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, 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, and jungles teeming with monkeys, tigers and Asia’s biggest population of elephants.
If that all sounds too mainstream, head to the countercultural 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. Or leave the tourist trail behind entirely, and take a journey to the evocative Islamic ruins of northern Karnataka.
Take a quick glance at the top highlights of the state.
The magnificent ruins of Hampi dot an unearthly landscape that has captivated travellers for centuries. Heaps of giant boulders perch precariously over kilometres of undulating terrain, their rusty hues offset by jade green palm groves, banana plantations and paddy fields. While it’s possible to see this World Heritage Site in a day or two, plan on lingering for a while.
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A regular nominee among travellers’ favourite beaches in India, Gokarna attracts a crowd for a low-key, chilled-out beach holiday and not for full-scale parties. Most accommodation is in thatched bamboo huts along its several stretches of blissful coast. While its lively bazaar is an interesting place to visit, most tourists don’t hang around overnight, instead making a beeline straight to the adjoining beaches.
Cosmopolitan Bengaluru is one of India’s most progressive and developed cities, blessed with a benevolent climate and a burgeoning drinking, dining and shopping scene. Yes, its creature comforts are a godsend to the weary traveller who has done the hard yards and it’s a great city for mixing with locals in craft beer joints or quirky independent cafes. Though there are no world-class sights, you’ll find lovely parks and striking Victorian-era architecture.
Nestled amid evergreen hills that line the southernmost edge of Karnataka is the luscious Kodagu (Coorg) region, gifted with emerald landscapes and hectares of plantations. A major centre for coffee and spice production, this rural expanse is also home to the Kodava people, who are divided into 1000 clans. The uneven terrain and cool climate make it a fantastic area for trekking, birdwatching or lazily ambling down little trodden paths winding around carpeted hills. All in all, Kodagu is rejuvenation guaranteed.
Among the grandest of India’s royal buildings, this was the seat of the Wodeyar maharajas. The original palace was gutted by fire in 1897; the one you see today was completed in 1912 by an English architect. The lavish Indo-Saracenic interior – a kaleidoscope of stained glass, mirrors and gaudy colours – is undoubtedly over the top. It’s further embellished by carved wooden doors, mosaic floors and a series of paintings depicting life here during the Edwardian Raj era.
Nagarhole National Park
Rich in wildlife, jungle and boasting a scenic lake, the 643-sq-km Nagarhole National Park is one of Karnataka’s best wildlife getaways, containing good numbers of animals including tigers and elephants. Flanking the Kabini River, it forms an important protected region that includes neighbouring Bandipur National Park and several other reserves.
A historic city epitomising the Deccan’s Islamic era, dusty Vijapura (renamed in 2014 but still widely called Bijapur) tells a glorious tale dating back some 600 years. Blessed with a heap of mosques, mausoleums, palaces and fortifications, it was the capital of the Adil Shahi kings from 1489 to 1686, and one of the five splinter states formed after the Islamic Bahmani kingdom broke up in 1482. Despite its strong Islamic character, Vijapura is also a centre for the Lingayat brand of Shaivism, which emphasises a single personalised god.