By India specialist Sophie
Within this one region of India, you'll find experiences that reflect the country's vibrant contrasts. Learn about the history of the maharajas, go in search of tigers in Ranthambhore National Park, or experience first-hand one of the country's most exciting festivals.
Travelling in India with your family is fun and exciting, and made easy by your guide and the excellent hotels and hosts you will meet along the way.
Family activities in India
Stay in a fort or palace in the countryside
Step back in time by spending a night or two in one of India's forts or palaces - imposing and castle-like, they sit high upon hills, often overlooking a village below. You and you're your family can explore the ramparts and hidden nooks and crannies that were once the playground of India's maharajas and their families.
I'd recommend Ramathra Fort, just 40km (25 miles) away from Ranthambhore National Park. It has been lovingly restored by the owners Ravi and Gitanjali, who ensure all their guests enjoy a personal and welcoming stay. You can expect delicious home-cooked traditional food created to your liking, and the opportunity to absorb a lot of the history of the fort and surrounding area.
The fort overlooks Kalisil Lake and there are plenty of things to do here from boat trips to night safaris, and you might spot crocodiles and birds including kingfishers, sarus cranes, stilts and herons. You can also take a bullock cart ride to the nearby village.
You'll see women working in the fields and inside one of the homes, you'll learn about the modest way of life here, where cow dung ovens provide the main means of cooking. You may also be invited to join the villagers in their daily activities, such as collecting water from the well.
Visit the Taj Mahal away from the crowds
The Taj Mahal in Agra is an undeniable highlight of any trip to India. Its cool white façade, inlaid with black marble and precious stones, attracts large crowds of visitors. However, it's possible to see it in relative peace with your family.
The night before you visit, I would recommend taking an evening tour of Kachpura village, which lies on the opposite side of the Yamuna River. It's a serene location for your first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, as you watch the sun set over its marble dome from either the rooftop of one of the village homes or the Mehtab Bagh gardens.
An early rise the following morning gives you the best chance of soaking up the beauty of the Taj Mahal in peace before the majority of visitors arrive. At this time of day, the mist rises from the water, reflecting the mausoleum on its still surface.
Go tiger spotting in Ranthambhore National Park
Once a hunting ground for the Maharaja of Jaipur, Ranthambhore is a pretty area of lush forest that's home to deer, monkeys and colourful birdlife, as well as the elusive tiger. You'll see some of the old hunting lodges on your game drives around the park.
Although sightings of tigers aren't guaranteed, their numbers are increasing in India, and Ranthambhore is one of the best places to view them in the wild.
I caught a glimpse of one on a recent visit. After a couple of unsuccessful drives, I heard the alarm calls that let guides know a tiger had been spotted. The park sprung to life with monkeys chattering and birds squawking — a sure sign that tigers are nearby — then, from out of the bushes, emerged a huge male tiger.
Seeing those orange and black stripes and huge paws for the first time was immense. He looked at us with his big luminous eyes before turning and walking down the road away from the jeeps which had gathered.
Family hotels in Ranthambhore National Park
Khem Villas is a wonderful family-friendly property just outside Ranthambhore National Park. It's a large complex housing a couple of canvas tents erected on hard standing, as well as cottages that are well spaced-out across the extensive grounds. The small pool keeps children entertained during the day when you're not on game drives. Khem also offers guided nature walks with a naturalist.
Visit Jaipur's forts and palaces
Jaipur, The Pink City, which is just over three hours northwest of Ranthambhore, is a bustling metropolis brimming with lavish architecture. It warrants a three night stay as there's plenty to explore.
The Amber Fort holds a hill-top position just outside the city. It offers an insight into the life of a maharaja as you pass through the Hall of Private Audience where he heard complaints from the public. Moving on you will wander through the mirrored palace where inlaid glass-work was created to reflect the light of a candle into millions of reflected stars for the maharaja's wife who loved the night sky.
