Orissa (renamed Odisha) is one of India's lesser-visited states, as it's predominantly rural and off the beaten track. However, the number of tourists who are interested in Odisha's eclectic combination of attractions is growing.
From the temples in Bhubaneshwar to tribal villages across the state, Odisha has some truly unique and diverse treasures to explore. These include national parks and wildlife, unpolluted beaches, traditional music and dance, handicrafts, tribal culture, and Buddhist relics.
The remarkable new Kala Bhoomi Crafts Museum in Odisha's capital city Bhubaneshwar is one of the top museums in India that showcases the country's heritage. It opened to much acclaim in 2018 and is spread over a substantial 13 acres. The museum has four zones with eight galleries. These include galleries dedicated to terracotta work, traditional paintings, stone and wood carving, metal crafts, tribal crafts, and hand-looms. What really stands out is that it's an interactive museum where you can view the artisans at work and participate in workshops.
Be there are 11 a.m. for a free guided tour in English. Ekamra Walks also conducts free guided walking tours every Sunday afternoon at 3.30 p.m. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily except Mondays. The entry fee is 50 rupees for adults and 20 rupees for students.
Catch a Sunrise Over Udayagiri in Bhubaneshwar
Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Odisha, is most famous for its temples including the largest temple in the state, the Lingraj Mandir. In fact, there are over 700 temples in the city, most of which are devoted to Shiva.
The motley collection of caves cut into the hillside on the outskirts of the city are another popular attraction. They were once home to Jain aesthetics, and the most interesting ones can be found at Udayagiri (Sunrise Hill). Don't miss the sunrise over Udayagiri if you're an early riser. Try and join Ekamra Walks on their informative free early morning heritage walk there. It happens every Saturday morning from 6.30 a.m. Ekamra Walks conduct other free weekend heritage walks in Bhubaneshwar too.
Read more about what to see and do in Bhubaneshwar.
Designed to be a huge chariot for the Sun God Surya, the intricately carved Sun Temple was constructed during the 13th century and stands 30 meters high on 12 massive wheels.
The Konark Sun Temple is located about two hours southeast of Bhubaneshwar and about an hour east of Puri. Considered a masterpiece in architecture, the Konark Sun Temple is considered a United Nations (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. Erotic carvings similar to those on the Khajuraho temples are a renowned feature, and visits can get up close to the temple throughout the year.
However, if you truly want to experience the culture and history of the Sun Temple, visit during the Konark Festival, which takes place in February and features traditional Indian dances and music performances throughout the week-long event.
Take a Beach Break at Chandrabhaga
A few miles away from the Konark Sun Temple, you'll find a gorgeous stretch of oceanfront known as Chandrabhaga Beach. It's known for its annual week-long religious fair honoring the Sun God, which is attended by Hindu pilgrims from across the country. It's also where the International Sand Art Festival takes place every year during the first week of December.
Notably, Chandrabhaga was also the first beach in India to get the Blue Flag certification. This certification is given to environmentally-friendly and clean beaches that offer amenities adhering to international tourism standards. Stay in a wooden cottage at Lotus Eco Resort for the best experience.
Puri is located on the beach about an hour and a half south of Bhubaneshwar. Don't go there expecting a beach paradise though. You'll need to head far away from the camel rides and carnival scene to find an unpolluted patch of sand. Instead, Puri's appeal lies in its holiness.
The imposing Jagannath Temple is only open to Hindus, but the roofs of nearby buildings offer decent views (for a small fee). The surrounding area is fascinating with many small temples, shops, and an area where thousands of clay pots are stored and transported daily to cook in food for the deities. Explore it on this insightful three-hour guided tour of the Puri Old City conducted by local responsible tourism company Grass Routes Journeys. Puri is also a good place to organize tribal tours and day trips to other parts of Odisha.
Don't miss the Rath Yatra festival, which takes place in July or early August each year. It's the only occasion when non-Hindus can get to see the temple deities. A mere glimpse of Lord Jagannath on the chariot, or even to touch the chariot, is considered to be very auspicious.
Odisha is highly regarded for its handcrafted works of art, furniture, tools, and fashion, and there are two handicraft villages between Puri and Bhubaneshwar that you can visit where the residents are all artisans: Raghurajpur and Pipili.
Raghurajpur is about 20 minutes north of Puri, and Pipli is about 45 minutes south of Bhubaneshwar. Both of these small villages are interesting places to interact with the artisans, see demonstrations, and of course buy their beautiful handicrafts. While you're there, don't miss the Pattachitra paintings and colorful applique works, which are both specialties of the region.
