No one in the history of travel has ever been indifferent to India. Some are instantly awed, tempted to cancel their return flights the moment they touch down. Others are immediately overwhelmed, frantically searching Google flights for the next red-eye out of there before even arriving at their hotel.
It’s true that India tends toward extremes, which for visitors can mean anything from hiding away in remote northern provinces for silent retreats to stealing away to southern beaches in search of raves that can rival Burning Man. But with a subcontinent’s worth of sights and cities to soak in, all it takes is some careful planning to have that Goldilocks experience, something that’s just right for you. To help, we’ve put together a list of the best places to visit for every type of travel.
For boho beaches and wild nightlife: Goa
Oh, Goa. It’s as close as India gets to Thailand’s Full Moon Party energy without ever veering too far from the Cafe del Mar vibe that put it on the map. It’s a mixed crowd, mostly gap-year-aged travelers and an expat crew that probably first arrived around the same age, albeit in an era before gap years.
By day, beach towns Palolem and Anjuna draw visitors with their bungalow-fringed, paddle-boardable shores and famed flea market, respectively, while nightclubs like Tito’s on Baga Beach sound the siren call for ravers when the sun goes down — and keep the party going until it comes back up. Many looking to let loose in true Goa style look for bhang lassi, a yogurt-based, cannabis-infused beverage that’ll get you more than a little high. But hey, it’s a cultural experience, right?
For a trip that stirs the soul: Varanasi
Ancient, sacred Varanasi has existed on the banks of the Ganges for ages, continuously inhabited longer than most places on Earth. The river brings pilgrims from across the country, who pray by its stone ghats and cleanse in its holy waters while locals bathe and do their washing. It’s at once a spiritual epicenter and sensory assault, both at the water’s edge and in the old city, a living marketplace where vendors peddle textiles and bangles, street foods and spices, handicrafts and portraits of Hindu deities, offering shoppers little baggies of chai as they browse.
Wake up early to see the Ganges touched by the first light of morning or boat down the river at dusk. Don’t be alarmed when you pass a funeral pyre. Plan your trip around the full moon in the Hindu month of Kartik, either in October or November, during the Dev Deepawali festival to see the city come even more alive and lit up by diyas, or earthen lamps, in honor of Shiva.
For Ayurvedic wellness: Kerala
Kerala’s an entire state spanning India’s southwestern coast, so you’ll still have to narrow it down from here. Travel hubs oscillate between tea-producing hill stations in the Western Ghats, beach towns on the Malabar Coast, and slightly busier cities in between. The scenery is a draw all its own, but what many come for is Ayurveda, an ancient medicinal practice that incorporates herbal treatments, cleansing exercises, and massage techniques.
Home to several Ayurvedic schools, Kerala also has health and wellness resorts where you can partake in practices like panchakarma, or “five actions,” meant to detoxify, strengthen the immune system, promote balance, and restore the mind, body, and soul. Among the most popular are the Shinshiva Ayurvedic Resort in Thiruvananthapuram, the state’s capital; Somatheeram Ayurveda Village in Kovalam, a calming beach town; and Kairali Ayurvedic Health Village in Palakkad, hidden away in the luscious green landscape. Between treatments, enjoy a rich arts scene and full festival calendar, taking in age-old music and dance traditions.
For the food-obsessed: Delhi or Lucknow
Delhi is India’s national capital territory and a megacity housing both New Delhi, the subcontinent’s capital, and Old Delhi, its pulsating, historic core. Altogether, it’s considered the street-food capital of India. Your first stop should be Chandni Chowk, a massive market right outside the iconic gateway to Old Delhi, the Red Fort. Snack on kebabs, paratha (pan-fried flatbread), momos (South Asian dumplings), and aloo tikki (potato fritters) before moving on to sweet treats like jalebi (deep-fried, syrup-soaked batter like mini funnel cakes) and kulfi (South Asian ice cream).
New Delhi has its own markets overflowing with food stalls, but it’s here that you’ll also find upmarket joints for special occasions, even if it’s just to celebrate your trip. Fine-dining spots like Indian Accent plate up traditional dishes with a modern flair whereas restaurants like The Spice Route offer a mix of Asian flavors, featuring dishes from India to Indonesia. You can even satisfy your sushi cravings at Wasabi by Morimoto or get your Italian fix at Sorrento, because it’s not written in stone that every meal has to be locally inspired.
