Check out our list of the dream places to visit in India

Capturing hearts and minds with its diversity of tea-strewn landscapes, key religious sites and dizzying cities, India has long been a bucket-list destination for courageous globetrotters. Soused in heady spices and holy enchantments, India’s intoxicating cities take a little getting used to, but, outside of these urban hubs, alternative options await discovery. Whether you’re after a laid-back beach retreat on the exotic shores of Goa or a dusty cultural expedition to the grand palaces of Rajasthan or boat rides in the backwaters of Kerala, India unfolds in bewitching style. While more serene moments come to those in search of tea among the rolling fields of Darjeeling and Rishikesh, the hectic markets of Mumbai and countless urban centres in between make sure you’ll never go thirsty for a brew. Follow us as we explore our top 10 places to visit in India.

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Goa | Photo: Jess Aston

LGBTQ+ travellers in India

As recently as 2018, India decriminalised homosexuality in a long-fought ruling to overturn colonial-era laws. Years previously, a third gender was legally recognised and laws regarding discrimination of sexual orientation implemented. All of this makes modern India a much better place to visit than it had been in the 20th century, but arguably, ancient India was better still, having accepted homosexuality into Hinduist beliefs and societal norms before the Brits swept in and made moot the country’s unique queer history.

Nevertheless, travellers to India will find the nation to be both welcoming and hospitable to all, regardless of orientation, though open displays of affection are ill-advised, even among straight couples. While Tantric temple walls might have you believing otherwise, Indian society is largely conservative and modesty will serve you well. If in doubt, book your trip through one of the few LGBTQ+ tour operators serving the country, staying in four or five-star hotels and showing caution if using dating apps. Otherwise, being gay in India is often seen as a non-issue to those who have travelled in the country – so long as you are respectful of cultural norms.

Mumbai | Photo: Arun Sharma

Goa | Photo: Mirko Sajkov

Best time to visit India

The first thing to remember about India is that it is big, big. The Indian subcontinent is a subtropical region no doubt, but climate and weather vary wildly from state to state, all the while sharing some acquaintance with the monsoon season. The monsoon cycle starts on the Keralan coast towards the end of May, travelling northeast across the country over the following six weeks. Though monsoon season is dappled with intense sunny spells, the humidity in these weeks is high and torrential downpours common. Avoid the jungle regions in the northwest and the Bengal deltas during the height of this season due to potential flooding, travel disruptions and communication blackouts. In the Himalayan foothills meanwhile, landslides can cut off access to entire valleys for weeks at a time, so be careful; especially so in June.

To avoid all this and to get the best of India, visit her in the dry season between November and March when the regions spanning Agra, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Varanasi are particularly ideal, with agreeable temperatures in Goa and central India also. Down south, covering Tamil Nadu and Kerala, while it’s certainly never sweater weather, the heat becomes slightly more bearable in the months between January and March. After that, the Himalayas grow ever more welcoming, until the crowds peak in the months of August and September during the trekking season, while other regions still shelter from the rains. Check each region’s weather pattern before travelling, but all in all, November or February are not bad months to travel in order to avoid the busy peak season between December and January while still remaining dry.

Photo: Mitchell Ng Liang An

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Founded on a bend in the sacred Yamuna River, Agra awakens in utmost majesty at sunrise, with its collection of marble mausoleums, attractions and lively chowks (markets) becoming ever more chaotic and hazy as the day wears on

1. Agra

Perhaps the nation’s number one tourist destination is the Uttar Pradesh city of Agra with its Mughal monuments, heritage forts and, oh yes, an imperial palace known as the Taj Mahal. Founded on a bend in the sacred Yamuna River, Agra awakens in utmost majesty at sunrise, with its collection of marble mausoleums, attractions and lively chowks (markets) becoming ever more chaotic and hazy as the day wears on. Expect rickshaw-wallahs, touts and audacious vendors to line your path to the famed palace, a site lying two kilometres from the UNESCO-listed fort in the heart of the city.

