While big cities draw the crowds, smaller towns across India offer unbridled charm that shouldn't be overlooked. We've curated 12 of the most picturesque off-the-beaten-track towns India has to offer.
Mandawa, Rajasthan: A potpourri of art, history, and culture
Mandawa, aka Open Art Gallery, mimics a theme distinct to a chapter out of a storybook. Home to forts, palaces, and havelis, this quaint town is tucked into Rajasthan’s Jhunjhunu district, and is full of paved archways and architectural relics reminiscent of a bygone era. Once a trading outpost, the eighteenth-century settlement, founded by affluent merchant families of the region, facilitated an exchange of goods between traders via the Silk Route. Today, it’s one of the oldest cities in the region, and serves as a cultural hotspot suited for visitors inclined toward art and history.
Visit the Chokhani, Ladia, Hanuman Prasad Goenka, Jhunjhunwala, and Saraf havelis that were once inhabited by families who migrated out of Mandawa. Built by merchants, these palaces are tinted with paintings, and adorned with frescoes. The Binsidhar Newatia andThe Gulab Rai Ladia havelis display some curious artwork as well. Trace your steps to the medieval Mandawa fort, now Castle Mandawa, whose arched gateway is peppered with paintings of Lord Krishna and his cows. A palace-turned-hotel, it offers tourists a luxurious stay amidst ancient murals, vintage designs, decorated rooms, astounding mirror-work, an extensive Durbar Hall, and exquisite architecture. A crossover between a distant past and a modern-age era, the structure towers over the little town. Don’t forget to indulge in shopping at government emporiums, or along streets. Look out for bangles, hand-sewn items, cloth-art, paintings, and metal utensils.
Sidhpur, Gujarat: A palette of whimsical hues
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A 10th-century town, sleepy Sidhpur is positioned on the banks of the Saraswati River in North Gujarat’s Patan municipality. About a hundred kilometres from Ahmedabad, Sidhpur, once governed by Solanki rulers, resuscitates an era evocative of a long-forgotten past. Its streets, complemented by a succession of multi-coloured mansions and tiered havelis, lend to the city a European feel—a consequence of its Dawoodi Bohra community’s overseas expeditions. Pinks, purples, blues, and greens define the town’s mansions, and illuminate its dusty streets. The havelis’ Victorian architecture-influence comprises numberless windows, multiple levels, gabled roofs, stuccoed facades, ornate pilasters, and unique monograms indicative of their owners’ initials. Sidhpur also houses the 365-windowed Jhaveri mansion, a gargantuan structure. Once pulsating with people, the town now wears a relatively deserted look as its inhabitants—predominantly trading communities—shuttered their homes, and left for other cities.
Diskit, Ladakh: A Buddhist Relic
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Situated in Ladakh’s Leh district, Diskit is an offbeat location functioning as Nubra Valley’s transit hub. Home to Diskit Gompa, the village is associated with its 106-feet-tall, iridescent Maitreya Buddha statue. Consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 2010, it is stationed atop the fourteenth-century Buddhist monastery. Constructed at a whopping altitude of 10,300 feet, the monastery is transfixed to a hill emerging from the plains of Shyok River. Walk along stacked stones engraved with Buddhist mantras, and chortens comprising Buddhist relics on your way to the Gompa. The monastery’s interiors are nothing short of beautiful. Adorned with frescoes, drums, and murals depicting Buddhist guardian deities, an elevated copula, two prayer halls, and a storehouse hosting Mongolian and Tibetan religious texts complement its insides as well.
Trace your steps to the top of the monastery for a stunning view of the valley. Also, visit the Lachung temple instituted above the Gompa. Schedule a two-day-trip to Diskit Village, aka Orchard of Ladakh, and savour its scenic landscapes—night skies and expansive deserts—and see the double-humped Bactrian camel. Diskit’s cabana-styled bar, Sangan, located between Old Diskit and the bazaar area, is worth a visit too; more so because it is Nubra’s sole drinking-well. Don’t forget to visit Hunder Sand Dunes, an elevated desert sandwiched between Diskit and Hunder Village. Map your steps to Hunder Village for its vast foliage, and visit the Hunder Gompa, the oldest monastery of Nubra Valley, while you’re there.
