There are many Indias within India.
This land of ancient temples and opulent palaces, forgotten cities and lost traditions, spice markets and spicy food is almost a world unto itself, and a visit here is often the trip of a lifetime.
Such expectations can make it hard to decide just which experiences to take in – which is why we’ve created this list of the best things to do in India.
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1. Experience Varanasi at dawn
The best way to experience the timelessness of Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, is to start just before dawn breaks. At Assi Ghat on the Ganges, the devotional Ganga Aarti ceremony will mesmerize as participants intone rhythmic chants and hymns on steps that descend to the holy river. Next, take to the water in a small boat, watching the sun rise as life slowly starts to stir along the river.
Suddenly, there will be a burst of activity as saffron-clad sadhus (holy men), vendors, devotees, and tourists begin performing rituals, including yoga and singing. A 2-hour boat ride across the Ganges will pass the main Dashashwamedh Ghat toward Manikarnika Ghat, where funeral pyres burn as the dead are cremated. In Varanasi, death is a way of life.
Planning tip: We recommend a visit to a traditional akhara to see wrestlers practice in a traditional mud pit in the early morning. End your tour with some soulful food: a typical Varanasi breakfast of deep-fried kachoris stuffed with spicy lentils and served with spicy gravy of potatoes. Finish the meal on a sweet note with melt-in-mouth jalebis (fried dough).
A visit to the Taj Mahal is a highlight of any trip to India © Pete Seaward / Lonely Planet
2. Set your eyes – and lens – on the iconic Taj Mahal
The iconic, romantic symbol pictured on every India travel brochure, the Taj Mahal in Agra really is a reliable highlight of any trip here. Despite incessant tourist crowds, you can count on gazing in wonder at this marbled mausoleum built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his wife, Mumtaz.
While it’s hard to get a bad shot of the Taj, the most vivid photos are usually taken at sunrise and sunset from Mehtab Bagh, the Mughal garden across the Yamuna River. Arrive just before dawn and watch the colors change on this sublime monument dedicated to eternal love; over the course of a single day, the sun paints the marble with different hues, transforming the dome from pale pink at sunrise to orange at sunset. Depending on weather conditions, optical illusions are possible.
Planning tip: Special tickets are sold for visits on an evening with a full moon. They can be bought in person 24 hours in advance at Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) 22 Mall Road, Agra, and you will need to bring your ID.
3. Demystify the Kama Sutra story behind Khajuraho
As you stand in front of erotic sculptures of figures locked in improbable positions, you can almost feel the passion. Perhaps no other heritage destination evokes as much wonder and curiosity as the temples of Khajuraho built nearly 1000 years ago. And yet guides will painstakingly tell you that barely a tenth of the master carvings in the 22 temples that have been excavated here are dedicated to the Kama Sutra.
As you immerse yourself in the narratives, you can decide for yourself why the Chandela, an ancient Rajput clan, chose to depict eroticism on the walls of the temples dedicated to both Hindu and Jain deities. Be sure not to miss one of the oldest surviving Tantric temples, dedicated to the Chausath Yogini (64 Tantric goddesses): the cells might be bereft of the idols, yet the architecture, in ruins, is fascinating.
Planning tip: You will need a day to explore all of Khajuraho’s temples; start as early as possible to capture the dawn light in your photos.
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Spot Bengal tigers in the mangrove forests of India’s Sundarbans © Soumyajit Nandy / Shutterstock
4. Explore the world’s largest mangrove forests in the Sundarbans
The wild and remote biodiversity hot spot of Sundarbans National Park is where three mighty rivers – the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna – join the Bay of Bengal. A maze of mangrove forests, swamps and mudflats, riverine islands and numerous canals that you can explore by boat, the Sundarbans is perhaps most famous for its population of Bengal tigers who roam its brackish channels.
With its serpentine network of roots, the dark and dense undergrowth provides hiding spots for crocodiles, snakes and other predators. Look out for the different varieties of kingfishers, raptors and water birds from observation towers that give you a bird’s-eye view of the area. Village walks are possible on a handful of islands as resilient locals tell you harrowing tales of living amid devastating cyclones and treacherous wildlife in this delicate and unforgettable ecosystem.
5. Camp under the stars in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan
With an entire galaxy to keep you entertained for the night, sleeping among the wavy, undulating sand dunes of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert is something that stays with you forever. Near Jaisalmer, a number of desert camps are pitched across the windswept Sam Sand Dunes, which rise to more than 50m (164ft) in height, creating magical mirages before your eyes. Go on a camel safari along with a caravan to experience the sunset as you’ve never seen it.
