Packing 4,000 years of history into a two-week stay, few destinations come close for variety, either. There’s retail therapy in ancient bazaars filled with a plumage of silks, yoga in Goa, regal splendour in Rajasthan and hiking in the flower-dotted Himalayas.
Then, of course, there’s the food; in truth many cuisines in one subcontinent: the light tamarind infused dishes of the south being a world away from the rich tandoors of Delhi. Prepare, as the locals say, to be “totally bamboozled”.
Current travel restrictions and entry requirements
Travellers who have been vaccinated with a WHO-recognised Covid-19 vaccine need to upload their proof of vaccination and a health self-declaration here ahead of travel; while those who are unvaccinated or partly vaccinated must upload a negative PCR test result taken within the 72 hours before departure.
Many COVID-19 restrictions are now being eased across India and most public places and services are functioning as normal - although restrictions vary between states and mask wearing is still adhered to in many indoors settings. Take a stash with you and read the room depending on venue.
Best time to go
In much of India, the best time to visit is from the end of monsoon in October until the end of March - after this the mercury and humidity rise during the monsoon months. The monsoons begin in the southwest around May and sweep north across the country in the weeks that follow. Most areas are then hot and humid for months in advance of the rains in early autumn.
The high-altitude hill stations of the Himalayas and Western Ghats are, however, pleasant in the hot summer months of April to early June. Holi, the much-photographed spring festival of colour, is fun (though city streets will be packed) - meanwhile hotel rates can rise during the autumn festival of lights, Diwali, when Indian tourists travel to see family and friends.
Top regions and cities
Delhi is India’s administrative capital and feels more like several cities in one - from the expansive boulevards of New Delhi (the Edwin-Lutyens-designed heart of the British Raj), to the scented medieval bazaars of Chandni Chowk spice market and a twin chrome and glass city within a city to the south, Gurgaon, which bristles with air conditioned hotels and swanky housing estates. Whatever you do, make it to Jama Masjid - the city’s dominating mosque, where the city view from the minaret is spectacular - and to India Gate for sunset and a stroll amongst locals toting ice creams and boating on the artificial lake. Similarly, don’t miss Lodi gardens, the green heart of the city dotted with Mughal monuments, and the best spot for a breather from the mid-city madness of honking auto rickshaws.
Blessed with magnificent palaces and photogenic cities, the desert state of Rajasthan is one of India’s most culture-rich regions. Many arrive here on the final leg of a classic “golden triangle” tour (taking in Delhi, Agra for the Taj Mahal and Jaipur and Jodhpur in Rajasthan), but there’s plenty here to linger for. Don’t miss Jaisalmer, where a fairytale fort rises from the featureless surrounding desert or the megalithic Meherangarh, a 15th-century fort that clings, picturesquely, to a sheer escarpment. Kick back afterwards in one of the state’s many palace hotels (the converted former homes of local regents), such as the azure-painted Narain Niwas hotel in Jaipur, where inquisitive peacocks roam the grounds.
Mumbai, Goa and Kerala
The Southern circuit from Mumbai to Goa and Kerala is India at its most easygoing. Mumbai – India’s centre of fashion and filmmaking – is reliably buzzing and you’ll want to make a pitstop here to enjoy the city’s fabulous cuisines and bar culture (rooftop bars are the place to see and be seen), as well as art galleries and luxury hotels. An overnight train, a must-do India experience in itself, will land you in the old Portuguese protectorate of Goa, where whitewashed churches combine with white sands and formidable forts and there’s a resort for everyone, from hippies (Arambol) to lovers of the high life (Cansaulim). Another overnight train will deposit you at picturesque Fort Kochi, an atmospheric old trading port and the jumping off point for quintessential Kerala backwater trips in characterful reed houseboats.
Best under-the-radar destinations
Fancy seeing the Kama Sutra, that famous 7th century treatise on erotic love, brought to life? (In stone, that is, rather than flesh.) Khajuraho, in the forested heart of Madyha Pradesh, is home to 20 ornate temples dating from the Chandella dynasty (900s CE) covered in a remarkable parade of erotic sculptures, from disporting aspsaras (celestial singers) to carnal incarnations of Vishnu as a boar.
A maddening tumult of a temple town, Madurai is the home of a pilgrimage site where Hindu’s come to worship the “fish-eyed goddess”, Meenakshi. Come here to join the 10,000 or so daily pilgrims for ritual theertham (spiritual dunking), to potter about handsome temples (such at the titular Temple to Meenakshi) and to enjoy spiritual India at its bonkers best.