Poovar, Kerala: A Village-cum-Island
A tourist hub nestled in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram district, this island village throbs with travellers throughout the year. Cocooned by Kerala's backwaters, Poovar is fringed by the Arabian Sea to the east, and extensive ghats to the west. Dovetailing into the ocean, it was once a significant part of the Chola dynasty, and functioned as a trading centre for spices, ivory, and timber. Now, it is home to a number of tourist spots.
The Poovar beach, nestled between the Arabian Sea and River Neyyar, and known for its crimson sunsets, blue waters, and soothing gusts of wind, is great for those looking to go for a swim or just sink their feet in the sand and relax. One can also go on a shopping tour and bring home footwear, carpets, artificial jewellery, sarees, brass artefacts/sculptures, and handmade souvenirs. Visit the manmade Thirparappu Falls, and revel in the sight of its gushing waters. Wade through the clear Kerala backwaters, and spot waterbirds like the kingfisher, the night heron, and the sea egret. Plan a one-day picnic to Neyyar dam, tucked into the southern hills of the Western Ghats, for a panoramic view of mountains, lakes, and waterfalls. You can also visit the region’s wildlife sanctuary, indulge in deer-watching, or opt for a lion safari here. Visit the fishing village close to Poovar, and understand the Kerala’s fishing community’s way of life, customs, and traditions.
Kalap, Uttarakhand: India’s Remotest Hamlet
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A hamlet located at an altitude of 7,500 feet in the upper Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, Kalap teeters at the precipice of obscurity. Living in limbo, the trekking destination, situated in Tons Valley, is known for its exquisite view of the snow-capped Bandarpunch range. Nuzzled into its bosom are deodar and virgin pine forests and mountain-rivers. Kalap, interestingly enough, is said to go back to the time of the Mahabharata. Even today, its inhabitants trace their lineage to the Kauravas and Pandavas. During winter, a Pandav Nritya performace—an enactment of stories from the mythology—engages the entire village. An epicentre of organic farming, Kalap’s mystique lies in a series of stories narrated to travellers by locals.
The latter also nudge you into embarking on day treks, witnessing cultural performances, and indulging in locally-produced food. An orchestration of Garhwali architecture, camping, folklore, handlooms, and three-thousand sheep, Kalap, untouched by mainstream tourism, comprises pastures, millet and potato fields that introduce you to a lifestyle you’ve never been acquainted with: simple and fulfilling. Kalap is 210 kilometres from Dehra Dun and takes 7-10 hours to reach from the state capital. Once you reach Sankhri, the nearest road-head to Kalap, you will be directed to a walking-route depending on the season.
Malana, Himachal Pradesh: A Hermit-like Settlement
Bordered by Parvati Valley and Kullu Valley, Malana, 21 kilometres from Kasol, is burrowed into the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. With Chanderkhani and Deotibba’s peaks shadowing the village, Malana, also known as the Republic of Malana, houses a thousand tribals who claim a Greek descent. These inhabitants don’t foster relations with other villages, speak their own autochthonous language ‘Kanashi’, and live by a strict code of conduct. Tourists aren’t allowed to touch them, their temples, or their sacred platforms.
You can visit the Himalayan peak of Chanderkhani, about 5 kilometres from Malana, for a sensational trek along lush valleys, winding rivers, traditional settlements, and vibrant meadows. Deo Tibba, another mountain, promises views of lakes, meadows, rocky terrains, and forests. It is twelve kilometres from Malana. Manikaran, situated in Parvati Valley at a distance of twenty-five kilometres from Malana, is popular for its hot springs, apart from its Hindu temples, a Sikh connection, and the Shiva-Parvati legend. The Renuka Devi Shrine Temple is known to pique archaeologists’ intrigue due to its woodwork and architecture. You can reach the shrine-cum-temple via a brief trek. Built by stone and wood, the Jamadgani temple, located in the centre of the village, displays intricate designs on its walls. You could pick Muzik Cafe for delectable food and a comfortable stay. Don’t forget to visit Tosh either; 40 kilometres from Malana, it distils the whole of Himachal Pradesh into its scope.
