Rickshaw rides through sacred cities, the British Raj and the bright lights of Bollywood – from Himalayan heights to jungle depths, India is a land of unfathomable extremes. No matter how many times you return, you’ll find the slums shocking, the mountains moving and the beaches breathtaking. This captivating country is as chaotic as they come, yet more spiritual than you can ever imagine.
Embrace the chaos as you career through Delhi in a rickshaw. Push through the crush of people and contend with the clamour of car horns as you tour the old town bazaars, where traders squat beside their sari stalls. Warm your soles on the red floor of the Jama Masjid (India’s largest mosque), pay tribute to fallen soldiers at the India Gate memorial and bow your head for Gandhi at the Raj Ghat monument.
Experience India’s famous railways when you jump on a train at New Delhi station. Journey south to the pink-walls of Jaipur – capital of Rajasthan – and ride to the Amber Fort on elephant back, as the 17th Century maharajas would have done. Visit Udaipur (the city of lakes) and climb to the hilltop Mehrangarh Fort at Jodhpur or head west to the Golden City of Jaisalmer and safari into the Thar Desert on a camel.
Enter Ranthambore National Park in eastern Rajasthan and safari through the scrub in search of wild tigers. Pass jungle cats and India’s largest deer, as well as ancient mosques and hunting pavilions. Just across the border, in Utter Pradesh, the Taj Mahal is on every visitor’s list, so take a train to Agra and see the mausoleum’s white marble sparkle at dawn or glow at dusk.
Peer through the aeroplane window as you descend towards the Andamans, and watch these jungle-clad islands take shape in the Bay of Bengal. Arrive in the provincial capital of Port Blair and visit the British prison before hopping on a ferry to beautiful Havelock Island. With huts and dive centres trimming its sugary-white sands, it’s tempting to stay put – and why not, when Havelock boasts the archipelago’s best beaches.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, make a stop at Neil Island and cycle between its curved bays. Or take an epic road trip north of Port Blair to the crocodile sanctuaries and turtle nests near Diglipur, then speed across the water to the twin islands of Smith and Ross, home to fantastic snorkelling, thick jungle and Victorian ruins.
Drop down a gear in laidback Southern India. Experience Goa’s golden stretches of palm-fringed sand and smell the vanilla at premium spice plantations. Fringed by the Indian Ocean and Cardamom Hills, enter the fertile state of Kerala and prepare for lush forests, deserted beaches and serene backwaters.
Explore narrow alleys in the state capital of Trivandrum before taking a train to the dramatic cliffs and beaches of Varkala. For colonial culture visit the city of Kochi, where Portuguese houses stand beside crumbling reminders of the British Raj. Further inland, the tea plantations in mountainous Munnar are simply stunning, but save time to tour southern India’s waterways by houseboat and cruise past coconut groves, rice paddies and villages.
Dive into India’s biggest city to find pulsating streets crammed with life. Traffic teams beneath the skyscrapers, Bollywood stars drink in the bars and smog lingers outside air-conditioned malls. Sit cross-legged for your morning cup of chai, taste street food delicacies of bhel puri and pao bhaji, or rise above the mayhem with lunch in a rooftop bar and dinner in a Parsi diner.
Admire the Victorian buildings then join the crowds at the waterside Gateway of India. See Indian masterpieces in the Prince of Wales Museum and shop for saris in the bustling bazaars. Take a boat trip to the cave temples on Elephanta Island, or stretch your legs with a stroll along the boardwalk at Marine Parade. When it’s time to leave, head to Central Railway Station and get set for a historic train ride.
Journey to Punjab to discover a prosperous state of wheat fields and turban-clad Sikhs. In modern Chandigarh the urban junk sculptures are worth a visit alone and, a train-ride northeast, the holy city of Amritsar harbours the Golden Temple – see its gilded domes glowing at sunrise, or visit in the evening to hear blissful music. Take a tuk tuk to the Wagah border and watch Indian and Pakistani soldiers perform the sunset ceremony.
North of Punjab, the verdant fields of Kashmir Valley are bordered by icy peaks – look forward to magnificent mountain adventures but take care as you travel through this once-volatile state. No Kashmir trip is complete without a stay on the Srinagar houseboats, so head to Dal Lake and spend your days lazing on deck, dining on butter chicken and rowing ashore to the city gardens and wooden mosques.
Death is on the doorstep in Varanasi – or so its pilgrims hope. Set beside the Ganges, it’s the holiest of Hinduism’s seven sacred cities and followers believe that dying here brings release from the cycle of death and rebirth. Walk along the stone ghats or drift downriver to witness traditional funeral rituals, and see the ailing and elderly washing away their sins.
Travel west to the temples and erotic carvings of Khajuraho. Embrace this celebration of forbidden art and examine explicit Kama Sutra sculptures as you tour the temples. Sidestep the touts and opt for an audio guide, prioritising the stunning Western Group if you’re short on time. Visit in winter to avoid the searing heat or arrive in the first week of February for the Festival of Dance.
Escape the mayhem of modern India and retreat to Sikkim in the far northeast. A Himalayan state of crisp air and thick forests, spend your time meditating in hilltop monasteries and staying in family homes on the terraced hillsides. Outdoor enthusiasts are in for a treat, with rushing rivers to raft down, challenging trails to hike along and the world’s third highest mountain, Kangchenjunga, to gaze at.
Head south to bask in the beauty of Darjeeling’s glowing-green tea plantations. A former colonial hill station set against icy peaks, Darjeeling makes a fantastic base for exploring the Eastern Himalayas and visiting colourful Buddhist monasteries. When your walking boots are worn through, revive yourself with a cup of Darjeeling tea and hop on the historic Himalayan Railway to experience more of West Bengal.