The ultimate bucket list for India! I’ve boiled down almost two decades of living, working and traveling in India into my 14 favourite places to visit and experience.
Chandni Chowk, Delhi
Why: As a part-time Dilli-wale, I’m unashamedly putting this at the top of the list! Chandni Chowk - Old Delhi - is the heart and soul of this city. It’s almost unimaginable that such a place continues to exist in this mega city - lost in its warren of alleys and paths, you will certainly feel transported back in time.
Old, crumbling havelis; a jumble of one-room workshops and stores doing everything from packing sweets to book binding to selling wedding saris and fragrant oils; a constant flow of labourers and cycle rickshaws moving boxes; and everywhere - food! Head to Chandni Chowk by the ultra modern metro, and emerge into an otherworldly and ancient India. Go with no plans except to get lost and spend your day wandering and eating.
There are several beautiful and interesting religious sites to visit while there: Jumma Masjid (main mosque) is one of the most beautiful sites in Delhi; Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib ji (Sikh temple) and Sri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir (Jain temple and bird hospital) are also worth visiting.
Tip: Book one of the fabulous Heritage Walks available for an easing-in and to learn a little of the rich history of the area.
When: Make life easy for yourself and go in the cooler months. Be sure to stop for frequent adrak chai (ginger tea) from the street vendors - a wonderful winter warmer!
Baba Pass trek from Kinnaur to Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh
Why: A 4-7 day trek following the trails of shepherds, that takes you from a lush, verdant and remote corner of Kinnaur in the foothills of the Himalayas, across Baba Pass at 4915m, and down into the lunar landscape of Spiti Valley.
Stunning scenery make this a very special trek: think high glaciers, fields of wild flowers, rushing rivers amid pine forests, and the dramatic contrast with dry, brown and rugged Spiti as soon as you cross over the pass. Empty paths and chance meetings with old shepherds and their flocks of sheep give the feeling of being very, very far away from everything (a feeling that can be hard to find in India!). It’s a moderate trek with camping - a guide and porters are recommended.
When: Late Spring/early Summer - be sure the pass has opened.
Hornbill Festival, Nagaland
Why: This festival brings together Nagaland’s rich and diverse mix of tribal groups together in one place to showcase their customs, culture, dance, food, crafts and architecture. It’s a fascinating glimpse into tribal India and this under visited and remote pocket of the country. It’s an India you may well not have ever seen or imagined!
Tip: Come hungry! The main reason to visit is the incredible and copious amounts of pork dishes, ;-)
When: 1-10 December every year
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Why: Varanasi is the wild, untamed, beating heart of India. A holy site for Hindus located on the banks of the Ganges River - funerary processions and public cremations are the norm here. If you want to jump in the deep end, a trip to Varanasi is an absolute must (if you want the reeeeaaaally deep end: visit during the colourful festival of Holi in March).
The highlight is spending your days lost in the maze of small alleys, stopping for road-side chai, temple and mosque-hopping, sitting on the ghats looking out across the lazy Ganges, sunrise boat trips and roof top dinners. It feels magical, ancient, frustrating, chaotic, filthy and fascinating all at the same time: exactly the emotions that make us wanderers love India in the first place!
When: Give yourself a break and visit during the cooler months.
Why: A bite size, easily digestible version of Varanassi. It’s high on the backpacker tourist circuit but still well worth a visit. Pushkar is a pilgrimage site for Hindus and Sikhs due to the holy lake it’s built around; this makes the charming and relatively small town a wonderful, colourful place to enjoy seeing visitors from across Rajasthan and beyond. There is nothing more enjoyable than sitting by the placid waters on one of the ghats, watching women pass by in their full and brightly coloured ghagra skirts and kanchli blouses. Pushkar is a place to relax and recharge before heading onwards!
Tip: try to time a visit with the famous Pushkar Camel Fair, usually held in November every year.
When: Late Autumn to end of Winter. Summers are long and super hot.