If you want to spend time in nature, head to remarkable Chilika Lake, which is located about 90 minutes southwest of Bhubaneshwar.
Asia's largest brackish water lagoon (a combination of sea and freshwater) is an ecological wonder that's full of wildlife, particularly fish and migratory birds from far-off lands, and there are even dolphins swimming in these waters. The lake also has a number of islands you can explore.
Set aside some time for exploring Chilika Lake and its various islands by boat. Most departures are from Satapada (where the dolphins are), located at the mouth of the Lake around 50 kilometers from Puri. Other departures are possible from Barkul, Rambha, and Balugaon. For outstanding bird watching, head to Mangalajodi on the northern edge of Chilika Lake. Also, Grassroutes Journeys offers eco-friendly Chilika Lake camping trips and bird-watching cruises.
Immerse Yourself in Tribal Villages
There are more than 60 tribal communities in Odisha, and these people who practice mystical ancient ways dwell in Odisha's remote, deep forests and hilly interiors. Visiting the tribes can be a fascinating experience, but you'll need to go on an organized tour as some tribal areas are quite inaccessible and require permits, and language is also a barrier. Heritage Tours are professional and knowledgeable, and you could also try the community-based Grass Routes Journeys in Puri.
During a tribal tour of Odisha, you'll get to mix with the local tribal people and learn their lifestyles. Tours run for at least five nights and six days, due to the amount of travel involved. However, you can also travel independently and stay at boutique Chandoori Sai Guest House in the heart of tribal Odisha if you don't want to join a tour group.
You might not know about the sacred Buddhist sites in Odisha; after all, they've only been excavated relatively recently and are largely unexplored.
However, the sites, which are located about two hours northeast of Bhubaneshwar, consist of a series of monasteries, temples, shrines, stupas, and beautiful sculptures of Buddhist images. Their rural setting, among fertile hills and paddy fields, is both picturesque and peaceful.
Don't miss out on the "Diamond Triangle" of Ratnagiri, Udayagiri, and Lalitagiri. These three locations have the most important and largest concentration of Buddhist remains.
Explore Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary
Simlipal National Park may be the most well known national park and tiger reserve in Odisha, but Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary is more accessible and exciting. However, it's important to note that the sanctuary is closed from May 1 to July 31 each year for the breeding season.
Located about three and a half hours northeast of Bhubaneshwar and just 40 rupees for entry, Bhitarkanika offers the thrill of seeing huge saltwater crocodiles basking on the mudflats, plus many species of birds. The main way of exploring the sanctuary is by boat through the mangroves, and it's a much quieter and more relaxed alternative to the Sundarbans. Don't miss the nature treks inside the forest, and if you have time, go on a day trip to pristine Ekakula Island and Garhimata, where the Olive Ridley turtles nest.
Odissi, one of the eight classical dance forms of India, originated in Odisha's Hindu temples and is associated with the worship of Lord Jagannath. It's believed to be the oldest surviving dance form in India is a feature at Odisha's traditional music and dance festivals. These festivals are a highlight during the cooler winter months in Odisha. They take place at some of the state's top temples including the Konark Sun Temple, and Mukteshwar and Rajarani temples in Bhubaneshwar.
Stay at the Homes of Royalty
Many of Odisha's palaces and mansions are being restored and converted into heritage homestays, where you'll be able to personally interact with your royal hosts and go on immersive excursions. Each has something unique and special to offer. The most spectacular properties are Dhenkanal Palace (the only fort palace in Odisha), Aul Palace, and Belgadia Palace. Gajalaxmi Palace, in the middle of a reserve forest, is ideal for anyone wanting a wildlife and nature experience. Kila Dalijodi is unparalleled for the range of local and in-house activities available including trekking, cycling, visits to tribes and a cow shelter, art, cooking, and farming.
Stroll in the Low Tide at Chandipur Beach
Casuarina trees, sand dunes, and a tide that recedes out for miles all make Chandipur Beach special. If you're looking for crystal clear water and golden sand, there are better beaches in India, but Chandipur Beach is unique and very safe, making it a great place to explore with younger travelers. However, the area is also laid back and undeveloped, so don't expect many facilities.
Located about four hours northeast of Bhubaneshwar, Chandipur Beach is readily accessible by train from Bhubaneshwar and from Kolkata in West Bengal. The best place to stay there is Arpita Beach Resort, although it's about a 10-minute walk to the beach; the new wing at Hotel Shubham is also decent.
Stroll on the huge stretch of seabed when the tide is out. It's brilliant for beach-combing, and you can also discover small puddles of water with tiny fish, seashells, and crabs.