India is one of the world’s most diverse countries, with towering mountains, deserts, chaotic cities, jungles and exotic beaches. So what are the top things to do in India?
India is one of the most diverse, eclectic and overwhelming countries on the planet. After achieving independence from Britain in 1947, India has become the world’s largest secular democracy with a thriving industrial scene which has helped to make it the seventh-largest economy in the world. India’s population of over 1.4 billion people is the second biggest after China and the country today is a confusing mix of growing wealth versus extreme poverty spread across practically every type of landscape imaginable, from the icy peaks of the Himalayas to deserts and highlands, beaches and chaotic cities. This means that there’s no shortage of things to do in India. The country is known as the birthplace of yoga and its culture encompasses a rigid caste system, 23 spoken languages and the largest film industry in the world.
Top things to do in India… this varied nation offers virtually every type of travel experience you can imagine. However, many come to India for a spiritual or religious journey, to immerse themselves in yoga and meditation retreats, visit the Taj Mahal or trek into the heights of the Himalayas.
India boasts over 30 UNESCO sites and its most iconic architectural delight is the Taj Mahal, built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 to hold the tomb of his most beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Camel trek into the Thar Desert to see the Jaisalmer Fort, a yellow sandstone citadel known as the Golden City, and discover the striking black granite Konark Sun Temple in Orissa, which lay buried under sand for decades. Marvel at the sparkling collection of grand royal palaces in Udaipur and explore the imposing Mehrangarh and Agra forts. For more UNESCO wonders visit the Hindu desert ruins in Hampi and the palace complex Fatehpur Sikri, which holds one of the country’s largest mosques.
Experience the swirl of colour and life in India’s sprawling cities, which are often a confusing traffic-choked clash of skyscrapers and ancient buildings. Nearly 10 million people live in the capital Delhi, while Mumbai is known as the centre of the Bollywood film industry and home to historic architecture, city slums and the largest tropical rainforest in an urban zone. In Jaipur, trawl through stalls laden with fine silk fabrics and traditional handicrafts and watch some ritual theatre and dance, known as Kathakali, in Kerala. To experience the spiritual heart of India go to Rishikesh, a city in the Himalayas that is known as the yoga capital of the world.
Here are some of the most incredible cultural things to do in India:
The Taj Mahal in Agra –white-marble mausoleum in Agra built in 1632.
Jaisalmer Fort – UNESCO citadel in the middle of the Thar Desert with temples and a palace.
Orchha – a historical town full of medieval palaces and temples.
Udaipur – a city in Rajasthan full of decorative royal palaces and peaceful lakes.
Mehrangarh Fort – a UNESCO site, one of the largest forts in India set on a hill in Jodhpur.
Delhi - the hectic capital with its old colonial-era architecture and modern skyscrapers.
Hampi – was once the capital of the Hindu Empire with desert ruins and sculptures.
Agra Fort – known as the Red Fort of Agra for its sandstone walls, a UNESCO site.
Sun Temple – ruinous 13th-century temple and world heritage site made of black granite.
Fatehpur Sikri – former palace of Mughal Emperor Akbar and UNESCO gem near Agra.
Handicrafts in Rajasthan –bazaars in Jaipur laden with fabric, jewelry and pottery.
Mumbai – a mammoth city known for its film industry, urban rain forest and lively vibe.
Rishikesh – hub in the Himalayan foothills full of temples, ashrams and yoga retreats.
India is a deeply spiritual country and religion lies at the heart of its history and culture. As the birthplace of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism, one of the most interesting things to do in India is visit its religious buildings. Varanasi is a place of pilgrimage for Hindus, who make up 80 per cent of the population; rise at dawn to watch them bathe and cremate their dead in the holy water of the River Ganges. In Delhi, the Akshardham temple’s ornate carvings tell the story of Hinduism, while up in the frozen heights of the Himalayas lies Gangotri, the origin of the Ganges and a pilgrimage site for Hindus. Don’t miss the UNESCO Khajuraho monuments in Madhya Pradesh, a set of Hindu and Jain temples renowned for their erotic carvings.
