Top destinations for 2019 – India | Where to go

India is one big collection of cultural curveballs. So, although these are our highlights of where to go in India, it is worth stressing that for every special place or experience, there are another ten just around the corner. Although the Taj Mahal is a highlight for many, there are Mughal marvels such as Biwi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad or Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi that shouldn’t be missed. And while Rathambore National Park is a wildlife favourite, Bandipur National Park, Bandhavgarh National Park, Pench and Panna are beauties. Trekking in the Indian Himalayas around Ladakh is something very special to aspire to, but don’t let these peaks upstage the rambling delights of the Western Ghats in Kerala, where you can chill in the hills followed by a few days of blissing out at the beach. Just keep your eyes and ears open when you are travelling in India and the highlights will happen when you least expect.



Bandhavgarh was once a popular hunting ground for the Maharajas, and it is now one of the last few tiger habitats in the world. Seeing tigers in the wild is tricky, but this national park is one of India’s smallest, with the highest concentrations of these big cats. Be heartened that if you don’t spot them, you may well see leopards, deer, wild boar, sloth bears and a bevvy of birds to boot.


Proof that Bandhavgarh isn’t just about its wildlife… Looming 300m above the park and occupying its highest point are the ruins of a fort thought to be 2,000 years old. Deserted in 1935, it still belongs to the Maharaja of Rewa. Entry isn’t permitted, but vultures nest here and the views over neighbouring hills and the Chakradhara meadow are superb.


There are 39 manmade caves around Bandhavgarh Fort, with the oldest dating from the 1st century. Several feature inscriptions and drawings of tigers, elephants and horsemen. Dating from the 10th century, Badi Gufa – or Giant Cave – is the largest, and boasts a broad entrance and nine small rooms. The caves at Three Cave Point are now used by tigers, sloth bears and leopards.


This large stretch of marshy grassland in the Tala Zone has the Charanganga River flowing through it, creating excellent habitat for tigers and the deer they feed on. It’s home to dominant males and females – a favoured place for breeding – plus also 75 species of butterflies. From here, there’s a great view of Bandhavgarh Hill and its fort on top.


This pond in the Tala Zone is home to many wetland birds, including herons, storks and kingfishers. During the hot summer, before the monsoon arrives in mid July, it becomes crucial to the life of the reserve. Predators, including tigers, and prey flock here to drink, thrown together by extreme thirst. If you can stand the heat, this is a great place to observe jungle drama.


Bandhavgarh’s 60 or so resident tigers undoubtedly pull in the crowds, but once here, there are another 21 species of mammal to spot, including sloth bears, jackals, striped hyenas and leopards. Various deer are on the menu for the big predators, from chital to the rare barasingha (swamp deer). Over 200 types of bird flock here, too, including vultures, black ibis and the Malabar pied hornbill.



Few tourists are aware of this central-east state with tribal communities such as the Baiga, Gond, Maria, Dhurwa and Bhatra who are starting to share their traditions and lifestyles, many of which haven’t changed for thousands of years, with visitors. Combine with a visit to the nearby state of Odisha to meet the Kondh and Paraja people too. Trekking in the Maikal Hills just adds to the magic.



New and Old, it is the latter that still pulls the punters. And it is seriously old, going back 5,000 years. There are three UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Humayun’s Tomb, the extraordinary Qutub complex with its elegant 12th century 72.5 m minaret, and The Red (sandstone) Fort. Walk from here to the Jama Masjid Mosque, take in the views from its minaret, and you’ll have earned lunch at Chandni Chowk market.


India’s smallest state has so much more than its reputation for backpackers and boozy beach gangs would suggest. Stay clear of raucous resorts of Calangute, Candolim, and Baga and head to spots like Kerim, Ashwem and Anjun for beach bliss. For real action on Goa, not of the party kind, kayak through flowering mangroves of the Sal backwaters, down the Nerul River or cycle along this Konkan coast.



