With its massive hilltop forts, centuries-old palaces, marble mausoleums, and myriad temples that range from ancient rock-hewn shrines to modern architectural marvels, India has no shortage of bedazzling sights.
Some are iconic, others are off the beaten path…but all are nothing short of incredible. Here are 20 of the country’s most important sights.
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Mahabodhi Temple Complex
WHERE: Bodh Gaya
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most important pilgrimage spots for Buddhists, as it’s believed to stand on the spot where the Buddha attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree (a descendant of the original tree still stands at the complex). The main temple here features a stepped pyramidal design and is believed to date from around the 5th or 6th century, but previous incarnations of the temple have stood on the site for considerably longer.
The final resting place of Humayan, the son of Barbur (who founded the Mughal Empire), this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the earliest examples of Mughal architecture. Dating back to the end of the 16th century, it features a large double-domed tomb surrounded by gardens, and numerous smaller tombs on the same complex.
India’s most iconic attraction, the Taj Mahal has long been celebrated as one of the world’s most breathtaking architectural odes to love. Built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his late wife, this striking white-domed mausoleum is picturesque any time of day or night, but is particular stunning at sunrise or under the light of the full moon.
Ajanta and Ellora Caves
Although miles apart, the 30-some-odd caves of Ajanta and Ellora are generally visited on a single trip. These ornately carved cave temples dating from the 2nd through 7th centuries and are known for their beautiful rock-hewn interiors and sculptures. Those in Ajanta are dominated by Buddhist imagery and are the older of the two.
WHERE: Madhya Pradesh
Also known as the “Kama Sutra temples” due to the prominent erotic art that adorns them, these beautiful temples dating from the early 10th century AD are some of the largest and best-preserved structures of their era in all of India. The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple is particularly noteworthy for its medieval temple architecture, and is the largest structure on the complex.
WHERE: Abhaneri, Rajasthan
Resembling something out of an M.C. Escher print, this beautiful stepwell is a popular stopping off point between Jaipur and the Taj Mahal. It dates back to the 9th or 10th century AD and features a beautiful succession of steep staircases on the interior of a huge well, designed to help people carry water up by hand.
WHERE: Tamil Nadu
Overlooking the Bay of Bengal in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, this UNESCO World Heritage Site features 400 or so monuments and Hindu temples dating from the 7th and 8th centuries AD, during the Pallava Dynasty. The site features a mix of cave temples, rock reliefs, and ratha temples that have been carved from local rocks to resemble chariots.
High on a hill overlooking the “blue city” of Jodhpur, this 15th-century fort is among the largest in India. Along with canons, ramparts, and beautiful city views, the fort also boasts a number of galleries with all sorts of artifacts and art, including paintings, palanquins, armory, and a large collection of turbans. Adventurous travelers can even go zip-lining here!
One of the holiest spots on earth for Sikhs, the 17th-century Sri Harmandir Sahib (commonly referred to as the “Golden Temple”) features a stunning main temple gilded in glistening gold, situated in a large square pool that’s accessible via a causeway. While the architecture itself merits a visit, for the full experience be sure to go inside to listen to the people chanting religious hymns, known as kirtans.
A gorgeous example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, this palace also known as Ambavilas is not only beautiful to look at from the outside, but is also full of all sorts of marvels. Step inside to find opulent interiors with mosaic floors and stately columns, plus a museum-quality collection of religious items, artwork, and even dolls.
Jaipur’s most iconic structure, the salmon-hued Hawa Mahal, or “Palace of the Winds” is a five-story structure built at the end of the 18th century as a safe haven for royal women to hang out and observe the goings-on of the city below. Its prominent feature is its 953 latticed windows that collectively make the palace look like a honeycomb from outside; interestingly, they’re arranged in such a way to allow cool air to circulate throughout the interior, which is how the palace gets its name.
Haji Ali Shrine
Situated on an islet that juts out into the Mumbai Harbour, the shrine of Sufi saint Haji Ali is one of the holiest sites in Mumbai, particularly for the local Muslim population. It’s only accessible via a causeway when the tides are low enough to make walking a possibility. Fridays are the best day to visit, as there are often live Qawaali (Sufi devotional music) performances staged here.
Situated on an island off the coast of Mumbai, and only accessible by an hour-long ferry ride, the UNESCO World Heritage Elephanta Caves are a series of basalt-hewn Hindu and Buddhist cave temples dating from the 6th-8th centuries AD. Highlights include an 18-foot-tall bas relief of the Hindu Lord Shiva in his three-headed manifestation.
WHERE: Uttar Pradesh
Just outside of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the world’s best-preserved ghost towns. It’s made almost entirely of red sandstone and served as the capital of the Mughal Empire under Akbar. It’s also home to the world’s largest door, the Buland Darwaza, which stands a whopping 54 meters high.
Kalighat Kali Temple
One of the most famous temples in Kolkata, this temple, dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali, attracts visitors from across the country. It’s one of the 51 Shakti Peeths found across India, a collection of important goddess temples and shrines particularly significant to followers of Shakitsim, a strain of Hinduism focused on goddess worship that dominates in West Bengal. The ambiance is often lively here, and crowded, and it’s a great place to deepen one’s understanding of Indian religious traditions.
Among India’s largest forts, Chittorgarh is a gargantuan fortress complex spanning nearly 700 acres. It originated in the 7th century as the capital of the kingdom of Mewar, and fell under siege repeatedly over the years, until a treaty in 1616. Highlights include a reservoir, a number of intricate Jain temples, ancient palaces, plus a 122-foot-high, nine-story “Victory Tower” built in the Middle Ages. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.
Jagatpita Shri Brahma Temple
Believed to be the world’s only temple dedicated to the Hindu creator god, Brahma, this 14th-century temple is one of the few in the desert oasis town of Pushkar that’s open to international and non-Hindu visitors. Inside is an idol of Brahman believed to have been blessed by Adi Shankra, the founder of Advaita Vedanta (nondualism) and one of India’s most important ancient sages. The temple’s saffron-hued spire and blue pillars look particularly stunning against the backdrop of the postcard-perfect Pushkar Lake.
Ghats on the River Ganges
Believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, Varanasi (AKA Kashi and Benares) is easily the most sacred city in India for Hindus. It sits right on the banks of the Ganges River, which can be safely accessed via the city’s 88 ghats, sets of stairs that go down into the river, making it easy to bathe in its waters without being swept away by currents. Some ghats have specific purposes, which range from performing cremations to evening prayer ceremonies.
One of Delhi’s most stunning pieces of architecture, the Baha’i House of Worship, more commonly known as the “Lotus temple,” is an iconic white-marble building designed to resemble an unfolding lotus. While it’s worth visiting just to check out the architecture, those willing to wait in sometimes long lines can visit the interior, a calm, simple prayer hall where silence is expected, except during the five-minute prayer services, held three times a day.
In the heart of Rajasthan’s romantic lake city of Udaipur, right on the banks of Lake Pichola, the white-hued City Palace is worth a visit just for its stunning palatial architecture dominated by columns, archways, and onion domes. However, the real treasures lie inside, and include a wide selection of artifacts, including the world’s largest collection of fine crystal.