Places to Visit in India
It occurred to me that I’ve seen a lot of amazing destinations in India, but I haven’t written about them. The primary reason is that most of my trips to India have been solo on on photography expeditions. Only one trip has been with one of my kids – a quick stop in Mumbai last year on my around-the-world trip with my son. Once we take all three kids to India I’ll do a proper post on everything we do.
A Disclaimer: I haven’t been to a lot of India yet. My travels have taken me from Varanasi in the east to New Delhi in the north, west to Jaisalmer and south to Mumbai. I haven’t been to Kerala or Goa yet, nor to Kashmir. I have a lifetime to explore though, and I can’t wait to return with my kids. Having said that, here are my favorite ten places that I’ve seen thus far, and places (and events) I would highly recommend adding to your travel list.
Jaisalmer is my favorite place to visit in India. I love walking through the Golden City early in the morning as it’s coming alive, and I love exploring the narrow alleyways and Jain temples of the fort, even during the peak of the tourist traffic. It’s magical to watch the sun go down and the fort light up from across the city. Bada Bagh and Gadsisar Lake are worth brief stops, but I could spend hours and days exploring the city itself.
Thar Desert, Rajasthan
If Jaisalmer is my favorite city, the Thar Desert is my favorite place. The desert is huge – 320,000 sq km or so – so I can’t speak for all of it, but I’ve loved going into villages and meeting people, attending festivals and camping. And it’s not extraordinarily comfortable to ride camels, but I’ve really enjoyed all of the camel rides I’ve done through the desert, especially at sunrise and sunset.
Taj Mahal, Agra
I’ve been incredibly impressed by the Taj Mahal every time I’ve visited. The key is to get there early, like half an hour before it opens. When the gate is open, walk quickly to the main gateway, stop for a few photos with no one in them, and then walk around to the right and enter the mosque. You’ll be alone, except for the caretaker. Enjoy the view from there for a while and then walk over to the Taj. As long as you stay ahead of the crowds you’ll have a far more intimate experience than if you join the masses later in the day. Sunset isn’t a bad time to visit, but there can still be large groups of people around. Sunrise is safer…if you’re fast. And it’s interesting to walk around on the other side of the river as well, both in the gardens and near the villages – it gives you a different perspective of the mausoleum and life in the shadow of the Taj.
Mumbai is a study in contrasts. I love staying at the amazing Taj Mahal Palace hotel, but then I spend my days touring the ghats and slums of the city. If Rajasthan gives you a feel for rural India, Mumbai brings you right back to the Indian cityscape, to the masses of people and frenetic energy. Touring the slums never feels exploitative to me. I’m so impressed with the work ethic – everyone working hard for very little money – and the kids everywhere, seemingly happy hanging out, helping with the work or playing street cricket. I enjoy exploring around the Taj Mahal Hotel, the area in and around Crawford Market, the Sassoon Docks fish bazaar early in the day (no photos allowed), cricket in the park and the ghats.
An Indian Wedding
Who wouldn’t want to attend an Indian wedding? I was lucky enough to be invited to a royal wedding in Jodhpur and wrote up a blog post about the experience – here. I highly recommend the experience! If anyone is planning an amazing wedding in India, please invite me! I’d seriously love to attend.
Pushkar Camel Fair
An annual five-day fair over a full moon with people traveling from hundreds of miles away to buy and sell 30,000 camels in the desert? Of course I wanted to go! The Pushkar Camel Fair was an overwhelming sensory experience – the sight of the camels, many of them decorated, the sounds (hard to sleep at 3am with music blaring from tents) and smells of, well, lots and lots of camels. And of course there were all the people – overwhelmingly Indians with only a few tourists mixed in. Add it to your travel list.
Varanasi is India’s spiritual capital, and it’s an incredible place to visit. There are Sadhus (wise men) everywhere, regular processions of Hindus carrying their loved ones through the streets to be cremated at ghats along the River Ganges, pilgrims coming to bathe in the sacred waters of the river, and the nightly Aarti fire ceremony at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, right in the middle of the city. It truly is a unique destination in the world and one that is luring me back.
I love the colors of Jodhpur. And by colors, I really just mean blue. It’s known as the Blue City, as a lot of the buildings around Mehrangarh Fort are painted shades of blue. I’ve never enjoyed the fort as much as others in Rajasthan, but I really like exploring the city.
World Sacred Spirit Festival, Nagaur
The World Sacred Spirit Festival is organized around world music concerts and performances, and the music was excellent, but what really made this extraordinary was the setting. The events are all located inside the Nagaur Fort, a UNESCO Heritage Site, with the lodging (luxury camping) and meals also located inside the fort. How often to you get to eat, drink, sleep and attend concerts in a 900-year-old fort? I loved spending three days in the fort, and also enjoyed exploring the small completely un-touristed town of Nagaur. I highly recommend trying to get tickets for next year’s festival.
The Desert Festival, Jaisalmer
Do you see a theme? Two of my trips have been organized around festivals. Really, although India is incredible anytime, if you’re going to fly halfway around the world you may as well time your visit for one (or more) of the annual festivals. I really enjoyed the Desert Festival, in and around Jaisalmer. There are two components. In town there are displays by the border guards, camel racing, camel polo and a mustache contest. Then out in the Thar Desert at sunset there are camel rides, kite flying and other competitions. Although the festival was originally started to attract foreign tourists, we saw far more Indian tourists at both events than foreigners.
Amazing Hotels in India
I’ve stayed in well over a dozen hotels throughout central and northern India. Two stood out as extraordinary:
Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai
At the Taj Mahal Palace I was lucky enough to get upgraded from the Tower building to the Palace wing my first trip, and then I splurged my second trip. I actually ended up with the same room both trips to Mumbai. My room was amazing, with a gorgeous view of the Gateway of India, and the neighborhood was excellent. The upgrade to the Palace wing is worth paying for.
The Suryagarh is literally a palace in the desert. The rooms, hotel itself, food and setting are all amazing. Decked out for a wedding it’s even more beautiful.