Gujarat is a state of dichotomies. As well as having coast and desert in close proximity, it also has one of the most industrialised landscapes cheek by jowl with medieval cultures. Explore the Kutch Desert, home to the nomadic Mir tribe or head to Poshina with its nearby tribal villages of Garacia, Adivacyi and Bharad. And although there are 1,600km of coastline, there are hardly any developed beaches. Yet.



Made famous again after the success of ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, set among the flower markets, bazaars, Palace of the Winds and Amber Fort of this more than pretty in pink city. Its old town is a place to let the reality of India seep in. With camels and carts in the streets, monkeys climbing the city walls, fortune tellers, snake charmers and a Maharaja’s palace. Pity there isn’t an Oscar for ‘locations’.



Kashmir has long been a disputed area and is now administered by India, Pakistan and China. India’s section is the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Following years of violence, the FCO lifted its ban here in 2012, although still only advises travel to Ladakh and the cities of Jammu and Srinagar. So it is early days for having tourists back into the state as a whole, but a great time to get in there.


Overlooked by the imposing ruins of the nine-storey royal palace, Leh is a relatively harmonious vision of religion in India with mosques and Buddhist monuments, such as Shanti Stupa, alongside smaller Christian, Hindu and Sikh places of worship. Leh is a ramshackle assembly of markets and monasteries with the surrounding mountains and lakes providing ample excuses to explore as you acclimatise at altitude.

Nubra Valley

Accessed via the world’s highest road, Khardung La, and featuring the 14th century Diskit Monastery and gigantic statue of Maitreya Buddha, Nubra is awash with sand dunes, sea-buckthorn and rushing rivers. Fertile valley slopes support several communities, such as Diskit village, where kids kick about under apricot orchards and wild camels roam the lands which were once the preserve of their forefathers on the Silk Route.


Thread your way through the agricultural plains and glacial valleys of the Zanskar Mountains and you’ll reach the village of Padum where nearby Buddhist monasteries provide the perfect point to head to before hunkering down for the night in a local guesthouse. Padum is a great place to meet local people and there are several homestays plus a good choice of restaurants servicing the steady flow of seasonal trekkers.


The remoteness of Rangdum offers travellers a glimpse at life in the far reaches of the Suru Valley. The summer campsite here, at Julidok village, offers overnight accommodation in between exploring the flat and arid landscapes en-route to the Rangdum Monastery, which is inhabited by around 30 Tibetan Buddhist monks and roughly the same amount of donkeys.


This seasonally inhabited hill station is situated within the alpine area of Kashmir Valley surrounded by the glacial summits of the Himalayas including the peaks of Sirbal, Kolhoi and Machoi. Day walks around the Himalayan foothills are matched by opportunities to meet nomadic Gujjar people who move lock, stock and flock up and down the mountain slopes in time with summer and winter.


Kashmir’s largest city is well-known for its lagoons, lakes and navigational canals with everything from floating fruit and veg markets to overnight houseboat accommodation offering travellers the chance to view the heritage sites and ancient alleyways from a whole new perspective. Mughal gardens, wooden mosques and Hindu temples make the moniker ‘Venice of the East’ almost entirely plausible.



Best known for beaches and backwaters, houseboats and homestays, Kerala is also fab on foot, hiking through the splendid Western Ghats mountain range. Or by bike, cycling through spice and coconut plantations or along the backwaters. Avoiding the rash of resorts around Kovalam, head north to Malabar for beach bliss. Hop over the border to states of Karnataka or Tamil Nadu for full on southern Indian trail mix.



One of the finest ways to discover Kerala. Within a few hours out of Cochin you can be cycling through spice and coconut plantations, along the banks of the River Periyar with birds and butterflies that you can only have dreamed of, following you along the route. Cycle through small villages, staying at homestays, small guesthouses and eco lodges along the way. And relax those cycling muscles en route with a traditional Ayurvedic massage.


Many people have no idea Kerala exists beyond Cochin and the backwaters. The former spice trading hubs of the north have beaches that are galloping past the old favourites of Kovalam in the south in terms of being bliss out zones. Check out Bekal, Kannur or Neeleshwar. It does take more effort to get there, but beauty rarely come easily, right? And it means they are a lot less touristy.


