India is a dream destination for many travelers, and this vast and diverse country offers so much to see and experience that it can be challenging to do it all in one trip. Whether you’re planning your first trip or you’re a veteran visitor who’s eager to explore more of the country, these four itineraries will help you refine your options.
Fly In: Varanasi
Fly Out: Delhi
Culture and spiritual life are deeply intertwined in India, and the country has numerous holy towns and sacred spots that attract religious pilgrims and travelers with an interest in Eastern philosophy. A good place to start is in Varanasi, the most revered city on earth for Hindus, straddling the banks of the Ganges River. The best way to experience Varanasi is by taking a boat ride on the Ganges, preferably at sunrise, when scores of pilgrims approach the riverbank to offer their morning prayers. From here, it’s a five-hour drive or a quick flight to Bodhgaya, the most important site of pilgrimage for Buddhists, for it's here where Gautama Siddhartha is believed to have reached a state of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. The main draw here is the UNESCO World Heritage Mahabodhi Temple Complex, which houses a tree believed to have grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. From Bodhgaya, it’s a two-hour flight back to Delhi, where you can catch an express train to Amritsar, home to the holiest of all Sikh gurdwaras (temples), the Sri Harmandir Sahib (known colloquially as the Golden Temple). Dating back to the turn of the 17th century, this beautiful structure is open 24 hours a day and, as with all gurdwaras, all religions and backgrounds are welcome.
Fly In: Jaipur
Fly Out: Udaipur
Known for its stark, arid landscapes, ornate palaces (many of which have been converted into heritage hotels), and vibrant cultural traditions, the desert state of Rajasthan is one of India’s most visited regions. Start your visit in the capital city of Jaipur, known as the “Pink City” after the salmon-hued walls of its busy old town. Don’t miss the City Palace, a multi-winged palace museum and the official residence of the Jaipur Royal Family. Be sure to visit the ruins of the 500-year-old Amber Fort, just outside of town, before heading off to Pushkar, a sleepy oasis town known for its annual Camel Fair. From here, it’s a four- to five-hour drive to Jodhpur, characterized by pale blue houses leading up to the enormous hilltop Mehrangarh Fort, which dates from 1449. Spend the night at the 20th-century Umaid Bhawan Palace—half of the palace is a luxury hotel and the other half is the residence of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. The next day, head south to Udaipur, Rajasthan’s romantic lakeside city and home to the largest palace in Rajasthan, known simply as the City Palace. This five-story structure houses numerous chambers full of decorative art pieces and antique furniture along with the largest private collection of crystal in the world. The city’s other star palatial attraction, the Lake Palace, sits submerged in the middle of Lake Pichola and now operates as a luxury hotel. If it looks familiar, it may be because it was the setting of much of the James Bond film Octopussy.
Fly In: Delhi
Fly Out: Mumbai
India has 32 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and while you’d need months to visit them all, a few of the country’s most spectacular can be seen within the span of two weeks. Start your trip in Delhi at the 238-foot-high Qutub Minar, believed to have either been built as a symbol of victory or, more practically, as a high point from which to call people to prayer at the nearby Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque. From here it’s a short drive to the recently restored Humayan’s Tomb, a sandstone and marble complex considered to be the earliest example of proper Mughal architecture. From Delhi, it’s a few hours by car or train to the city of Agra, best known for the Taj Mahal, believed to have taken 17 years and the efforts of 20,000 laborers to complete. After visiting the city, head back up to Delhi to catch a flight to Mumbai, which has a few iconic monuments of its own, including the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly known as Victoria Terminus) an ornate British-built railway station and one of the country's finest examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture. Trains run from the station to Aurangabad, the jumping-off point for visiting the ornate cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora Caves, some 65 miles apart. The Ajanta Caves are the older of the two, and feature statues and columns that depict the life of the Buddha, while the Ellora Caves have Jain and Hindu shrines.
The Best of South India
Fly In: Kochi
Fly Out: Chennai
South India isn’t always the first part of the country that travelers consider visiting, but it’s certainly one of the most enchanting regions. Start your visit in the tropical state of Kerala, which spans the southwestern tip of India. Begin your visit in the old port town of Kochi, preferably in the historic Fort Cochin neighborhood, by far the most charming part of town. The area has a significant Indian Jewish population, and most visitors stop by the beautiful Paradesi Synagogue, which dates to 1568 and features blue-and-white Chinese-tile floors and antique colonial light fixtures. Other popular sites include the ivory-hued Santa Cruz Basilica, featuring pillars covered with mosaics and bright depictions of Catholic saints, and the Chinese Fishing Nets, giant pulley nets that are believed to date from the 15th century. From here, it’s a short drive down the coast to Allepey, the main launching point of Kerala’s famous backwater cruises, essentially small boats that slowly travel through the state’s extensive lagoon system, stopping by quaint towns along the way. Beach lovers may want to make a pit stop at Varkala, a relaxed coastal town popular with international travelers for its sandy shores and beautiful cliffside views. Alternatively, head straight to Kerala’s capital city of Trivandrum and catch a flight over to Chennai (formerly Madras), the capital of Tamil Nadu. You can take a taxi directly from the airport to Pondicherry, a former French colony characterized by traditional Gallic architecture and lovely public squares. If you have time, stop at Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO World Heritage temple complex dating back nearly two millennia.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's India Guide