Wherever you travel, in Asia or beyond, there’s nowhere quite like India. Vast and mysterious, with landscapes ranging from snow-capped mountains to desert sand dunes; home to a staggering diversity of people, speaking a plethora of different languages, and birthplace of a fascinating array of religions and cultures. Planning your first visit to India can feel somewhat overwhelming, and the country offers enough experiences to fill a lifetime, so where should you start?
One of our favourite first-trip routes starts by exploring Delhi, old and new, before India’s bewildering-yet-efficient rail network whisks you to Agra and the Taj Mahal, arguably the most famous building in the world. Travel onwards to the historic and cultural treasure trove that is the north-western state of Rajasthan, the ‘Land of Kings’. We guarantee that however much of the country you see, you’ll always want to see more - no-one can ever say they’ve ‘done’ India!
When planning your first trip to India, we’d recommend doing some research and talking to our specialists to help you pick out a bite-sized chunk that fires your interest, and then tailoring your trip around that spark.
One area we always recommend including is Rajasthan. Studded with a legacy of elaborate forts and palaces alongside colourful cities, this region is teeming with history, excitement and chaos. Dotting the surrounding countryside are tranquil villages that offer unparalleled opportunities to explore traditional rural life. You can even mix in a safari to try and spot some of India’s regal wildlife, from leopards and tigers to crocodiles and eagles. This trip could be the perfect appetiser for your experience of India; satisfying in itself, but leaving you wanting more...
Your first taste of India is bound to be something of an assault on the senses. Old Delhi, previously known as Shahjahanabad and once the capital of the Mughal dynasty, is no exception. Plunge into its maze of narrow lanes, shoulder to shoulder with the locals, and keep your wits about you to avoid bumping into sleeping dogs, dawdling cows and weaving rickshaws! Marvel at the awe-inspiring architecture of the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid (India’s largest mosque). Flood your senses at Chandni Chowk, the city’s busiest market, then fill your stomach with some of the country’s finest street food.
Head to New Delhi, India’s capital, where majestic boulevards and tree-lined avenues full of neoclassical architecture lead to historic sites like Humayan’s Tomb, a striking 16th-century structure of white marble and red sandstone, or dwindle into quiet backstreets. Your guide can introduce you to some of the locals, including members of a community of around 60 washer-men who do laundry for hotels, hospitals and residents, as many of their families have done for generations.
What can we add to everything that has already been written about the majesty of the Taj Mahal? Built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal; constructed primarily of gleaming white marble and inlaid with 28 types of semi-precious stones; arguably the most beautiful building in the world. You’ll always be sharing the spectacle with countless other admirers, but it’s hard to imagine a first trip to India which doesn’t include the opportunity to contemplate its marble walls, domes and minarets slowly changing colour as the sun rises or sets. Although much of Agra makes for an unprepossessing city, it does offer a few other impressive examples of ancient Mughal architecture, such as the striking Agra Fort. For those looking to see a different side to the city we highly recommend a visit to a nearby community project, the ultimate contrast to the opulence of the Taj, just across the nearby river.
Having visited the bustling capital city and feasted your eyes on some very impressive architecture, why not stop to admire some of Rajasthan's regal residents at Ranthambore National Park? As one of India’s largest reserves, and one of the best places in the country to see tigers in the wild, it’s a popular destination, especially during peak seasons. However, perhaps sharing the spectacle with quite a few other visitors is a worthwhile price to pay if you spot one of these elusive predators slinking across your path. Morning and afternoon safari drives with a local naturalist on hand offer the best opportunity for a glimpse of the tell-tale orange fur with black stripes, as well as Ranthambore’s other residents, including leopards, hyenas, langurs and macaques. The park itself creates a very atmospheric safari. Be sure to look out for ancient temples, hunting pavilions, historic tombs and a crumbling 10th-century fort during your drive.