I would also recommend taking an escorted street food tour of the city. You’re in the safe hands of a local guide who can advise you on what to try, from cooling pistachio or peach ice cream sprinkled with fruit and nuts, to samosas and pakoras cooked freshly in front of you.
Immerse yourself in local life with a homestay in Jaipur
For me, one of the real highlights of visiting Jaipur is the opportunity to spend a night or two staying with a Jaipuri family in their home. Although homestays are common throughout the country, Jaipur is where I've found one of the best examples for families: Dera Mandawa.
A 125 year old haveli (townhouse), Dera Mandawa is just a stone's throw away from the hustle and bustle of Jaipur, yet once you step over the threshold you're transported into an oasis of calm, where rooms are situated around a pretty central courtyard.
As part of your stay you can take part in a cooking lesson with your hosts. You'll visit the local spice market in the morning to pick up supplies before learning how to make a traditional thali — six or seven small dishes such as vegetarian curries and pickles — as well as rotis, similar to naan bread, for lunch that afternoon.
Homestays tend to be small, intimate properties, where you are often the only guests. In the evenings, everyone comes together to share stories and ask questions. This is a great way for children to make friends with local children of a similar age and learn a little about life growing up in India.
Give something back at Araveli
If you have a couple of weeks to spend in northern India, I'd recommend including three nights to stay at the Araveli Cottages and Tented Camp. Northeast of Udaipur, this camp is firmly connected to the local community and a highly rewarding place to stay. Araveli is operated by Me to We, an arm of the charity Free the Children.
Local people are employed in the running of the accommodation and help create experiences so you can get hands-on helping out in the local communities. You'll be welcomed with a traditional puja, you can learn some Hindu, then help nearby villagers with daily chores such as collecting water, making chapattis and feeding animals.
You can also visit local markets, go on a nature walk, try your hand at block-printing or Bollywood dancing. Learning about sustainability, education and some of the challenges faced in rural India is truly eye-opening. The activities are fun and involve everyone; perfect for families. The accommodation is beautiful too — simple, but very comfortable cottages and tents.
Experience one of India's vibrant festivals
Depending on what time of the year you visit India with your family, your trip may coincide with one of the country's more prominent festivals.
Diwali, the festival of lights, takes place in either October or November. Over five days, fireworks light up the sky and locals celebrate with firecrackers and roaring bonfires. The messy, paint-filled Holi takes place in March.
While I wouldn't recommend being in one of India's crowded cities during these festivities, a fantastic way to experience them, and get involved, is by staying with a local family. During Diwali, you'll be able to help light candles, enjoy the fireworks with your host family and take part in a small blessing in a traditional home setting.
Pack some old clothes if you are spending time in a countryside fort during Holi. You and your family could head down to the local village to experience the festival first-hand in a safe and friendly setting.
Best time to visit India with your family
In north India, I'd recommend visiting from October, when temperatures are between 25° and 30°C (77° and 86°F) with a dry heat. North India’s winter lasts from the end of November through to the end of January, when temperatures can drop to near-freezing.
My preferred time to visit Northern India is between February and March, when the temperature begins to rise again to around 30°C (86°F), bringing with it clear days. There's also a good chance of seeing tigers at this time of the year. From April, temperatures are well above 40°C (104°F) and often too hot for families, especially if you have younger children.
Practicalities of visiting India with your family
- Ten days gives you a good amount of time to experience all of the highlights in and around the Golden Triangle at a comfortable pace. If you have two weeks to spend in India, you'd be able to explore areas further afield.
- You and your family will generally travel in a private car or minibus with a driver. There will be English speaking guides in each location or city. In Ranthambhore you will have a naturalist guide in the shared jeep on game drives.
- While India's cuisine has a reputation for being quite fiery, you'll find that in many hotels you'll actually have to ask for spice as they try to cater to the Western palate. As such, you'll always find a wide variety of options suitable for family members of all ages. It's also worth noting that Rajasthan is predominantly a vegetarian state, so there will be a good mixture of meat and vegetarian options.
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