You might think you know the Taj Mahal but secrets remain, such as the tragic truth behind its creation as a tomb for the Mughal’s loyal consort who died in childbirth. Taking two years of work by the empire’s most skilled craftsmen, the Taj Mahal was finally completed in 1648, with additional cloisters added thereafter. For the best views of this famed complex, make your way across the river to Mehtab Bagh gardens at sunrise or sunset for memorable photo opportunities and optional boat hires. As well as visiting the Taj, also worthwhile is Itmad-ud-Daulah’s tomb, the lesser-known Sikandra fort and various other homages to the Mughal empire, in particular, the Musamman Burj, a tower and architectural marvel with views over the city.

Agra | Photo: Sylwia Bartyzel

2. Delhi

Colourful capital New Delhi is India’s most chaotic and crowded city, but don’t let that stop you jumping in and savouring its wonders. Most tourists to New Delhi love how the city melds both tradition and modernity; in the centre sits Old Delhi with its heritage attractions and market fare, while sprawling out from there you’ve got showy towers and high-end restaurants set apart from the urban mayhem. The streets, commandeered by humble locals pushing food carts and honking auto-rickshaw drivers (with a fair amount of cows, cars and scooters thrown into the mix), can be a pain to navigate but once you relax into the task, every corner offers a new opportunity. A city of eight layers, with each new era, laid upon the ruins of the old, Delhi’s history is a joy to untangle. The modern-day citadel is said to be haunted by djinns, with the various monuments and temples harking back to a city of old, from the ruins of Purana Qila and Shahjahanabad to the tombs of historical figures, all in proximity to the shrines, mosques and temples still popular among devotees and spiritual seekers alike.

Moving out from the Red Fort in the old centre, converge on winding alleys offering all kinds of regional cuisine, from South Indian idly and Punjabi kulcha for brunch, before richer tastes of Mughlai curry come dinnertime. Of the most famous foods, Dilli-ka-chaat – or street food snacks – are sure winners. Grab a kebab, aloo tikka patty or sweet deep-fried jalebi at any time on the move, pausing for a side of cardamom kheer rice pudding. Besides Delhi’s array of flavours, the city also holds much in the way of handicrafts, clothes and other winning souvenirs. Visit any of Delhi’s emporiums for the gift-buying experience of a lifetime, where India’s best regional arts and crafts come together to fill multiple storey emporiums as well as alleyways and outside bazaars with puppets, paintings, brightly dyed shawls, cheap electronics and more. Discover more of the city with our full Delhi travel guide.

Connaught Place, New Delhi | Photo: Kunal Goswami

New Delhi | Photo: Raghu Nayyar

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Besides its memorable parties, there’s also something of the spiritual about Goa, made real by the yoga retreats, reiki healing courses and daily meditation groups most active on the beach at sunrise

3. Goa

Next, we take a trip down south to clear our heads of urban smog, with the golden beaches of Goa on the Arabian Sea. One of the best vacation spots in India for any type of tourist, blending both Indian and Portuguese heritage, Goa has enough culture for both backpackers and luxury travellers, allowing for chilled beach days alongside all-inclusive resort getaways. Whatever you’re after, spend your days exploring the multitude of beaches, waterfalls and ruins in the region, following up with an all-night party or two at the pubs, clubs and hippie hangouts in towns like Bardez, Tiswadi and Salcete.

Besides its memorable parties, there’s also something of the spiritual about Goa, made real by the yoga retreats, reiki healing courses and daily meditation groups most active on the beach at sunrise. Drop-in on a class or sign up to a training course to learn the ropes from some of Goa’s top spiritual guides and yogis. As well as sound bowl experiences, Goa’s food should also take priority. The local fish curry and spicy Portuguese-influenced vindaloo are renowned the world over, though the lesser-known dish of bhali-pau is the perfect breakfast staple. Learn more of Goa’s spice credentials with a visit to a spice farm in the countryside, gaining insight into why the Portuguese so fell in love with the place in the 16th century. After nearly four hundred years of colonial rule, Goa is left with a distinctly European feel, most apparent when walking the streets to the sound of fado music, passing whitewashed Catholic churches, baroque buildings and timeworn forts in and around Old Goa.