Although Rajasthan has a seemingly endless list of highlights, the heart of any trip should include exploring some lesser-known delights. That might mean visiting a small town like Bundi, the ‘City of Stepwells’, with its narrow streets lined with Brahmin-blue houses, resplendent palace and imposing fort. Or maybe taking a turn off the main highways to visit a peaceful rural community, staying in one of the many forts, palaces and hunting lodges which have been beautifully maintained and restored to welcome travellers? In the past, these regal residences provided people in the surrounding areas with protection and income, and many of the current owners (often descendents of the original ruling families) are encouraging visitors to continue this age-old relationship.
Whether you choose the Rawla Narlai hunting lodge nestled in the Aravalli hills, the imposing Deogarh Mahal, luxurious Chanoud Garh fort-palace, or Fort Barli, which is proudly run by the 16th generation of the original family owners, you’ll experience the thrill of staying somewhere rich with history. Settle in amid the towers, courtyards, carvings, lattice work, mirrored glass and bright textiles, and enjoy the pleasure and privilege visiting the surrounding communities to experience the rhythms of their everyday lives.
Rajasthan is one of the most colourful places in India, and the cities exemplify that. Jaipur is the ‘Pink City’ due to its rose-hued buildings gazed down on by the Hawa Mahal, the ‘Palace of Winds’. Jump into a distinctive pink e-rickshaw and visit one of the city’s most sacred Hindu temples, dive into the chaotic maze of twisting alleys that make up the old city, and take in the superlative architecture of the palace complex.
Laid-back Jodhpur is dubbed the ‘Blue City’ after the indigo walls of the Brahmin-owned houses, presided over by the impressive Mehrangarh Fort. Wander the atmospheric streets, brimming with ancient temples and ornate palaces, and visit gorgeously decorated havelis where your guide can help you converse with a local family over a cup of chai.
Complete the trinity with the ‘Golden City’ of Jaisalmer, named for its sandstone architecture which rises from the Thar Desert. One of very few ‘living forts’ in the world, almost a quarter of the city’s population still live within the old walls. Explore the fort, appreciate the ornate carving in the famous Jain temples, watch sunrise from the ramparts, or ride a camel out into the surrounding desert.
When looking for somewhere to end your first adventure in India, we don’t think you can do much better than a few days in the ethereal lakeside city of Udaipur. It’s home to a hotel which appears to float magically in the middle of a lake, is frequently referred to as one of the most romantic spots in India, and is, of course, the setting for a Bond film; Udaipur has a quality unlike anywhere else. For those who haven’t had their fill of extravagant architecture, the City Palace is the largest complex in the state. This is a great place to slow your pace and wander the narrow streets passing temples, ornately decorated havelis and colourful bazaars selling everything from jewellery and traditional miniature paintings to spices and clay pots.
If this doesn’t sound quite right for your perfect first-time visit to India, how about heading south east from Delhi and Agra to Lucknow, culture-rich and home of some particularly mouth-watering cuisine, and Varanasi, long considered the country’s spiritual capital? Alternatively start in the south, in laid-back Kerala, or tantalising Tamil Nadu. Everyone's perfect first trip to India is different, and we’re on hand to talk through all the exciting possibilities.
Alternatively if your holiday wouldn’t be complete without a bit of beach time, take connecting flights to Goa, where palm fringed sands attracted early Portuguese traders, officials of British India, the hippy travellers of the 1960s - and continue to welcome a diverse mix of local and international visitors.
The guide price of £2,090US$2,390 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying 2 nights in Delhi, 1 night in Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, 2 nights at Ranthambore National Park, 2 nights in Bundi, 2 nights in Jaipur, a 1 night stop in rural Rajasthan at Fort Barli and finally 2 nights in Udaipur; all in our favourite mid-range hotels.
How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey.
Head to India’s south to be transported in time in Tamil Nadu - discover ancient temples and a rich culture dating back two millennia before spending some time relaxing on the Andaman Islands.