These small towns and villages are not as on-the-map as Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of big travel acclaim.
While India is without a doubt one of the most popular travel destinations in the world, there are still a plethora of lesser-known towns and villages scattered around this history-rich subcontinent. These 10 places seem stuck in time, offering a unique look through different eras.
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WHERE: Niwari District, Madhya Pradesh
In a country brimming with historic places, it’s easy for Orchha, a small town in the central-India state of Madhya Pradesh, to languish in obscurity. Nestled along the banks of river Betwa, the town was founded in the 1530s by Raja Rudra Pratap Singh as a capital of the powerful Bundela dynasty and grew in grandeur under his reign. Today, it is home to many architectural head-turners that demonstrate how it must have looked during its peak. Pay special attention to the palaces such as the 16th-century Raja Mahal and the early-17th-century Jahangir Mahal located within the premises of Orchha Fort complex. The former has colorful murals adorning its interior, while the latter reflects Rajput and Mughal architectural styles. Evening visits will get access to a sound and light show. Outside the complex lies the sky-piercing Chaturbhuj temple that stands out with its pointed spires; and the one-of-a-kind Ram Raja Temple, where the Hindu deity Rama is revered as a king.
The town can be visited as a day trip from Khajuraho (known for its temples with erotic sculptures), but you’ll enjoy it more if you spend a night or two, giving you time not only to explore the historic ruins, but also to witness the memorable sunrises or sunsets over the Betwa River. There are royal chattris (cenotaphs) of the medieval rulers, erected upstream along the riverbank, that are worth checking out, too.
WHERE: Dhar District, Madhya Pradesh
Set atop the rugged Vindhya Range, Mandu has pretty much everything you’d expect from a lost city. It has a timeline that spans the Rajput, Afghan, Mughal, and Maratha eras, a beautiful natural setting with baobab trees all around, and the aura of being off the radar because it’s in the less-traveled southwestern Madhya Pradesh.
A roundup of the major landmarks includes the 15th-century Afghan-style Hoshang Shah’s tomb that served as a model for the majestic Taj Mahal, the 16th-century Roopmati’s Pavilion and Palace of Baz Bahadur (the last independent ruler of Mandu) that combines architectural elements from both Mughal and Rajput traditions; the Jahaz Mahal (Ship Palace) that contains beautifully-designed step pools; and the Hindola Mahal, which features ogee arches.
WHERE: Patan District, Gujarat
Walking around the medieval town of Siddhpur—about two-and-a-half hours north of Ahmedabad, India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City—will make you feel like you’re in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic. The streets are lined with centuries-old pastel-painted mansions, complete with gabled roofs, stuccoed facades, elaborate pilasters, decorated doors, bay windows, Victorian-inspired fenestrations, and trellised balconies. These mansions belong to Dawoodi Bohras, a Muslim mercantile community that established an influential trading network overseas. Their business success sparked a construction boom of sorts in Siddhpur in the 19th century and they imbued their townhouses with Victorian and European styles, nuanced further with ideas brought back from their overseas sojourn. Of particular note is the 365-windowed Jhaveri Mansion in the Muslim neighborhood of Najampura.
The town is also a sacred site for Hindus. The ruins of the 12th-century Rudra Mahalaya Temple are a must-visit.
INSIDER TIPIt’s worth taking a side trip to the ancient fortified town of Patan, about 40 minutes from Siddhpur. An unmissable sight here is the 11th-century Rani Ki Vav stepwell.
WHERE: Vijaynagara District, Karnataka
About seven hours drive from Bangalore, the medieval town of Hampi is one of the most atmospheric destinations in India. The town lived out its golden age from the 14th until the early 16th centuries, when it served as the capital of Vijayanagara, one of India’s most formidable Hindu kingdoms. Its peak stretched from coast to coast, but this prosperity proved to be its undoing, attracting successive raids from the Deccan Sultanates in the second half of the 16th century, after which it was reduced to rubble and eventually abandoned. What remains of Hampi is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Several dilapidated palaces, Dravidian temples, monolithic deities, water tanks, and fortification ramparts fill the boulder-covered terrain along the Tungabhadra River, creating an ethereal landscape. One of the intriguing structures is the Vittala Temple that features a giant stone chariot and musical stone pillars. Other highlights include Virupaksha Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva (still in active worship) and the Royal Enclosure that contains ruined palaces of the royal families.