Nako, Spiti: A Cosy Lair
Perched on the Himalayan Range of Kinnaur district, Nako—out of bounds for those without an Inner Line Permit—is situated in close proximity to the Indo-China border, and sits in front of the majestic Reo Purgyal. Stationed 360 metres above sea-level, it is a quaint village that bears a resemblance to Malana. The highest town in the valley, Nako is fringed with willows, poplars, cattle, monasteries, star-studded skies, and a lake; frozen during winters, sacred Nako Lake, encircled by mountains and verdure, makes for an ideal ice-skating opportunity, while extending a boating voyage to travellers during summers. Lake View Hotel, overlooking the extensive waters, offers a comfortable accommodation to incoming tourists, while Knaygoh Kinner Camps enables individuals to satiate the gourmand in them by gorging on Indian/Chinese platters in cosy tents.
Nako Gompa, revered as a creation of The Great Translator, Ringchen Zangpo, houses a series of chapels, and comprises ancient murals, idols, sculptures, and festival-masks dating back to the eleventh century. Chango Gompa, a few kilometres away from Nako Gompa, displays a 500-year-old prayer-wheel made out of yak skin. A Himalayan-cum-Tibetan culture dictates the village’s lifestyle, while livelihoods remain predicated on agriculture. Usually, Nako’s inhabitants put together several festivals, and get everyone to participate in the celebrations. Within the village, mud-laden cottages grace maze-cobbled lanes for tourists to stroll past. Though Nako isn’t a shopping hub, it is popular for its Buddhist relics and wool-based clothes.
Pragpur, Himachal Pradesh: India’s First Heritage Village
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Kangra Valley’s Pragpur, certified as a Heritage Village, is positioned at 610 metres above sea level. A bygone era distilled into a small town, Pragpur is characterised by mud-plastered walls, cobbled lanes, slate-roofed homes, houses of varying architectural styles, and a population of about a thousand. Founded in honour of Jaswan Kingdom’s Princess Prag Dei, this town traces its inception back to the sixteenth century. The Judge’s Court, Vijai and Rani Lal’s ancestral home, and the village’s primary structure, has marked a departure from its three-hundred-year old self, and transitioned into a resort. Boasting an Indian-cum-European style, its interiors house antique furniture and paintings, and comprise six rooms, while its exteriors sport a red brick-wall. Close to this relic-turned-resort lies the Taal. Huddled in the heart of the village, this pond, swaddled by heritage sites like Nehar Bhawan, Naun, and Dhunichand Bhardial Serai, dates back to the nineteenth century. The village market commences from this spot. Also visit village Garli while you’re here. Three kilometres away from Pragpur, Garli houses a wave of heritage sites boasting exquisite tile-work, ornamental towers, ancient collections, and stained-glass windows. The Chintpuri temple, Chamba Pattan, Maharana Pratap Bird Sanctuary, Jwalaji, and Dada Siba shrine lie close by.
Muttom, Kanyakumari: An Undiscovered Beach
Featuring a boundless beach, Muttom is sprawled out in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district. A perfect stoppage for a day out, Muttom’s beach is replete with rocks and caves, hosts a Devi Kumari temple within its scope, comprises a succession of food stalls, and is situated close to the village’s century-old lighthouse. Watch fishermen at work and hear the distant sounds of a church against the backdrop of a kaleidoscopic sunset.
