Overview of Places to Visit in India
India is a vast country with an abundance of appealing attractions -- mountains, desert, beaches, nature, temples, and history -- scattered from one side of its soil to the other. Therefore, planning an India vacation requires considerable thought as to the top places to visit.
There are so many different things see and do, it's easy to want to fit as much as possible into one trip. However, traveling in India can be exhausting, particularly with the culture shock to deal with as well, and many people find themselves wishing for more relaxation time. That's why it's common for people to end up spending months at a time roaming around and exploring the country.
Of course, not everyone can afford to take months off work to travel. No one likes to waste valuable vacation time traveling between places either. Therefore, if you only have a limited time in India, it's a good idea to choose one region and focus on its highlights.
Each region offers a diverse range of sights. For example, one of India's most popular tourist circuits, the Golden Triangle, covers Delhi, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and Jaipur in the Rajasthan desert. Those who also want to spend time among nature can take a short detour and visit Ranthambore National Park, also in Rajasthan.
As well as backwaters, Kerala has some wonderful clean beaches, ancient temple complexes, and national parks that are home to large herds of elephants. For a dose of spirituality and history, Varanasi is one city that's high on visitors' lists. Some important historical and architectural sites such as the Khajuraho erotic temples, and national parks are also not too far away from there. Tamil Nadu rates highly for solo female travelers, as sexual harassment is minimal there.
Browse the following pages for some of the highlights that India has to offer and where to find them. If you want to get off the tourist trail, also check out these 12 Best Places to Visit in India Off the Beaten Track.
Not sure when is the best time to visit India? Have a read of this handy Guide to Climate, Weather and Seasonality in India.
Beaches and Backwaters in India
If you're feeling tired from traveling, or just love the beach and want to chill out for a while, there are plenty of options for an India beach vacation.
- When people think of beaches in India, they usually think of Goa -- the long strip of coastline that is actually a state in southern India. Perhaps India's most liberal destination, Goa has been attracting visitors since the hippies made it home in the 1970s. Most of it has become quite commercialized now, but there are dozens of Goa beaches to choose from depending on the type of beach vacation you want to have. The accommodations are just as diverse and include luxury resorts, private villas, villa hotels, boutique hotels, homestays, beach huts, backpacker hostels and guesthouses, and yoga retreats.
- Of course, there's much more to India's best beaches than those found in Goa. The states of Karnataka and Kerala, further south on the west coast, also have some spectacular beaches that are less developed than Goa's beaches. Two of the most popular ones are Gokarna and Varkala. Find out more about beaches in Kerala.
- A trip to Kerala wouldn't be complete without spending time exploring the serene backwaters on a traditional style Kerala houseboat. This makes a wonderful romantic getaway as well. Here's how to best visit the Kerala backwaters. If you feel like splurging stay at one of these relaxing resorts in Kumarakom, Alternatively, these accommodations around Alleppey tend to be less expensive.
- Maharashtra, the state above Goa, has some terrific little-known beaches that make great escapes from Mumbai, such as Tarkarli. See these 10 Top Beaches on the Maharashtra Konkan Coast. If you're feeling adventurous, this stretch is awesome for a scenic motorbike road trip! As well as beaches, the Sindhudurg region is renowned for its fort.
- The beaches on India's east coast tend not to be as clean or appealing as the ones on the west coast. The most popular one is Mahabalipuram, near Chennai in Tamil Nadu. It has a backpacker and surfing scene. French-influenced Pondicherry is also a convenient beach getaway about four hours south of Chennai. Here's the pick of Pondicherry hotels near the beach. Odisha has some wonderful undeveloped beaches. Gopalpur-on-Sea, in Odisha, is relatively peaceful. Puri has a long stretch of beach but the central part of it can be quite crowded and dirty. A stay further out at one of the resorts with a private beach is recommended.
- Not to be overlooked are the stunning beaches of the Andaman Islands and, for those with plenty of money, Lakshadweep. These beaches, off the coast of India, are the kind that you see on postcards -- fine white sand, sparkling clear water, and pretty coral. See these 7 Best Havelock Island Hotels for all Budgets.
- If you really want to get away from it all, choose one of these 10 Secluded Beach Stays in India.
Desert Destinations in India
India's desert state of Rajasthan isn't only famous for its vast and barren Thar Desert. The region, known as Land of Kings, shows India at its bright and colorful best.
Home to the fearless Rajput warriors, Rajasthan is full of forts, palaces, and beautiful old havelis (mansions). What's really appealing is that many of them have been converted into palace hotels that you can stay in.
Some of the classic tourist destinations in Rajasthan are:
- Bikaner -- renowned for the bizarre Karni Mata rat temple (thousands of huge rats reside there!), is also a less touristy option than Jaisalmer for desert camel safaris. It has an interesting fort to explore.
- Jaipur -- the "Pink City", is a must-visit for the its forts, palaces and places to shop.
