The phrase “the journey is the destination” was made for India.
When crossing the subcontinent, every step of every journey is filled with sights, sounds and sensations that will consume your senses and shake up everything you thought you knew about travel. Traveling by road might seem a particularly ambitious proposition. Driving on highways that throng with handcarts, cattle, camels, monkeys and people requires nerves of steel and the patience of a Buddhist master. But a road trip in India is perfectly possible if you pick your routes – and your vehicle – wisely.
The first thing to know is that you don’t need to drive yourself. Hiring a car with a driver is easy, and in the foothills of the Himalayas, you can hire “jeeps” with drivers who are quite happy to power over mountain passes on tracks only marginally wider than their vehicles.
With the hassles of navigating India’s hectic roads, many travelers opt to explore India by motorcycle or bicycle – a self-drive experience that will immerse you deep in the rural communities that a lot of visitors pass by.
So grab your sense of adventure and get ready to hit the road with this guide to the best road trips in India.
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1. India’s Golden Triangle
Best for Mughal monuments
Delhi–Delhi; 1120km (690 miles); allow 5 days
Short and sweet, the loop from Delhi to Agra and Jaipur packs a lot of wonders into a few days of driving. Begin the adventure in Delhi, where the ruins of eight cities tell the story of India’s greatest Islamic empires. Hit the city’s highlights, including Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, the Jama Masjid and the bazaars of Chandni Chowk, which have changed only superficially since Shah Jahan’s time.
With your own vehicle, it’s easy to swing by the sacred cities of Mathura and Vrindavan, where Krishna frolicked with milkmaids in the Hindu epics. After these peaceful stops, steel yourself for a mix of the stressful and sublime in Agra, where the glorious Taj Mahal more than lives up to its reputation, as compensation for the hassles and scams. Find more Mughal magnificence at nearby Fatehpur Sikri, the abandoned city founded by Akbar. Once you follow NH21 to Jaipur, you’ll share every fort, palace and mystical observatory with a crowd, so make the most of your experience with a detour.
Detour: Before zooming west from Fatehpur Sikri to Jaipur, consider a detour south to Gwalior, whose beautiful fort is less mobbed than other stops on this circuit. Before you complete the third side of the triangle, tack on one more detour to spot tigers stalking ruined battlements in Ranthambhore National Park before diving back into the urban chaos.
Head to Ladakh for a high-altitude road trip in the Himalayas © Sudip Bhar / Shutterstock
2. Manali to Ladakh across the Himalaya
Best for Buddhist serenity
Manali–Srinagar; 800km (500 miles); allow 10 days
You could follow the mountain circuit from Shimla to Ladakh and on to Kashmir by rented “jeep,” but we strongly recommend traveling by rented Enfield Bullet motorcycle for the life-affirming drama of pulling over by the roadside to find yourself utterly alone in these high-altitude deserts in the rain shadow of the Himalayas.
From the nostalgic hill station of Shimla, with its front-row mountain views, head north to the hippy hill resort of Manali. From here, it’s a two-day slog over the 3978m (13,051ft) Rohtang La to Leh, through a landscape plucked straight from the Silk Road. There’s little vegetation and even less shade, and the cold and altitude will hit you like a sledgehammer. Recuperate with trips to Buddhist monasteries and yoga classes in Leh, then hit the road again for a very different take on the Himalayas in Kashmir.
The highway west to Srinagar connects a string of ancient Buddhist gompas (temples), but as the hills turn from dust-yellow to lush green, the culture shifts from Buddhism to Islam as the minarets of Srinagar loom into view. The Kashmir valley is sometimes troubled, but when it’s calm, the experience of watching Dal Lake appearing slowly through the morning mist from the deck of a houseboat is simply sublime.
3. Rajasthan’s Color Cities
Best for desert colors
Jaipur–Jaipur; 1630km (1015 miles); allow 10 days
Desert driving in Rajasthan is an experience. Mighty fortresses loom dramatically out of the landscape, and you’ll share the dusty highways with camel carts and Rajput old-timers with vividly colored turbans and enormous mustaches. Kick-off in Jaipur – the pink city – touring pink-sandstone palaces, bustling bazaars and the awe-inspiring fortress at Amber.
Follow NH48 to the Jain and Muslim pilgrimage center of Ajmer, and duck west to reach famous Pushkar, with its temple-circled lake and legendary camel fair in October or November. Return to NH48 for the rumbling ride to Udaipur, the white city – coiled like a silk scarf around the still waters of Lake Pichola. Dose up on ice-white palaces, then deviate west to the temple-strewn hill station of Mt Abu and veer north.
