Places to Visit in India
From vibrant cities to World Heritage sites, our list of the top twenty places to visit in India will show you the best of this diverse and multi-dimensional country.
From the snow-dusted mountains of the far north to the sun-washed beaches of the deep south, tranquil temples to frenetic bazaars, lantern-lit villages to software-supremo cities, there are so many weird and wonderful places to visit in India. It’s not possible to see everything India has to offer in one trip, and we don’t suggest you try. What follows is a selective taste of the country’s top picks: UNESCO World Heritage Sites, vibrant cities and, most importantly, unforgettable experiences. Visit these places and your journey through this intoxicating country will blaze in your memory long after you’ve left its shores.
Top 20 Places to Visit in India
20. Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram)
A visit to the spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) is an excellent introduction to South Indian temple architecture. This once-thriving port city extends across a boulder-strewn landscape and comprises rock-cut caves and monolithic shrines, structural temples and huge bas-reliefs that are considered one of the greatest examples of Indian art. The stone-carving tradition that created these wonders is still alive in the many workshops scattered around the village. A saunter through the town’s great carvings and temples at sunset, when the sandstone turns bonfire orange and blood red and modern carvers tink-tink with their chisels on the street, enflames the imagination.
A visit to South India is incomplete without a trip to Mysore. An ancient city with more than 600 glorious years of legacy, Mysore is one of the most flamboyant places in India. A city of palatial buildings and tree-lined boulevards, laid-back Mysore is possessed of a quaint charm, a dignified hangover from the days when it was the capital of a rich princely state. Known for its glittering royal heritage, bustling markets, magnificent monuments, cosmopolitan culture and a friendly populace, it is also a thriving centre for the production of premium silk, sandalwood and incense. It also flaunts considerable expertise in yoga and ayurveda, two trades it markets worldwide.
India’s second-biggest city, Kolkata is regarded as India’s intellectual and cultural capital. Despite its unfortunate perception, it attracts its fair share of visitors, many of whom are pleasantly surprised by the seductive charms of this intoxicating city. It is home to a joyous, celebral, and sophisticated community; some of the best Raj-era architecture in India; many of the country’s best artists; a thriving film industry; and a host of superb restaurants. Kolkata is also the natural starting point for a trip to the Himalayan mountains of the North. Friendlier than India’s other mega-cities, this is a city you ‘feel’ more than simply visit.
Spreading around the shores of the idyllic Lake Pichola and backdropped by a majestic ring of craggy green hills, Udaipur encapsulates India at its most quintessentially romantic, with its intricate sequence of ornately turreted and balconied palaces, whitewashed havelis and bathing ghats clustered around the waters of the lake – or, in the case of the Lake Palace hotel and Jag Mandir, floating magically upon them. The city is dominated by the massive City Palace with countless narrow, crooked, colourful streets and the lively bazaars of the old walled city stretching behind it.
Located in the northwestern state of Punjab, a wealthy and prosperous region and home to the majority of India’s Sikhs, Amritsar is also the unlikely site of India’s most dazzling temple. A shimmering monument in marble, bronze, and gold leaf, and a vivid architectural celebration of Sikhism’s devotion, The Golden Temple is both fascinating and spiritually invigorating, combining sheer physical beauty with a truly sacred atmosphere. The gold-plated gurdwara glitters in the middle of its sacred pool of placid water and draws millions of pilgrims from all over the world. A welcome escape from the frenetic bazaars, this gilded temple is rated by many tourists as a glowing highlight of their visit to India.
In the remote westernmost corner of Rajasthan, Jaisalmer is the quintessential desert town, its sand-yellow ramparts rising out of the arid Thar desert like a scene from the Arabian Nights. Rampart commercialism has dampened the romantic vision somewhat; however, the town deservedly remains one of Rajasthan’s biggest tourist destinations. Villagers from outlying settlements, dressed in red and orange odhnis or voluminous turbans, still outnumber foreigners in the bazaar, while the exquisite golden sandstone fort and magnificent havelis of the “Golden City” is quite unlike anything else in India. The biggest drawcard here is the overnight camel treks into the surrounding Thar Desert.
