Places to visit in India for first comers

Best places to visit in India for first-timers

People who know I have been living in India for a few years often ask where I recommend going and what places to visit in India? Initially, this question was quite challenging for me.

Since there are so many beautiful places in India, I didn’t have the “optimal destination” for everyone. India is so diverse in everything. There are deserts, beaches, mountains, wildlife, green landscapes combined with centuries of history and heritage, different religions and rich culture.

Though I write a lot about less explored towns and offbeat destinations, this post is about famous tourist places in India. I decided to group them by regions and itineraries to make it more helpful for you.

Best places to visit in North India

Visit Golden Triangle cities in India

This is one of the most popular tours of India. This is a choice of travelers who are on a short visit. Golden triangle gives you a general perspective of Indian culture in three different states: Delhi, Uttar Pradesh (Agra), Rajasthan(Jaipur).

Golden-Triangle - winter holiday destinations in India

1. Delhi – the heritage city of India

The capital and a heritage center of India. It’s very dynamic, fast, chaotic, a city of contrasts. As a person who lived in Delhi for two years, I recommend reserving 2-3 days (at least) to explore the city.

There are both popular landmarks (Lotus Temple, Old Delhi, Rajpath Avenue, Akshardham – you name it), offbeat experiences that didn’t make to the guidebooks and even many awesome free places in Delhi for budget travelers. Please, choose a good area for the stay, otherwise, you will hate Delhi without even giving it a chance to impress you.

2. Agra – the city of Taj Mahal

The home city for one of the world’s most famous mausoleums – Taj Mahal. Construction is truly breathtaking and looks the way it is advertised at the pictures. (plus several thousands of people who are photoshopped). There are also many other interesting places to visit in Agra that, in my opinion, you shouldn’t miss.

Overall I recommend planning one full day for Agra. If you have an extra day, consider visiting Fatehpur Sikri – it’s a Unesco Heritage site that used to serve as the capital of Mughal Empire for several years. It’s situated in the Agra district on the way to Jaipur.

Planning a Golden triangle trip from Delhi? Read my step-by-step blog how to reach from Delhi to Agra by train, bus & car.

Baby Taj Agra

“Baby Taj” during monsoons, Agra. Because this city has so many monuments beyond the world’s famous Taj Mahal

3. Jaipur aka Pink City

Jaipur is a capital of Rajasthan state and one of the popular tourist places in India for architecture enthusiasts and culture explorers. It’s filled with architectural marvels from forts to palaces (Hawa Mahal, Lake Palace, Amber fort – you name it), from step wells to temples. If you are a foodie, Rajasthani thali with its numerous dishes will not disappoint you.

I recommend planning at least 2-3 days to explore Jaipur. I visited this city several times and there are still so many things I wish to experience there.

Overall: If you are in India for the first time on a short trip (7-10 days) – Golden Triangle is a broad introduction into Indian culture of three North Indian states.

Visit royal Rajasthan

Rajasthan – the biggest state in India also called the land of Kings. It combines both ancient and modern features, old and new. Rajasthan is one of the tourist destinations in India that will capture your attention with its architecture, history, hospitality, cultural festivals, and big textile markets. Beyond its capital Jaipur, there are many more popular spots to visit:

Udaipur, Rajasthan

Udaipur – “Venice of India”. One of the most beautiful places in India

4. White city Udaipur

Also called the city of lakes and Venice of India – Udaipur is a treat for architecture and nature lovers. As it was a capital of Mewar Kingdom, you can expect numerous palaces, courtyards, and gardens with intricate architecture.

I recommend planning 2-3 days in the city. If you have extra days with you, there are equally breathtaking places for day getaways like Mount Abu and Ranakpur.

5. Golden city Jaisalmer

The city in the heart of Thar Desert is known for its sandstone architecture. It has activities for architecture lovers (Fort, palaces, and temples) as well as for adventures seekers (who wouldn’t like to spend a few days surrounded by smooth sand dunes while trekking Thar Desert). I recommend 2 days for the city, plus an extra 2 days if you are planning to visit the desert.

6. Blue city Jodhpur

Mehrangarh fort Jodhpur

The famous Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur

Like other cities in Rajasthan, Jodhpur boasts with royal architecture presented in many forts, palaces, and temples. Its main fort (Mehrangarh) built on the top of the rocky terrain overlooks the simple streets and houses of the city painted in blue. That’s how it still maintains the name of a blue city. Don’t miss the old city. I’ve spent two days in Jodhpur and found it the right time.

Overall: Rajasthan has an abundance of places to visit that are part of world architectural heritage. Add to them desert, wildlife, trade, and rich culture to get a bigger picture. If this sounds like your interests, Rajasthan has a lot of experiences to offer you.

