India Travel Guide: Everything you need to know before you go
From the elegant boulevards of New Delhi to the sleepy backwaters of Kerala, from tiger-watching in Ranthambore to Mumbai, the bustling city of Bollywood dreams, India is Asia at its most colorful.
Packing 4,000 years of history into a two-week stay, few destinations come close to variety either. There’s retail therapy in ancient bazaars filled with plumage of silks, yoga in Goa, royal splendor in Rajasthan and hiking in the flower-strewn Himalayas.
Then, of course, there is the food; indeed, many cuisines in one subcontinent: the tamarind-infused light dishes of the south are a world away from the rich tandoors of Delhi. Prepare, as the locals say, to be “totally bamboozled”.
Current travel restrictions and entry requirements
Travelers who have been vaccinated with a WHO-recognized Covid-19 vaccine should upload their proof of vaccination and a self-declaration of health here prior to travel; while those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated must upload a negative PCR test result taken within 72 hours of departure.
Many COVID-19 related restrictions are now relaxed across India and most public places and services are operating as normal – although restrictions vary from state to state and mask wearing is still enforced in many indoor environments. Take a stash with you and read the play depending on the location.
Best time to go
In much of India, the best time to visit is from the end of the monsoon in October until the end of March – after that the mercury and humidity rise during the monsoon months. The monsoons begin in the southwest around May and sweep the country north in the weeks that follow. Most areas are then hot and humid for months before the early fall rains.
The high altitude resorts of the Himalayas and Western Ghats are however pleasant during the hot summer months of April to early June. Holi, the much-photographed spring festival of colors, is fun (though the city’s streets are packed) – meanwhile, hotel rates can rise during the autumn festival of lights, Diwali, when Indian tourists travel to see their family and friends.
Main regions and cities
Delhi is India’s administrative capital and is more like several cities in one – from the sweeping boulevards of New Delhi (the heart of the British Raj designed by Edwin-Lutyens), to the fragrant medieval bazaars of the Chandni Chowk spice market and a twin chrome and glass city in a southern city, Gurgaon, which is full of air-conditioned hotels and posh housing estates. Whatever you do, head to Jama Masjid – the city’s towering mosque, where the view of the city from the minaret is spectacular – and India Gate for the sunset and a stroll among the locals holding ice cream and boating on the artificial lake. Likewise, don’t miss Lodi Gardens, the city’s green heart dotted with Mughal monuments, and the best place to take a break from the city center‘s auto-rickshaw madness.
Boasting magnificent palaces and photogenic cities, the desert state of Rajasthan is one of the most culturally rich regions of India. Many arrive here on the last leg of a classic ‘golden triangle’ tour (passing through Delhi, Agra for the Taj Mahal and Jaipur and Jodhpur in Rajasthan), but there’s plenty to linger over here. Don’t miss Jaisalmer, where a fairy-tale fort rises from the surrounding featureless desert or the megalithic Meherangarh, a 15th-century fort that clings, picturesquely, to a steep escarpment. Then relax at one of the state’s many palaces (the converted former homes of local regents), like the azure-painted Narain Niwas Hotel in Jaipur, where curious peacocks roam the grounds.
Bombay, Goa and Kerala
The South Circuit from Mumbai to Goa and Kerala is India’s most laid back. Mumbai – India’s fashion and film hub – is bustling and you’ll want to stop here to enjoy the city’s fabulous cuisines and bar culture (the rooftop bars are where see and be seen), as well as art galleries and luxury hotels. An overnight train, an unmissable India experience in itself, will bring you to the former Portuguese protectorate of Goa, where whitewashed churches combine with white sands and formidable forts and there is a seaside resort for everyone from hippies (Arambol) to lovers of the high life (Cansaulim). Another overnight train will drop you off at picturesque Fort Kochi, an atmospheric former trading port and the starting point for quintessential trips through Kerala’s backwaters in characterful reed barges.
Best under-the-radar destinations
Want to see the Kama Sutra, this famous 7th century treatise on erotic love, come to life? (Made of stone, that is, rather than flesh.) Khajuraho, in the forested heart of Madyha Pradesh, is home to 20 ornate temples dating back to the Chandella dynasty (900 CE) covered in a remarkable parade of erotic carvings, of disporting aspsaras (heavenly singers) to the carnal incarnations of Vishnu as a boar.
