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Amber Fort, Jaipur

What to do in India: our highlights guide

Amber Fort, Jaipur

By India specialists Sophie and Amber

Each region of India is different, with the decadent palaces of the Raj contrasting with the watery corridors of Kerala, the cool altitude of the Himalaya with the arid rural areas of central India and the wildlife-filled national parks that are home to tigers.

Those who love India find themselves going back time and again to discover more.

Live like a maharajah in Rajasthan's palaces and forts

Rawla Narlai, Narlai
Fort Rawla
Chanoud Garh
Chanoud Garh

The forts and palaces of Rajasthan capture the 'essence of India'. The Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur and the Amber Palace of Jaipur are renowned, but a stay in one of the smaller forts or palaces will allow you to experience the history and culture first hand, as well as warm, Indian hospitality.

One of the places we love to stay is Fort Rawla in Narlai. A former hunting lodge of the Jodhpur royal family, this 17th century fort is a good place to break the journey between Jodhpur and Udaipur, and is a destination in its own right. Climb to the top of Elephant Hill on the edge of the village and watch the bustle of life below before exploring the narrow lanes and Jain temples.

Another option is Chanoud Garh, a family run and beautifully renovated fort, which offers a peaceful experience in one of Rajasthan's many rural villages. Cook with the family, relax in one of the courtyards or even learn how to tie a turban.

Relax on the Keralan backwaters

Houseboat on the Kerala backwaters
Houseboat on the Kerala backwaters

Kerala is India in slow motion. Here the pace of life drops a gear and nowhere is this more obvious than while sipping a gin and tonic on the deck of a traditional houseboat. Originally used to transport rice and spices using the complex network of waterways that led to Cochin, these rustic boats are now mainly used for tourism.

While aboard, you can enjoy fish bought by your captain from one of the small fishing boats that traverse the backwaters. Then sit back to watch the sun set while the chatter of life on the banks gives way to the night-time chorus of the crickets.

For a quieter experience, consider northern Kerala, which is less explored, but just as beautiful. There are houseboats there too, but you’re likely to have the waterways almost to yourself.

Search for tiger in one of India's national parks

Tiger, Pench National Park
Tiger, Pench National Park

Visitors have been coming to India for centuries in search of wildlife, though thankfully now the hunt is for the perfect photograph of the elusive tiger, sloth bear or leopard rather than a trophy for the wall.

Ranthambhore is one of the more popular parks, conveniently located as it is between Agra and Jaipur. While a tiger sighting isn't guaranteed, there are plenty of animals you should see on game drives, including sambar and spotted deer. In the trees are langur monkeys, and the cry of the peacock will be a regular background noise.

If wildlife is the focus of your trip, head into the dusty heart of the country to explore India's central parks, such as Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Pench or Tadoba. Tiger numbers between these parks fluctuate each year, but there is always plenty of other wildlife to be seen. For a more activity-based experience, consider Satpura, where you can enjoy a boat ride or explore on foot with your local naturalist.

Explore India's religions in the Western Foothills

Evening aarti on the Ganges at Rishikesh
Aarti on the Ganges at Rishikesh
Golden Temple, Amritsar, India
Golden Temple, Amritsar

Though predominantly Hindu, India is home to Sikh, Muslim, Parsi, Buddhist, and Jain communities and this religious diversity can be fully appreciated in the Western Foothills. Here, in Rishikesh, the Ganges emerges from the mountains before joining the Gangetic Plains at Haridwar. Pilgrims from all over India come to watch the evening aarti, or holy fire ceremony, which is beautifully atmospheric.

Where the sounds and smells of the aarti make for an enlivening experience, it was at the Golden Temple of Amritsar that I felt the calm but powerful religiosity of the Sikh faith. Take a moment to sit back and watch worshipers as they pray by the water in quiet contemplation before joining your fellow attendees in sharing a curry prepared in vast vats for the thousands who visit the temple.

Take a boat trip on the Ganges at dawn or dusk

Life on the Ganges in Varanasi
Life on the Ganges in Varanasi

Life and death sit side-by-side in Varanasi, historic ghats vie with the chaotic squalor of the city and the heavy scent of incense mingles with the smoke of the constantly burning funeral pyres.

