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India is a vast country no matter how you look at it: It’s home to 1.324 billion people, a reported 19,500 languages and dialects are spoken, and it’s the seventh-biggest country in the world in terms of acreage—making generalizations all but impossible. All these stats go to show that it can sometimes be hard knowing where to start on a trip to the subcontinent—or what route to take if you’re planning on stopping in multiple cities or regions.
We’ve rounded up some of the best guidebooks out there, which will help visitors heading to India for the first (or second, or third) time get to know the lay of the land and its myriad cultures and traditions. Whether you’re heading on a pan-India journey of a lifetime or looking to undertake your travels on a small, city-by-city or basis, there’s a guide out there for you. We particularly love those that highlight voices of locals and emphasize slow travel, off-the-beaten-path adventures, and genuine cultural experiences.
Our Top Picks
For tourists who want to be culturally sensitive—and empowered—as they travel through the subcontinent, this book is a perfect read. It was written to “fill the gaps” that traditional guidebooks might leave in their wakes, answering “hows” and “whys” instead of “whens” and “wheres.” It answers whatever questions you might have, safety information to communication tricks, like how "yes" in some parts of India can actually mean "no." There are also tips you can put to use as you go about your sightseeing and shopping, like how to bargain, find a seat on crowded trains, and deal with bureaucracy. And you can rest assured this author knows what they’re talking about: J.D. Viharini, an American woman who’s lived in and traveled solo throughout India for eight years, truly knows the ins and outs of the country.
India is a huge country, and sometimes having a pan-India guide doesn’t exactly make sense for your trip if you’re only looking to cover a small chunk of it at a time. This guide covers the cities of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur— three cities in northern India that form a convenient triangle route for visitors to the country and provide a gateway to incredible experiences like visiting the Taj Mahal. We love how detailed this guide gets: Sure, there’s the pull-out color map of Delhi, but DK has also included maps to the floor plans of major museums, guided walking tours, and area maps that have been highlighted with sights to see. Importantly, they also provide context for each incredible attraction, so you’re not just looking at it but learning about its history and culture as well.
Written by Sarina Singh, an Australian travel writer specializing in the subcontinent, this is the best-selling guide to India, and for good reason: It lays out the country in manageable ways — with highlights, honest reviews, and suggested itineraries to help you customize your trip to your interests. Singh has also packed Lonely Guide India full of cultural insights, so you can immerse yourself as much as possible in the country's beauty, from ashrams to stunning architecture and gorgeous wildlife. Virtually every aspect of a trip through India is covered in the book, including the beaches of Goa in the west and the monasteries of the Himalayas to the north. We love the almost 200 color maps included in the book which help you navigate, as well as the mix of genuine top sights and off-the-beaten-path wonders.
The 2019 edition of Fodor's Essential India whittles down the massive subcontinent into four distinct areas for travelers to explore: Delhi, Rajasthan, Mumbai, and Kerala. It’s written by locals in each, so you know you’re getting the best insider tricks and tips on where to go and stay as well as what to do—plus, since it's just been updated, there aren’t any surprises once you get on the ground. We appreciate that there are illustrated features that highlight the Taj Mahal as well as other incredible sites like Ajanta and Ellora’s cave temples, and there’s a chapter specifically dedicated to cultural learning, with sections about not just traditional culture found in dance, food, music, and religion, but modern society as well. Handily—because you’ll need it—there’s also a guide to getting around in India, from rickshaws to trains.
Located close to the southern tip of India on the country’s east coast, Chennai is known as the gateway to culture in the south. This book lays out the best of where to go, but it also offers a great background section that gives you the historic, cultural, and even gastronomic context behind what you’ll be experiencing in the region. The book also has maps to help you navigate regional towns and cities, and although they’re not the pull-out kind, the book itself is thin enough to easily slip into pockets or small purses. Just don’t expect your general guidebook fare: Footprint’s emphasis is on unique experiences for independent travelers, and the company makes sure that their authors are specialists who really know their stuff. Case in point, this guidebook’s author, David Stott, splits his time between Australia and India—so you know you’re getting the advice from someone who's actually living in the area they're covering.
India’s made headlines in the past for both physical and sexual violence against women, and although the country is hardly alone in that, the degree of violence can certainly dissuade females from exploring this fascinating country. This book takes a culturally minded look at women’s safety in the country to inform women both before they leave and while they’re in-country about how they can travel safely throughout the country. Written by J.D. Viharini, the book informs women on how to minimize the risk of problems while they’re exploring the country by addressing and explaining cultural factors and mindsets. Chapters address how foreign women are shown in the media (promiscuously), standards of dress in India, the types of places that are and aren’t safe for women to stay in, and what to do if you are sexually assaulted. Although, of course, the burden shouldn’t be on women to avoid violence—it’s a larger cultural issue—it’s hard to change that in a single trip, and this guide does a great job of helping women navigate the country safely in the meantime.
Thanks to its status as India’s high-tech hotspot, Bangalore is a popular business destination. This guide will help corporate travelers navigate the city and figure out great places to go after a day of meetings. Five Pages Travel Guides is known for filling their short-but-sweet guides with the information they themselves wish they’d known before arriving in a new city for work—but they also know corporate travel can be fast-paced—so in its 13 Kindle pages, you’ll get all the information you need and nothing you don’t. Even those who return time and time again to Bangalore on business love using this guide for repeat visits, and for less than $3, we say it’s a great way to maximize your time in the city. After all, the trip shouldn’t just be about work, but about exploring a new city while you’re at it.
If you’re looking for an on-the-ground guide to Delhi that will make you fall in love with the city, look no further: Fiona Caulfield, who has been based in India for 14 years now, has written her guides for just that. She gathers suggestions from locals before putting them to the test herself. Expect tips about which restaurants five-star chefs eat in when they’re not working themselves and suggestions on which workshops to visit for handmade products—even the guide itself is bound using old Indian paper-making methods and covered with khadi, making clear Caulfield’s dedication to cherished traditions. Suffice it to say, this guide isn’t for those traveling on a budget: Her guides are known as the industry's only luxury guides to India, but the emphasis is on the local versus the corporate and experiences and souvenirs to be savored and cherished, rather than consumed. Keep an eye out for Love Jaipur and Love Mumbai as well if you'll be making stops there.
Our writers spent 4 hours researching the most popular India guidebooks on the market. Before making their final recommendations, they considered 30 different guidebooks overall, screened options from 15 different brands and read over 40 user reviews (both positive and negative). All of this research adds up to recommendations you can trust.