You might not think it is for you, if privacy is what you want on holiday, but it really is worth spending at least a couple of days of your trip in a homestay. Most of them are small working farms, and Keralites are warm generous hosts, making you feel at home almost instantly. By far the best way to learn about real Kerala cuisine too, with hosts using their own organic ingredients.


The world is discovering a taste for Keralan cookery, but nothing you try outside of India can compare with the real thing. The minute you taste real local food, you will be hooked. Food tours that stretch down into Kerala to gobble up dhosas and idlis exist, but a quick lesson with your homestay host will be equally unforgettable, and a useful additional source of income for them too.



Although houseboats are still the most popular way to get around the backwaters, kayak trips are the new way to go on the water, enabling to you escape the bustling channels full of tourists. In a kayak you access Kerala’s rural heart, where duck rearers, toddy tappers and fishermen welcome peaceful paddlers. Your bags are transported for you so that you can moor up, and stay at homestays or villas along the way.


Few people associate Kerala with mountains, the Himalayas monopolizing the western desire for elevated landscapes. Kerala’s Western Ghats range is rapturous for most hikers and bikers, however. Named as one of the world’s Biodiversity Hotspots, it’s a daily festival of flora and fauna here. And no snow either in winter. A good starting point is the Raj town of Munnar, with the backdrop Anamudi, Kerala’s highest peak at 2695 m.


The colonial quarter of Kochi, on the northern end of the peninsula, with the sea on one side and Lake Vembanad on the other. It is a charming area of the harbour city to chill out in, with rickshaws water taxis and ferries to get you around. Check out the shops, as well as its old Jewish quarter, Chinese fishing nets, and a wonderful collection of restaurants and hotels, from grand to boutique.


You have not ‘done’ the south of India by just going to Kerala. Consider combining your trip with a few days in neighbouring Karnataka or Tamil Nadu to get a truly three dimensional picture of what south India is. Such as the The Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiri Hills or Bandipur National Park in Karnataka, not forgetting the historical hub of Mysore.



Although located in beautiful Western Ghats, and famous for its tiger reserve, it certainly feels as if the amount of visitors outnumbers the number of wildlife sightings. You can only hike here with an official Park guide, and the lake cruises feel a bit more like party nights on the Thames. Although still worth a trip, just don’t raise your hopes for sightings. Go for tranquil bamboo rafting option instead of the cruise, but in peak season you need to book well in advance.


Started as a hippy hangout in the seventies, but just like Goa or Bali, flower power grew into dollar power, and overdevelopment kicked in. Overcrowded and dirty, there are a lot of vendors hassling on the beaches and it is far from the peace and love vibe they were once idolized for. Head north or further south for beach bliss to places like Kasaragod, Neeleshwar or Marari.


Although stunning and totally Kerala it has, sadly, with the influence of tourism, become rather clinical and cynical. Originating in the 17th century it uses refined gestures and ornate singing to convey the story instead of dialogue. Traditionally performed from dusk til dawn, it is now done at resort hotels in enough time for guests to drink a sundowner. Check out the less commercially exploited ritual of Theyyam instead.


The government went on a massive marketing spree to push Kerala as an Ayurvedic destination which means that it is attached to every spa going now. Although many are accredited and highly recommended, remember that this is a real way of life for Keralites, and a highly respected and all-encompassing way of living, with people visiting Ayurvedic hospitals and consultants. Not just a girls’ day out. Check out the government star ratings of Olive Leaf and Green Leaf Ayurvedic Centres for more guidance.




Rajasthan is like walking into both an artist’s palette and imagination. With the ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur and all its palaces and prettiness, the devastatingly beautiful dunes of the Thar Desert, the multi-coloured Brahma Temple at Pushkar , the all blue desert city of Jodphur and Udaipur’s Lake Pichola with its purple Aravalli Hills, it’s the whole gamut of gorgeousness.