14. Bandhavgarh National Park
If your sole reason for visiting a national park in India is to see a tiger, look no further than Bandhavgarh National Park. A couple of days at this tiger reserve will almost guarantee you a tiger sighting in this relatively small park that boasts the highest density of tigers in India. Best of all, you will approach your predator on elephant-back, giving the entire experience a totally unreal air. Besides the sought-after tiger, the sanctuary is home to spotted deer, sambar, nilgai antelope, barking deer, shy chinkara (Indian gazelle), and wild boar; leopards and sloth bears are far more elusive. The varied topography includes dramatic cliffs that are home to the 14th-century Bandhavgarh Fort.
13. Puducherry (Pondicherry)
The seaside colony of Puducherry (Pondicherry) retains its French élan, tempered by South Indian warmth, making it one of India’s most relaxing destinations. For anyone familiar with the British colonial imprint, the town can induce culture shock to see richly ornamented Catholic churches, French road names and policemen in De Gaulle-style kepis, not to mention hearing French spoken in the street and seeing boules played in the dusty squares. After hanging out in your antiques-filled colonial hotel and sauntering around the broad boulevards of the tranquil French Quarter, it comes as a pleasant shock to step over the “Grand Canal” into a typical Tamil town, where cracked pavements are jam-packed with people and shops, and wares on offer blend Indian craftsmanship with Western-influenced designs.
The magnificent group of temples at Khajuraho, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, represent the pinnacle of North Indian temple art and architecture. These immaculately preserved temples are famous for their erotic sculptures, images that are almost as intimately associated with India as the Taj and are among the finest temple art in the world. The temples also represent an outstanding synthesis of advanced architecture and refined sculpture, and their beauty means that a trip here should definitely be included in your itinerary of India’s historic monuments.
A flamboyant showcase of Rajasthani architecture, Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, has long been established on tourist itineraries as the third corner of India’s “Golden Triangle”. At the heart of Jaipur lies the Pink City, the old walled quarter, whose bazaars rank among the most vibrant in Asia, renowned above all for hand-dyed and embroidered textiles and jewellery. At the city’s heart, the City Palace continues to house the former royal family, the Jantar Mantar, the royal observatory, maintains a heavenly aspect, and the honeycomb Hawa Mahal gazes on the bazaar below. And just out of sight, in the arid hill country surrounding the city, is the fairytale grandeur of Amber Fort.
Home to the most prolific film industry, one of Asia’s biggest slums and the largest tropical forest in an urban zone, Mumbai is India’s most dynamic, cosmopolitan and crowded city. Mumbai is also a city of striking contrasts and a visit to this Indian capital will allow you contrast modern India with its historic past. Here skyscrapers stand next to stately Victorian buildings, noisy traditional bazaars adjoin glittering new shopping malls, and opulent neighbourhoods are surrounded by sprawling slums. Between the fantastical architecture and the modern skyscrapers, the fine dining and the frenetic streets, the urban grit and suburban glamour, the madness and the mayhem, you will find a city worth exploring.
9. Ajanta Caves
The ancient cave temples at Ajanta are among the finest historical sites India has to offer, and a detour to this far-flung region of Maharashtra to view this World Heritage Site is well worth the effort. Fiercely guarding its hoard of priceless artistic treasures from another era, the Buddhist caves of Ajanta could well be called the Louvre of ancient India. Extraordinarily beautiful murals, dating from 200 BC to 650 AD, adorn the walls of 30 rock-cut caves chiselled into basalt cliffs. In addition to the exquisite carvings and paintings depicting the Buddha’s former lives, the architecture and towering stupas are stunning works of art.
Unreal and bewitching, the forlorn ruins of Hampi dot an unearthly landscape that will leave you spellbound the moment you cast your eyes on it. Heaps of giant boulders perch precariously over miles of undulated terrain, their rusty hues offset by jade-green palm groves, banana plantations and paddy fields. A World Heritage site, Hampi is a place where you can lose yourself among wistful ruins, or be mesmerised by the vagaries of nature, wondering how millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion could have resulted in a landscape so captivating. Or you could simply watch the sunset cast a rosy glow over the dreamy landscape and forget what planet you’re on.