Buddhists are drawn to the hillside city of Dharamsala with its Thekchen Choling temple complex. This city is the Dalai Lama’s home and the centre for the exiled Tibetan Buddhist government. In Gaya, the UNESCO listed Mahabodhi Buddhist temple marks the spot where Buddha famously achieved enlightenment; you can even sit under his meditation tree. For Sikh’s, the glittering Amritsar Golden Temple is their holiest site, while the marble Dilwara temple in Mount Abu is one of the most beautiful Jain buildings in the world, carved with images of saints.
Here are some of the most important religious buildings and sites in India:
Gangotri – a Himalayan village which lies at the source of the Ganges, a holy site for Hindus.
Amritsar Golden Temple – the holiest shrine of the Sikh faith, a sparkling gold treasure.
Thikse Monastery – a Tibetan Buddhist monastery perched on a hill in the village of Thikse.
Dharamsala – a Himalayan village, home to the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetan Buddhism.
Varanasi – the Hindu holy City of Light which sits on the river Ganges.
Akshardham – a huge temple in Delhi with detailed carvings that tell the story of Hinduism.
Ranakpur Temple – 15th-century Jain temple with a thousand carved pillars, set in the forest.
Khajuraho monuments – UNESCO Hindu and Jain temples known for their erotic carvings.
Dilwara temples – a group of carved marble Jain temples in Rajasthan.
Old Goa – a former Portuguese settlement with a collection of Catholic Cathedrals, churches and convents that are designated as a UNESCO site.
Partying isn’t one of the most common things to do in India and each state has its own laws, drinking ages and curfews. In big cities, you’ll find pubs which tend to cater to local men and swanky up-market bars and clubs which shut around 1 am. For luxury lounges, clubs, DJs and a developing Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scene, go to Mumbai and Delhi. Beer-lovers should head to Bangalore, which is known as the pub capital of India, while the hippy hub Goa is the place for partying on soft-sand beaches by moonlight to psychedelic trance music.
Here are India’s key nightlife spots:
Goa – known for its psychedelic trance scene and wild beach parties.
Mumbai – expensive, luxurious nightlife with chic clubs, lounges, DJs and EDM.
Bangalore – the pub capital in India, head to M.G Road which has over 50 pubs.
Delhi – less expensive than Mumbai with a mix of discos, pubs and nightclubs.
Pune – has a collection of bars and is the best place for music concerts and live shows.
One of the top things to do in India is eat. Savour the smell of spicy curry, dip seasoned breads into tangy sauces, snack on fried samosas and bite into tender tandoori meat dishes. India’s cuisine is especially favoured by vegetarians, who can dine with ease. Southern Indian food is light and almost entirely meat-free, involving lots of thin pancakes and chewy breads. Try a Masala Dosa, a crispy lentil-flour pancake filled with spiced potato, or sample a selection of curries served with rice and bread in a Tali plate. Vegetarians will delight in the selection of curries featuring cheese, potato and chickpeas while the standard lentil broth Dhal is available alongside tempting street food snacks like pakoras, bhajis and fried Indian sweets.
Northern Indian dishes tend to be meatier with thick sauces and doughy naans. Think Rogan Josh, a curry of boneless lamb in a red chilli-sauce from Kashmir, or hunks of meat cooked in a Tandoori (clay oven) smothered in thick masala and pasanda sauces. The common Korma comes from the Mughal Dynasty cooking style, which produced mildly-spiced meat dishes in cream, fruit and saffron sauces. Everywhere you go in India you’ll find a selection of chapattis and crispy popadoms to mop up sauces and dip into chutneys or cooling raita. One of India’s most-loved dishes is the rice-based Biryani and perhaps its most delicious variation comes from the city of Hyderabad.
Here are some of India’s must-try dishes:
Dhal – a broth made from split pulses, often served with bread.
Vegetable curry – made with paneer (cheese), alu (potato) or chana (chickpeas).
Rogan Josh – Kashmiri staple, a curry of boneless lamb in a vibrant red-chilli sauce.
Masala Dosa – a southern speciality of potato curry wrapped in a thin lentil-flour pancake.
