India is a huge country, and it would take months, or even years, to do a full-fledged tour of the country. We've narrowed this book down to what we consider the essential India, but even still, unless you have a really long vacation, you won't have time to see all the highlights. Keep in mind, too, that the best way to appreciate India is not to rush—in fact, the country tends to run in such a fashion that it's next to impossible to rush while you're here.
To further help you make the most of your time, India's Golden Triangle, spanning roughly 240 km (150 miles) on each of its three sides, links Mughal and Rajput sites in Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra. It's the most well-traveled tour in India, and for good reason: for many tourists, the sites here are India. What you see—the Taj Mahal, the impressive palace-fort and Islamic monuments in Old Delhi, and the timeless Pink City fairy tale that is Jaipur—are some of the most splendid edifices that India has to offer. Although you could visit most of these sights in a week, or even less, try not to make it a hurried affair if you can. Between the heat and the sometimes tricky dealings of getting around, traveling in India is often more exhausting than elsewhere, and an overpacked day rarely makes for a satisfying visit. We've outlined the basics of the Golden Triangle, with some options and add-ons.
Fly into Delhi to explore the old and new capitals. Hit the ground running with some light touring on the first day, perhaps doing some shopping or taking in the lovely, pre-Mughal Lodi Gardens. Over the next two days, visit Old Delhi's major Mughal sites, including the Red Fort, Jama Masjid, and Chandni Chowk, now a hodgepodge market. Also highly worth a visit: the Mughal Humayun's tomb and the imperial buildings of the Raj-era. Pay a visit to the excellent collections at the National Museum as well, but make sure to also save time for just getting acquainted with Delhi weather, crowds, and food—the higher-end restaurants and shops in South Delhi are worth the trip.
Option: If you prefer, head right out to Agra on your second day, leaving time to explore Delhi a little more afterward.
Set out early for Jaipur (it's about six hours by train or car; the flight is an hour, but factor in airport time). Alternatively, take an extra day and make an overnight stop at the Neemrama Fort Palace, built in the 15th century and now a luxury hotel about midway between Delhi and Jaipur. Once in Jaipur, head out to explore the city's unforgettable bazaars and monuments to see why it's called the Pink City. Set aside a half day to explore the Amber (Amer) Fort and Palace, just north of the city limits. Then head back to Delhi.
Side Trips: If you drive to Jaipur and have the time and desire, add in a few days for a side trip or two. About 160 km (100 miles) south of Jaipur is Ranthambhore National Park, the most likely place in India to see a tiger or other large cat outside of captivity. If you're inclined to explore more of Rajasthan, the "Land of Princes," head farther afield to either Udaipur, where the sprawling City Palace and Lake Palace seem taken from a fairy-tale book, or the "Blue City" of Jodhpur, the site of the magnificent eight-gated Mehrangarh Fort, built in the 15th century.
Option: Skip Jaipur and go straight to Udaipur: there is more than enough in this magical city to keep you occupied for several days, and there are several spectacular side trips to places like the Jain Temple at Ranakpur.
From Delhi, travel by road or take the train to Agra. If you're driving, make a stop during the two- to three-hour trip to visit the splendid royal remnants of the ancient Mughal capital Fatehpur Sikri (if you take the train to Agra, rent a car and driver and backtrack to Fatehpur Sikri). The fast train takes about three hours, but isn't at the most convenient times. Plan to stay overnight in Agra so you can fully appreciate the Taj Mahal and Agra's other sites, the impressive Agra Fort and the tomb of Etmad-ud-Daulah (the so-called "Baby Taj"). Then make your way back to Delhi.
If this is your first time in India, it may seem like a good idea to rent a car and drive it yourself, but it isn't. India's traffic is fierce and should only be tackled by seasoned drivers familiar with Indian roads and traffic conditions. Hire a car and driver, which costs only a little more than renting a car by itself.
Delhi is one of the most expensive places to stay in India. In the high season, Agra and Jaipur are a close second. These destinations are among the most popular tourist spots in India, so hotels book up quickly. If you have your heart set on a specific hotel, book early. Northern India is also a popular circuit for guided tours. If you like the comfort of a knowledgeable guide and the structure of a set plan, consider a package tour.
Transportation: If getting there is half the fun in your mind, take a train. Although you give up some flexibility with a train, the countryside views are at least partial compensation, as is being able to avoid the loud, manic Indian driving style. If time is limited and you want to have as much freedom as possible with your route, then a car and driver is the better option.