If you’ve ever tried, and loved, biryani, plan your travels around Lucknow instead. Uttar Pradesh’s capital city is famous for serving the savory rice dish, which can be spiced up with chicken, lamb, or beef; prawns or fish; a hefty helping of vegetables; or egg. And actual spices like saffron and garam masala, of course. Two eateries not to be missed are Wahid Biryani in the Aminabad Bazaar and Idrees Biryani in Raja Bazar, best for takeaway. Try a new spot every day or find your favorite and become a regular. Your belly and wallet will thank you.
For solo backpackers: Rishikesh or Jaipur
Backpackers in India come in all different flavors, like a variety pack of budget travelers. Some come in search of a carefree utopia where they might just stumble on enlightenment, others to get drunk on a different continent. Most prefer places that already have a backpacker presence, as meeting fellow travelers is a big part of the experience, particularly for those flying solo.
If you like a more sedate pace, Rishikesh is a Himalayan hideout with excellent trekking and an emphasis on wellness. Made famous by the Beatles during their hippie phase, when they started dropping LSD and eventually stole away to an ashram here, the city attracts countless yogis every year who come to expand their minds, just without the psychedelics. It’s a great choice if you want a mix of backpacker accommodations and meditation centers.
If you prefer big-city living to mountain dwelling, consider Jaipur instead, where meticulously carved remnants of royal rule like the pink City Palace and sandy Amber Palace backdrop streets clogged with motorbikes. There are quiet spots in the hills surrounding the city and around Man Sagar Lake, home to its own half-sunken palace, and street food and hostels are easy to come by, some going for just a few dollars a night.
For adventurers: Manali-Leh Highway
The Manali-Leh Highway’s reputation precedes it, earned both by its exquisite scenery and thrilling conditions. Stretching almost 300 miles at an average of 13,000-14,000 feet, the route connects India’s northern Ladakh region with the state of Himachal Pradesh. It shouldn’t be attempted without careful planning and even more careful navigation, whether you go by motorcycle, bus, 4WD, or mountain bike. The altitude can be taxing, the roads are rugged, and the high mountain passes are only open as the weather permits, generally from May or June to October.
The start and end points are accustomed to tourists, with amenities for weary travelers. And, in Manali’s case, sports like hiking, rafting, and rock climbing to entertain the sort of traveler eager to tackle the highway. In between, road trippers can break up the route into three sections, each roughly a day’s journey via motorbike. From Manali, head to Jipsa over the Rohtang Pass, opting to crash in Keylong if you need to call it quits early. The following day, you’ll pass mountain towns and alpine lakes, winding up in Pang for the night. Leh is an easy trip from there, at least distance-wise, with options to continue on if you’re truly intrepid.
For the lap of luxury: Udaipur
Udaipur is nothing if not romantic, set around Lake Pichola and against green hills, with a narrow, winding old town and a host of architectural palaces and temples. There are several luxe properties in town — including the world-famous Oberoi Udaivilas; Leela Palace Udaipur, located on the lake; and white-marble Taj Lake Palace — as well as fine-dining at Upré by 1559 AD, Ambrai Restaurant, and others. With time, some of the city’s charms have waned in the face of mass tourism, so go now while you can still feel like royalty.
For family holidays: Agra
Pretty much everyone who visits India ends up in Agra, if only to see the Taj Mahal. Most discover that there’s a lot more to the city than the massive white mausoleum. Families can tour historic sites like the Agra Fort and the Tomb of Akbar the Great after snapping their requisite Christmas card photo outside the Taj Mahal. Both have the benefit of being educational but not as stuffy as museums. Practically speaking, the city also has a range of hotel and dining options to satisfy all different tastes and budgets. Ride around on rickshaws for a fun, sometimes exhilarating, means of transport, and let the kids pick out souvenirs for their friends at Agra’s many markets. You can even let them try their hands at haggling.
For safari: Ranthambore or Sundarbans
Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park may be the country’s most famous wildlife reserve. More than a day’s drive away in West Bengal, the Sundarbans is a mangrove-dense UNESCO heritage site on the border of India and Bangladesh, considered by some to be one of the world’s most impressive natural wonders. Both are famous for their tiger populations. For the best chance of spotting the majestic creatures, plan your travels between September and April, making sure to check exactly what months are best for either location.