Planning tip: In town, take an unmissable wander through the old temples and colorful markets of majestic Jaisalmer Fort, which 5000 people still call home. If you’re fascinated by the supernatural, head to the abandoned Kuldhara ghost town, which is believed to be haunted, especially at night.
Amritsar’s Golden Temple has an astounding spiritual energy © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet
6. Feel the presence of the divine at the Golden Temple, Amritsar
The best time to experience Amritsar’s sublime Golden Temple is at 4am (5am in winter) when the revered scripture of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, gets installed into the temple for the day amid the hum of ritual chanting. With the moon still shining, the entire complex is lit up as the shimmering gold of the dome reflects in the surrounding pond, Amrit Sarovar (the Reservoir of Nectar).
With hospitality and charity key values for Sikhs, this gurdwara (place of worship) is open to anyone of any faith. The incredible community kitchen called the Guru-Ka-Langar offers free, simple, vegetarian meals throughout the day for up to 100,000 devotees.
7. Cruise the Kerala backwaters
A maze of small canals, brackish lagoons, silent rivers, and still rivulets interconnected with the Arabian Sea, the backwaters of Kerala offer a completely different side to India for travelers and a lifeline of farming and fishing for locals. You can choose your own adventure as you make your way through the maze of channels and lakes. During an overnight cruise on a kettuvallam (houseboat), you might go fishing, visit small villages, do some bird watching or sit back and watch the world go slowly by.
Planning tip: Many itineraries start in Alappuzha, to the south of Kochi.
Views of the Ladakh landscapes from Lamayuru Monastery are unmissable © Beerpixs / Getty Images
8. Visit the ancient monasteries of Ladakh
Ladakh leaves people breathless – both figuratively and literally. You’ll need time to acclimatize to a state that was once a Buddhist kingdom, with stark and vivid landscapes that sit between 3000–6000m (10,000–20,000ft) above sea level. Dotted with snow-clad mountains, icy glaciers, wild meadows, and valleys in the lowlands, plus rivers and high-altitude lakes that change color depending on the light, the region is popular with hikers, bikers, and adventure enthusiasts. In winter, travelers come here for snow leopard expeditions and treks across the frozen Zanskar River.
Chortens (Tibetan Buddhist stupas) and gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries) are scattered across this cold desert and are a great way to understand more about Buddhism. The region’s oldest monastery is at Alchi, though Thiksey, Stok, and Hemis gompas, closer to the capital Leh, are the most popular with visitors.
Planning tip: Do not miss views of Ladakh’s moonscapes from Lamayuru Monastery.
9. Spend a day at Raghurajpur Arts and Crafts Village in Odisha
Located near the temple town of Puri in Odisha, colorful Raghurajpur Arts and Crafts Village is a living gallery. Home to chitrakaars (folk artists), the village showcases traditional pata chitra paintings, tributes to the triad deities from the Puri Jagannath Temple. Each canvas here is specially prepared with layers of cotton cloth: tribal motifs, folk stories, myths and legends are the subjects of the artworks. Expect the artists here to invite you into their homes to see murals that fill walls.
Besides the patachitra, there are tussar silk paintings, toys and palm-leaf engravings. You can also see live demonstrations or try your hand at creating your own piece of art. And don’t miss the traditional Gotipua dance, a riveting performance by young boys that you can watch during practices at a local gurukul (dance academy).
The architecture of Hampi is simply extraordinary © Dmytro Gilitukha / Shutterstock
10. Explore the ruins of Hampi
If the ruins of Hampi could speak, they would narrate a glorious tale of a powerful and prosperous kingdom whose rulers built magnificent temples, palaces and monuments; traded precious stones in vast bazaars; and contributed immensely to the art, architecture and culture and literature of India. Founded by two brothers under the guidance of their spiritual guru Sri Vidyaranya some 600 years ago, Hampi was once the capital of the Vijayanagar Empire, which ruled the Deccan Plateau of South India for centuries.
The site sprawls over several sectors of grouped monuments, including the Royal Enclosure and the Temple Trail, of which the still-active Virupaksha Temple is the nucleus. The centerpiece of any Hampi visit is the Vittala Temple, an architectural marvel featuring an elaborately carved stone chariot (it’s pictured on India’s 50 rupee note).
Planning tip: Allow at least three to four days to fully explore this special place.
11. Explore Goa beyond the beaches
Goa is not just a destination; it’s a state of mind. Its very name evokes images of sun, sand and sea – and while Goa’s beaches are the main attraction here (tip: opt for the less-crowded shores of South Goa), the small state’s riverine islands, mangrove swamps, dense forests, and spice and cashew plantations are memorable and sensuous experiences in themselves.