As you enter Jodhpur, you’ll immediately spot the lapis-colored buildings that earned the Blue City its name – the homes of brahmins, priests in the Hindu caste system. Get another blast of Rajput military might at Mehrangarh Fort, then drive west through serious desert country to the sand-yellow city of Jaisalmer, whose fortified walls look almost carved from the desert itself. Close off the loop via Bikaner, where you’ll leave the tourist crowds behind before diving back into the thick of things in Jaipur.
Expect the unexpected when road-tripping in India © Dchauy / Shutterstock
4. Hampi and the Hoysalas
Best for temples
Mysuru–Gokarna; 1060km (659 miles); allow 10 days
For many travelers, visiting the time-tumbled ruins of the Vijayanagar kingdom at Hampi is the most memorable experience of a trip to India. Start off in Mysuru (formerly Mysore), with its mesmerizing markets, fiery vegetarian cuisine and inimitable maharaja’s palace. Rumble north on the backroads to fascinating Sravanabelagola with its naked 17m (57ft) statue of Gomateshvara, the first tirthankar (spiritual teacher) of the Jain religion.
The temples keep coming in Karnataka. Slingshot through Hassan to Belur and Halebid, where the temples of the Hoysala Empire represent perhaps the zenith of the Hindu temple-building art. A three-hour drive east will drop you in Karnataka’s capital, Bengaluru, known for its cosmopolitan dining, shopping and nightlife. It’s a long drive to reach Hosapete, leaping off point for the ruins at Hampi.
Allow at least two days to explore Hampi’s tumbledown temples and time travel across centuries. Next, duck onto the backroads to reach Badami, where blood-colored cliffs are pock-marked with cave temples.
Detour: Tack on a side trip to Aihole, dotted with dusty ruins from the ancient Chalukya kingdom, then finish on the beach with some well-earned R&R in Gokarna, part pilgrim-town, part beach retreat.
5. Kolkata to Darjeeling
Best for Himalayan views and side treks
Kolkata–Yuksom; 808km (502 miles); allow 8 days
Eastern India is often overlooked by the crowds who surge north from Delhi, but the journey through West Bengal to the foothills of 8586m (28,169ft) Mt Khangchendzonga has an epic sense of mission. Start in chaotic, cultured Kolkata, visiting ashrams, temples and architecture reclaimed from the British. Fit in a tour of the tiger-stalked swamps of the Sunderbans before you head for the hills.
The journey north takes you past little-visited country towns to cultured Shantiniketan, a university town with a long history of dance, theater and poetry. From here, you’ll strike north to reach the emerald-green tea plantations and delightfully dated grand hotels of Darjeeling, where you’ll likely catch your first up-close views of the Himalayas.
To get intimate with the snow peaks, book onto the Singalila Ridge trek or edge even closer to Mt Khangchendzonga by picking up a permit for Buddhist Sikkim. A route through Kalimpong, Gangtok and Pelling will reveal the kinds of views that make mountaineers itch for their ice axes. To cap it all off, you can get within touching distance of the snows on the trek to the Goecha La from Yuksom.
Head south from Mumbai for the ultimate drive down to Goa © Neil Emmerson / Getty Images
6. Mumbai to Goa
Best for beaches
Mumbai–Palolem; 650km (404 miles); allow one week
Short journeys don’t mean scrimping on excitement in India. From brash and brilliant Mumbai, pick up NH66 and head south, detouring down to the coast to explore fascinating forts such as Murud-Janjira, a legacy of centuries of conquest. Pull into the low-key seaside resorts at Ganpatipule and Malvan before you hit the busy beaches of Goa.
As you roll into northern Goa, swing by the famous market in Anjuna and the fun-filled beach hubs at Baga and Calangute. Onward to Panaji, Goa’s charming Portuguese-colonial capital, and the timeworn basilicas of Old Goa – a more important city than London or Lisbon in the 16th century.
The mood changes as you roll south to laid-back Agonda, the center of Goa’s nascent surfing scene. It changes again as you head inland through green hills dotted with spice farms for a peek at thundering Dudhsagar Falls, India’s second-highest cascade. Finish up on the sand-sprinkled shore at lovely Palolem (making time for a bird-spotting hike at nearby Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary).
7. A drive through the northeast
Best for tribal encounters
Guwahati–Guwahati; 1700km (1056 miles); allow two weeks
With a hired “jeep” and a driver who can speak local languages, a fascinating journey through the varied cultures of the Northeast States awaits. Start in Guwahati, the under-explored capital of Assam, and follow the mighty Brahmaputra River northeast to Kaziranga National Park for close encounters with one-horned Indian rhinos. Onwards to Arunachal Pradesh and the awesome Buddhist monasteries of the Tawang Valley (local travel agencies can arrange a permit).