Goa | Photo: Steph Smith

4. Rajasthan

Romanised as the Land of Kings, Rajasthan is surely every history buff’s dream destination. The state harks back to a time of maharajas and opulent palaces, where kings and queens of past centuries went about their stately business protected within medieval, mountain-top forts and the surrounding Thar desert. Rajasthan’s capital Jaipur is a key stop on the popular Golden Triangle route through India’s best cultural attractions (a route which also covers Delhi and Agra), a city beloved for its wild jewellery bazaars and pink-hued buildings centred by the City Palace. Rajasthan’s outlying cities are equally worthy of exploring, including blue-tinged Jodhpur and its Mehrangarh fort, or the romantic Udaipur and its living royal heritage. If time allows, take a day in Jaisalmer too, where sandstone structures and old haveli mansions will fulfil your every Arabian Nights fantasy.

Once home to the medieval elites known as the Rajputs, Rajasthan bears the scars of century-old battles among its many preserved palaces, many of which are open to tourists for accommodation or as museums displaying the city’s heritage arts and culture. As well as staying in a palace, do as the Rajputs do and barter for a camel ride along the dunes of the Thar desert, where safaris, desert camping and moonlight dinners are all up for grabs. Back in the capital, pick up fine handicrafts from the countless bazaars and street stalls lining the streets, or come during one of the region’s many festivals, such as Diwali or Holi, when, amongst explosions of colour, you’ll see garishly adorned camels and the odd painted elephant leading the festivities. Other attractions unique to Rajasthan include the Ranthambore National Park where tigers roam semi-wild and nature takes centre stage. See more with our article on things to do in Rajasthan.

Jaisalmer, Rajasthan | Photo: Sergio Capuzzimati

5. Mumbai

The centre of Bollywood and India’s underworld, Mumbai signifies both the dream and the struggle, full as it is with starlets, artists, servants, millionaires and every hustler in between. Push through the crowds of the city centre to unveil a world which is at once India’s financial and fashion capital, as well as the site of various religious tensions. Though not threatening, Mumbai’s energy can be overpowering for some. Make your visit easier by first understanding the city’s weak points, such as the air pollution and lack of public transport, arming yourself with a mask and bartering skills so as to move through the city with ease. Once weaving through traffic in style, make your way past grandiose colonial-era architecture and hidden temples, stopping at hipster neighbourhoods such as Colaba and Bandra to refuel at gourmet restaurants and glam rooftop bars.

Of your Mumbai India best destinations, the ordered chaos of Thieves Market is an authentic choice, followed by a luxury cruise down Marine Drive to best appreciate the scenic coast and its façade of Art Deco residences. Outside of the city proper, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, allows visitors to breathe easy once more in amongst wild surroundings where 2,000-year-old rock carvings lie deep within Kanheri Cave.

Mumbai | Photo: Sonika Agarwal

Mumbai | Photo: Meric Dagli

6. Rishikesh

As well as Goa, Rishikesh is another spot for spiritual growth while in India, offering visitors the chance to following the footsteps of the Beatles when they came in the 1960s to spend time in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram. Although the ashram is now abandoned, the site remains a pilgrimage site for fans and a centre for yoga and spiritual enlightenment, deep in the foothills of the Himalayas beside the holy Ganges River. Come to take part in a retreat or simply soak up the meditative atmosphere, enjoying the river setting towards the north of town where torrent flows beside hilled forest and an otherworldly breeze sends the temple bells ringing out for miles. The nightly river worship ceremony (or ganga aarti) is worth shrugging off your inhibitions for, or otherwise try your hand at learning traditional instruments such as the sitar or tabla. In addition to a fair number of intriguing practices, such as laughter therapy (Hasya yoga) or crystal healing, Rishikesh is also a backpacking adventure town with access to white-water rafting and trekking expeditions into the Himalayas.

