purifying dip into the holy water. And at sunset, hundreds of diyas (clay lamps) are lit and floated across the river.

Splurge on a Few Nights at a Taj Hotel

For luxury that surpasses all standards, check into one of the Taj properties around the country, among the grandest in the land. A few of the brand's hotels, such as the landmark Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Mumbai, or iconic Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur, are particularly splendid. If you're not quite up for the splurge for an overnight, stop for a cocktail or high tea.

Shopping Spree in Jaipur

Fashionistas and designers from across the country flock to the Pink City for semi-precious baubles and block-printed textiles. In Johari Bazaar, a central strip of pedestrian-friendly stalls, jewelers will string stones such as carnelian, turquoise, and pink quartz into necklaces on the spot. Even if you're not looking to buy, it's worth dropping by the Gem Palace, Jaipur's equivalent of Tiffany's, where you can ogle sparkling diamonds, emeralds, and rubies in stunning settings. And at cult-favorite textile shops like Anokhi and Cottons, choose from block-printed tunics and home accessories in bright hues and myriad patterns.

Mumbai Street Food off the Curb, or in a Restaurant

No other Indian city does savory street snacks quite like Mumbai, where stalls selling pani puri (canapés dipped into a chilled mint soup) and pav bhaji (a spicy mash of potatoes, onions, and tomatoes eaten with buttered bread) are around every corner. You can also try these local favorites at authentic restaurants like Elco or Swati Snacks if you want a cleaner environment.

Watch a Bollywood Movie

Indians easily rival—and probably surpass—Americans with their degree of movie-mania. The Indian film industry, better known as Bollywood (for the "B" in Bombay), churns out around 1,000 of these movies a year. They're hugely popular all across the country, with actors like Shah Rukh Khan and starlets such as Aishwarya Rai holding demigod status among the public. Plots tend to be simple but melodramatic, and there are usually plenty of musical interludes, so even though most films are in Hindi, it's pretty easy to get the gist of the story and be entertained by the song and dance. The people-watching is half the fun, too.

Pay Homage at a Temple or Mosque

With faith such an integral part of life, weekly or even daily visits to a place of worship are not uncommon for locals. Many places of worship are open to nonbelievers (some are not; specifics are noted in our reviews), and a visit to a temple, mosque, or church gives some insight into the devotion of so many. Sites like the Jama Masjid in Delhi or the Siddhivanayak Temple in Mumbai are among the more famous and can be quite busy, but smaller neighborhood places of worship are usually more tranquil. If you go, be respectful.

Experience the New India: Nightlife and Art Galleries

Tradition and ritual factor heavily in India's appeal to a first-time traveler, but the country is moving forward—fast—and there are plenty of modern cultural diversions. In urban centers, trendy bars and avant-garde art galleries are popping up almost overnight, attracting hip and stylish patrons. For a firsthand glimpse, visit the swanky bars and clubs that are becoming more and more prevalent in Delhi and Mumbai. An ambitious space with promising artwork, the two-story Devi Art Foundation, a privately owned space just outside Delhi, is essentially the country's first contemporary art museum. The smaller galleries that are proliferating in districts like Kala Ghoda in Mumbai are also good places to get a look at India's vibrant new art scene.

Ride the Rails

A relic of the British Raj, the train network that connects all of India is surprisingly efficient and extensive. Try to include a train journey in your itinerary if possible, as it is the best way to see the countryside and the smaller villages that are in many ways the heart of India today, even though the big cities may be the focus of travel. Be mindful, however, that the trip can entail rowdy neighbors and less than hygienic corridors. Lines like the Konkan Railway, running from Mumbai to Goa, are known for better service and cleaner quarters.

Eat Dessert

The spicier the meal, the sweeter the dessert: that seems to be the culinary rule of thumb in India. It's pretty much a given that India has a collective sweet tooth, but if the milky, syrupy desserts like gulab jamun (like a deep-fried donut, soaked in syrup) and jalebi (similar to gulab jamun, but the dough is a thin, pretzel shape, also deep-fried, and often soaked in syrup) prove too sweet for your palate, try the delicious Indian ice creams instead. Many feature tropical and seasonal fruits like the Alphonso mango, the sitaphal (custard apple), or the chikoo (a grainy, fleshy fruit that's caramel in color). Check out the Mumbai ice-cream parlor chain, Natural.

Updated: 03-2013

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