India is, hands down, my favourite country. It is by no means perfect; indeed I could name many of its faults. But India is special; it captures the heart, the mind and the soul like no other country on earth.
India truly does have something for everyone, whether that be snow-capped mountains, lush tea plantations or white sand beaches. On our last trip, Ollie and I stayed in almost 40 different places. Here are my top 10 travel destinations in India that I would urge any traveller to this vast country not to miss.
Rishikesh is my favourite place in India. It was where I first fell in love with the country way back in 2013 and where I have since returned on two subsequent trips. There is something magically unexplainable in Rishikesh that you cannot put your finger on; everywhere you go you can feel the spiritual energy that literally floats in the air.
Nestled at the foot of the Garhwal Himalayas with the mighty Ganges flowing through it, Rishikesh is, quite simply, beautiful. Every evening, as the sun sets over the mountains, the fire ceremony ganga aarti takes place. A truly humbling and heart warming experience at Parmarth Niketan ashram, ganga aarti is something that everybody should experience at least once in their lifetime.
Rishikesh is also the ‘yoga capital of the world’. I spent three weeks with a fantastic Ashtanga teacher in 2014. But it’s not just Ashtanga. Every kind of yoga and meditation is offered in Rishikesh, including laughter therapy!
Dharamsala is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. The town of Dharamsala has very little for travellers though; when travellers say they are going to Dharamsala, what they actually mean is that they are going to Mcleod Ganj, just north of Dharamsala itself.
Mcleod Ganj is every hippie traveller’s favourite hangout; from German bakeries to Italian restaurants, this small town has grown up very fast from its humble beginnings. But just outside this traveller mecca is a nature lover’s paradise. Trekking opportunities are endless from a one-day return hike to Triund to a 5+ day trek to the Chamba or Kullu Valleys.
Mcleod Ganj has a large Tibetan community, who have countless volunteer projects that you can get involved with. There are also courses available in Buddhist studies, meditation and yoga. Like Rishikesh, Dharamsala has a wonderful spiritual vibe that manages to detain even the most restless of travellers.
3: Amritsar, Punjab
Amritsar is home to the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine. Indeed, it was for this reason that Ollie and I made the journey here from Manali. Was it worth the journey? Oh yes. The Golden Temple literally left us in awe.
We first visited on the evening of our arrival and saw it glowing golden in the darkness. We then returned the following day to properly explore and experience the place. The atmosphere was charged with such spiritual fervour; it was unlike anywhere else we have ever been.
We joined the masses of pilgrims in the enormous dining hall to eat with them on the floor. It is estimated that 60,000-80,000 pilgrims a day come here to eat after praying at the temple. Amritsar is a truly humbling experience that proved to us that in this ever increasing selfish age, selflessness and acceptance of all does still exist.
4: Auroville, Tamil Nadu
Ollie and I had had our doubts about staying in Auroville, but we fell in love with the place and ended up staying for 10 days. I will quote the lonely planet here as they can probably explain the concept of Auroville better than I – ‘an international community dedicated to peace, harmony, sustainable living and divine consciousness, where people from across the globe, ignoring creed, colour and nationality, work together to build a universal, cash-free, nonreligious township and realise good old human unity.’
Auroville is not a ‘touristy’ place; it does not seek to attract tourists but rather those wishing to volunteer or become a resident. There are, however, guesthouses where visitors can stay. We had a wonderfully rustic upstairs apartment complete with our own kitchen. We rented a motorbike to get around, which is 100% necessary, and got a taste of what life in this vast township is like.
We went to theatre productions and exhibitions and visited volunteer projects. It was inspiring to hear about all the good work these projects do, not just in Tamil Nadu but across India. I would encourage anyone wishing to volunteer in India to consider Auroville; it provides a safe and welcoming community in which you can not only make a difference but also be among other like-minded individuals.