Rishikesh | Photo: AYMYogaSchool

7. Amritsar

Another home from home for history lovers is the holy land of Amritsar where the Sikh Gurdwara complex has lain since its founding by Guru Ram Das in the 16th century. One of India’s most peaceful and significant sites, centred by the astounding Golden Temple, the Gurdwara is the top lure of Amritsar for good reason. Though the city’s urban landscape is far beyond what you can expect from Mumbai or Delhi, with its pedestrianised areas and modern planning, old Amritsar is never far from reach down any of the olden alleyways where you’ll find vibrant bazaars packed with people, colours and spices.

Nicknamed the Jewel of Punjab on the border to Pakistan, Amritsar is very much a sacred place for Sikhs, where worshipers must undergo a series of cleansing rituals to gain entry to the temple complex, such as covering your hair and washing your feet. Once inside, follow the marble path clockwise past the man-made lake and into the gilded inner sanctum where holy leaders chant songs and community volunteers dish out free vegetarian meals in their thousands daily. After touring the Gurdwara, consider staying in Amritsar a day or so longer to experience the Beating Retreat Ceremony on the border at dusk, an event preceded by Bollywood dance-offs in the streets among locals.

Amritsar | Photo: Harsharan Singh

8. Kerala

Voted among the best destinations in India for honeymooners, Kerala offers South India’s most serene natural landscapes, crossing jungle and wilderness backwaters along 600 kilometres of coastline. Find Kerala south of Goa on the shores of the Arabian Sea, a world away from anything you’ve seen thus far in India. Swap honking traffic for hazy mountain scenery and trade crowded bazaars for winding rivers, Kerala allows travellers to appreciate the slow life. Hop on an Alappuzha houseboat on the lagoons near Alleppey, uncover history and culture within the cities of Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram, or uncover the traditions and rituals of smaller villages, such as Kathakali trance rituals and temple festivals led by welcoming locals.

Up in the Western Ghats is where Kerala’s biggest exports of tea and spices are produced, but also you’ll find extensive wildlife reserves such as Eravikulam National Park and Munnar, a former hill station of the British Raj. The top draw of Kerala is, of course, its natural beauty, highlighted in particular by Athirappilly Falls. The region’s wildlife is also an added joy, a place where wild elephants, exotic birds and even tigers call home.

Alleppey, Kerala | Photo: Kunal Kalra

Photo: Avinash Ratnaji

9. Andaman and Nicobar Islands

India’s remotest state, comprised of a series of islands 1,000 kilometres off the coast of the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are well worth the long journey. Like Kerala, these islands are famed for their natural attractions, offering up the chance to dive among pristine coral reefs and island-hop to uninhabited realms. Just a handful of the 572 islands are accessible to visitors, the most popular of which is Havelock (or Swaraj), a place home to a mix of Southeast Asian, Negrito ethnic groups and indigenous tribes, offering a mixed culture far removed from the mainland. Come to bask in the dreamy atmosphere and paradise island views, spending your days sunbathing, diving and surfing off white sand beaches, moving inland for further adventure among warm lagoons and rocky jungle.

Andaman Islands | Photo: Tatonomusic

10. Darjeeling

Our last destination is the famous hill station in West Bengal known for its rolling tea plantations and lofty peak of Khangchendzonga, the world’s third-highest mountain at 8,598 metres. This is Darjeeling; where visitors come not only for tea but also to experience the wild mountain vistas dotted with Buddhist monasteries, made accessible via the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, an antique steam train which takes passengers from Darjeeling to Ghum on one of the planet’s most scenic journeys.

It’s not all easy riding however because – as well as Khangchendzonga peak to conquer – Darjeeling has much in the way of trekking and mountain biking opportunities. Tackle the trek up to Singalila Ridge or bike through the hills ending at the foot of the town for a series of bazaars and markets frequented by traders and locals from across Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet. As well as stocking up on Himalayan crafts and tea, visitors can take time among the colonial-era architecture of the British Taj, hiking up to any of the monasteries tucked away in the crags of Khangchendzonga.

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