The palaces are out of this world, but you can also swap chauffeur for cycle and have one foot firmly planted in the grass roots of Rajasthan when visiting, for example, indigenous Bishnoi desert dwellers, or dining and staying with homestay owners. Tailor made trips in Rajasthan are not all silver and silks; there are plenty of gems to be found in real Rajasthan too.


Regal, colourful cities are what many people seek out, but the desert gateway towns of Jaisalmer and Bikaner are spectacular too. The former is home to an ancient fortified city, constructed of sandstone and so merging magically with the desert landscapes. The latter has fewer tourists but still vibrant with the compulsory fort, camel safaris and two stunning temples: the Jain Bhandasar, and Hindu Lakshminath.


A region once brimming with aristocrats, the fading glamour of their havelis (mansion houses) are a sight to behold in this desert region. Tumbleweed blows through courtyards boasting stunning murals, colonnades and obsolete opulence. Some are being restored, others are simply there to be photographed and figure out how these places came to be. Check out the eco-glamping gorgeousness at Mandawa too.



A colourful stop on Rajasthan’s multicoloured magic carpet, this time blue. The mammoth Mehrangarh Fort oversees the city like a lion overseeing its pride, the ancient, blue houses seeming to worship at its feet. Delve deeper to discover markets bursting with every colour of the rainbow. Jodhpur is also gateway to the Thar Desert where villages are home to contrasting desert dwellers, the Bishnoi and Bhil.


Bang in the middle of this desert state is a wild array of tropical forest, with ruined temples popping up at sporadic points and the eyes of fauna such as nilgai, sambar, jungle cats and, of course, the great Bengal tiger all watching the goings on in their precious habitats. It is a very special place and somewhere to spend a few days if possible, not just a ‘been there, done that’ scenario.


Heritage heaven, Rajasthan boasts some of the world’s most luxurious, but not always astronomical, sleeps. Stay in beautifully restored forts or former Raj’s palaces, boasting fine Rajput or Mughal architecture. Overlook Lake Pichola in a beaux arts palace in Udaipur , a 19th century former home of the Maharaja of Jaipur or a symmetrical beauty in Bikaner. Heritage hotels are places to immerse yourself in class and opulence.


The gateway to the great Thar Desert, this sandstone fort looks like it could be washed away in a storm, if there was such a thing. But in fact, this fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site inside the eponymous ancient city, has stood the test of time since 1156 when it was built by Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal, after whom it was named. It is now home to hotels, markets and a lot of camels.



It may have been a real working tradition in times gone by, but it is now just a tourist trap, and an animal trap, with camels and elephants being abused, dressed up, made to race and generally whooped up into a frenzy simply to keep tourists happy. Not a happy sight at all. And while we are at it, the Brahma Temple is not great either, with more pushy hawkers than cultural highlights.


It may seem magnificent but often the animals are severely mistreated in order to perform or conform, with mahouts, or elephant trainers, shackling them or using a bull hook to tame them. The Amber Palace in Jaipur is just horrific for this, with over 150 elephants carrying tourists up and down the hill. Similarly, elephant polo wouldn’t be one of our favourites. Read our ‘Elephants in tourism’ guide for more details.


Especially when it comes to dress sense. For women, in particular, showing bare legs, shoulders and wearing low cut tops are a faux pas. And always cover your head in places of worship. Please also practise responsible photography. Rajasthan is so stunningly beautiful, it is hard to keep the cameras at bay; but always ask before you snap.


Sometimes people want to head to the state with the sole mission of seeing a tiger in Ranthambore. And they are extraordinary, but don’t forget there are Asian lions and sloth bears in Rajasthan too – as well as leopard, elephants, buffalo, rhino, monkeys, wolves and a veritable fiesta of birdlife.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal.jpg

Three words. Don’t miss it. You can’t fail to fall in love with the white marble mausoleum, built by grieving Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his late wife. It is the icing on the cake of this period of Mughal architectural period. Although Agra is pretty ghastly, stay overnight to see it at sunrise. Don’t miss the Agra Fort and ‘ghost town’ of Fatehpur Sikri.


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