India is a vibrant land of startling contrasts where both the traditional and modern worlds meet. The world’s seventh-largest nation by area and the second-largest in terms of population, India boasts a rich heritage due to centuries of different cultures and religions leaving their mark.
Highlights for travelers include the opportunity to experience an array of sacred sites and spiritual encounters. At the same time, nature lovers will enjoy its sun-washed beaches, lush national parks, and exciting wildlife sanctuaries. From the magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra to the holy sites of Harmandir Sahib (formerly the Golden Temple) in Amritsar and the Mecca Masjid mosque in Hyderabad, visitors to this exotic country will discover a trove of spiritual, cultural, and historical treasures.
1 The Taj Mahal
Agra Perhaps India’s most recognizable building, the Taj Mahal is also the world’s most famous testimony to the power of love. Named after Mumtaz Mahal, the favorite wife of Emperor Shah Jahan, this most beautiful mausoleum was begun upon her death in 1631 and took 20,000 workers 22 years to complete.
Incorporating many elements of Islamic design, including arches, minarets, an onion-shaped dome, and black calligraphy inlaid around the entrance, the Taj Mahal is largely constructed of white marble decorated with delicate inlaid floral patterns and precious and semi-precious stones such as jade, lapis lazuli, diamonds, and mother of pearl.
2 The Holy City of Varanasi
A major pilgrimage center for Hindus, the holy city of Varanasi has long been associated with the mighty Ganges River, one of the faith’s most important religious symbols. Dating back to the 8th century BC, Varanasi is one of the oldest still inhabited cities in the world. It offers many reasons to visit, not least of them the chance to explore the Old Quarter adjacent to the Ganges where you’ll find the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, built-in 1780 (the New Vishwanath Temple with its seven separate temples is also of interest).
Bathing in the Ganges is of great importance to Hindus, and numerous locations known as “ghats” feature stairways leading to the water where the faithful bathe before prayers. All told, Varanasi boasts more than 100 ghats, the largest being Dasashvamedh Ghat and Assi Ghat (the latter, at the confluence of the Ganges and Asi rivers, is considered particularly holy). Also worth seeing is Banaras Hindu University, established in 1917 and noted for its massive library with more than a million books, and the superb Bharat Kala Bhavan museum featuring fine collections of miniature paintings, sculptures, palm-leaf manuscripts, and local history exhibits.
3 Harmandir Sahib
The Golden Temple of Amritsar Founded in 1577 by Ram Das, Amritsar is an important hub of Sikh history and culture. The main attraction here is Harmandir Sahib, which opened in 1604 and is still often referred to as the Golden Temple for its beautiful gold decoration.
The temple was built in a blend of Hindu and Islamic styles and the holiest of India’s many Sikh shrines (it also attracts many Hindus and people of other faiths). Its lower marble section features flourishes as ornate floral and animal motifs.
At the same time, the large golden dome represents a lotus flower, a symbol of purity to Sikhs. In addition to its splendid design, visitors are equally impressed with the temple’s spiritual atmosphere, an effect enhanced by the prayers continuously chanted from the Sikh holy book and broadcast throughout the complex.
4 The Golden City
Jaisalmer So named for the yellow sandstone used in most of its buildings, the Golden City of Jaisalmer is an oasis of splendid old architecture that rises from the dunes of the Thar Desert. Once a strategic outpost, today, the city is filled with splendid old mansions, magnificent gateways, and the massive Jaisalmer Fort – also known as the Golden Fort – a daunting 12th-century structure that rises high above the town.
In addition to its palaces, temples, and fine old homes, the fortress boasts 99 bastions along with massive gates leading to its main courtyard, where you’ll find the seven-story-tall Maharaja’s Palace. Started in the early 1500s and added to by successive rulers right up until the 19th century, the palace offers sections open to the public, including areas beautifully decorated with tiles from Italy and China and intricately carved stone doors, as well as some Jain temples dating from the 12th to 16th centuries, each decorated with fine marble and sandstone images, palm-leaf manuscripts, and brightly painted ceilings.
Be sure also to check out the well-preserved 1,000-year-old library, Gyan Bhandar, with its many 16th-century manuscripts and antiquities.
5 The Red Fort
New Delhi Built by Shah Jahan in 1648 as the seat of Mughal power – a role it maintained until 1857 – the magnificent crescent-shaped Red Fort in New Delhi, named after the stunning red sandstone used in its construction, covers a vast area of more than two square kilometers, all of it surrounded by a large moat.
Highlights include its two largest gates: the impressive Lahore Gate (the fort’s main entrance) and the elaborately decorated Delhi Gate, once used by the emperor for ceremonial processions.
A fun part of a visit is exploring Chatta Chowk, a 17th-century covered bazaar selling everything from jewelry to silk garments and souvenirs and food items. While you can explore the fort yourself, guided tours are offered and provide a fascinating insight into the life and times of the Shah, including a peek into the stunning white marble Hall of Public Audiences (Diwan-i-Am) where he received his subjects.