Complemented by a museum, Muttom’s lighthouse, stationed at an altitude of 110 feet above sea level makes for a perfect visit at dusk. Muttom is reachable by road if you’re travelling from Kanyakumari (34kms), and lies at a distance of seventy-five kilometres from Trivandrum International Airport. Its primary occupation involves fishing, and a large proportion of its population practises Christianity.
Patiala, Punjab: Royalty’s offspring
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In south-eastern Punjab, Patiala’s unification of the Rajput, Mughal, and Punjabi cultures culminate in a lifestyle exclusive to the city. A former princely state, Patiala was founded in 1763 by Sidhu Jet Chieftain Baba Ala Singh. Peppered with palaces, gardens, and temples, this city emulates extravagance at its finest. A hotspot for your shopping endeavours, Patiala is home to Adalat Bazaar, Arena Barna Bazaar, Anardana Chowk, old Qila Mubarak Market, Sheran Wala Bazaar, Dharmpura Market, Chandni Chowk, and Bazaar Tripur. Famous for traditional Punjabi suits, dupattas, juttis, parandas, and an extensive range of handicrafts, Patiala satiates a shopper’s desire immediately. Visit ancient fortress Qila Mubarak, the grand Sheesh Mahal, holy Gurudwara Dukh Niwan Sahib, and its healing waters, Baradari Gardens festooned with flower-beds, museum-cum-palace Moti Bagh, marbled Patiala Kali Mata Mandir, Lachman Jhoola, and Maharaja Karam Singh’s Darbar Hall and Museum among a set of other architectural wonders.
Read: 24 Hours in Amritsar
Borong, Sikkim: The Silent Valley
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An offbeat village clinging to Sikkim’s southern fringe, Borong thrusts you into a world devoid of the humdrum life, and transports you into a scenic landscape full of cottages and a stunning view of snow-capped Kanchenjunga, Narsing, and Pandim. Cocooned by cascading waterfalls, dense vegetation, jungle trails, alpine vegetation, exotic flora, and wildlife, Borong rewards travellers with an rich experience of nature’s finest creations.
Hike up river Rangit in your quest to spot hot springs, and witness indigenous birds flocking through Borong’s emerald forest. You can also trek to Siniolchu, Pandim, and Narsingh peaks, and Namchi. Meenam Hills, for bird-watching, and Bhanjan Valley, for wildflowers and scenic views of mountain ranges, are perfect. Ravangla, seventeen kilometres from Borong, hosts Ralang monastery, and Bon Monastery. Don’t forget to gawk at a towering statue of the Buddha positioned amid a twenty-acre park in Tathagata Tsal, also known as Buddha Park. For your stay, you can either pick The Silent Valley Resort or Wild Flower Retreat.
Hikkim, Spiti: A Fine Choice
215 kilometres from Manali, Hikkim is nestled in Himachal’s Spiti district. At an elevation of 14,000 feet, it’s billed as one of the highest inhabited areas in India. It also hosts the world’s highest post office and polling station. For a few hamlets in the region, this service functions as their only link to the outside world. Travellers, too, send home postcards from an altitude of 14,567 feet to translate their achievement into something that they can reserve for themselves.
The Key Monastery, settled on a hilltop at an altitude of 4,166 metres above sea level, is a religious structure close to the Spiti River. Apart from the meandering roads, and snow-laden villages on your walk to the monastery, its interiors will catch you off-guard. Decked out with murals and paintings, its walls depict the fourteenth century monastic architecture. It is also home to a few hundred lamas, and its exhibits comprise weapons, idols, manuscripts, and wind instruments.
Trace your steps to Kibber, 12 kilometres from Hikkim, visit the village’s monastery and wildlife sanctuary, and marvel at its eighty houses. Add Dhankar to your wishlist for its ancient monastery shadowing beautiful settlements, and the Dhankar Lake, and Pin Valley National Park. Observe Hikkim’s mud-and-stone houses. Ask a local to guide you to the village’s fossilised crustaceans from the Jurassic era. Remember to arrange your accommodation at a homestay and savour Hikkim’s local food.