Pondicherry, or Pondy in the local parlance, is a former French colonial town in Tamil Nadu that’s full of fine French architecture (the south end of town is choc-a-bloc with stucco villas with bright bougainvillea-filled gardens), as well as Indo-Gallic nosh (excellent crispy French bread, ratatouille and even French style wines from the subcontinent’s rising viticulture industry). Don’t miss the renovated Pondicherry Park where flower beds and cooling fountains are laid out around an 18th-century statue of Napoleon.
Shimla (see below) is the most famous of the British era hill stations - green, high altitude spots where the apparatchiks of the Raj came to escape the spring-summer heat of the Indian plains, but Ooty (or Udhagamandalam) is an even sleepier treat, with a fine lake, Victorian botanical gardens, coffee and tea plantations and scented eucalyptus forests. Come here for a breather from the scorching city streets of Chennai (another south India must-see).
Best things to do
Setting off from Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, a camel safari gives an insight into India’s otherwise inaccessible desert interiors and a chance to spot desert wildlife such as eagles and the India gazelle. Your camel driver usually rides alongside you on his own camel for a four-hour trek punctuated by lunch. Thar Desert Tours and Safari Tours (+91 2992 251 058) are reputable operators, with day trips costing around £30.
Spotting tigers in Ranthambore: once the private reserve of the Maharaja of Jaipur, this is one of the world’s finest tiger reserves. Populations of this noble big cat are currently booming following a conservation drive - to the point where some local hotels have had to install water guns to prevent tiger incursions. The park - running along a hill range from the Aravallis to Vindhya hill range - is accessed by open bus or jeep, and visitors are picked up from their hotels for safety. Tiger sightings are daily, with your four-legged friends most active in the morning, before their midday snooze.
The Kalka-Shimla railway
Take the slow train to Shimla: strung out along a ridgeline in Southern Himachal in Himachal Pradesh, Shimla is the former summer capital of the British and as such full of quirky little India architecture (faux-Tudor being a particular favourite amongst the Raj’s vernacular architects). But one of its chief charms is the method of getting there, the Kalka–Shimla railway – a 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) narrow-gauge railway which traverses the mountainous route, crossing through plunging valleys and pretty villages over seven wending hours. Constant chai and a good lunch keep you sustained.
Rail is by far the best way to get around India, which has an excellent network of sleeper and intercity trains. Book on makemytrip.com and plump for trains with Express in their name, as cheaper trains that are not express are deprioritised for these pricier services. Domestic airlines include IndiGo and SpiceJet, and provide reliable and affordable connections.
Road travel will depend on how good the infrastructure is in your state, and can vary from hi-tech to bone-rattling. In general you’re safe taking National Highways, three major north-south National Highways stretching from Delhi via Mumbai to Bengaluru in the west, Delhi to Bengaluru via Hyderabad in the centre and from Kolkata to Chennai in the east. Some 13,327kms of National Highway were constructed in 2020-21, part of an infrastructure project that will continue into the 2030s
How to get there
Most international flights arrive in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata and cost from £600 return. Google Flights calculates carbon emission estimates for your flight options, with flights labelled as higher, typical, lower, or unknown emissions.
The old behemoth ships that for centuries gave Britons a “Passage to India” are no more, but Viking Cruises plies a similar route from Athens to Mumbai on one of its cruises. It takes 21 days along the old Red Sea east-west trade route and costs a cool £5,900pp.
Sneaky wifi charges can dent your budget in mid-range to luxury hotels, so beware and seek out free alternatives. You can buy a cheap 4G pay as you go SIM at the airport when you land, or seek out Café Coffee Day, a national coffee chain where the wifi’s free and fast and the chai puts hairs on your chest,
What currency do I need?
Indian rupees are the national currency and exchange at a handy hundred rupees to the pound.
What language is spoken?
There’s no such thing as one unified Indian language, though as a rule of thumb English and Hindi are widely spoken and understood in the north. In the south, languages include Tamil (spoken in Chennai) and Marathi (Mumbai) - in places where English is less widely spoken, rely on gestures and get hotel staff to direct auto rickshaws (the yellow and green motorised taxis that are the lifeblood of Indian cities) before you set off.
What time zone is it in?
The country has officially observed India Standard Time (IST) since 1947 - it’s five hours and 30 minutes ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.
Sally Howard is the author of modern Indian travelogue The Kama Sutra Diaries (£9.99, Hachette).
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