Try to stick around for the sound and light show held each evening featuring important events in the fort’s history.
6 The Gateway of India
Mumbai Standing an impressive 26 meters tall and overlooking the Arabian Sea, the iconic Gateway of India is a must-see when in Mumbai. Built to commemorate the arrival of King George V and his wife Queen Mary in 1911, this stunning piece of architecture was opened with much pomp and ceremony in 1924 and was, for a while, the tallest structure in the city.
Constructed entirely of yellow basalt and concrete and notable for its Indo-Saracenic design, the Gateway of India was also the scene of a rather less jubilant procession of British soldiers in 1948 when India gained its independence.
These days, the huge archway provides a stunning backdrop that is as popular among locals as tourists.
After visiting the Gateway of India, pop over to the adjacent Taj Mahal Palace and Tower for a delicious High Tea, a tradition since this lovely luxury hotel opened in 1903.
7 Mecca Masjid
Hyderabad Construction of Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid, one of the world’s largest mosques (and one of the oldest in India), began in 1614 during Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah’s reign and took almost 80 years to complete.
Large enough to accommodate 10,000 worshipers, this beautiful mosque’s 15 enormous arches and pillars were wrought from single slabs of black granite dragged to the site by huge cattle trains reputedly consisting of up to 1,400 bulls.
Taking its name from the bricks above the central gate brought here from Mecca, this impressive complex features highlights such as its main gateway, huge plaza, a large manufactured pond, and a room that houses the hair of Prophet Mohammed.
Other notable features include inscriptions from the Quran above many arches and doors, the exquisite roof of the main hall, the cornices around the entire mosque structure, and the floral motifs and friezes over the arches.
8 Amer Fort
Jaipur Amer Fort (often also spelled “Amber”) was built as a fortified palace in 1592 by Maharaja Man Singh I and has long served as the capital of Jaipur. Carved high up into the hillside, the fort is accessible on foot via a steep climb or by shuttle rides from the town below (better still, let an elephant do the work).
Highlights include Jaleb Chowk, the first courtyard with many decorated elephants, and the Shila Devi Temple, dedicated to the goddess of war. Also of note is the adjoining Hall of Public Audience (Diwan-i-Am), with its finely decorated walls and terraces frequented by monkeys.
Other highlights include Sukh Niwas (the Hall of Pleasure) with its many flowerbeds and a channel once used to carry cooling water, and the Temple of Victory (Jai Mandir), notable for its many decorative panels, colorful ceilings, and excellent views over the palace and the lake below.
Just above Amer Fort is Jaigarh Fort, built-in 1726 by Jai Singh and featuring tall lookout towers, formidable walls, and the world’s largest wheeled cannon. Be sure also to spend time wandering the walled Old City of Jaipur with its three fully restored gates and splendid bazaars, as well as the delightful City Palace, a massive complex of courtyards, gardens, and buildings.
9 The Beaches of Goa
Long known within India as the “go-to” destination for those seeking a great beach holiday. Goa’s beautiful western coastline, overlooking the Arabian Sea, has only recently been discovered by tourists from overseas. Goa’s more than 60 miles of beautiful coastline is home to some of the world’s loveliest beaches, each with its particular appeal. For those looking for peace, isolated Agonda Beach is a good choice, while Calangute Beach is the most commercial and crowded.
For those in search of posh resorts, yoga getaways, and spa vacations, the beaches of Mandrem, Morjim, and Ashwem are fashionable among wealthy Indians and Westerners alike. Palolem is another popular option in a beautiful setting.
While in Goa, be sure to visit the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, home to thick forests and plenty of fauna, including deer, monkeys, elephants, leopards, tigers, and black panthers – as well as India’s famous king cobras – and some 200 species of birds. Also worth a visit is Divar Island, accessed by ferry from Old Goa. Highlights include Piedade, a typical Goan village and home to the Church of Our Lady of Compassion with its interesting stucco work, Baroque plaster decorations, and altars, as well as stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
10 Mahabodhi Temple
Bodhgaya Bodhgaya, considered the world’s holiest Buddhist site, attracts thousands of visitors each year, all drawn to participate with the resident monks in meditation and prayer.
The focal point of this place of pilgrimage is the stunning Mahabodhi Temple, built next to the very spot where Buddha came to Enlightenment and formulated his philosophy on life. Constructed in the 6th century and restored numerous times since the temple is topped with a beautiful pyramidal spire and houses a large gilded statue of Buddha.
Also of interest is the site’s pipal tree, a descendant of the original bodhi tree where Buddha meditated for seven days after the Enlightenment, said to be among the oldest and most revered trees in the world (you’ll know you’ve found it when you spot the red sandstone slab marking the spot).