India is an incredible place filled with magic and mystery, modernity and history. You can find action and excitement in the bustling cities, get away from it all in the wild jungles of Rudyard Kipling’s books, or get some R&R in the tranquil backwaters. In short, there are hundreds of must-see places to visit in India, and all of them are filled with rich cultural traditions and ancient historical significance.
Where you go, and what you do there, is largely dependent on how much time to have to explore the vast and varied Indian subcontinent. For intense cultural experiences, there are festivals and holidays such as Holi, the Pushkar Camel Fair, and the Teej Festival.
For history buffs, there are UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Qutab Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, and the Red Fort. For nature lovers, there are numerous tiger reserves and exceptional Scuba diving in the Andaman Islands. And for spiritual seekers there is the sacred Ganges River and the mystical mountains of the Himalayas.
India can be massive and intimidating for first-time visitors, with an array of remarkable sights, sounds, and smells that overwhelm the senses. But by focusing on your personal travel style, it’s not difficult to construct an itinerary around some of these attractions, which we consider the very best places to visit in India.
A well-deserved #1 on nearly every India traveler’s bucket list, Agra is best-known as home to the 7th wonder of the world, the Taj Mahal. This world-renowned symbol of love earns every ounce of hype it receives, but it’s hardly the city’s only noteworthy historic landmark.
The Agra Fort is a remarkably well-preserved example of a 16th century Mughal palace: It was here that Taj Mahal builder Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son, spending the waning years of his life looking out across the river at the monument he build as a tomb for his loving wife, Mumtaz.
The abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, Agra’s third UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built as a capital in the 1570s by Shah Jahan’s grandfather, a Mughal Emperor. It was abandoned a decade later due to a water shortage in the area, but remains a stunning relic of ancient India.
Located in the middle of the Andaman Sea, this archipelago of 570+ islands (of which less than 40 are inhabited) is a laid-back haven for those needing a break from the hustle and bustle of the mainland.
There are gorgeous green mountains, including the only active volcano in South Asia on Barren Island. There’s history in the Cellular Jail on Port Blair, where the British exiled political prisoners during India’s struggle of independence, which now serves as a national memorial monument.
There’s beautiful Radhanager Beach on Havelock Island, which Time ranked the 7th most spectacular beach in the world. And there are an array of pristine coral reefs in Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, where you can snorkel or Scuba dive with colorful fish, sea turtles, and sting rays.
India’s capital city is a major metropolis that seamlessly blends the ancient and modern, and often serves as a launching point for exploration of the subcontinent. There’s a thriving mixture of religions and cultural traditions represented, with Old Delhi and New Delhi offering very different experiences for travelers.
Old Delhi was founded as Shahjahanabad by Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in 1639, and remains the heart of the city today. The area has served as the capital of many empires that ruled India, dating back some 2,000 years. So it’s loaded with historic landmarks and monuments, including Humayun’s Tomb, Jama Masjid, Qutub Minar, the Red Fort, Safdarjung’s Tomb, and Tughlaqabad Fort.
New Delhi is an impressive planned city built by the British Raj in the early 20th century. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, this area is famous for its colonial architecture and tree-lined boulevards. It also features a number of noteworthy modern monuments, including the India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Laxminarayan Temple, Lotus temple and Akshardham Temple.
Far removed from the overpopulated metropolises of Mumbai and Delhi, Dharamsala is located in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. It is best known as the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who fled Chinese persecution in Tibet in 1959. The Prime Minister of India allow the Buddhist leader and his followers to settle here, where they established a Tibetan government-in-exile in 1960.
With a population of around 20,000 people, Dharamsala couldn’t be more different from the cities we’ve included on our list of the Best Places to Visit in India. Located in the Kangra Valley, in the shadow of the Dhauladhar mountains, the city (which has an average elevation of around 4,800 feet) puts visitors in the Heart of the Himalayas.
This is best place to get a taste of Himalayan culture, learning about Tibetan Buddhism and history in a remote rural setting. You’ll get a chance to work directly with local people, learning to cook traditional dishes by hand and helping children from the village make arts and crafts. It’s an immersive experience you won’t soon forget.
India is home to around 70% of the world’s entire population of tigers. There are 49 different tiger reserves in the country, all governed by Project Tiger, which is overseen by India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority.
In a world where there seems to be bad news about wildlife every day, their conservation success is stunning. Despite the rise in poaching, India’s tiger population has risen from 1,411 in 2006 to nearly 2500 today.
The central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is filled with the lush jungles tigers most often inhabit, and famously served as inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Today the area is home to many of the nation’s most popular tiger reserves, such as Bandhavgarh, Kanha, and Pench.
But India’s most well-known tiger reserve is probably Ranthambhore National Park. Located in the northern state of Rajasthan, the park is close to India’s frequently traveled “Golden Triangle” (Agra-Delhi-Jaipur). With around 55 tigers, including nearly a dozen cubs, it arguably provides your best chance for seeing a tiger in the wild.
Located in the southern part of Rajasthan, Udaipur was voted as the best city in the world by Travel + Leisure in 2009.
It’s also arguably India’s most romantic city, filled with the sort of iconic images– colorful saris and turbans, magnificent medieval forts, and sunset camel treks through the desert– that bucket list dreams are made of.
With a population of around 500,000, Udaipur is set around beautiful (and man-made) Lake Pichola. The city’s most famous view is of the Lake Palace Hotel, a former Maharajah’s Palace that rises out of the waters, which has been named among the most romantic hotels in the world. Boat rides on the lake, a visit to the Jagdish Temple, and touring the City Palace are among the many must-see sights.
Located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (which is known as “The Heartland of India”), Varanasi is considered Hinduism’s holiest city. It’s also one of the oldest cities in the world, and is filled with ancient temples.
Hindu pilgrims have been drawn to Varanasi for countless centuries, making the journey to the Ganges (or Ganga) River to bathe in its sacred waters, seek blessings, and pray for release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
It is here that the faithful come to die, with processions of mourners carrying their loved ones’ bodied to burning ghats that line the riverfront. There, they are cremated before having their ashes immersed in the river. It’s an emotional experience, to be sure. But it’s also an absolute must-see for anyone interested in traditional Hindu culture. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.