Panning a trip to a top five place on your bucketlist? India, obviously, is way up there for a variety of reasons. Let’s explore what you can see and do, and what you’ll come away with when you enter the land of joyful chaos.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of your trip, let’s be honest: this, for many, is a journey to the end of the world. Air travel from the UK takes eight and a half hours; from the US (New York) 15 hours; and from Singapore, approximately five hours. Don’t hesitate to board that plane.
The airport security vibe will be no different from that of most other countries – except for one quirk, which tech writer Ganesh Natrajan describes as follows: “When you pass through the walk-through metal detector, nobody does anything if a beep is heard (Why do they have them installed then?). Then, a [security official] makes you stand on a little pedestal and runs a hand-held metal detector all over your body. If the detector beeps, the security person merely frisks you, and does not ask you any questions or make you empty your pockets. In other words, the only thing that is done to establish the cause of the beep [from] the detector is a mere frisking.”
As far as getting from the airport to your hotel is concerned, TripAdvisor provides the helpful suggestion of taking a pre-paid cab, especially in Delhi and Mumbai, as these are much more cost-effective than a cab that is metered. The sounds and sights from your cab window are portrayed in some detail by Dougie Wallace, who spent four years photographing drivers and passengers of Mumbai’s Premier Padmini taxis. Wallace’s photographic art, which was previously on show at Gayfield Creative Spaces, Edinburgh, as part of the Retina photography festival, depicts the chatter, yelling and constant horns of the city; along with fruit and vegetable sellers wheeling huge carts of wares; taxis, busses and an increasing number of bicycles (to combat the pollution).
While you may be doing a budget trip, it’s always fun to know where the rich and famous reside when they arrive in an Indian city – you can always pull into one of these hotel bars for a drink and to people-watch. In Delhi, try the Hyatt’s first Andaz foray into India. The Andaz Delhi is a lifestyle hotel with “buzzy Cantonese restaurant” (featuring DJ sessions and exceptional food) and “thoughtfully designed rooms”. Don’t miss the glamorous pool area. In Mumbai, it could be convenient to check into the Taj Mahal Tower, which is located right next to the tourist attraction of the same name and offers astounding views over the Gateway to India from its Rajasthani-style balconies. On some sort of retreat? How about Kerala’s Purity, which is “remote, serene and as close to nature as luxury resorts get”. This is a hotel where you can seriously recharge your batteries, through a combination of yoga, ayurveda and restorative excursions. Read expert views on additional accommodation options here.
Now to the nitty-gritty of what’s on your list of sights and excursions.
First up, there’s clearly the iconic ivory-white domed Mughal mausoleum already mentioned above – the Taj Mahal. Constructed of marble and located on the southern bank of the river Yamuna, in Agra, it was commissioned in 1632 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his best wife, Mumtaz Mahal; it also houses his own tomb now. The building itself is the centrepiece of a 17-hectare complex and is set in formal gardens. Of interest is the fact that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, for taking its place as “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”.
While in and around Mumbai, don’t miss the iconic Gateway of India, a must-see attraction standing 26m tall and overlooking the Arabian Sea. This huge archway was built to commemorate the arrival, in 1911, of King George V and his wife Queen Mary, and was the tallest structure in the city for some time. A bit of background: it’s Indo-Saracenic design was created entirely of yellow basalt and concrete. Don’t miss snapping this stunning structure on your Indian travels.
Next up: the Holy City of Varanasi. Dating back to the 8th century BC, Varanasi is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and remains a major pilgrimage centre for Hindus, as it is associated with the Ganges River (where the faithful bathe before prayers). When there, check out the Old Quarter for a chance to explore the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, built in 1780. The Banaras Hindu University also gets a mention in most tourist guidebooks; it is noted for its collection of more than a million books and fine miniature paintings.
Something for the guys is the Red Fort, New Delhi, built in 1648 by Shah Jahan as the seat of Mughal power; a position it maintained all the way until 1857. The Fort is crescent shaped and named after the picturesque red sandstone utilised in its construction. You can choose to explore on your own, or take a guided tour. Both will educate you on the fascinating life of the Shah – and offer a peek into the white marble Hall of Public Audiences (Diwan-i-Am) where he received his guests. If you’re not rushed for time, remain at the Fort for the evening’s sound and light show. You won’t regret it.
Had your fill of culture, art and architecture? Travel on to Goa, India’s finest beach destination. The city’s 96km of scenic western coastline provides many stunning beaches – each with their own appeal. Find peace and quiet at Agonda Beach, or a commercial buzz at Calangute Beach. If money is no object, the fancy resorts, yoga retreats and spa facilities of Mandrem, Morjim and Ashwem may appeal. There’s also a thickly forested wildlife sanctuary – the Bhagwan Mahavir – where you can spot deer, monkeys, elephant, leopard, tiger, black panther, king cobras and as many as 200 species of birds. Wow!
Also in Goa, is the country’s most happening Night Market, the Arpora. Open from 6pm each Saturday, and well-lit, you’ll find everything from jewellery and fashion, to beer, handicrafts and home décor. The atmosphere is vibrant and the music played induces a festive mood. Not a bad place to pick up trinkets for your loved ones back home. Check out other top-rated markets here.
And what about the best cuisine? While this is debatable and dependent on individual taste (pun intended), Delhi, the country’s capital, tends also to take its place as the food capital. Amazing street food includes chaat (boiled vegetables or raw fruit, with spices), chole bhature (a fried bread made from chickpeas) and butter chicken; plus you’re advised not to miss delicacies like nihari (slow-cooked meat flavoured with pepper), daulat ki chaat (a melt-in your mouth dessert), moth kachori (a deep-fried snack), and kesar lassi (a yogurt-based drink). If you just can’t get enough, enquire at your hotel about going on a food tour.
The good news? This is really only the tip of the iceberg when you set foot in the land which Mark Twain described as “a place all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for all the shows of all the rest of the globe combined”. So, once you’ve returned home and told all your travel tales to those who will listen, you may need to tackle a book like Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram to keep the vibe alive until you can next return.