Skiing in Gulmarg, Kashmir
Why: I have a personal attraction to this place as I fell in love on a skiing trip here (he spent a day picking me up after me falling face first dozens of times on the heavy, ungroomed ski slopes!). But even without falling in love, a winter trip to Gulmarg is magical and feels like stepping back in time. Gulmarg is a small village perched at 2650m under Apharwat peak (4267m), in the Pir Panjal range of the Himlayas, several hours drive from Srinagar. Set up as a ski resort in 1927 by the British, this is skiing in the extreme. Take the Gulmarg Gondola - one of the highest in the world! - and ski off-piste from 4200m. You’ll be one of the few on the slopes, alongside a handful of diehard Kashmiri, Aussie and Russian semi-professional skiers.
Or, do as I did, and stick to the single dressed slope lower down. Apres ski in charming mountain huts, dining on fine Kashmiri pilau, kebabs and fragrant kahwa.
Tip: Be sure to take a copy of M.M.Kaye’s “Death in Gulmarg” on your trip. It will transport you back to a romanticised version of colonial days! Plus it’s a great read if you enjoy the likes of Agatha Christie.
Wagah Border Crossing (& Golden Temple), Punjab
Why: Wagah border is the most famous of the few border crossings between India and Pakistan - and this fact alone makes it a fascinating place. Armed with only a visa, you can cross from one country to the next at a border that separates two nuclear-armed states who have been at war four times since they separated into two separate nation states in 1947.
It’s a surreal experience crossing the border here, and if you time your visit properly, you can view all the pomp of the national flag lowering ceremony, done on both sides daily to formally close the border for the night. Each side tries to outdo the other with dramatic military attire and silly walks. An added bonus is a visit to nearby Lahore on the Pakistan side (one of my favourite places in Pakistan and well worth a visit!) and The Golden Temple in Amritsar on the India side.
When: I suggest the cooler months as it gets hot here in summer.
Thursday Night Qawwali in Nizamuddin Dargah, Delhi
Why: This is one of my all-time favourite Indian - worldwide, in fact - experiences. Every Thursday evening in a historic and incredibly atmospheric mausoleum of a Sufi saint, located in Nizammudin village in South Delhi, Sufi musicians come together to play and sing haunting qawwali, this includes the Nizami brothers, descendants of Nizamuddin Auliya, whose family have been singing here for more than 700 years. The atmosphere is hard to describe - the music is soul stirring; pilgrims jostle in the tight space to get inside the mausoleum; poverty-stricken people crowd the neighbouring mosque to receive food handouts; and women who have come to pray for miracles wail and bang their heads against the wall. To reach the mausoleum you have to find your way through a maze of very small alleys, packed with people and kebab dhabas. Be sure to cover your head upon entering and leave your shoes at the gate.
When: As usual, do yourself a favour and come in the cooler months! While qawwali performances happen here every night, it’s Thursday night or ‘Jummeraat’, that’s special, and draws massive crowds. There are usually two sessions, one at sundown and one around 9pm, but in winter, only the dusk session takes place, after maghrib (the evening prayer).
Scuba diving, Andaman Islands
Why: 1370 km off the east coast of India lays a beautiful archipelago of islands that feel remote and like another world from the mainland; the Sentinal Islands in the north are home to one of the world’s last isolated and protected indigenous tribes!
Further south in the Andaman islands, several professional diving outfits offer courses and multi-day dive trips. I have to say it’s not the most amazing diving sites I’ve visited, but it’s the best site in India, and just being on the islands is a lovely experience.
When: We visited in monsoon which was a bad time to go. It’s emptier and cheaper, but often the water was so churned up we had no visibility. It was humid as heck and there were loads of mozzies. I would advise visiting in winter.
Why: With a population of almost 20 million, Mumbai is the second largest city in India, after Delhi, and the 7th largest in the world - as you can imagine there is a LOT going on in this city. Most people would agree that it’s a more welcoming, laid back and friendly city than Delhi, and it has a bit of a vacation-vibe to it: palm trees, long coast lines, laid back attitudes, year-round warm weather sprinkled with a little Bollywood glitter.
