Visitors to India don’t just see the country—they experience it. From the Taj Mahal to the Ganges River, from Gandhi's home to Ayurveda spas, here's a list of the best things to see and do while you're visiting India.
Stretching from the colossal Himalayas up north to the tropical backwaters of Kerala in the south, the world’s largest democracy is chock-full of glorious scenery, exquisite architecture, tasty food, and myriad opportunities to immerse yourself in local culture. Though it could easily take multiple lifetimes to explore all that India has to offer, these 40 incredible experiences can at least help you scratch the surface. Is it your first time to India? Here are 10 things you need to know before you go. Need a place to stay or looking for a hotel recommendation? We’ve got you covered in major cities all over the country, too.
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Vrindavan is the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and the festival of colors—Holi—is celebrated with aplomb here. Visitors can expect multiple days of festivities, including lots of “playing” with powdered colors, especially in the winding narrow lanes around the Banke Bihari Mandir, the city’s most famous temple.
See the Taj Mahal by Moonlight
While India’s most famous monument is a sight to behold any time of day, it’s particularly magical under the light of the moon. Every month, a small number of visitors are allowed to visit during the five days around the full moon—just make sure to book ahead, as this popular activity fills up quickly.
If you can’t get a reservation to visit at night, be sure to make it for sunrise or sunset (or both!) to see the Taj Mahal bathed in pink and yellow light. Or better yet–stay at a hotel with the perfect view.
Shop to Your Heart’s Content
India’s capital city is home to numerous bazaars and boutiques selling seemingly everything under the sun, including beautiful jewelry, statues, and accessories. For handicrafts, head to Janpath in the city center, a bustling market featuring wares from around the country. For upscale décor items, your best bet is posh Khan Market, while Paharganj Main Bazaar is your best spot for cheap clothes, tapestries, and incense.
Straddling the banks of the Ganges River, the holy city of Rishikesh is full of ashrams, temples, yoga teacher training programs, and drop-in yoga classes for aspirants of all levels. In fact, it’s frequently referred to as the “yoga capital of the world.” The best time to visit is during the annual International Yoga Festival, held every year around the beginning of March.
Study Meditation and Tibetan Culture
WHERE: McLeod Ganj
This Himalayan town is home to the Tibetan government in exile (the Dalai Lama has lived here for ages) and is a popular place to study Tibetan Buddhism, culture, and meditation. There are various organizations teaching Buddhist meditation or offering 10-day silent Vipassana retreats in and around this Himalayan town, while Norbulingka Institute, offers classes on Tibetan arts, culture, and history.
Marvel at the Golden Temple
This iconic 17th-century temple (officially dubbed Sri Harmandir Sahib) is among the holiest places on earth for Sikh people. With its gilded main temple, it’s also arguably one of the most striking buildings on the planet. For the full experience, spend some time listening to adherents of the Sikh faith chant kirtans (devotional hymns) or enjoy a meal at the langar, or community kitchen, which serves free vegetarian meals to the community day and night.
Watch the Nightly Closing Ceremony at the Pakistan Border
Every evening at sunset, the India-Pakistan border at Wagah near Amritsar is officially closed with an extravagant lowering-of-the-flags ceremony. A big part of this daily ritual involves guards from both sides engaging in a make-believe standoff (which feels almost like a dance-off), much to the delight of large crowds.
Cross the World’s Highest Driveable Pass at Khardung-la
At almost 19,000 feet in elevation, this Himalayan mountain pass is the highest point on earth that anyone can take a car or motorcycle. The pass connects Leh, the historic capital of Ladakh, to the remote Nubra Valley on the Tibetan Plateau, and most visitors stop for a photo op in front of one of the signboards boasting the pass’s high-as-it-gets status.
Spend the Night on a Kashmiri Houseboat on Dal Lake
The best way to experience the beautiful alpine capital of Indian Kashmir, Srinagar, is by staying on a traditional houseboat on Dal Lake, just as locals have for generations. These beautiful wooden boats usually feature cozy, homelike interiors fronted with carved wooden balconies. Vendors hawking everything from vegetables to the region’s ubiquitous pashmina shawls paddle around on boats.
Join Sufis Singing Qawwali at Nizamuddin Shrine
Every Thursday, musicians come together at the shrine of beloved Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin to sing qawwalis—traditional Urdu devotional songs performed to a backdrop of harmonium and drums. This musical tradition rooted in Persian Sema music was developed by a devotee of Nizamuddin in the 13th century and today is a common fixture at Sufi shrines across the subcontinent.
Enter Through the World’s Largest Door
WHERE: Fatehpur Sikri
One of the star attractions of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Fatehpur Sikri is the Buland Darwaza—or “Victory Gate,” which was built by Emperor Akbar in the late 16th century to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. At 54 meters in height, this gargantuan sandstone door is believed to be the world’s largest entryway.
