Whether you've seen enough of India's most popular destinations or are simply keen to discover some less-touristy spots, there are some remarkable places to visit in India that are off the beaten track. Read on to find out lesser-known alternatives to well-trodden places.
Instead of Rajasthan: Kutch Region of Gujarat
The vast Kutch region of Gujarat is sometimes described as India's "Wild West." Much of Kutch consists of seasonal wetlands known as the Great Rann of Kutch (famous for its salt desert) and smaller Little Rann of Kutch (famous for its Wild Ass Sanctuary). The region's handicraft villages are also a highlight.
Plan your trip with this comprehensive Kutch travel guide.
Instead of Leh and Ladakh: Spiti in Himachal Pradesh
When it comes to high altitude desert in India, you've most likely head of Leh and Ladakh. But what about lesser-known Spiti? Bordered by Ladakh in the north, Tibet to the east, Kinnaur to the southeast, and the Kullu Valley to the south, Spiti has an average height of around 12,500 feet above sea level. This stark alpine desert land is scattered with small villages and monasteries, and enclosed by soaring peaks crowned with snow.
Find out the details in this ultimate Spiti travel planner.
Instead of the Kerala Backwaters: Majuli in Assam
Majuli, the world’s largest inhabited river island, sits amidst the imposing Brahmaputra River in Assam. A world within a world, ride bicycles through the fertile green landscape, go bird watching, and visit Hindu Neo-Vaishnavite monasteries. La Maison de Anand is a quaint bamboo stilt house homestay there, designed by a French architect who fell in love with Majuli. The Majuli Ras Mahotsav festival, held in mid-November each year, celebrates the life of Lord Krishna with plays, folk dances, puppets, masks, songs and dance.
This Majuli Island travel guide has more information.
Instead of Darjeeling: Kalimpong in West Bengal
Kalimpong is the perfect solution for escaping the crowds at Darjeeling. This peaceful town is perched on a remote ridge in the Himalayan foothills, about two-and-a-half-hour hours away from Darjeeling, near the Sikkim border. It offers a diverse mix of attractions—Buddhist monasteries, historic churches, local markets, villages, nature trails, tea gardens, and a superb view of Mount Kangchenjunga (the third highest peak in the world).
Plan your trip with this complete guide to visiting Kalimpong.
Instead of Varanasi: Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh
Often referred to as the "Varanasi of Central India", the small holy town of Maheshwar is set along the banks of the Narmada River and is also dedicated to Lord Shiva. Stroll along the ghats (steps leading to the water), watch local life, and take a sunset boat ride along the river and out to Baneshwar temple. If you want to splurge you can be a guest of the royal Holkar family at their Ahilya Fort hotel, which they've established in part of their palace. Maheshwar is also renowned for its weaving industry.
Read more in this essential guide to Maheshwar
Instead of Hampi: Mandu in Madhya Pradesh
Mandu can be visited in conjunction with Maheshwar, as it's only a couple of hours away. This abandoned city from the Mughal era is commonly labeled the Hampi of Central India because of its treasure trove of ruins. They're spread over a 2,000 foot-high hilltop and enclosed by a 28-mile (45-kilometer) stretch of wall. In recognition of its importance, in 2018, the Indian government jointly named Mandu as Best Heritage City in India (along with Ahmedabad in Gujarat) at the National Tourism Awards.
Read more in this essential guide to Mandu.
Instead of Fatehpur Sikri: Champaner-Pavagadh in Gujarat
These days, the abandoned 16th century Mughal capital of Fatehpur Sikri near Agra is overrun by touts. A lesser-known, short-lived, capital that's also a UNESCO World Heritage site is Champaner-Pavagadh, situated about 90 miles (145 kilometers) southeast of Ahmedabad. Notably, it's the only unaltered and complete Islamic pre-Mughal city in India. Its historical treasures, dating back to between the 8th and 14th centuries, include a hill fortress, palaces, places of worship (Jama Masjid is one of the most spectacular mosques in Gujarat), residential areas, reservoirs, and step wells.
Osian is perfect for those who want to avoid the commercial desert tourism in Jaisalmer and have a peaceful camel safari experience. This small town is situated about an hour and a half north of Jodhpur, on the way to Bikaner. Its surrounded by several sand dunes. Intricately carved stone temples, dating from the 8th to 11th centuries when Osian was an important trading center, are an added attraction. The main one is a Sun Temple dedicated to Surya the Sun god. Stay at Osian Sand Dunes Resort and Camp or Reggie's Camel Camp.
