A land of staggering diversity, India fills all the senses with wonder. From its ancient heritage and traditions to its magnificent architecture and stunning landscapes, the country offers something for every kind of traveller. Here are some of the best destinations to plan a holiday in 2018.
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From fairy-tale palaces and epic forts to colourful festivals and wildlife encounters, Rajasthan, the Land of the Kings, is India at its vibrant best. Numerous forts and palaces, including Jaisalmer’s fairy-tale desert outpost, Amber’s honey-hued fort-palace and Jodhpur’s imposing Mehrangarh can be seen throughout the state. Stunning handicrafts and fine arts were developed and nurtured through patronage by the maharajas. Many colourful festivals, from garishly decorated mounts at the camel and elephant festivals in Pushkar and Jaipur, respectively, to the rainbow explosions of Diwali and Holi, are celebrated across the region.
A stunning introduction to southern India, Karnataka is a prosperous, compelling state loaded with a winning blend of urban cool, glittering palaces, national parks, ancient ruins, beaches, yoga centres and legendary hang-outs. At its nerve centre is the capital Bengaluru (Bangalore), a progressive city famous for its craft beer and restaurant scene. Heading out of town you’ll encounter the evergreen rolling hills of Kodagu, dotted with spice and coffee plantations, the regal splendour of Mysuru (Mysore), and jungles teeming with monkeys, tigers and Asia’s biggest population of elephants. Head to the counter-cultural enclave of tranquil Hampi with hammocks, psychedelic sunsets and boulder-strewn ruins or the blissful, virtually untouched coastline around Gokarna, blessed with beautiful coves and empty sands.
With spectacular snowy peaks and plunging river valleys, beautiful Himachal is India’s outdoor adventure playground. From trekking and climbing to rafting, paragliding and skiing, it can be done here. A convoluted topography of interlocking mountain chains also makes Himachal a spectacular place simply to explore, by bus, car, motorbike, jeep or foot. Villages perched on staggering slopes enchant with fairy-tale architecture and their people’s easygoing warmth. Hill stations appeal withm a holiday atmosphere and colonial echoes, while backpacker magnets lure with their blissed-out vibe and mountain beauty. Such is the richness of the Himachali jigsaw that in McLeod Ganj, the Dalai Lama’s home-away- from-home, and in Lahaul and Spiti, with their centuries-old Buddhist cultures, you might even think you’ve stumbled into Tibet.
For many travellers, Kerala is South India’s most serenely beautiful state. A slender coastal strip is shaped by its layered landscape: almost 600km of glorious Arabian Sea coast and beaches; a languid network of glistening backwaters; and the spice- and tea-covered hills of the Western Ghats. Just setting foot on this swath of soul-quenching, palm-shaded green will slow your subcontinental stride to a blissed-out amble. Kerala is a world away from the frenzy of elsewhere, as if India had passed through the Looking Glass and become an altogether more laid-back place.
Kashmir & Ladakh
The state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) brings together three incredibly different worlds. Jammu and Katra, in the south, are the state’s rail hubs and a major draw for domestic pilgrims. Kashmir is India’s Switzerland, attracting hordes of local tourists seeking cool summer air, alpine scenery and Srinagar’s romantic houseboat accommodation. And then there’s the Himalayan land of Ladakh, which for most foreigners is the state’s greatest attraction. Its disarmingly friendly, ethno-linguistically Tibetan people are predominantly Buddhist; their timeless monasteries are set between arid canyons and soaring peaks, while emerald-green villages nestle photogenically in highland deserts.
There are few states more quintessentially Indian than Uttar Pradesh. The subcontinent’s historic and religious roots – Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and secular – intertwine in this land of sacred rivers and vast plains, manifesting in sights of profound importance. Aside from iconic Agra, UP is home to Varanasi, India’s holiest city, famed for its cremation ghats and vibrant ceremonies along the Ganges River. Stories tell us that Krishna was born in Mathura, while Rama was born in Ayodhya. Buddha gave his first sermon in Sarnath and died in Kushinagar, now tranquil pilgrimage destinations. And the Mughals and the Nawabs made their marks as well, leaving behind architectural and gastronomic masterpieces – particularly in Lucknow (and of course Agra).
The spotlight doesn’t hit Madhya Pradesh (MP) with quite the same brilliance as it shines on more celebrated neighbouring states, so you can experience travel riches ranking with the best without that feeling of just following a tourist trail. Khajuraho’s temples bristle with some of the finest stone carving in India, their exquisite erotic sculptures a mere slice of the architectural wonders of a region exceedingly well endowed with palaces, forts, temples, mosques and stupas, most gloriously in the villages of Orchha and Mandu. Tigers are the other big news here, and your chances of spotting a wild Royal Bengal in MP are as good as anywhere in India. Pilgrimage-cum-traveller havens such as Maheshwar and Omkareshwar on the Narmada River are infused with the spiritual and chill-out vibes for which India is renowned.
Tamil Nadu is the homeland of one of humanity’s living classical civilisations, stretching back uninterrupted for two millennia and very much alive today in the Tamils’ language, dance, poetry and Hindu religion. But this deep-South state is as dynamic as it is immersed in tradition. Fire-worshipping devotees who smear tikka on their brows in Tamil Nadu’s famously spectacular temples might rush off to IT offices – and then unwind at a glitzy night-time haunt in rapidly modernising Chennai (Madras) or with sun salutations in bohemian Puducherry (Pondicherry). When the hot chaos of Tamil temple towns overwhelms, escape to the southernmost tip of India where three seas mingle; to the splendid mansions sprinkled across arid Chettinadu; or up to the cool, forest-clad, wildlife-prowled Western Ghats.
A sliver of fertile land running from the tea-draped Himalayan foothills to the sultry mangroves of the Bay of Bengal, West Bengal offers a remarkable range of destinations and experiences. In the tropical southern areas, the sea-washed hamlet of Mandarmani vies for attention with Bishnupur’s ornate terracotta-tiled Hindu temples and palaces. The striped Bengal tiger stealthily swims through muddy rivulets in the Sunderbans, while a bunch of European ghost towns line the banks of the Hooghly (a branch of the Ganges) further upstream as reminders of the state’s maritime heyday. In the cool northern hills, the ‘toy train’ chugs its way up the charming British-era hill station of Darjeeling, revered for its ringside views of massive Khangchendzonga. West Bengal also boasts a vibrant art scene, delectable cuisine and a genuinely hospitable population.
Thrown across the farthest reaches of India, obscured from the greater world by ageless forests and formidable mountain ranges, the Northeast States are one of Asia’s last great natural and anthropological sanctuaries. Sharing borders with Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh, these remote frontiers are a region of rugged beauty, and a collision zone of tribal cultures, climates, landscapes and peoples. In this wonderland for adventurers, glacial Himalayan rivers spill onto Assam’s vast floodplains, faith moves mountains on the perilous pilgrimage to Tawang, rhinos graze in Kaziranga’s swampy grasslands and former headhunters slowly embrace modernity in their ancestral longhouses in Nagaland.