Every city in India is unlike the other, which makes travelling across the country ever-interesting. From the big cities to small towns, they all have their own distinct charms. And while that opens up many options for tourists, so many choices can also stump you. While there's no way to experience India by visiting just one of its many culturally rich cities, we've compiled a list that captures its essence best. Here's our list of the best places to visit in India.
The erstwhile French colony on India's east coast, some 170km from Chennai, offers plenty of scope for laidback languor on its beaches. But the city also rewards more energetic excursions about town with hidden delights. The Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville' township' nearby are beacons of spiritual serenity and exemplify universal brotherhood in action. Pondicherry is also home to many charming churches, including the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with its Gothic architecture and striking stained-glass panels. The Botanical Garden offers a quiet retreat amidst lush, exotic flora—and tree fossils that are 20 million years old! www.pondytourism.in
Rajasthan's capital is a city of majestic forts, opulent palaces, regal traditions, and earthy folk arts that enchant. One of India's most tourist-friendly cities, Jaipur showcases its royal splendour artfully. Take an elephant ride up to the 16th-century Amber Fort—and stay for the sound-and-light show. The impregnable Jaigarh Fort nearby is less touristy and has arguably the world's largest cannon. The Hawa Mahal is a five-storeyed honeycomb-like structure that was part of the City Palace zenana. The expansive City Palace is awe-inspiring. Savour tasty vegetarian food at the iconic Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar in Johari Bazar. (www.rtdc.rajasthan.gov.in)
Pune bears its status as the custodian of Maratha cultural pride like a war trophy, but in recent years, it has also become popular among more youthful visitors for the range of trendy entertainment options it serves up. A visit to the Parvati Hill Temple provides a bird's-eye view of Pune. Other attractions include the Pataleshwar caves, which house an 8th-century rock-cut temple, and the Aga Khan Palace. Later, unwind at Doolally's 1st Brewhouse, one of India's finest micro-breweries, at the Corinthians (020-30189660). (www.maharashtratourism.gov.in)
History leaps out of every corner in Patna, which traces its heritage to the 5th century BCE. Pataliputra, as it was then known, was an important seat of learning and artistic endeavours, and given the city's pivotal location on the Indo-Gangetic plain, it's served at the crossroads of India's cultural and spiritual history down the centuries. Today, given the proximity of Bodh Gaya, Nalanda and Rajgir, it also serves as a pit-stop for travellers on the Buddhist circuit. Other attractions: the Golghar, a ginormous granary built by British colonialists; the 16th-century Sher Shah Suri mosque; and the Harmandir Takht, which commemorates the birth of Sikh guru Gobind Singh. (www.bstdc.bih.nic.in)
The profusion of temples that it is home to has rendered Bhubaneswar one of eastern India's most visited destinations. The city has a history that goes back to the 3rd century BCE. Famously, it was the theatre for the Kalinga war, which Ashoka won, but at a heavy blood price, a defining milestone in India's cultural history. Among the more significant attractions are the Lingaraja temple, with elaborate carvings, and the 10th-century Mukteshwar temple. At the Dhauli Giri hills nearby stand the Ashokan rock edicts. Wandering through the atmospheric Old Town is evocative. For an authentic (and affordable) Odiya meal, try the Chhadakhai restaurant in Hotel Janpath.
This heritage town in Tamil Nadu's Cauvery Delta is home to stunning temples and monuments built by Chola kings (11th century CE). The most striking of them, the Brihadeeswarar Temple, is one of India's biggest and a World Heritage Site; two more Unesco-listed monuments, the Gangaikondacholapuram Temple and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram, are nearby. Come January, Thanjavur resonates with mellifluous Carnatic music at the Tyagaraja Aradhana festival. It is also famous for its distinctive Tanjore paintings. Other attractions: the royal palace, the Saraswathi Mahal library, and the 18th-century Schwartz Church, built for the Danish mission. (www.thanjavur.tn.nic.in)
This coastal Kerala city was, in its prime, at the epicentre of global trade in spices and still bears architectural and other cultural influences of its window to the world. The Jew Town in Mattancherry is home to the exquisite 'Paradesi Synagogue', still open for worship. The giant cantilevered Chinese fishing nets (which were introduced here by Portuguese settlers from Macau and are fully functional) are a big tourist draw; you can have fresh fish fried right along the waterfront. On a backwater canal cruise, get a different perspective of the city and pamper yourself with a therapeutic Ayurveda massage. (www.ktdc.com)
India's commercial capital offers delightful tourist experiences too. A walkabout that takes in Mumbai's architectural diversity is enchanting. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, a model of Gothic Revival architecture, symbolises the fusion of artful elegance and frantic daily life. The other Unesco-listed monument in Mumbai, the rock-cut Elephanta Caves, is an hour away by boat. The Sanjay Gandhi National Park, in the north of Mumbai, is a biodiverse oasis of calm; the Gateway of India at sunset and the sparkling Queen's Necklace on Marine Drive are must-do experiences. While in the city, treat yourself to nuanced flavours at Masque restaurant, which earned a spot in Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2022 and 2023.
One of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, Madurai traces its recorded history to the 3rd century BCE. It is a treasure trove of heritage monuments associated with many empires, kingdoms and sultanates. The Meenakshi Temple, built for the fish-eyed Parvati, is the heart of the town and draws countless pilgrims and visitors. Also worth a visit is the opulent 17th-century Tirumalai Nayakar Palace, built in Indo-Saracenic style with Dravidian motifs. Drop by the wholesale banana market, which hums with commerce for a quirky twist. Madurai's street food is legendary, and Murugan Idli Shop (www.muruganidlishop.com) serves scrumptious 'tiffins' and meals.
The weight of ancient—and momentous—history sits somewhat lightly on this sleepy city, some 80km from Ahmedabad. Without the risk of exaggeration, the archaeological finds relating to the Harappan Civilisation here, dating back to the 4th millennium BCE, are among the oldest and most significant in India. The site itself is unspectacular, but with help from the ASI museum there, the mind's eye can recreate the civilisational splendour of those times, including arguably the world's first dry dock facilities. More recent excavations are peeling off yet more layers of history, but a visit to Lothal gives cause to reflect on the wonder of human evolution. (www.gujarattourism.com)
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