Fly to Mumbai from Delhi. To get your bearings in Mumbai, start with a visit to the city's most recognizable landmark, the Gateway of India (the nearby Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel is a close second in fame). Then visit the Prince of Wales Museum, the Crawford Market, and other signature sights of Raj-era Bombay, ending your day with a visit to Chowpatty Beach, where food stalls and amusement rides line a stretch of sand that comes most alive on Saturday. Another thing that should not to be missed is some time for serious shopping in markets and for experiencing Mumbai's restaurants—two areas in which this often flashy city excels. On one morning, head to Elephanta Island, reached by boat from the Gateway of India; the Hindu and Buddhist cave sculptures there are masterful and mysterious.
Side Trip: Ajanta and Ellora Caves, 3 days
The Ajanta and Ellora Caves were built over a period of 700 years starting in the 2nd century BC. To get here, you first must go 400 km (250 miles) east of Mumbai to the city of Aurangabad. Plan on spending the good part of a day at each site (for a total of two days) to avoid getting sculpture fatigue. Aurangabad's impressive Daulatabad Fort, nearly a millennium old, is also worth a visit.
Transportation Tips: The number of trains making the seven-hour train ride from Mumbai to Aurangabad is limited, so it probably makes the most sense to fly there and back—it's a 45-minute trip each way. The Ajanta Caves can take up to three hours to reach from Aurangabad, and Ellora is about 30 minutes away. To use your time most efficiently, you will probably want to hire a car and driver to take you to the caves, rather than relying on tour buses.
If you're craving some beach time and a look at a totally different part of India, head south to the former Portuguese colony of Goa on the Arabian Sea. You can fly from Mumbai, or take the Konkan Railway, a gorgeous 12-hour trip that tracks the coastline and passes over nearly 150 major bridges on its complete route (book ahead for this popular train). In Goa you'll want to spend time eating seafood and sipping Kingfishers at a beach shack, but make sure to set aside time for a day trip to visit Old Goa's monumental 17-century cathedrals as well as the atmospheric Portuguese-influenced streets of Panjim. When you've had your fill of Goa's many charms, either fly or take the train back to Mumbai.
Remote and serene, Kerala is on the southern coast of the Arabian Sea; you can get there by train or fly into Kochi, Trivandrum, or Calicut. Either way, you'll undoubtedly want to experience nature here. Rent a quaint houseboat for three days to just meander through the majestic backwaters that curve through green hills and the rice paddies of small villages—easily accessible via Kollam. A bit farther inland, the Western Ghats contain vast tea and spice plantations as well as beautiful wildlife. If you want to experience Kerala civilization, the old port city of Kochi is an enchanting mix of traditional South Indian culture and influences from the Portuguese, Jews, Syrian Christians, and Muslims who came this way in the past.
Varanasi, on the holy Ganges River, is the most sacred city for Hindus—and it may also be the oldest continuously populated city in the world. You can visit as a side trip from Delhi (leave time to also visit nearby Sarnath, a major Buddhist pilgrimage site) if you don't have enough time to do a thorough exploration of Uttar Pradesh, the state next to Delhi. The temples at Khajuraho are fascinating, but not easy to get to. If you plan to go, visit either on the way to or from Varanasi. Your best bet is to fly.
Fly from Delhi to Varanasi—traveling by train or car eats up a lot of time, and the roads in Uttar Pradesh are not the greatest. In Varanasi, spend your first day getting acquainted with the manic pace of the city's Old Town. Then make it an early night so that you can get up before dawn to take an early morning boat ride on the Ganges and witness morning ablutions along the river. After setting aside some time to wander and take in the Old Town's sights, sounds, and (yes) smells, take an auto-rickshaw south to the Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum, a college institution with some superb examples of local sculpture.
Tips: The snarl of twisty alleys in Varanasi's Old Town can be incredibly hard to navigate, and while that's part of the thrill, it can be exhausting. Hire a guide from India Tourism for the first day to help you get your bearings, and avoid the touts until you're more confident here. Varanasi is hectic, impressive, and probably unlike anywhere else you've ever been. But it's not that restful. Plan on heading somewhere a little less overwhelming after a visit here, or schedule in a little R & R at your hotel.
Side Trip: Sarnath, 1 day
After an early breakfast, head to Sarnath, just 11 km (7 miles) north of Varanasi, where the Buddha preached his first sermon. Take an auto-rickshaw or a taxi—you may want to hire the same driver to take you back at the end of the day. Sarnath's Deer Park contains a Buddhist temple, several 5th- and 6th-century monuments, and an outstanding archaeological museum. Have lunch at one of the nearby cafés, then return to Varanasi to see any last-minute sights and get ready for your return to Delhi.
Fly to Khajuraho on your way to or from Varanasi and spend two days absorbing the exuberant, occasionally X-rated carvings that adorn the town's 10th- and 11th-century Hindu temples.