It's these extremes that make Varanasi so unforgettable. To appreciate fully the devotion of the pilgrims who visit the city, take a boat trip at both dawn and dusk if time allows. The morning bathers in the Ganges, deep in personal prayer, contrast with the communal worship of the evening aarti where crowds gather to watch priests perform rituals, and hundreds of candles are sent off down the river, carrying the prayers of the devotees.

Get a new perspective on the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal, Agra
Taj Mahal, Agra

The Taj Mahal's marble minarets, intricate inlay of semi-precious stones, and the ornate gardens that surround it have been much photographed.

We would suggest visiting at sunrise when not only are there fewer visitors, but the marble turns a soft pink and the stones glow as if illuminated from within. For a view that many visitors will miss, take a guided walk through Kachpura village from where you can take in the beauty of the building across local farmland. Just beware of when you are traveling — in the coldest months of December and January fog can restrict your views.

Discover India's rural roots

Shahpura Bagh
Shahpura Bagh
Dewalokam Homestay, Kodikulam
Dewalokam Homestay

So many of India's best bits lie off the main routes, in small towns and villages where the ruling 'Panchayat' discuss business in the shade of a banyan tree, plows are still pulled by oxen, and it's not unusual to have your journey delayed by a brightly turbaned goatherd and his stock.

To experience the rural way of life, stay in a homestay, where you can meet the family, eat with them, and share stories. Over a pre-dinner drink with the owners of Shahpura Bagh, which is halfway between Udaipur and Jaipur in Rajasthan, you may get the chance to hear about India's history from people who have not only lived through it, but were involved in key events.

In Kerala, one of the best homestays is Dewalokam, in Kodikulam, 70 km (43 miles) from Cochin. The hosts Jose and Sinta ensure everyone feels at home and has a wonderful stay in their eight-bedroom ancestral home. Being an organic farm, the food is fantastic. Walk through the spice plantations, cycle around the village, learn about beekeeping, cook with the chef or just relax in the pool or with a yoga lesson.

Escape the heat to the foothills of the Himalaya

View from the Toy Train in Shimla
View from the Toy Train in Shimla

When the ladies and gentlemen of the Raj needed to escape the heat of the plains they would head up to the hill stations of Darjeeling or Shimla aboard the narrow gauge 'toy trains'. These trains still trundle their way around the hills, winding through tunnels hewn out of the mountainside and towns where they travel so close to the shops that you could reach out and help yourself.

As the trains take a somewhat leisurely pace, you may find it preferable to travel part way by train and meet your driver for the remainder of the journey. However, for those with time, the slow speed will allow you to adjust to the more laid-back pace of life in the Himalaya.

Experience one of India's many religious festivals

Festival of Holi
Festival of Holi

A religiously diverse country, India has a correspondingly large number of festivals, the most celebrated being Diwali and Holi, although you may well stumble across a local festival on your journey.

Diwali falls in October or November and celebrates the victory of good over evil, light over darkness. As different parts of the country celebrate different Gods — Kali in Bengal, Lakshmi in Gujarat, for instance — you could find your experience of Diwali differs from that of others and makes for an interesting comparison. Wherever you are, you'll see lots of candles and hear plenty of firecrackers being set off in celebration.

A rambunctious festival, Holi is characterized by the throwing of colored powders and water, with streets and people transformed into vibrant rainbows. Be prepared to get involved if you're visiting India at this time — no one escapes. Many hotels will have their own celebrations, which we would recommend as being fun, but much more restrained.

If you would like to be in India for one of the festivals, I would advise planning well in advance, because the best hotels all get booked many months in advance.

Discover India's cities

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai

Most trips to India will start or end in one of the country's main cities. While these can be a sensory shock for a first-time visitor, there is much to be gained from a night or two in an Indian city. One of our favorites is Mumbai.

A city of two halves, Mumbai showcases India's burgeoning global power, as well as its poverty. The collision of the two can be seen everywhere, and exploring the Dharavi slum with a local will show you a world often ignored by all but its inhabitants. While the hardship of life in the slum is obvious, you can also be struck by the dignity, resilience and entrepreneurship of the people — it’s a truly fascinating and friendly place.

Contrasting this with afternoon tea in the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, a tour of the city's grand architecture or a tour of the Bollywood studios will leave you with a distinct impression of the city's disparate halves, and how seamlessly these fit together to create such a memorable city.

Start planning your trip to India

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They're just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

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