Chutney – red chutneys are made from tamarind, green from mint or coriander.
Tandoori curry – meat cooked in a tandoori and marinated in yoghurt, herbs and spices served in a masala or pasanda sauce with rice.
Madras – comes in many variations, with meat, fish or vegetables in a hot curry sauce.
Raita – a cooling yoghurt dip with mint and cucumber, herbs and vegetables.
Tali – a selection of curries served in a stainless-steel tray with rice and bread.
Hyderabad Biryani – regional dish of rice with seasoned vegetables, chicken or mutton.
Chapatti – a term for bread, which includes naan, roti, puris, parathas and popadoms.
Bhapa Ilish – a curry made with Hilsa fish in a mustard sauce, popular with Bengalis.
Street food – common snacks include samosas, bhajis, pakoras and a lentil cake called vada.
Butter chicken – north Indian comfort food, chicken in a thick gravy served with naan.
Seekh Kebab – a northern speciality of minced lamb grilled on a skewer.
Tikka Masala – ‘tikka’ means small pieces usually of chicken served in a creamy, lightly-spiced sauce.
India has over 7,500 kilometres of coastline but its most-visited beaches are in Goa, a former colonial Portuguese state with 105km of coastline filled with palm-fringed and golden-sand beaches. Palolem is a favourite with travellers for its bay surrounded by forested hills. Those looking for a hippy vibe should head to Arambol, which has plenty of hammock-swinging and beach parties as well as nearby lakes, hot springs and mud baths. For a quieter cove in Goa, head to Agonda Beach or Mandrem in the north where endangered olive ridley turtles nest.
Kerala’s most popular backpacker beach is in Varkala, a town full of temples. For calm waters in a sandy bay overlooked by a striking red-and-white lighthouse, head to the aptly-named Lighthouse Beach. More chilled-out escapes can be found in Gokarna and along the Puri shoreline on the Bay of Bengal. Puri beach itself is a sacred Hindu area and the site of the annual November Beach Festival; it also has great waves for surfers. Another surfing spot is Kashid Beach, which lies just three hours from Mumbai and is often empty during the week. Other peaceful beaches include Chandipur in Orissa which has neon sunsets and Marina Beach near Chennai where you can explore a collection of 7th and 8th-century rock temples
For more pristine beaches head to the spectacular Andaman Islands, which lie 1000km off the east coast in the Bay of Bengal. Each of these 200 islands is covered in thick forest ringed by sandy beaches and coral-rich waters ideal for snorkelling and diving. The favourite Andaman Island is Havelock and its serene Redhanger Beach, which has white sands and turquoise waters. If you’re looking for marine-based things to do in India, this is the perfect place to dive and snorkel.
Here are India’s most beautiful beaches:
Goa – dozens of beaches to suit every taste, from bustling Palolem and hippy Arambol to peaceful Mandrem and Agonda.
Gokarna – popular with budget travellers and mellower than Goa.
Varkala – resort with red cliffs in Kerala, known for Ayurvedic masseurs.
Lighthouse Beach – a gentle bay in Kerala suitable for bathing with a lighthouse on the hill.
Kashid Beach – quiet spot in Maharashtra, three hours from Mumbai, with good surfing.
Chandipur Beach – has pretty sunsets and receding tides that leave wide stretches of sand.
Marina Beach – a beach overlooked by a series of crumbling rock temples in Tamil Nadu.
Puri – a Hindu beach known for its festival, with choppy water for surfing.
Lakshadweep Islands – discover India’s top coral reefs and most diverse marine life on this group of islands, many of which are dotted with rustic villages and mosques.
India’s landscape is as varied as its culture, from slum-encircled modern cities, lush rainforests and snow-capped mountains to highlands, deserts and tropical beaches. Mountaineers and trekkers head straight to the Himalayas while culture-seekers explore the Golden Triangle in the north, which includes the capital Delhi, Agra and the palaces and forts of Rajasthan. Most travellers pass through the Hindu city of Varanasi, which lies on the banks of the Ganges and retreat to the northeast highlands for cool tea plantations and colonial-era hill stations like Darjeeling. In contrast, the golden dunes and sweeping fields of sand in The Great Indian Desert are perfect for camel trekking and sun-seekers can head south for beaches.