INSIDER TIPFor the best view of the town and the surrounding countryside, climb up the Matanga Hill during the sunrise.
WHERE: Churu District, Rajasthan
About 124 miles north of the state capital Jaipur, Churu is the traditional home of the Marwari community, who hit the big time in the 1800s as financiers and entrepreneurs in the bigger cities of India like Kolkata, Delhi, and Mumbai. They gave expression to their immense wealth by erecting massive havelis (mansions) in their desert homeland. The majority of these havelis are now in a state of picturesque dilapidation and locked for much of the year, opened only for occasional marriage ceremonies. However, some of them are opened for visitors keen to view the colorful murals on the outer and inner courtyards and walls, depicting everyday life, travel memoirs, animals, fancy cars, and portraits of ancestors and royals who once stayed in these now-empty mansions.
The best place to see the century-old frescoes up-close is at Malji Ka Kamra, a heritage hotel that will transport you back to the bygone era. Meanwhile, interesting murals can be seen just by strolling through the town—make sure to stop by the Bagla Haveli and Surana Brothers Double Haveli with more than 1,000 windows.
Keen shoppers must visit the local market crammed with dozens of tiny, old-fashioned shops selling everything, including saris, fabrics, lacquer bangles, and Rajasthani spices. The perfect way to end the day here is watching the sunset at Sethani Ka Johra, a nineteenth-century pond surrounded by chattris (canopies).
INSIDER TIPTo see some more painted havelis, visit the nearby historic towns of Mandawa, Nawalgarh and Jhunjhunu, part of the Shekhawati region.
WHERE: Nagapattinam District, Tamil Nadu
About a six-hour drive from Chennai lies a former Danish colony, Tharangambadi, or Tranquebar. The action revolves around the atmospheric Old part of the town—a colonial-era trade port where Danish-colonial merchant bungalows, churches, and a fort vie for your attention. For those keen to learn about the town’s history, the mustard-colored seafront Fort Dansborg offers a perfect introduction. Once a commercial hub, today it houses a museum, where artifacts from Danish rule (17th until the mid-19th centuries) can be found in abundance.
Little architectural details stand out in the other buildings of the town—the colonnaded entrance at Rehling’s House (the former Danish Governor’s bungalow); the Gothic-style of the 18th-century Zion Church; and the whitewashed graves of the Danish Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries in the town where many Danes are buried.
INSIDER TIPBe sure to visit the 716-year-old Masilamani Nathar Temple located on a seashore, at the southern end of the town.
WHERE: Sivaganga and Pudukottai Districts, Tamil Nadu
Comprising 78 villages and towns, the Chettinad region—in the southern Tamil Nadu hinterlands—is a heaven for photographers, architecture lovers, and foodies. The region is filled with 19th and 20th-century Indo-Western-style mansions belonging to the affluent Nattukotai Chettiar mercantile community. Today, most of the opulent houses are padlocked and empty as their owners have settled abroad or moved to the big Indian cities, while some are occupied by families of caretakers who may allow visitors to take a look inside for a small fee or permission from the owner.
Interesting stops on the mansion trail include Raja’s Palace and VVR House in Kanadukathan village; MSMM House and Aayiram Jannal Veedu (the “House of a Thousand Windows”) in Karaikudi; Periya Vedu (Big House) in Athangudi; and Chellappa Chettiar’s House in Kottaiyur. Expect interiors with intricate rosewood carvings, Burmese teak columns, graceful Italian marble and patterned tiled floors, Belgian chandeliers and mirrors, antique doors, Athangudi tiles, and art and sculptures from everywhere. The temples in the region are worth visiting, too. The seventh-century Pillaiyarpatti Pillaiyar Temple, with its rock carvings and colorful frescoes, is a major attraction.
While you’re there, don’t miss the array of delicious food experiences, from chicken mutton fry or chicken Chettinad pepper masala at the Bangala hotel, or local staples like idiyappam (string hoppers) with vellai kurma (a coconut-based stew), paniyaram (round shallow-fried dumplings) with a variety of chutneys and dosa at Hotel President or Hotel Annapoorna in Karaikudi.