Explore Holy cities in North India

India is a popular pilgrimage destination for people of different religions. Note, there are so many holy destinations from Vaishno Devi to Haridwar, from Bihar to Ladakh. As mentioned in the beginning, this post focuses on popular tourist destinations, hence here are a few famous tourist spots:

7. Varanasi

One of the ancient cities that is home to thousands of temples attracting pilgrims from all over the world. Built on the banks of the river Ganga it is a place of numerous holy traditions. It is a city which has both life and death rituals.

I have to be honest. It is one of the most polluted and overcrowded cities of India, yet I have to admit that sunrise on the Ganges and evening Aarti are some of the most impressive experiences I had in my life.

Talking about Aarti – I have a separate post about attending Aarti ceremony in North India

8. Amritsar

Golden temple in Amritsar

Golden temple in Amritsar

Amritsar is home to Golden Temple – the most important pilgrimage place for Sikhism. It is one of the most peaceful places in India that teaches equality and inclusiveness. There is its own beauty of visiting this temple during the sunrise and night hours.

In addition to Golden temple, you can visit the city square, partition museum to learn important historical events in South Asia and take a ride to Wagah Border to watch changing guard parade between India and Pakistan.

9. Rishikesh

Rishikesh is a city at Himalaya foothills. It’s very close to the starting point of river Ganges, hence you can find so many places with clean water here. Indians introduced yoga to the world and Rishikesh is a center of yoga and meditation studies. People with these interests can spend anywhere from a few weeks to a few months in Rishikesh.

Despite the growing number of visitors every year, in my opinion, Rishikesh is quite a niche destination in India. You are going to love it or hate it. Check out my overview on how to do Rishikesh right to get a better idea about this destination and its essence.

Heey, if you have reached till here, you definitely have an interest in India. Maybe check out my detailed travel guide for India visitors.

Best Places to visit in West India

After living in India, it’s important for me to be geographically correct. In addition to North and South, there are also east and west parts of the country.

Visit another Golden Triangle of India

If your landing city is Mumbai, it really makes sense to explore west of the country. There is another Golden Triangle in India that includes Mumbai, Goa, and Hampi.

Goa-in-storm

10. Mumbai

Mumbai is a financial, fashion and creative capital of India that features Bollywood, Art community and many other interesting places for creators. If you travel for a while around India, you will feel the different vibe of this city. It’s a very fast, dynamic, unconditional and diverse.

This is a city where you are not judged by what you wear, you feel independent in lifestyle and behavior. As a person who lived here, I recommend spending 2-3 days in Mumbai to get a general impression.

11. Goa

Goa is a party capital of India. Known for beaches and rich nightlife, it attracts travelers from all over India and beyond. As an architecture and culture geek, I found many other interesting places to visit in Goa.

Goa is actually a state with numerous towns and villages. While the Northern part attracts mostly budget travelers and party lovers, the Southern part is for a relaxed and peaceful stay. Read more about places and activities for Goa travel.

Latin quarter Goa

Fontainhas, Goa

12. Hampi

Hampi is one of the top destinations in India for architecture lovers and culture enthusiasts. An ancient village with mindblowing temple complexes included in Unesco heritage sights. As the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire back in the 14th century, there is a lot of history behind this place. You need 2-3 days to explore Hampi.

Overall: This Golden Triangle route gives you an introduction to three states of India and is perfect for 7-10 day trips.

13. Rann of Kutch aka the White Desert of India

Kutch district has one of the largest salt deserts in the world. From a touristic point of view, it hosts Rann Utsav – India’s biggest festival of dance, music, where you can get introduced to the arts and crafts of local artisans.

Off-topic (allow me a few cheats among famous places in India): I know Gujarat is not a popular tourist state (yet), but if you are already in Kutch district, why not to take a ride till holy city of Dwarka, explore Palitana Pilgrimage sites and architectural heritage in Patan, Ahmedabad and beyond.

Best places to visit in South India

Featuring tropical climate, the silicon capital of India – Bangalore, important pilgrimage sites of Tamil Nadu and foodie retreats in Hyderabad, Kochi, and Pondicherry, you got it right – there are numerous awesome experiences and places to go in South India for any taste.

Visit Kerala aka “Gods own country”

Boat on Kerala backwaters

A houseboat on Kerala backwaters

Kerala is called Gods own country for its fascinating nature sceneries. It is primarily famous for eco-tourism and backwaters. At the coastal part of the state, you become part of a totally different ambiance – floating shops and houses, lots of greenery everywhere, lagoons. Just so you know, my heart is tearing apart by featuring only three places from this state:

14. Kochi

Kochi has been an important port since the 14th century introducing Arab, European and Chinese merchant to Indian trade. One of the most interesting tourist sites is Fort Kochi which has Portuguese architecture with Indian charm. I recommend planning two days to explore Kochi.