Related: 20 Stunning UNESCO Sites in India
Sample Chaat, Delhi’s Quintessential Street Food Snacks
Trying Delhi’s famous street food snacks—known locally as chaat—is the ultimate capital city foodie experience. These vegetarian small bites run the gamut from deep-fried potato patties (aloo tikki) to colorful concoctions made of yoghurt, sweet and spicy chutney, and fried grains. Adventurous eaters shouldn’t miss pani puri, thin fried balls filled with spiced water and sweet chutney.
Pose With Funky Sculptures in the Rock Garden of Chandigarh
Easily one of India’s quirkiest attractions, this gargantuan art park features all sorts of oddball sculptures and fountains, all made of recycled scrap materials. The garden was originally built in secret by Chandigarh resident Nek Chand, who kept it hidden for 18 years after its inception until it was discovered by government officials. After a significant legal struggle, Chand managed to get the garden designated as a public space, even receiving funding to expand it to the 40 acres it spans today.
Take a Desert Camelback Safari
Known for its golden-hued fort and stunning desert landscapes, Jaisalmer–in one of the most remote parts of the desert state of Rajasthan–is a popular starting point for camel safaris. These guided desert sojourns can last anywhere from a day to upwards of a week and usually involve spending the night in desert camps under the stars.
Learn About all Things Camelid at the Pushkar Camel Fair
Every year during the full moon of the Hindu month of Kartik, camel and horse traders come from across Rajasthan to Pushkar to sell camels and other livestock. There are also plenty of festivities during the event, from dance performances to mustache length competitions–there’s even a beauty pageant for camels!
Search for Elusive Tigers
WHERE: Ranthambore National Park
One of the best places to spot tigers in the wild, Ranthambore National Park is a popular place for wildlife safaris, particularly for those who dream of witnessing a tiger in its natural habitat. The park is home to around three dozen tigers, along with substantial populations of leopards, jackals, and even hyenas.
INSIDER TIPThe park is closed from the beginning of July through the end of September.
Sleep in a Real Palace
A collection of many small kingdoms until independence, Rajasthan is full of old royal palaces. Many have been converted into “heritage hotels,” some of which date back to as far as the 15th century. Luxury options include the whitewashed Lake Palace in Udaipur, situated smack in the middle of the city’s Lake Pichola, while travelers with a tighter budget may want to consider a stay at the more modestly priced Neemrana Fort-Palace located between Jaipur and Delhi.
Wander the Sprawling City Palace
Set on the banks of gorgeous Lake Pichola, this beautiful whitewashed royal palace-turned-museum is popular for its stunning architecture and regal artifacts. Don’t miss a visit to the bedazzling Crystal Gallery, which showcases one of the world’s largest private collections of fine crystal ware, most of which dates to the late 1800s.
Learn About Royal Life at the Jaipur City Palace
An active palace to this day (the titular royal family still lives in one wing), Jaipur City Palace offers a glorious glimpse into how Rajasthani royalty live. Highlights include a museum showcasing all sorts of relics, including the garments once worn by kings and queens. Diwan-i-Aam, or “hall of public audiences,” is an open-air pavilion housing the world’s largest sterling silver vessels, two silver pots weighing in at around 750 pounds each.
Admire the Stunning Symmetry of Chand Baori
One of the most beautiful and best-preserved stepwells in the country, this ancient Escher-esque stepwell (dating to the 9th or 10th century AD) located en route from Jaipur to Agra is celebrated for its beautiful symmetry. It may look familiar, as it’s featured in numerous films, including The Fall and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Experience Naga Tribal Culture at the Hornbill Festival
Northeast India is full of rich cultural customs all their own and nowhere is this more apparent than at the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland. During this annual event, members of different local tribes come together to showcase their local culinary and artistic traditions–visitors can expect everything from traditional dance performances to rock concerts featuring local bands. There’s also a night bazaar with all sorts of food items and handicrafts.
Taste the World’s Finest Teas
Synonymous with fine, delicate tea, Darjeeling is a charming mountain destination with colorful temples and a striking mix of Bengali and Nepali culture. This hilly destination is home to numerous colonial-era hotels and other structures, many of which feature fabulous tea shops featuring myriad local teas. For those serious about their tea education, many of the area’s plantations are open for tours–nearby Makaibari Tea Estate offers homestays and volunteer opportunities.
Cross Living Root Bridges
The forests of the Northeast state of Meghalaya are home to numerous “living root bridges,” handmade bridges shaped from the roots of rubber fig trees. Don’t miss the double-decker bridge in the village of Nongriat or the largest living root bridge, in Pynursla, which measures more than 50 meters long.
Visit Mother Teresa's Mission
Take a Sunrise Boat Ride on the Ganges River
Varanasi is an important pilgrimage city for Hindus who consider it the holiest city on earth (it’s also one of the oldest). One of the most popular activities here involves taking a sunrise boat ride to see pilgrims saying their early-morning prayers.