- Jodhpur -- the "Blue City", with its blue painted buildings, looks stunning when viewed from the lookout in the imposing Mehrangarh Fort. A day trip to Bishnoi village is recommended. Here's where to stay in Jodhpur.
- Jaisalmer -- a fairy-tale sandstone city, with a living fort that rises up out of the desert, that's popular for camel safaris. Stay in the desert in one of these Jaisalmer Tent Hotels and Desert Camps or Hotels in Jaisalmer with Fort Views.
- Pushkar -- is a hippie holy town that holds an amusing and world-renowned camel fair every year. When the camel fair isn't on, it's a chilled out place to relax for a while.
- Udaipur -- the city of lakes and palaces, is another place that's perfect for a romantic vacation. Stay in the City Palace Complex at the Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel or Fateh Prakash Palace Hotel. There are some fabulous Udaipur Budget Hotels With Lake Views. Some interesting side trips and day trips are possible from Udaipur.
- Shekhawati -- off the beaten track, visit the old painted havelis that make up the "world's largest open air art gallery".
For those that have some spare cash, a unique and sought after way of exploring Rajasthan is on a luxury tourist train such as the Palace on Wheels, which goes on a week long tour to the most important attractions.
Rajasthan can also be viewed from a peaceful place in the sky, by taking a hot air balloon flight.
History and Architecture in India
India's history has seen a melting pot of different religions, rulers and empires -- all of which have left their mark on the countryside with their elaborate styles of architecture.
- Not surprisingly, the iconic Taj Mahal tops the list of India's best historical destinations.
- India also has some evocative, once powerful but now abandoned cities, which are architectural masterpieces. The most famous one is Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra. The incredible ruins of Hampi are just as fascinating. The state of Madya Pradesh is also full of well preserved abandoned cities, such as Orchha and Mandu (which was jointly named as Best Heritage City in India at the Indian government's 2016-17 National Tourism Awards).
- Badami and Aihole are two places that you can see historic rock-cut cave temples and experimental architecture. However, the most impressive deserted cave temples are at Ellora and Ajanta, in Maharashtra. There are also some interesting ones in Mumbai -- particularly the Elephanta Caves, and Kanheri Caves in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
- Odisha has some ancient and little-known Buddhist sites.
- Cities such as Delhi and Mumbai exude history and architectural splendor -- Delhi is dotted with remnants of the Mughal rulers who once occupied the city, while Mumbai has a distinctly British influence with its grand colonial architecture.
- In Goa, there are restored Portuguese mansions that you can visit.
- Rajasthan is an excellent place to marvel over immense forts and palaces, which serve as a reminder of India's tumultuous history. Find them in Chittorgarh, Kumbhalgarh, Bikaner, Bundi, Kota, Jodhpur, Jaipur, and Jaisalmer.
- The Shekhawati Region of Rajasthan, located in the triangle between Delhi, Jaipur and Bikaner, is worth a visit for anyone interested in architecture. Rajasthan's most beautifully painted havelis (mansions), constructed by the merchants of the region, can be found in this area.
- The states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh also have their share of forts. There are hundreds of them in Maharashtra, with the most notable one at Daulatabad at Aurangabad, near the Ellora caves. Unfortunately, most are not well-maintained through. Vasai Fort, on the northern outskirts of Mumbai, was the headquarters of Portuguese rule in the 16th and 17th centuries.
- The architecture of India's ancient abandoned step wells is remarkable.
Wildlife and National Parks in India
India's jungles are vast and diverse. There are almost 100 national parks and 450 wildlife sanctuaries, which are huge attractions for visitors. These are some of the largest and most well known ones.
In Kerala (southern India):
In Karnataka (southern India):
- Nagarhole National Park
- Bandipur National Park
- Bannerghatta National Park
In Tamil Nadu (southern India):
- Mudumalai National Park
In Madhya Pradesh (central India):
In Rajasthan (western India desert):
- Ranthambore National Park
- Sariska National Park
In Gujarat (western India):
In Uttarakhand (northern India):
In Assam (north east India):
In West Bengal (eastern India):
- Sundarbans National Park
- Jaldhapara Wildlife Sanctuary
In Odisha (eastern India):
- Chilika Wildlife Sanctuary
- Bhitarkanika National Park
- Simlipal National Park
Each national park is unique in regards to its wildlife and scenery. Therefore, it's wise to have an idea of what you want to see before making a decision about where to visit.
- If you'd like to try your luck at spotting India's regal Bengal tiger, it's best to head to one of the smaller national parks with the highest concentration of tigers, such as Bandhavgarh and Ranthambore, or the lesser-known Tadoba National Park.
- Kaziranga is an isolated and picturesque park that's home to many threatened species, particularly the rhinoceros.
- The parks in Kerala are the best for viewing elephants, where herds of them roam free. You can explore Periyar by boat, and well as go trekking and rafting.
- Boat trips are also offered through the dense mangrove jungle of the Sundarbans. Check out these Sundarban Tour Operators and Packages.
- Birders will be keen to visit these 10 Best Bird Sanctuaries in India for Birdwatching.