15. Munnar

Munnar is a hilly town in the Western Ghats famous for its tea plantations, chocolate, and spices. Despite being one of the best destinations in India for perfectionists (my promise), Munnar has also interesting short treks and adventure activities for nature lovers. I recommend spending at least two days in Munnar.

16. Alleppey backwaters

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Backwaters are one of the signature experiences in India and Alleppey is one of the most popular towns in India for this purpose. You can explore Kerala backwaters on any budget within one day. If you have some extra time, there are several awesome beaches just within an hour reach.

Overall: Kerala is one of the most popular destinations in India for a reason. It is an interesting state from a cultural point of view and it offers a variety of experiences: hill stations, backwaters, tea plantations, Ayurveda, and beautiful beaches. Recommended stay – minimum 6 days, but the optimal length is 10 days.

17. Mysore, Karnataka

The third largest city in Karnataka state nowadays, it used to serve as a capital of Mysore Kingdom for almost 6 centuries back starting from the 1400s. The city boasts of royal architecture, the silk trade, sandalwood, and diverse religious sites. I recommend spending 2-3 days in Mysore.

Allow me another cheat: Karnataka is also not a popular destination (yet) beyond Mysore and Hampi, but there are so many fascinating natural and architectural spots. Take Bylakuppe (the largest Tibetan settlement in South India) or hills in Coorg, Belum caves and Hoysala temples spread around the state.

18. Kanyakumari

A coastal town in Tamil Nadu which is primarily known as the Southern point of India. It is a popular pilgrimage place in India hence very crowded. Yet it feels awesome to watch sunrise and sunset from the same beach. You can explore this town within one day.

19. Madurai

An ancient city in Tamil Nadu which features 14 colorful towers of Meenakshi Amman temple. Its intricate architecture and colors attract both pilgrims and tourists from all over the world. You can explore the city in two days.

20. Mahabalipuram

It is a coastal town of Tamil Nadu primarily known for the group of temples dating back to 7-8th centuries. They have been included into Unesco Heritage site list. It is a day getaway from Chennai and a must visit for architecture lovers.

Best Places to visit in East India

Kolkata Victoria Memorial Monsoon

Victoria Memorial in Kolkata during monsoons

East India is one of the most underrated parts of the country. There are so many offbeat places to visit in East India be it Odissa, Chattisgarh or Bihar. But I promised that this post is about popular places, hence here are a few picks:

21. Kolkata, West Bengal

A cultural capital of India nowadays, it used to be India’s capital under the British Raj for almost 130 years. You can expect good city planning, lots of colonial architecture, art galleries, festivals, and many people reading and talking on the daily news.

If you are a book lover, don’t miss College street – the largest second-hand book market in the world. I love Kolkata and it’s one of my favorite cities in India. I spent a few weeks there and never felt “bored”, though for limited stays I would say 2-3 days will be a good start.

22. Darjeeling aka “Queen of the Hills”

Don’t be confused with patterns, since Shimla and Ooty are also known under this tagline. Darjeeling tea is popular beyond Indian borders. Beyond scenic plantations, you can expect many themed cafes, bakery, toy train ride and breathtaking views of Mount Kangchenjunga (one of the highest peaks in the world). You need 2-3 days to explore the town.

23. Sikkim

A naturally beautiful state in North-East India bordering Bhutan, Tibet, and Nepal. Sikkim is home to breathtaking snowy peaks including Kangchenjunga, glaciers, lakes and beautiful meadows. There are many trekking opportunities as well for adventure lovers. A smooth introduction into the Himalaya region.

Best places to visit in Himalaya

Nubra Valley Himalaya

Nubra Valley, Ladakh

I feel like I’m cheating again since Himalaya is a region in North India, but I think it deserves a separate chapter.

If you love spending time with nature there are plenty of parks in Himalaya region: the Hemis National Park, Great Himalayan National Park, the Valley of Flowers to name a few. There most popular cities are Shimla, Nainital, Dharamshala, Manali. Nowadays they all struggle with over tourism.

Despite there are so many breathtaking places in Himalaya, I don’t recommend missing the following two regions:

24. Kashmir aka “heaven on Earth”

After a few years in India, when I thought I got this country, the beauty of Kashmir left me speechless. I can’t feature “the best place” in here, because everything is so unique from houseboats on Dal Lake to small picturesque villages like Aru. I recommend spending at least one week in the Kashmir area, though two weeks will be a better start.

25. Ladakh

Ladakh is another area in Jammu & Kashmir state. Unlike Kashmir which features green mountains, Ladakh is a high-altitude mountain desert. The most popular place is undoubtedly Leh Ladakh. But don’t miss its authentic villages and valleys: Sham Valley, Nubra Valley, Zanskar Valley – you name it.