Party the Night Away
India’s party capital and home of its own brand of electronic music (the aptly named Goa trance), this beachside state offers tons of clubs and festivals for underground music enthusiasts. Popular nightlife spots include Tito’s in Baga, where club music and Bollywood prevail, or the outdoor Hilltop in Vagator, where the focus is on psychedelic trance and downtempo sounds.
Learn About Mahatma Gandhi at His Former Home
An excellent way to learn about one of the most famous and respected figures to come out of India is by visiting his former home, the Sabarmati Ashram. It was from here that Gandhi led his Salt March, considered a pinnacle event in India’s eventual independence. Today, the ashram is a museum filled with educational exhibits and artifacts.
Admire Intricate Erotic Temple Art
Often referred to as the “Kama Sutra temples” by overzealous touts, this UNESCO World Heritage site features stunning, gorgeously preserved temples dating back to the turn of the 10th century, many adorned with intricate erotic bas-reliefs. The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple is the largest temple on the complex and is considered among the most significant examples of medieval temple architecture on the subcontinent.
Explore Ancient Hindu and Buddhist Cave Temples
WHERE: Ajanta and Ellora
These two sets of cave temples are celebrated for their intricate interiors and sculptures dating back as early as the 2nd Century BC. The older caves are in Ajanta and feature primarily Buddhist imagery, while another 34 or so temples were carved from the basalt cliffs at Ellora from around the 7th century.
Sit Under the Bodhi Tree Where the Buddha Reached Enlightenment
WHERE: Bodh Gaya
Bodh Gaya is one of the world’s most sacred sites for Buddhists. This city is home to the famous Mahabodhi Temple Complex, which stands on the site where Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, is believed to have reached enlightenment. The Bodhi tree situated on the complex today is claimed to be a descendant of the original tree.
Catch a Train at the Bedazzling Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Station
This gorgeous landmark train station and UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the world’s finest examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture, which blends Victorian, Rajasthani, and Mughal influences. It’s also a working railway station and a good starting-off point for experiencing India’s extensive rail network.
Tour a Bollywood Studio
Celebrate Ganesha Chaturthi at Chowpatty Beach
This annual festival dedicated to the elephant-headed god Ganesh is celebrated with fervor in Mumbai, with 10 days of religious worship and celebration. It culminates with a procession of festival-goers who make their way to Chowpatty Beach to submerse huge idols of the deity into the Arabian Sea.
Related: India’s 12 Most Incredible Beaches
Indulge in Coffee and Croissants in a French Cafe
The former French colony of Puduchery (AKA Pondicherry) still retains much of its old Gallic looks, particularly in the charming French Quarter. This elegant sea-facing neighborhood is filled with tree-lined boulevards gorgeous, old colonial buildings painted in pastel hues, and plenty of French-inspired cafes and restaurants.
Snorkel or Dive in the Andaman Sea
WHERE: Andaman Islands
Though closer to Thailand than India, the stunning Andaman atoll features top-notch diving and all the white sand and crystalline water one could dream of. Tourism is restricted or prohibited throughout most of the Andamans, though the largest island, Havelock, offers plenty of lovely boutique guesthouses and intimate restaurants, with a fabulous coral reef just offshore.
Experience an Ayurvedic Detox
Kerala is the birthplace of Ayurveda, a traditional Indian system medicine that places a heavy emphasis on balance. Treatments are holistic, often involving some combination of doctor-recommended dietary plans, massages using medicinal oils, and herbal supplementation. Kerala is considered the place to go for an Ayurvedic wellness retreat, and there are numerous centers offering health and wellness programs throughout the state. A good start for those looking for a more resort-like experience is Somatheeram.
Take a Houseboat on a Backwater Cruise
This South Indian state is filled with quiet brackish water lagoons that have long served as aquatic thoroughfares for transporting goods and people from town to town. One of the most popular ways to explore the state is by cruising these waterways on your own slow-moving houseboat, either on a day tour or on a multi-night cruise. For an ultra-luxe experience, book the Oberoi Vrinda.
Watch the Sun Set and the Moon Rise at the Same Time
Kanyakumari is situated at India’s southernmost tip, and during the full moon, one can gaze out over the ocean to see the sun set and the moon rise at the same time. There are numerous viewpoints scattered across the southern coastline—some of the best views are from the sandy Hidden Twin Beach.
Explore the Historic Splendors of Mysore Palace
Situated in the Old Fort of the South Indian city of Mysore, Ambavilas Palace (AKA Mysore Palace) is among the finest examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture on earth. Features include stunning interiors full of gilded columns and mosaic floors, plus a glorious collection of art, ceremonial objects, dolls, and religious iconography.
Search for Peace in a 1960s-Era Commune
This communal township just outside of Pondicherry was founded in the mid 1960s as an experiment in international living, and people with origins from all over the world live here, semi-communally, to this day. At the heart of the property sits the Matrimandir, a meditation hall housed in a giant golden geodesic dome that resembles an oversized golf ball.