The infuriating tumult of a temple city, Madurai is home to a place of pilgrimage where Hindus come to worship the “fish-eyed goddess”, Meenakshi. Come here to join the approximately 10,000 daily pilgrims for the ritual theertham (spiritual soaking), for pottering on beautiful temples (like the titular temple of Meenakshi) and for enjoying spiritual India at its best.
Pondicherry, or Pondy in the local parlance, is a former French colonial city in Tamil Nadu that is full of beautiful French architecture (the southern end of the city is full of stucco villas with bright gardens filled with bougainvillea), as well as Nosh Indo -gaulois (excellent crispy French bread, ratatouille and even French-style wines from the subcontinent’s booming wine industry). Don’t miss the renovated Pondicherry Park where flowerbeds and refreshing fountains are arranged around an 18th-century statue of Napoleon.
Shimla (see below) is the most famous of the British-era hill stations – high-altitude green places where Raj apparatchiks came to escape the spring and summer heat of the Indian plains, but Ooty (or Udhagamandalam ) is even drowsier. feast your eyes, with a beautiful lake, Victorian botanical gardens, coffee and tea plantations and fragrant eucalyptus forests. Come here for a break from the scorching city streets of Chennai (another South Indian must-see).
The best things to do
Departing from Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, a camel safari gives a glimpse of India’s otherwise inaccessible desert interiors and a chance to spot desert wildlife like eagles and Indian 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.
Observe tigers in Ranthambore: once the private reserve of the Maharaja of Jaipur, it is one of the most beautiful tiger reserves in the world. Populations of this noble big cat are currently booming following a conservation campaign – to the point that some local hotels have had to install squirt guns to prevent tiger incursions. The park – which runs along a range of hills from the Aravallis to the Vindhya range of hills – can be reached by open bus or jeep, and visitors are picked up from their hotel for security reasons. Tiger sightings are daily, with your four-legged friends being most active in the morning, before their midday nap.
The Kalka-Shimla Railway
Take the slow train to Shimla: Stretching along a ridgeline in southern Himachal, Himachal Pradesh, Shimla is the former summer capital of the British and as such , abounds in small unusual architectures of India (the false-Tudor ones being particularly appreciated by the vernacular architects of the Raj). But one of its main draws is the method of getting there, the Kalka-Shimla Railway – a 2ft 6in (762mm) narrow gauge railway that crosses the mountainous road, cutting through valleys plunges and pretty villages for seven hours. Consistent chai and a good lunch keep you supported.
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 opt for trains with Express in their name, as cheaper trains that are not express are deprioritized for these more expensive services. National airlines include IndiGo and SpiceJet, and offer reliable and affordable connections.
Road trips will depend on the quality of infrastructure in your state and can vary from high tech to backbone. In general, you can safely travel the national highways, three major north-south national highways which run from Delhi via Mumbai to Bangalore in the west, Delhi to Bangalore via Hyderabad in the center and Kolkata to Chennai in the east. ‘is. Some 13,327 km of national road was built 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 emissions estimates for your flight options, with flights labeled as highest, typical, lowest, or unknown emissions.
The giant old ships that for centuries gave Britons “passage to India” are no more, but Viking Cruises takes a similar route from Athens to Mumbai on one of its cruises. It takes 21 days along the ancient east-west Red Sea trade route and costs £5,900 per person.
Tip to save money
Sneaky wifi charges can squeeze your budget at mid-range to luxury hotels, so beware and look for free alternatives. You can buy a cheap pay as you go 4G SIM card at the airport when you land, or look for Café Coffee Day, a national coffee chain where wifi is free and fast and the chai gives you chest hair,
What currency do I need?
Indian rupees are the national currency and are exchanged at one hundred rupees per pound.
What language is spoken?
There is no unified Indian language, although generally 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 spoken, rely on gestures and have hotel staff direct rickshaws automatic (the yellow and green motorized taxis that are the cornerstone of Indian cities) before leaving.
What time zone is it in?
The country has officially observed India Standard Time (IST) since 1947 – it is five hours and 30 minutes ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.
Sally Howard is the author of a modern Indian travelogue The Kama Sutra Diaries (£9.99, Hatchet).