Add on a wander through the tribal communities of Ziro and Daporijo, and loop back through Upper Assam, continuing east to the fascinating Konyak Naga villages around Mon in northern Nagaland. Ricochet back to the plains via Kohima (ideally in December to catch the Hornbill Festival), then climb up onto the high plateau of Meghalaya, where markets sell bows and arrows as day-to-day essentials, before barrelling downhill from Shillong to Guwahati.
Planning tip: Bring supplies with you – roads are rough, and creature comforts are limited, but the experience is unparalleled.
Factor in time for excursions like kayaking in Kerala © Vinu Sebastian / Shutterstock
8. Around the tip of India
Best for southern spice
Kochi–Kochi; 807km (501 miles); allow seven days
The bottom end of India is a different country again. Start the journey through India’s steamy south in historic Kochi, whose ancient streets tell a timeless tale of seafaring, trade and Kerala spices. As you roam south to Alappuzha, ditch the car for a day to explore the fascinating, waterlogged backwaters by boat.
As you pass through Amrithapuri, you can pause for a hug from a living guru before soaking up some rays on Kerala’s loveliest beaches at Varkala and whooshing through Thiruvananthapuram (pause just long enough for some incendiary Kerala curries) to the southern tip of India. From here, you’ll head inland, through drier, rockier Tamil Nadu, to reach Madurai, whose temple towers groan under the weight of deities and demons.
The trip back to Kochi will take you through the Palani Hills, a side spur of the Western Ghats, where the landscape surges upwards to Kodaikanal, perhaps the most charming of India’s southern hill stations, with just the right mix of faded British-era nostalgia and India vim. Grab a cuppa amidst swirling tea plantations in Munnar, South India’s top tea-growing center, before you return to the coast.
9. Chennai to Puducherry (Pondicherry)
Best for cultural variety
Chennai–Puducherry; 232km (144 miles); allow three to four days
For a short, sweet and spicy trip along India’s southeast coast, consider the three-day trip from Chennai south to Puducherry (Pondicherry), taking in some contrasting visions of how colonial India changed once the European interlopers packed their bags. Start in Chennai, with its vast beach, famous-name ashrams and delicious vegetarian cuisine, then track south along the coast, wedged between the sea and the salt lake.
Stop one is the surprising surf resort at Kovalam (Covelong), a worthy stop en route to Mamallapuram, where you can view a riot of carvings and temples created by the Pallava dynasty. Duck inland to see the ancient Pallava capital at Kanchipuram, then return to the coast to close out the trip at charming Puducherry, formerly Pondicherry, where a Gallic air pervades – best experienced in heritage hotels in the old French Quarter. Just be warned: some spiritually-minded travelers pull into the famous ashram at Auroville just north of “Pondy” and never leave!
Road tripping in India by motorcycle is not for newbie riders © May_Chanikran / Getty Images
Top tips for hiring a car and driver in India
You’ll find drivers offering their services at taxi and “jeep” stands all over India, or you can make arrangements through hotels and travel agencies. Check that the driver speaks enough English to understand where you want to go and where you want to stop, and confirm that the driver is able to cross state lines – some vehicles are only licensed to operate in certain areas.
You’ll need to agree on a price for the trip before you start, and the cost should include fuel, accommodation and food for the driver for multi-day trips. Expect to pay the equivalent of around US$30 per day. Be clear with your driver about what you want from your journey; if you want to avoid stops at tourist shops and commission-paying venues, be firm from the outset.
Exploring India by motorcycle or bike is for experienced riders
India’s roads are not for fair-weather motorcyclists, but if you have a few miles under your belt and fancy a challenge, it’s a fabulous way to explore this enormous country. Veteran hire companies such as Lalli Singh Tours in Delhi have sent hundreds of travelers off on journeys across India, from the steamy southern jungles to the high passes of the Himalayas.
The best advice we can give is to ride slowly and defensively, always give way to larger vehicles, and carry a full repair kit and spares – and know how to use them! The nostalgic British-designed Enfield Bullet is the vehicle of choice for many travelers, but it’s a heavy brute; newer machines from the likes of Bajaj are lighter and easier to handle.
If you plan to pedal your way around India by bicycle, carry plenty of puncture repair kits and bring lights and high visibility gear. If you don’t want to transport your own bike into the country, consider flying into Delhi and buying a bike at the Jhandewalan Cycle Market.