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Top Destinations for 2016: India

20th July 2016

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It’s been a staple of the hippie trail and a must-visit for backpackers for generations. But despite its longstanding popularity India has lost none of its allure, and in the 21st Century it’s just as mythical and enthralling as ever.

Of course it’s still shrouded in intrigue. It’s the land of Ghandi, of painted elephants, of the Taj Mahal; of bindis and orange sellers and fuchsia saris and rickshaws careering through crowded streets at a break-neck pace. From the southern temples of Kerala to the beaches of Goa to the birthplace of Buddhism at Varanasi, it’s a country that dominates Asia and is home to a billion people - and it’s as varied and magical as it seems. 

Nowhere is more contradictory, hectic, infuriating or fascinating. Come join us there in 2016 – and be prepared for a whirlwind.

Where to go

The Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, in the north, is likely to be where you start your Indian adventure.

India’s most famous landmark, the Taj Mahal, is a given – and yes, seeing it with your own eyes is as impressive as you might expect.

Once you’ve completed your visit to the world’s most ornate death tomb, make sure you get some zen back at a lotus temple – a calming experience that only seems possible in a country that’s so heavily spiritual.

If you have time once you’ve navigated the Golden Triangle, head east to Varanasi - one of the world’s oldest cities, which sits on the Ganges and is the widely-accepted spiritual centre of the whole country.

Next it’s on to the massive, hectic, coastal home of Bollywood itself, Mumbai. Aside from the glamour of a film industry bigger than Hollywood (or so we’ve heard) Mumbai also houses the world’s most expensive house, as well as a tropical forest... yes, in the city. Check out the UNESCO-listed Elephanta Island, the imposing Gateway of India monument, and the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, an essential piece of the city’s history that has been fully restored since its 2008 terror attack.

Head south to check out Kerala, stopping off halfway for some relaxing downtime in the beachside party resort of Goa. Kerala’s sex temples will be a highlight, as will the Thekkady wildlife refuge – where you can spend the day rock climbing and mountain biking, and the night suspended amongst the sounds of the jungle in a tree house.

What to do

Get lost in the “pink city”

Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, and at its heart is the Amber Fort – the 16th Century behemoth that sits high on a hill, overlooking the Maota Lake below.

The City Palace – still home to the one-time royal family – and the pink and honeycombed Hawa Mahal (pictured), the 18th Century landmark that allowed Jaipur’s upper-crust ladies to look down on the streets below, will also be high points of your visit.

Wander the streets of Delhi

Busy, beautiful, infuriating, historic... India’s capital is all of these things, and more. Visit a lotus temple at sunset for some calm, and then get lost in one of the city’s many gilt-laden bazaars before craning your neck to see the top of Qutb Minar (pictured), the world’s tallest minaret. It’s a city where orange sellers cycle past giant glass buildings on broken bicycles and 1,000 year old men herd cattle through the streets in the shadow of skyscrapers. 

From the Red Fort to Raj Ghat - the final resting place of Gandhi - to the art reflects the country’s colourful culture, it’s a city that surprises at every turn. Be enthralled.

Track down India’s three new World Heritage sites

Joining the coveted UNESCO list in 2016 is the Chandigarh Capitol Complex, a number of official buildings in the Punjab that demonstrate local architecture. 

Also basking in their UNESCO acceptance are the Khangchendzonga National Park, in the far north of the country, close to the Nepalese border, and the nearby old Nalanda University of Bihar, a gigantic former Buddhist monastery. They might be a long way from the main cities (try 1,000km+ from Delhi) but if UNESCO is to be trusted they’re worth the pilgrimage.

Wonder at the Taj Mahal

Rudyard Kipling might have called the 17th Century death crypt built by Emperor Shah Jahan “the embodiment of all things pure”, but its real history is a bit less so. According to legend, Emperor Jahan rewarded the slaves who built the now iconic memorial, in memory of his dead wife...  by cutting off their hands, allegedly so they could never build anything so beautiful again.

Brutal, undoubtedly. But still majestic, and still one of the most striking sights you’ll see in your life.

Check out the monkeys on the streets of Agra whilst you’re around, too.

Blush at Kerala’s sex temples...

Are erotic sculptures adorning the walls of religious buildings inappropriate? Kerala cares not – in fact, the elaborately engraved sex temples that call this region home are probably one of the main reasons people visit. Because who doesn’t love a naughty sculpture?

...and then get back to nature yourself with an elephant bath

Yes, that’s right – you can bathe with the elephants at Kerala’s Kodanad Elephant Sanctuary. You can also get involved with elephant feeding and partake of an “elephant safari”. One for the adventurous part of our bucket list? We think so. 

Learn about Sikh history at the Golden Temple of Amritsar

The Golden Temple of Amritsar is more than an entirely gilt building in the middle of a lake – in fact, it’s a working Sikh shrine, a pilgrimage site for visitors the world-over, and a monument offers an essential lesson in the history of one of India’s most prominent religions. Visit during a religious ceremony (5am and 9.40pm in winter; 4am and 10.30pm in summer) that sees continuous changing from the Guru Granth Sahib to experience it properly.

Eat a real curry

Think all Indian food is the same? You’ve never been more wrong – in fact, the country is so gigantic and so varied in its culture that believing all Indian dishes are the same is akin to saying the whole of Europe has one cuisine. From the seafood and coconut flavours of Kerala and Goa to buttery roti and mustard seeds in Punjab, Indian food is as eclectic as it is varied. Take a cooking class wherever you happen to be and see for yourself. 

Explore the river on a houseboat

If you want to see local villages and get up close and personal with India’s wildlife, you can do so with a trip down one of the country’s many rivers on a floating houseboat. A trip through the backwaters of Kerala will open your eyes to an India that is far removed from the tourist trail.

Drink in some luxury in Goa

After all that exploration, you probably need a cocktail - and a beach to drink it on. If that sounds like a good idea, Goa has you covered. Enjoy.

Tip: when you’re done in India, why not hop across the Laccadive Sea for a (potentially more relaxing) visit to the tear drop island of Sri Lanka? We can advise you on that too – check out our Top Destinations for 2015: Sri Lanka piece here.


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