For the best of the desert: Jaisalmer
Jaisalmer is nothing if not idiosyncratic, an oasis in the middle of the Thar Desert centered on a sandstone fort that would blend into its surroundings if it wasn’t so striking. The old city is small, yet crowded, full of stalls stocked with traditional wares harkening back to its days as a medieval trading hub. There are also newer draws, like music cafes and a little German bakery that’s developed a cult following of its own.
Most days, Jaisalmer’s overwhelmed with tourists and the locals that cater to them, but it’s the rare place whose charm doesn’t suffer from the foot traffic. And on auspicious days, wedding processions still overtake the central streets, drowning out the tourists altogether. For many, Jaisalmer’s also a launching off point for camel safaris, which, as we all know by now, should only be booked if they’re ethical, but travelers would be remiss not to take advantage of the remote locale for a true taste of the Rajasthani desert.
For a spiritual education: Mcleod Ganj
There’s a lot of talk about Dharamshala on the Himachal Pradesh travel circuit, but what most who recommend the relatively unimpressive city are really selling is Mcleod Ganj, a suburb located just north with a large Tibetan refugee population and the official residence of the Dalai Lama. Sometimes called “Little Lhasa,” prayer-flag-strewn Mcleod Ganj is where many travelers go to learn about Buddhism, often in a hands-on way at one monastery or another. Though it attracts its fair share of backpackers, almost everyone is respectful of the sacred destination, making an earnest effort to learn and assimilate.
A gateway to the high Himalayas, Mcleod Ganj also beckons trekkers looking to fulfill a different sort of spiritual journey up in the mountains. There, they’ll find lakes and waterfalls, pine forests, and snow-spackled peaks, depending on how long they’re willing to walk. For something special you can squeeze into an afternoon, trek to the Triund hill station and Bhagsu waterfall and temple.
For a modern perspective: Bangalore or Mumbai
India’s old, but it’s not all ancient. Both big, cosmopolitan cities, Bangalore and Mumbai are the sources of some of the country’s biggest industries: tech, finance, film, and fashion among them. Plus, like metropolitan magnets anywhere, both have hotels with ultra-modern amenities and cool cafes and bars to make your travels feel undeniably 21st century.
Bangalore is a young professional’s playground with a hipster edge where twenty-somethings, many of them in IT, strut down jam-packed street in their trendiest digs, dropping by eclectic cocktail bars and pubs brimming with craft brews for happy hour. When you’re not busy drinking, be it booze or a latte at funky coffee shop, check out the city’s full roster of cultural events, which range from folk art shows to EDM sets to movies shown in several languages.
North of Bangalore but still very much southern India, Mumbai is as busy but not as uniformly modern as India’s Silicon Valley. The contrast between the wealthy areas where the city’s Bollywood stars live and its sprawling slums can be shocking, as can the sheer number of people living in the city. Still, the food and drink scene is undeniable, and Mumbai has some of the best nightlife anywhere in India, offset by ancient architecture and a historic waterfront that keep the ever-developing city close to its roots.
For temple tours: Madurai or Amritsar
A must-see in Tamil Nadu, Madurai has one of the highest densities of temples anywhere in India. Among the most touristed is Meenakshi Amman, a towering temple complex of blues, greens, and pinks that the city was built around. Elsewhere, history and architecture buffs can relish in the equally colorful Tirupparankunram Murugan Temple, as well as the Koodal Azhagar Temple dedicated to Vishnu and the ornately carved, Dravidian-style Alagar temple just outside the city, among many, many others.
Amritsar may not have as many holy sites as Madurai, but its Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple, is not only an important pilgrimage site for Sikhs but also one of the nation’s most recognizable landmarks. Make your way to the Punjab state during Diwali for a celebration you won’t soon forget, thanks to the floating lanterns and fireworks that go off above the illuminated temple to capitalize on India’s festival of lights.
For swimmers and scuba divers: Andaman Islands
Different parts of India are associated with different colors, from the white peaks of the Himalayas to the emerald jungles at their foothills to the fiery shades of Rajasthan’s vast deserts. The Andamans are quintessentially tropical, with pale blue waters you can see through and sands a whiter shade than you’ll see in any Colgate commercial. The nearly 600-island archipelago off the Bay of Bengal is easy to reach from southern Indian hubs like Chennai and Kolkata, beckoning wildlife enthusiasts with its coral reefs and some 250 bird species. Most choose to spend their days in or on the water, outfitted in either snorkel or scuba gear. While not all the islands allow visitors, those that do are surprisingly free of the tourist crush. Set your sights on Havelock for the greatest number of dive sites.