While you’ll find plenty to entertain yourself with, these are my personal favourites: Chor Bazaar (Thieves Bazaar) where you can hunt for all manner of vintage treasures and trinkets. Dhobi Ghat is the largest open air laundry in the world dating from 1890. “For 18 to 20 hours each day, over 7,000 people flog, scrub, dye and bleach clothes on concrete wash pens, dry them on ropes, neatly press them and transport the garments to different parts of the city. Over 100,000 clothes are washed each day.” Colaba is the downtown of Mumbai and home to many of it’s top sights. I love the old, art-deco buildings that fill this pretty corner.
When: avoid monsoon when downpours bring the city to a halt and you’ll spend all your time stuck in traffic.
Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh
Why: Spiti, meaning “The Middle Land”, is a corner of India bordering Tibet; it’s as close to enjoying Tibetan culture as you can get outside of actually being in Tibet (with the exception of Ladakh). This huge valley is breathtaking - with the Spiti River carving it’s way through the soft soil, weird land formations dot the shoreline, while high up on cliff tops sit monolithic Buddhist Monasteries. Tiny villages sporting Tibetan-style architecture sprinkle the region.
A motorable road connects most of the Valley; but getting into and out of Spiti takes a good driver and nerves of steel. The route into Spiti is extremely rough in some places and passes the 3979, Rohtang Pass and 4590m Kunzum Pass and is frequently cut off in winter and spring due to snow.
When: Late Spring through Summer. If you can, try to avoid the high tourist season.
Taj Mahal & Red Fort, Uttar Pradesh
Why: An obvious choice, but simply too iconic to leave off our list. The Taj is a spectacular monument and certainly worth a visit. When you’re in the compound, try to find a quiet corner where you can sit in the grass and enjoy the site. I personally prefer the Red Fort, a little upriver, and with majestic views of the Taj and plenty of intriguing and beautiful architecture of its own.
When: Try to come in the low shoulder season and visit as early as you can - there are serious crowds here! Summer is hot, winters can be very smoggy.
Rajasthan triangle: Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur
Why: There’s a reason why this corner of India is one of the most frequented by tourists. Easily accessible and within easy traveling distance of one another, these 3 cities blooming out of the Rajasthani desert boast more than their fair share of fascinating spots, dramatic historical monuments, beautiful architecture and rich culture.
Jaipur, the pink city, is capital of Rajasthan; it’s old city is a jumble of lanes and markets worth visiting, the beautiful Hawa Mahal and City Palace, and on the outskirts, the Amber Palace (with a must-do side visit to the Anokhi Museum!). Jodhpur, the blue city, may be my favourite with the imposing Mehrangarh Fort overlooking the maze of lanes and alleys that are a joy to get lost in. Udaipur is without a doubt the most charming; set around beautiful Lake Pichola, it’s old city is beautiful and City Palace is an artist’s dream.
Tip: If traveling by road between Udaipur and Jodhpur, be sure to stop at Ranakpur Jain Temple. It’s spectacular!
When: Late Autumn to end of Winter. Summers are long and super hot!
Pondicherry (& Auroville)
Why: Spend a few days in this tranquil, laid back French-colonial town to recharge your batteries. Pondicherry is utterly charming - a walkable area of beautiful, colonial architecture home to boutiques, cafes and fine dining, combined with the tropical, coastal vibe of South India. A highlight is the delicious filter coffee you can find on every street corner!
The experimental township of Auroville is a short drive away - founded in 1968 by “The Mother”, Auroville aims to “be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity.”
When: Year round. It’s always hot :-)
We would LOVE to hear your feedback: Where and what are your favourite places & experiences in India?
Disclaimer: this list is based on places which I’ve personally visited and enjoyed. India is a such a massive, diverse and ever-changing country and there are still a bunch of special places I haven’t visited. High up on my list are: