Twenty best places to visit in North India
It’s only fair to start talking about North India, with the historic Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur and then take it trough the deserts of Rajasthan into the magnificent Himalayan paradise destinations. So let’s start where most trips to India start and talk about our twenty top places to visit in North India.
Delhi –A city with character
You’re most likely to land here if you’re visiting India. And when you do, you’ll probably be told about Delhi’s skyrocketing crime rate which is true but there’s more to Delhi than that. It’s a modern city in with a very strong historical essence, in the way it is constructed, in its architecture and especially in the monuments, tombs, temples, and ruins of Old Delhi. Street shopping at Sarojinini Nagar and Janpath, street food all over town, the alternative, designer culture of HauzKhas Village, the hipster feel of Pahadganj… these are things everyone loves about Delhi and yet the luxury shopper or the fine diner will not be pressed for choices with all the high flying malls and luxury stores in town. The city is sprawling and every area is like a world of its own (you can lose yourself just going around the lanes of ChandniChowk). The highways feel like they connect different worlds. Delhi has it all, and all of it makes one mesmerizing metropolis where you can spend months and still keep discovering it with all its fascinating nooks and crannies.
Agra – More than the Taj Mahal
Yes, we all know that the Taj Mahal which is undoubtedly magnificent (especially in changing light at dawn and dusk) is Agra’s claim to fame but there’s a lot more to see here. Agra Fort, Baby Taj (a small unfinished version of the Taj Mahal in black), Akbar’s tomb and the fortress city of Fatehpur (Fatehpur Sikri) are all great monuments, each with its own unique historic significance and architectural genius attached. That’s the least you expect from a city that was India’s capital under the Mughals. Agra city itself can be quite an experience. It’s like a bunch of bazaars put together with most monuments lining the river Yamuna along the eastern side of the city. Taj Ganj is the settlement around the Taj Mahal where you’ll find cheap lodging and lots of small time Marble Inlay makers making replicas of the Taj Mahal and other beautiful pieces of art. Sadar Bazaar has the more swanky accommodation in town, craft emporiums and many restaurants, Further north from Agra Fort there is the commercial Kinari Bazaar which surrounds Jama Masjid. Agra is a great peek into the extravagance and the artistic impulses of the Mughals and their social effects.
Jaipur – A piece of culture
Jaipur is one of the biggest and most bustling cities in the state of Rajasthan. Roam the old city bazaars (which are arranged in a courtyard like fashion around the city palace) for great handicrafts and souvenirs, ethnic wear that’s a class apart both as textiles and accessories, super interesting food (the ‘kachori’ from ‘Kanji’ is a must try as is the traditional ‘dal bati’ at old Jaipuri food joints). Amer Fort with an exquisite light and sound show by night and the brilliance of the Sheesh Mahal (palace of mirrors) by day, the Galtaji temple (or the monkey temple), Nahargarh fort and the lesser known Royal Cenotaphs are major attractions on the outskirts while Hawa Mahal is an in city visual delight. Photography enthusiasts will have a gala time in Jaipur with its amazing Rajasthani architecture. If you feel like there’s been an overdose of structures, head to the greener Ram Niwas Gardens and visit the Central Museum in the southern part of town. Fort,
Ranthambore – Spot a tiger
This is one of the best Indian destinations for tiger sighting. Of all Indian national parks, you have the best odds of seeing a tiger up close in Ranthambore. The tigers here smugly assume ownership of the place, least perturbed by the visitors and their clicking cameras. You might even have the illusion that some of them are striking a pose for your convenience every now and then. It’s not as easy as it sounds though, any wildlife photographer will tell you that if you’re not one yourself. But the proximity of this reserve to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur (the closest, you actually alight at Savaimadhavpur from the train to get to the park), makes it a much more convenient destination for nature lovers. You will get to see not only tigers but neelgai, chital, jackals, jungle cats, leopards and many birds if you’re aware enough. And the cool new development are the ‘buffer zones’ where you can actually get out of your jeep and walk around, but don’t expect to see a tiger unless you’re really lucky in these areas. Buffer zones are open all year round but the core area of the park is shut from 1st July to 30th September. October to March is the ideal time to visit. Animals frequent the lake in this season since rainwater is scanty. Summers are less crowded due to the extreme heat and winters are extremely busy here, so plan ahead!
Jaisalmer – The desert’s golden edge
Jaiselmer is relatively more difficult to get to (an overnight railway journey from Jaipur or a drive through Jodhpur) but totally worth it. Enjoy the sights and sounds of a typical Rajasthani desert town, go on a camel ride at sunset, camp in the desert amidst the ‘Golden City’s’ sand dunes. People watch here, its great fun. The village folk in their vibrant turbans are all over the bazaar and there is absolutely no match for Jaiselmer’s sandstone structures. Walk through yourself in the meandering streets, with no fear of getting lost in this medieval small town. Go looking for traditional dance performances, and maybe go dune bashing.
Jodhpur – The best fort city in Rajasthan
Jodhpur, in Rajasthan lines the Thar Desert to the east. Almost all houses in the old town are painted in a lovely blue wash and the stunning Meherangarh Fort (easily Rajasthan’s most beautiful) looms over them. Zipling off Meherangarh Fort is a brilliant experience no one should miss (more info. on that here: http://www.flyingfox.asia/cmspage.aspx?pgid=52). Don’t just visit the fort, go around town if you get the time, you’ll find puppet makers, tie and dye artists, spice markets and more. Lose yourself in the bazaars that radiate around the clock tower right in the centre of the city, the age old Sardar Market especially. The wall less Jalori and Sojati Gates will give you a feel of how old a city Jodhpur really is. For the sake of ritual, get a birds-eye view of the ‘blue city’ and keep a photograph of it for fond memory!
Udaipur – Charming city of Lakes
Udaipur is that rich and romantic setting you’ve seen in old Indian paintings and period films. Lake Pichola is lined by an array of palaces with beautiful balconies, havelis (small homes of the royal era) in pristine white, bathing ghats and lovely root top restaurants from where you can get great views of the lake and lush green hills around it. The Lake Palace hotel floats proudly in the middle of the lake, as does Jag Mandir. You have City Palace to the east of the Lake Pichola and, winding streets of the old city to explore and of course, the Fateh Sagar lake to the north. A drive through the outskirts is very visually rewarding as well, it gives you a real feel of the great Indian dynasty that was.
Pushkar – Small, spiritual and hippie
Legend says that Lord Brahma (the Hindu deity who is the creator) dropped a lotus on this little town to the north of Ajmer and that’s how the holy Pushkar lake came to exist. The only Bhrama temple in India, it is an important pilgrimage spot, but more interestingly, it is a hub for hippie travelers. The lake is flanked by hundreds of temples and ghats, along with rooftop cafes, bakeries, etc. and a very colorful market, full of handicrafts, hipster clothing and a variety of food. Sunset by the lake is a great experience. If you come to Pushkar during the camel fair around October/November, you’ll see throngs of pilgrims, folk artists, musicians, camel sellers and buyers, tourists and many more people coming into Pushkar and the entire expanse of dunes around it acquire a lovely festive aura. Climb the hill where the Savitri Temple is to get an unsurpassed view over Pushkar (try to get there by sunrise, or at sun set). The Gayitri Temple offers great sunrise views as well. Make all your bookings in advance if you’re visiting at the time of the fair.
Varanasi – The cradle of Hindu’asm
Also called Benares and Kashi, this is an old city that lies around the banks of the river Ganga. The banks of the river have an array of ghats leading to the holy waters, where you’ll see, priests, pilgrims and other folk in colorful attire, taking a dip, and performing rituals. The ghats of Varanasi are also where many Hindu’s in northern India religiously cremate their dead and where the grand Ganga aarti takes place. Watching the Ganga aarti in this ‘city of light’ said to have been created by the Lord Shiva one of the most intense and moving experiences you can have in India. Varanasi has a unique vibe, probably because it is considered one of the most important pilgrimage spots in the country. It is a city of sages and priests, a strange place where the deities abound and the aged believers wish to breathe their last.
Khajuraho – The erotic temples
The sensual sculptures of the Khajuraho temples are yet unmatched. There is more than one theory for why the Chandella dynasty rulers had such explicitly erotic temples built back in 10-12 centuries AD (which one would imagine were conservative times in a country like India). One particularly funny one is that they were intended to be a ‘how to’ guide for Brahmin boys! A more serious one is that they symbolize Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati’s wedding party. The British rediscovered this forgotten architectural marvel, 400 km from Agra (southeast) and Varanasi (west), in 1838. The Western Group temples are particularly stunning with their pinkish sandstone and almost 3D relief giving of the illusion that the figures are alive with real flesh. Add to this the subtle changes in hues with the changing light of the day, in the moonlight and sometimes floodlights by night and you’ll find yourself just standing there and staring for hours! Khajuraho village, although belittled by the grandeur of the temples, has its own discreet charm, with a laid back pace, a nice market and pretty open-restaurants. The Khajuraho Dance festival is a great time of the year to visit Khajuraho.
Orchha – A smaller gem
Chhattisgarh’s more or less overshadowed gem, Orccha is a must visit if you’re taking a trip to the more famed site of Khajuraho, and even otherwise. In fact, the name itself translates to ‘hidden place’ and this tumble-down medieval town lives up to the title, nestled among dhak forest cover. Orchha is a convenient 18km journey from Jhansi. Its architectural value has been recognized over the years and its lovely shikharas, palatial remains, havelis and cenotaphs in sandstone with flora growing over them have been fortified. They all appear to be making a serene journey in time by the River Betwa. The village is a great place to relax on your way down from more demanding northern towns. Now that Orchha has taken up a bit of the limelight, you might find a lot of guided tours and tourists here, but the best way to enjoy it is to let this bustle clear out a bit, lay back and take in the entire aura of the place at peace.
Kanha National Park – in the lap of nature
Sprawled over 940 sq. km of deciduous forest cover, grasslands, hills and rivers, Kanha National Park to the north of Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh is easily one of the finest wildlife sanctuaries in India. You’ll spot myriad species of birds and animals (tigers as well) here and be mesmerized by the parks early morning beauty. Sighting a tiger here is considered more difficult than other tiger reserves, but it’s totally worth a visit for the rest of the wildlife brilliant, refreshing country side views it offers.
Bandhavgarh National Park – Where the Bengal tigers thrive
195 km from Jabalpur and 237 km from Khajuraho, Bandhavgarh to the north east of Madhya Pradesh is a 448 sq. km. National Park which houses the most number of tigers in India. This is by far the best reserve to track tigers at. You have the best chances of sighting tigers and getting insight into their life and habits if you go here during season time. Accommodation is available near the park entry which makes it all the more convenient and you get to see all sorts of birds while sitting around in your lodge at leisure. Bandhavgarh also has some enthralling ruins for those with an eye for architecture or an interest in history.
Rishikesh – a charming Himalyan foothill
Rishikesh is one absurd mix of yogis, sanyasis, travelers, hippies, adventure sports enthusiasts and more. It lies on the foothills of the Himalayas, 24 km from Haridwar to the north with the Garhwal Mountains looming above at and the river Ganga flowing by. You’ll find many ashrams and yoga centers here. Go white water rafting, get adventurous with mountaineering or just take one of the easier and more recreational treks. The unparalleled adrenaline rush of bungee jumping and the tranquility which was its original charm, you’ll find it all here in Rishikesh. Walk up-river and a spot amidst the rocks to just sit and be meditative. All in all it is a lovely experience and you can spend quite a while here.
Amritsar – An Awakening of humility
Punjab’s largest city, Amritsar is famous for the Golden Temple with its stately domes which command the view from its busy old town streets. Just walking around the bazaars and narrow by lanes of the old town is also quite an experience in itself. Another thing that all travelers to Amritsar find interesting is the flag retreat at the Wagha border 29 Km to the west (Indo–Pakistan frontier) where Indian and Pakistani soldiers bring down flags in an elaborate manner every evening. If you’re into history, you can probably visit the site of Jalianwala Bagh (where silent protestors were massacred during India’s struggle for freedom).
Chandigarh – An urban design benchmark
The capital of Punjab as well as Haryana and yet of neither because it is a Union Territory, Chandigarh is modeled on Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision for a city that is “symbolic of the future of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, [and] an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”. Le Corbusier (or Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) designed Chandigarh back in 1952 as a progressive town planning experiment amidst some controversy and the Le Corbesiurs buildings are till date a thing to see amongst designers and architects. It is much cleaner and greener city compared to other major Indian towns. The rock garden here is the most frequented tourist destination in India after the Taj Mahal.