India has plenty of endangered wildlife in its national parks, many of which are UNESCO protected and among the best in the world. These include the Himalayan National Park and the Valley of Flowers, which is filled with wild alpine flora and is home to the rare snow leopard and Asiatic black bear. One of the top wildlife-related things to do inIndiais take a safari in Kanha National Park to see tigers and leopards or visit Manas, a sanctuary of grasslands and forests for tigers, Indian elephants, pygmy hogs and Indian Rhinos. Kaziranga national park shelters panthers, tigers, bears and the world’s largest group of one-horned Rhinos. Keoladeo is Asia’s most famous bird sanctuary filled with dozens of species which flock there to nest in the winter.
One of India’s most diverse national parks is Khangchendzonga, which has flat plains, forests, deep valleys, lakes, mountains, glaciers and the third-highest peak in the world, Mount Khangchendzonga, which is an object of worship for the indigenous people of Sikkim. More dramatic Indian scenery can be found in the Ellora and Ajanta caves, which are filled with temples, prayer halls and monasteries.
Here are some of the most staggering scenic sites in India:
Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area – trek in the mighty mountain range.
Kanha National Park – spot animals and birds including tigers and leopards.
The River Ganges – India’s longest river which is sacred for Hindus.
Keoladeo National Park – Asia’s top bird sanctuary where millions nest every winter.
Leh-Manali Highway, Himalayas – crosses some of the world’s highest mountain passes.
Manas Wildlife Sanctuary – protected area for endangered animals in the Himalayas.
Darjeeling – famous tea plantations and past colonial hill station.
Ellora caves – holy caves for Buddhists, Hindus and Jains with colossal temples.
Ajanta Caves – with prayer halls and monasteries, a UNESCO site.
Thar Desert – the world’s 9th largest subtropical desert on the border of Pakistan.
Valley of Flowers – national park in the Himalayas full of alpine flowers and snow leopards.
Kaziranga National Park – undisturbed area in Assam full of rare animals like panthers, tigers, bears and the world’s largest group of one-horned Rhinos.
Sundarbans National Park – the world’s largest area of Mangrove forests.
Khangchendzonga National Park – home to the third-highest peak in the world.
You could spend a lifetime exploring India’s landscape, history and culture. Here are some of the best things to do in India:
Trekking – there are stunning jungle and mountain treks through India’s national parks and the Himalayas. The most incredible routes can be found in Ladakh and Zanskar which reach up to 5,000m into the Himalayas.
Yoga and meditation – India is the home of yoga and some of the world’s most well-known meditation traditions originated there. Sign up for a yoga or meditation retreat in hippy-friendly Rishikesh.
Camel Trekking –journey through the Thar Desert in Jaisalmer to impressive forts and camp under the stars.
Ancient buildings – India is full of temples,forts and palaces including the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Sun Temple and Mehrangarh Fort.
Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve – for the best chance of spotting India’s most iconic animal, take a safari from the village of Tala in the reserve.
Diving – discover an underwater world filled with rich marine-life on the Andaman Islands.
India has some of the oldest, most elaborate religious festivals on the planet and its calendar is full of extravagant celebrations, rituals and street parades. The Hindu Holi festival of colour is one of the top things to do in India. It takes place in either February or March in the Braj region of the country. Celebrations involve crowds gathering to splash each other with water and coloured powder. During the Rath Yatra festival in Puri, three huge decorated chariots are pulled by crowds through the town. In Calcutta, you’ll find the most impressive shrines for the goddess Durga during the Durga Puja festival in September or October.
When to go
India is a huge country and weather patterns vary depending on region. Generally, the best time to visit is during the cooler dry season which falls between November and March. Monsoon season hits the Kerala coast at the end of May and travels upwards in a north-east direction across the country over the next month and a half. More downpours hit during the retreating monsoon in October to December along the south of Kerala and east coast of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Temperatures also peak in May and June and can become unbearably hot, especially in the south. If you’re planning to trek in the Himalayas, the most ideal time to go is August and September.