- Alternatively, choose to stay at one of these 15 Top Wildlife and Jungle Lodges in India.
Mountain Destinations in India
India's mystical mountains, referred to as the Abodes of the Gods, are popular with visitors for their crisp fresh air, spiritual influences, and exciting adventure travel opportunities. The mountains also provide a wonderfully refreshing escape from the sapping summer heat that engulfs most of India during April and May.
- Spend some time in the state of Himachal Pradesh, with its eternal snow capped peaks, and you'll find it hard to believe that you're still in India. The communities exiled from neighboring Tibet have made their new homes in India's mountains, bringing with them their culture and prominent Buddhist influence. The towns of Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, headquarters of the Tibetan community, are renowned traveler hangouts. People flock there in particular to study Buddhist philosophy and Vipassana meditation. Shimla is a worthwhile place to take a heritage walk and stay at an atmospheric heritage bed and breakfast, while Manali is enticing for adventure lovers. Check out these 10 Top Destinations to Visit in Himachal Pradesh.
- The state of Uttarakhand, divided by some of India's most sacred rivers, is distinctly more Hindu. Haridwar and Rishikesh are among the most holy cities in India, and are popular places to study yoga. The Valley of Flowers National Park, with its bright floral carpet, is a top trekking destination. If you love remote trekking and village life, Kalap is ideal. Here are 12 Top Destinations to Visit in Uttarakhand.
Also see: 12 Top Spa Resorts in the Himalayas in India and 15 Boutique Himalayan Getaways Off the Beaten Track. Or, if you're on a budget, these 8 Inexpensive Guesthouses & Homestays in the Indian Himalayas
- Far flung Leh and Ladakh offer unforgettable barren alpine desert beauty, and are ideal for Himalayan trekking. Spiti is also attracting an increasing number of tourists.
- Pristine Kashmir isn't called the "Switzerland of India" for nothing!
- India's West Bengal hills and remote northeast region (such as Arunachal Pradesh) also have spectacular mountain scenery. Meghalaya in northeast India has some superb destinations for nature lovers. Darjeeling is a picturesque hill settlement, known for its tea plantations. However, the more adventurous travelers head to the pristine, less visited areas further out, many of which require permits. Sikkim is one such place.
- If you can't make it to the northern reaches of India, southern India also has some enchanting hill stations such Munnar in Kerala, and Kodaikanal and Ooty in Tamil Nadu.
- Matheran, a couple of hours from Mumbai, is refreshingly free of vehicles and is a quiet getaway.
Taking a toy tourist train is also a novel and scenic way to visit some of India's most popular mountain destinations.
Temples in India
India's eclectic temples, representing many different religions, are scattered all over the country.
- The state of Tamil Nadu is particularly well known for its towering colorful temples, which reflect the ancient Dravidian culture. The most impressive ones can be found in Chennai, Madurai (Meenakshi Temple), Rameshwaram (Ramanathaswamy Temple), Thanjavur (The Big Temple), and Tiruchirappalli (Rock Fort Temple and Srirangam). However, if you only see one south Indian temple, the Meenakshi Temple should be it. Find out more about where to see magnificent South Indian temples.
- Odisha, also on the east coast, is another important state on India's temple trail. Bhubaneshwar, the capital, offers a myriad of Hindu temples. Puri, a holy Hindu pilgrimage place, has the Jagannath Temple that holds the Rath Yatra festival. The Sun Temple in Konark, with its covering of erotic sculptures and captivating architecture, is the most famous one though. It's made out of stone in the shape of a colossal chariot, with 24 wheels and seven horses. Find out more about the top attractions in Odisha.
- One more famous temple complex that's filled with erotic sculptures and architectural prowess is the one at Khajuraho, in Madhya Pradesh.
- Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, is another of India's important holy cities and top spiritual destinations. Often referred to as the city of temples, you'll find a temple at the intersection of almost every road in there. Don't miss the sacred Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
- The Mahakaleshwar temple at Ujjain, in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, is an important pilgrimage place for Hindus. It has the only Bhasm Aarti (ash ritual) of its kind in the world. Here's what to see and do in Ujjain.
- Hindu pilgrims also flock to the Char Dham (four temples) at the foothills of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand after the snow clears. Badrinath temple is the most-visited of the four.
- There are many marvelous Buddhist monasteries high up in the Himalaya region as well. Plus, the Mahabodhi temple in Bihar, at the place where Lord Buddha became enlightened.
- Over the other side of the country, the Golden Temple in Amritsar dazzles with its magnificence. This temple belongs to the Sikh religion, and incredibly is plated in real gold. It looks particularly alluring at night when it's lit up.
- In Rajasthan and Gujarat, look out for the divine marble Jain temples.
- The temples of Kerala are known for their exotic temple festivals, featuring elephants.
Note that many important Hindu temples are very strict about who they let in. Even if you are Hindu, but have been living abroad and look and sound like a foreigner, you may be denied entry if you can't prove you're Hindu.