Dharmshala – Center of Buddhism in India
The Dalai Lamas home in exile atop the picturesque Kangra Valley in the Dauladhar Range of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala has a unique spiritual vibe to it. The Dalai Lama resides a few kilometers uphill at McLeod Ganj, and there are a number of monasteries and nunneries spread all over the Kangra Valley. Take home pretty souvenirs made by the Tibetan refugees from the market and eat some of the best momos you get in India. Enjoy soothing Tibetan meals, intellectual and spiritual discourses, and bask in the general feeling of peace and camaraderie here. In the winter you will encounter heavy snowfall and the monsoons are very wet as well, but post monsoon is the most refreshing time to be here. The Museum of Kangra Art in Dharamshala is worth a visit. You might not want to stay in Dharamshala, because it has become a developed city over the years, so walk uphill (or take a bus) to McLeod Ganj and find (via the Tibetan Library and Secretariat) and find one of the many lovely lodging options there. Visit the Dalai Lama temple at the time of chanting for a great experience and spin some prayer wheels there for good fortune. The temple has an exceptional view of the valley too. Dharamshala is the base for a number of superb Himalayan treks. If you’re here during the Dharamshala film festival, do not miss it. Check out the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, head northeast to Dharamkot village; visit the Tushita Retreat Meditation Centre and the Tibetan Children’s Village near Bhagsu. You can spend weeks in these parts and not tire of it at all.
Shimla – Colonial Mountain town
The climb from the Kalka plains to Shimla in the Himalayas is an experience in itself with steep valleys, apple orchards and maize terrace farming all over the slopes. At 2159m, Shimla always has cool weather and great views. No wonder the British made it their summer capital and it still has the colonial aura with churches and mansions, cricket pitches and holiday resorts, immaculately turned out city folk and gentlemen smoking pipes, homes and shops bearing typically British names. Christ Church is a major landmark and Scandal Point is where people gather to chat in the afternoons. The Mall is the prime shopping street of the bazaar with other interesting ones branching away from it. The Gaiety Theatre has regular shows. May–June is season times here and Indian tourists from Delhi and Punjab flock to Shimla at this time, so if you don’t like it crowded you might want to choose a slightly off season period. October and November are the best months, but make your bookings in advance. Keep an eye out for the many activities of the ridge like brass bands, sports screenings and pony rides.
Kashmir Valley can easily be called India’s most beautiful destination. This exquisite, cool, lush area is like heaven on earth. Whether you come in from the Jawahar Tunnel or Zoji La pass, you’ll find yourself in a fantastic, verdant land, with mountain peaks all around you. The mostly snow capped PirPinjal mountains, bright green fields with corn, wheat, almond, walnut and fruits in abundance, willows and poplars which yield some of the highest quality wood, it’s all here in Kashmir. Not much industrialization and the most amazing food with benign spices blended just right and preparations that’ll make you feel absolutely pampered, what more can you ask for. Kashmiri handicrafts are a class apart. The downside is that there have been years of political and social conflict over Kashmir and so you have to be on your guard around here although it is definitely not reason enough to miss out on its beauty. Drink Kahwah!
Leh and Ladakh
This is a whole separate part of the country, in terms of administration, culture as well as terrain. Literally meaning ‘land of high mountain passes’ and often called ‘little Tibet’ it is very rich in Buddhist culture, despite extreme suppression of it by the Chinese in Tibet nearby. The monsoons hardly make it here and snowfall is very little too. Ladakh is like a Himalayan desert and the ultimate on road experience for bikers and driving enthusiasts. The ‘Raid De Himalaya’ is a very difficult car rally that goes through Ladakh, a major achievement for those who complete it. You’ll see Buddhist prayer flags, monasteries, chotrens outside tiny settlements, gompas and ruins, dotting the otherwise sparse landscape and transitions in terrain which feel like they’re not of this world once you enter Ladakh. Observe the life of the nomads here, it’s as inspiring as intriguing. Leh is Ladakh’s capital, and a thriving city of the Indus Valley with stunning views around it and a lot of tourist activity. Part of the historic Silk Route, Leh is where you’re most likely to arrive on your Journey into Ladakh or for other adventurous side trips. To its north lies KhardungLa, the highest motorable pass in the world which leads you to Nubra valley replete with sand dunes. Yes, be prepared for amazing visual transitions. TsoMoriri is a lovely lake to the south east of Leh in Rupshu and PangongTso (extreme east of Ladakh) is an epic destination, a lake they show in the movies. You can peek into Tibet from here. You need permits to go into most of these parts, so it’s advisable to reach Leh a day early and get these. Kargil (in the stunning Suru Valley) is the largest city here after Leh and it is the midpoint on your way to Srinagar in Kashmir and also the point where the road to Zanskar starts. A jeep or bike is ideal vehicles to traverse these regions. There are reliable busses as well on the Indus Valley highway but they get fewer as the distance from Leh increases, making remote parts (which are the charm of Ladakh) less accessible. If you’re fit enough, there’s no match for trekking of course!