5: Jaipur, Rajasthan
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and the gateway to this magical state. It is a busy, loud, unapologetic Indian city that can be overwhelming at first. But slow down and you’ll discover the magic that lies beneath the chaotic exterior. Jaipur is bursting with history, architecture and colour from the City Palace to the bustling markets.
Just outside the city is Amber Fort; in a state full of old forts Amber really is worth your while. Amber rises from a rocky mountainside, a honey-coloured sandstone and marble construction that will whet your appetite for the other fortresses that Rajasthan has to offer.
6: Jaisalmer, Rajasthan
Jaisalmer sits on the edge of the Thar Desert, its fort a massive sandcastle that rises from the plains. Still inhabited, the fort is a confusing web of twisting lanes where there is much to see and discover. There is a royal palace, temples and shops that spark your imagination and interest.
Indeed; Jaisalmer is a place that harks back to a bygone era, when trade was by camel-train. An unforgettable and quintessential desert experience is a camel safari. Sleeping out on the dunes, under the stars, for at least one night is magical.
7: Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu
The ‘Lands End’ of India, Kanyakumari was hot on our list when we travelled down south, through Kerala and into Tamil Nadu. We visited Kanyakumari on a day trip from Trivandrum, arriving in the pre-dawn darkness to see the dramatic sunrise over the Indian Ocean. And what a sunrise it was. It is said that at certain times of the year, it is possible to see the sun set and the moon rise over three seas simultaneously.
Kanyakumari was affected by the 2004 tsunami and there is a memorial in town to remember the tragic event. We wandered around the sights (the temples, memorials and statues) but really, just being at the southern-most tip of India and feeling its vibe was everything we could have hoped for and more.
Manali is another gem in Himachal Pradesh, a firm traveller favourite that isn’t touristy or overdeveloped. Surrounded by Himalayan peaks and dense forest, Manali is an adventure lover’s playground. Trekking, rafting, mountain biking and paragliding are just some of the activities on offer. Manali sits in the Beas River valley; as your bus slowly makes its perilous way towards town, the views on all sides are spectacular.
Travellers hang out in Old Manali or one of the surrounding hippie villages, where the usual German bakeries and banana pancakes can be found. If off-the-beaten-track is what you’re after, Manali makes a great base. There is the stunning 5-day trek from Naggar to Malana village or, for even more adventure, the Pin-Parvati and Hampta passes beckon.
9: Munnar, Kerala
The best of South India’s hill stations, Munnar is known for its emerald green tea plantations and rolling green hills. Leaving behind the scruffy town of Munnar itself, you don’t need to hike far to feel as though you’re in the middle of nowhere. Local guides can take you on a one-or-two-day trek but it is also pretty easy to simply set out and explore the multi-hued sea of greens for yourself.
You will often find yourself above the clouds with mist swirling below you. The sight of tea pickers dotting the hillsides is one of our favourite sights of all time; it harks back to a bygone time when work was done by hand instead of by machine. Munnar is also a great place to sample the local teas; chai here is made from the local leaves grown on the hillsides.
10: Palolem, Goa
Goa is India’s smallest state and, at times, doesn’t feel like ‘real’ India. There are no dirty, rubbish-strewn, dusty cites and compared to the rest of India, very little traffic or rubbish. Panjim and Margao are Goa’s two main towns and the two main transport hubs that link the state to the rest of the country.
On my first visit in 2013 I spent two weeks in north Goa at a yoga retreat in Assagao. Stunning white sand beaches were just a short drive away; of particular recommendation are Mandrem, Morjim and Calangute beaches. The sunsets were just sublime. Also in north Goa is the hippie town of Arambol and Anjuna with its huge flea market.
Ollie and I spent a week exploring south Goa, which is altogether a lot more quiet and peaceful, even in high season. Whilst north Goa is known for its wild trance parties, the south of the state attracts those looking for a more low-key beach break.
We stayed at a wonderful homestay in Palolem, our little cottage only steps away from the stunning white sand beach. Our week here was a real break from the mayhem of the Indian road and it was also where we got engaged!