INSIDER TIPBase yourself in Karaikudi, which is perhaps the main town of the region. There are many heritage hotels and homestays here; the Bangala hotel and Saratha Vilas are great options.
WHERE: Dehradun District, Uttarakhand
While Mussoorie has a deserved reputation as one of India’s most appealing hill stations, nearby Landour—nestled in the lower Western Himalayas amidst the deodar and rhododendron forests—is usually overlooked. Easier to navigate with far fewer visitors, the Himalayan town—named after the Welsh town of Llanddowror—was developed by the British in the 1800s as their summer getaway. Once India gained independence, the British left the place, but the hilltop town still bears the stamp of its colonial past, evident particularly in its architecture. Among its treasures are the English-style cottages, the 19th-century St. Paul’s Church which has some beautiful stained-glass creations, the early-20th century Kellogg Memorial Church that doubles as a language school where expats come to learn Hindi and Urdu; and the Sister Bazaar’s, a small market where you’ll find a historic clock tower and a few shops from the Raj-era. Do visit the “Landour Bakehouse,” known for its baked goods; and the “Prakash Stores,” which has been selling homemade peanut butter and jams since the 1920s.
For a 360-degree view of the town and the landscape of the region, hike uphill to the Lal Tibba Scenic Point, which has an observation deck and a telescope. For a slower, more relaxing way to admire Landour’s assets, take a walk along the Gol Chakkar, a 1.8-mile circuit on a hill.
INSIDER TIPThis little town is home to one of India’s most popular writers, Ruskin Bond, who stays in the Ivy Cottage behind Doma’s Inn, a homey B&B.
WHERE: Kangra District, Himachal Pradesh
With Himalayan peaks looming in the distance, cobbled alleyways, modest Himachali huts with slate roofs and centuries-old mansions with architectural touches like Victorian gables, Gothic arches, fretwork windows, and wooden balustrades, it’s easy to see why Pragpur was named India’s first Heritage Village in 1997 by the State Tourism Ministry. Though many structures are crumbling, they are still camera-friendly. The standouts include the Victorian-style Judge’s Court, a three-century-old family house-turned-heritage hotel; the 19th-century Taal, a pond that’s surrounded by serais (rest houses), an ancient temple and houses of the local communities; and the 20th-century Lala Rerumal’s haveli that features a Mughal-style garden.
Less than three miles away lies its twin town, Garli. Admire the brick houses and the Anglo-Islamic architecture of the mansions, belonging to the wealthy Sood community, on a stroll around this village. Don’t miss the grand Chateau Garli, a 100-year-old mansion-turned-heritage property with colonial furniture and colorful window panes; and the Rayeeson Wali Kothi that features Rajasthani motifs.
INSIDER TIPPragpur is worth a visit any time of the year, but anyone passing through in September will get to witness a wrestling or Kushti match, part of Nakki Ka Mela fair.
Towns Along the Hooghly River ("Mini-Europe on the Ganges")
WHERE: Hooghly District, West Bengal
The Southern region of West Bengal, along the Hooghly River, an arm of the holy Ganges, owes its historic atmosphere to many centuries as an important trading port. This part of the state have lived through several rounds of colonial rulers: beginning with the Portuguese in the 16th century, who established the first European outpost at the small town of Bandel, about 34 miles from Kolkata; then the Dutch from 1610-1825 at Chinsurah, about four miles from Bandel; followed by French in the late-17th century at Chandannagar, about three miles downriver from Chinsurah; and finally, the Danes from 1755-1845 at Serampore, 13 miles from Chandannagar. While the days of European colonial rule might be long gone, each of these towns retains architectural memories of those eras—though in a state of disrepair, but worth a visit.
Must-sees include the stained-glass creations at Basilica of the Holy Rosary or Bandel Church in Bandel; the Dutch Cemetery and 258-year-old Baro Seal Bari mansion in Chinsurah; the riverside Strand dotted with pastel-colored houses, Indo-French Cultural Centre & Museum at Dupleix Palace (the former French Governor’s house) and the 19th-century Sacred Heart Church in Chandannagar; the two-century-old St. Olav’s Church modeled after London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the 19th-century Goswami Rajbari (mansion of a wealthy Bengali merchant) and the 234-year-old Denmark Tavern in Serampore.