Spread in ribbons over a steep mountain ridge, surrounded by emerald-green tea plantations and with a backdrop of jagged white Himalayan peaks floating over distant clouds, the archetypal hill station of Darjeeling is one of India’s premier attractions. When you aren’t gazing at Kanchenjunga (the third-highest mountain in the world), you can explore colonial-era buildings, visit Buddhist monasteries, take plenty of walks in the surrounding hills and spot snow leopards and red pandas at the nearby zoo. Take the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway’s toy train there or back to experience one of India’s most spectacular train journeys.
Like a subcontinental Rome – India’s capital Delhi is punctuated by vestiges of lost empires: ancient forts freckle the suburbs; Old Delhi was once the capital of Islamic India; the British built New Delhi, with its exaggerated avenues; and even-newer Delhi features utopian malls linked by potholed roads. The big lures are the atmospheric ruins on every corner (the remains of seven historical cities) and the crumbling splendour of Old Delhi with the majestic Jama Masjid, Red Fort and other monuments of the historic Mughal capital. Plus, brilliant museums, spectacular food and Chandni Chowk – a 400-year old bazaar – make this city a buzzing international metropolis which draws people from across India and the globe.
Cradled by the Karakoram and Great Himalayan ranges and criss-crossed by a myriad of razor-sharp peaks and ridges, Ladakh offers a window on a unique Himalayan landscape and culture that, until 1974, had only been glimpsed by a few intrepid Western travellers. Sparsely populated Ladakh is a high altitude desert. Its harsh lines are softened by the emerald green of oasis villages, the crystal light of cloudless blue skies, and the dramatic silhouettes of ancient Buddhist monasteries which, for many visitors, are Ladakh’s main attraction. Prayer flags blow in the wind, the sound of monks chanting reverberates in meditation halls, and locals bring offerings, all in the shadows of the mighty Himalayas.
It’s green, it’s glistening and it’s gorgeous: just three of the reasons why Goa has allured travellers for decades. Two million visitors come each year for the silken sand, crystalline shores, cocohut culture and ‘laid-backness’. With palm-tree groves on one side of the white sands and gently lapping waves on the other, the best of Goa’s beaches live up to your image of a tropical paradise. However, there’s more to discover here than the pleasure of warm sand between your toes. Goa is as beautiful and culturally rich as it is tiny and hassle-free, so you can go bird-watching in a butterfly-filled forest, marvel at centuries-old cathedrals, venture out to white-water waterfalls or meander the capital’s charming alleyways, all in between lazy beach days.
A crumbling maze of a city that rises from the ghats (steps) on the western banks of the Ganges, Varanasi is in many senses the quintessential India. One of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth, Varanasi may turn out to be your favourite stop in all of India if you’re ready for it. Most visitors agree it’s a magical place, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Here the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public and the sights, sounds and smells in and around the ghats can be overwhelming. Varanasi is unique, and a walk along the ghats or a boat ride on the river will live long in your memory.
One of India’s most beautiful states, Kerala is a world away from the frenzy of India. Besides its famous backwaters, elegant houseboats and delicately spiced, taste-bud-tingling cuisine, Kerala also offers azure seas, white crescents of beach, and evocative ex-colonial trading towns. Then there are the mountainous Ghats carpeted by spices and tea plantations, home to wild elephants, exotic birds and the odd tiger; and crazily vibrant traditions such as Kathakali – a blend of religious play and dance; kalarippayat – a gravity-defying martial art, and theyyam – a trance-induced ritual. All of which make Kerala not just a must-see on your India itinerary, but a major destination in its own right.
With three World Heritage sites – including the famous Taj Mahal – sitting in its backyard, it’s no surprise that Agra is one of the most visited cities in India. Along with Delhi and Jaipur, Agra forms the third apex of the “Golden Triangle”, India’s most popular tourist itinerary. The splendour of Agra – capital of all India under the Mughals – remains undiminished, from the magnificent Taj Mahal to the massive Agra Fort. The city’s other sights – the Itimad-ud-Daulah, Akbar’s Mausoleum at Sikandra and the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri – together comprise one of India’s greatest architectural legacies, offering a unique insight into the opulent and cultured lives of the great Mughal emperors.