Cruise the Zuari River and narrow canals bordered by mangroves at dawn to spot six varieties of kingfishers, among other water birds. In the inland forests, hidden temples reward hikers. For more nature, visit Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary with its mighty Dudhsagar Falls – especially post-monsoon, when they’re at full force.
The Rann of Kachchh salt desert is a seasonal phenomenon that dazzles – literally © Shikha a / Shutterstock
12. Be dazzled by the Rann of Kachchh salt desert
Be sure to pack your sunglasses: the sparkling sodium chloride crystals of the White Rann, one of the world’s largest salt deserts, literally dazzle. The Rann of Kachchh (Kutch) in Gujarat is divided into the Greater and Lesser Rann (the White Rann is part of the former), a unique ecosystem in which shallow mudflats are submerged during the monsoons. As they evaporate, the wetlands transform into an ocean of salt, a seasonal phenomenon seen only in winter.
Planning tip: The landscape is especially mesmerizing at sunrise and sunset; evening visits during full-moon evenings are another treat.
13. See larger-than-life sculptures at the Great Living Chola Temples
Located in Tamil Nadu, the 1200-year-old Great Living Chola Temples leave visitors both spellbound and humbled. These mighty monuments include Brihadishwara Temple in the southern city of Thanjavur, built by King Raja Raja Chola I in the 10th century. The soaring 63.4m-high (208ft) vimana (tower above the shrine) is one of the largest of any Hindu temple anywhere (hence its nickname, the Big Temple).
Raja Raja Chola’s son, Rajendra Chola, ambitiously set out to create a bigger version of his father’s temple at Gangaikondacholapuram. But for mysterious reasons, he never completed the complex. A century later, in a small town called Darasuram, the third temple was erected by Raja Raja Chola II. If the first two Brihadeshwara temples are larger-than-life marvels, the Airavateswarar Temple is an ode to mastery of a smaller scale and a tribute to the craftsmanship of the era. Each of the temples is dedicated primarily to Shiva, although there is a pantheon of Hindu deities carved as well.
Planning tip: You’ll need a day to explore all three temples, which are still in active use. It’s best to visit them either early in the morning or in the evenings.
14. Discover hidden treasures in the villages of Chettinadu
A cultural and colorful mosaic of arts, crafts, architecture, food, and traditions, Chettinadu is a collection of 75 villages in Tamil Nadu that were once home to an affluent mercantile community called the Nagarathar Chettiars. The merchants grew rich off trading in jewelry and spices; when most of them left for better prospects elsewhere, they left behind their homes – a cultural reminder of their cosmopolitan community and the wealth they accumulated.
Aptly titled nattukottai (regional forts), each home is a larger-than-life fortified palace, sometimes occupying areas of up to 3700 sq m (39,826 sq ft). Colorful facades feature arches, pillars, sculptures, and friezes – yet it’s the interiors that truly amaze, with Belgian mirrors and chandeliers, Italian marble, Japanese artworks, Spanish tiles, Burmese teak and other luxurious components from around the world.
Villages such as Karaikudi, Kanadukathan, Devakottai, Kothamangalam, Pallathur, and Kottaiyur all feature houses up to 200 years old. While most of them have been abandoned, a few have been converted into luxury hotels. A fusion of art deco, Dravidian, and colonial architectural styles, these houses are fascinating to take in on a tour. Some can also be entered for a small fee.
15. Look for India’s Big Five
On thrilling 4WD safaris through the dense forests of wildlife sanctuaries, you can look out for India’s Big Five: tigers, elephants, leopards, sloth bears and gaurs (Indian bison). There are over 100 national parks and tiger reserves spread across the country, including the venerable Jim Corbett National Park; Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna in Madhya Pradesh; Pench and Tadoba-Adhari in Maharashtra; Ranthambore in Rajasthan; Nagarhole and Bandipur in Karnataka; Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu; and many, many more.
Farther afield, Kaziranga National Park in Assam brings sightings of the critically endangered one-horned rhinoceros, while snow leopards populate Hemis National Park in Ladakh and lions congregate in Gujarat’s Gir National Park. The Kabini Reservoir in Karnataka draws massive herds of elephants, especially in summer; bird watchers are also in for a delight as over 1300 species are found here.
Planning tip: Throughout the country, early-morning safaris tend to be the most rewarding, although evening safaris bring magic light. Late summer is the best time for spotting wildlife, though national parks are closed during the early-summer monsoon.