Instead of the Sundarbans: Pichavaram Mangroves in Tamil Nadu
You can be forgiven if you didn't know about Pichavaram mangrove forest, despite it being one of the world's largest mangrove jungles (the Sundarbans National Park in West Bengal is the largest). After all, it's not on the tourist trail. However, this remarkable and fascinating place is definitely worth visiting. Spread over nearly 3,000 acres, it has 4,400 big and small canals that can be explored by boat. In addition, Chidambaram Nataraj Temple (dedicated to Lord Shiva in his dancing form) is not far away.
This guide to visiting Pichavaram mangrove forest will help you plan your trip.
Instead of Varkala Beach: Kannur in Kerala
The small town of Kannur, in northern Kerala, is known for its secluded beaches, mysterious masked spirit-possession theyyam rituals, and hand loom weaving. The theyyam season runs from October until May and Kerala Tourism has a comprehensive calendar of theyyam events. There are some delightful, laid back (and inexpensive) beach houses in the Thottada beach area, such as Kannur Beach House, Waves Beach Resort, Chera Rock Beach House, and KK Heritage Homestay. Kannur district is also home to Muzhappilangad Drive-In Beach. You can drive all the way along its vast stretch of sand.
Instead of Kanha National Park: Kawardha in Chhattisgarh
Thinking of visiting famous Kanha National Park but want to avoid the crowds and prefer nature over tiger spotting? Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat is a few hours drive away and has three atmospheric cottages nestled in the Maikal Hills, close to the ancient Bhoramdeo temple complex. The owner is a native of the area and has an excellent rapport with the indigenous villagers, who belong to the Baiga and Gond tribes. Guests can visit their tolas (villages) and colorful weekly haats (tribal markets). Treks into the jungle are offered, and the butterflies, birds and wildlife are exceptional. It's also possible to go on longer treks into the Maikal Hills, staying in villagers' homes.
Manali in Himachal Pradesh attracts plenty of adventure seekers, who come to enjoy its surrounding village trekking trails. However, to go where very few tourists have gone before, head to Kalap, 7,500 feet above sea level in the upper Garhwal region of northern Uttarakhand. This tiny village is not accessible by road or rail (you'll need to trek, and porters and mules are provided). A responsible tourism project was started there in 2013 to help the villagers generate an income. You can stay with them and experience their way of life, as well as spend time in the pristine surroundings.
Nagarhole National Park is one of the top national parks in India. It gets its name from the snake-like river that winds its way through it. However, the government-run minibus safaris through the park tend to be rather disappointing and noisy and private safaris are costly. Alternatively, Pollachi in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu is an unexplored place teaming with wildlife, plus Anamalai Tiger Reserve is in the area. The annual Kongu Nadu Cattle Festival, held in January, is also a highlight. Thadam Experiences offers customized trips including bird watching, nature walks, boat rides, village and farm visits, and tea tours. Grass Hills Tours and Travels is also a reputable company that specializes in local nature and wildlife tourism. Stay at Coco Lagoon Resort, or the cheaper Coconut County Farm Stay.
Instead of Hyderabad and Golconda: Gandikota, Andhra Pradesh
Golconda Fort near Hyderabad is one of the top forts in India. However, about seven hours south of the city are the ruins of another fort that hardly anyone is familiar with, despite the fact that it was possessed by many powerful rulers including the Chalukyas, Pemmasani Nayaks, Golconda Sultanate, Mughals (under Aurangzeb), and the British. Gandikota is a fort on a gorge in the Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh. The gorge is often referred to as the Grand Canyon of India. It's possible to kayak along the Penna River, hike along the gorge, and enjoy spectacular star-lit nights and sunrises over the canyon. Accommodations are limited in the area. If you don't want to stay at the Haritha hotel run by Andhra Pradesh Tourism or camp by the canyon, Royal County is the best option although it's an hour from Gandikota.
North of Goa, across the border in Maharashtra, the Konkan Coast offers a bounty of beautiful beaches that are among the most pristine in the country. Delightfully off the tourist trail, they are devoid of much development and many are practically deserted. Inexpensive beachfront homestays are popping up in many places, and you'll get mouthwatering home-cooked coastal cuisine. If you'd prefer somewhere with more facilities yet still noncommercial, Gokarna in Karnataka is ideal.