I recommend reserving at least one week for Ladakh, though you can’t go wrong if you spend more. Plus, if you wonder what to visit in India in the summer, this is one of the best areas to be.

Read also: Exploring Nubra Valley – the Northern point of India.

As you can see, I stopped being biased once we entered mountains and my consciousness still doesn’t feel right about limiting such a diverse country to 25 places to visit. Hence it’s time to conclude the list of popular places in India and go offbeat (mwahaha).

Overall: If you love mountains and hill stations, the variety of fascinating sceneries in Himalaya region will be a great experience for you. No advised minimum stay – fall in love with nature and move there.

Other tips about places to visit in India:

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  • If you are looking for less explored horizons, check out the states in North-East: Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram. This area has breathtaking nature and immense cultural heritage and even if I don’t write on them here, at least I’ll mention.
  • A piece of advice from the beginning: don’t try to over plan your trip with all possible tourist attractions in India. Take time to understand the culture through local experiences: national holidays, weddings, etc.
  • Choose the route according to your interests. Goa has fabulous beaches, however, if you are a tea lover, a tour around tea plantations will be equally exciting for you.
  • Try to focus on one area if you are coming for a short-term period. E.g. North India, Himalaya area, South India. Local traveling is quite time-consuming, thus I would suggest reducing the time spent on the road to enjoy other experiences.

The above places are the most popular places in India among the first comers. Though, for long-term travelers – the preferences become slightly different.

What about you? Have you visited any of the places in India mentioned above? If you have stayed in India, which other destinations would you recommend for the first comers?

Further useful read on related topics:

Comments

  1. India is one place, despite my love of travel, that has always intimidated me. I usually just hear about Delhi, so I like how you highlighted the other places as well–Rajasthan sounds amazing and I’d never heard of it before this! You mentioned that dress was less conservative in Delhi, but what about other parts of India, particularly the beaches like Goa?

    1. I understand what you feel, that was one of the reasons I went to India. I was also scared. The problem is, that media publishes only shareable news and they are mostly negative. Though India is a country of contrasts and I can’t deny that there are many challenges, because it’s a man dominated culture. However, there is also a bright side about technological progress, improved women safety, unbelievable market opportunities, but Western media doesn’t write about it often) I’ve lived in Delhi for 2 years, South part of the city is comfortable as most of expats live there and people are habitual to foreigner community ) As for Goa – this is a place you can wear any western outfits. I haven’t met people (so far) caring too much about dress code in Goa :))

  2. I love how you broke down India into sections. I would love to visit, but I think I would need at least a month! I’m definitely saving this article for future reference.

    1. Thank you)) One month will be a good start. It’s true that it takes time to understand this country. Though there are many great tourist places, India leaves the strongest mark in the memory with its culture and diversity.

    1. Great! Looking forward to your impressions about India, Lerato. If you need any help or advice about your upcoming trip, I will be happy to share insider tips)

  3. Fab outline for first time travellers to India. Your suggested itineraries and timelines are great. Too often I saw people with crazy scheduled trips which would not stack up past a day as the train would be delayed or some other happening. We had a great time in India earlier this year celebrating Holi festival and I got to enjoy my birthday on the backwaters of Alleppey and in Hampi. India is indeed a magical place. Thanks for the northern route (and future north-eastern route), one for my bucket list.

    1. Thank you, Suzy) It’s true that many people are trying to cover India in one go, but they rarely consider local reality)) It’s one of the countries where slow travelling works out very well.

      Holi is one of the best experiences in India and I’m happy you had a great time there!!

  4. I have never been to India and have been longing to visit Kerala and Himalaya! I saw photos from a friend who has been to Kerala and somehow it left me with deep impression of that place. The beautiful nature, the people. Hope I get a chance to be there one day. This post reminds me of my Indian friends as well, orh, I have been long never get in touch with them! I should do it now! Ha..

    1. Tracy, if you are a nature lover you will enjoy both Kerala and Himalaya areas)) I hope you can make it there one day)) Moreover, if you have Indian friends, most probably they will keep inviting you till you visit them 😉

  5. Good read. Haven’t been to India but curious about Rajasthan.

    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. Thank you Frank for reading) Rajasthan is an impressive state with lots of cultural and historical heritage. If you like palaces, forts and other heritage places, this state has an architectural wonder in every city)

  6. Wonderful articulation and really helpful for first time travellers to India 🙂

  7. hi Natalia ….. just now … i have read this blog post ….. really good information .. like it …… i am going to read all post on this blog ….. basically as a Indian …. i want to know what outside peoples are thinking about my country …. … keep posting …

    1. Thank you for visiting the blog and for encouragement, Santosh) I’m always interested in getting feedback of Indian people, so feel free to drop suggestions if any 😉

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