(Delhi, Agra, Jaipur)
I’ve only been fortunate enough to visit India once — and when I did, it was to the golden triangle — Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. I found them all to be exciting, visually-stunning, and culturally enriching. Even though that route is a well-worn path for tourists, the buzz of activity, fabulous spicy food, and incredible landscapes and architecture made for a unique adventure — one that has whetted my appetite to return and explore more.
It’s worth doing some advance planning for a visit to India. I decided to go on a whim, jumped in blindly, and found myself wishing I had planned a bit further in advance. It’s such a massive country — with so much to do and see — that it’s important to ensure your aspirations match your time allotment, and scale up or down accordingly.
Transportation: Cheap airfares abound for longer haul flights in India. Otherwise, trains are a great way to get around, but the quality of classes varies significantly. First class train tickets weren’t too expensive, but I found those tickets were often sold out (since I was purchasing at the last moment) so I took whatever seats I could get (ie., Sleeper or Second Sitting). I booked my train tickets online with Cleartrip. They explain the different train classes here. If you have more flexibility in your schedule — or plan further in advance — it’s worth paying a bit extra for a nicer (First Class) train compartment. The big, reclining seats, tea and snacks, and large windows were awesome for the one time I could snag a First Class seat!
Inside the cities, all manner of transportation is available: taxi, bus, rickshaw, tuk-tuk, etc. I liked the tuk-tuks, as it was a cheap, convenient, and fun way to get around. That said, I would recommend wearing a mask, as several full days of driving around and breathing street fumes can take a toll!
Hotels: As with trains, it’s worth paying a bit more for a nicer hotel. India has some the world’s best hotels — many of them are situated in stunning palaces. Whether you want to splurge for one of those, or take something modest and comfortable, it’s important to book in advance (and check reviews) to lock in a good hotel.
Tour Operators: While I normally don’t use tour guides / groups when I travel (and didn’t do so in India), I’ve had many friends use tour companies during their trips to India and they thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Given the vast number of cities, sights, hotels, restaurants, shops, and transportation options — plus the visa process– they appreciated having a guide do the legwork. As with anything, if you choose to go with a tour operator, I’d just be sure to check the reviews and go with a reputable company.
India’s capital of Delhi is where I started and ended my trip — and it makes a good hub for travels around the north. It is a very busy, active city around the clock! My hotel arranged for an airport pickup, which was immensely helpful amidst a late night arrival after a long flight.
While one could structure an entire vacation around Delhi itself — I’ll flag a few places that I enjoyed while in town:
The Red Fort is a massive Mughal fortress complex formed of red sandstone, dating back to the 1600s, situated along the Yamuna river. It comprises a series of museums, ancient tombs, a mosque, monuments, and a parks. The architecture is splendid, and it’s easy to spend a day just hitting the basics.
Further south is the India Gate — a massive, arch-shaped monument that bears a resemblance to the Arch de Triumph. It pays tribute to the Indian soldiers killed in World War I. In this area are other key sites like the National Museum, National War Museum, and Museum of Modern Art.
Impressive places of worship include: the Sri Bangla Sahib Gurudwara with a golden dome; the Akshardham Hindu Temple, the Fatehpuri Masjid (a red sandstone mosque dating back to the 1600s), and the Baha’i Lotus Temple — resembling a massive lotus.
Connaught Place: This area is an intense hub of business and commerce– formed out of several blocks ringing a pleasant Central Park in the center. It features museums, cinemas, restaurants, cafes, and shops. I especially enjoyed QBA for its modern cuisine and nightlife / music scene.
Note: When going to the airport, train station, or anywhere where you have a hard time commitment, be sure to budget plenty of extra time, as traffic can get very heavy!
Everyone goes here to see the Taj Mahal — and rightfully so — it is an exceptional site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. I took a very early morning train from Delhi arrived about three hours later.
Upon arrival in Agra, I was greeted by numerous taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, offering their services. (Note: When negotiating a ride: 1) agree on a price in advance, 2) be clear about exactly where you’re going, and 3) be clear about not stopping anywhere else along the way.)
Enjoy the symmetry of the 17th Century Mughal mausoleum (Taj Mahal) and its well-manicured gardens– and don’t forget to take that photo where it looks like you’re holding it up from the top. Most importantly — budget plenty of time! You can get great views of the Taj from along the river and from across the river. (I recall it being bustling, but not as crowded as I thought it would be. Maybe its because I arrived first thing in the morning).
The nearby Mehmaan Khana is a guesthouse and party space — also very impressive!
Further west is the Shish Mahal (Glass Palace), a 1600s palace complex with glass mosaics and intricate architecture — another site not to be missed! Just south of it is the Jahangir Palace, and to the north of it is the red sandstone Agra Fort — additional top sites while in town.
Further up the river is the Itmad-ud-Daula, another white-marble mausoleum, nicknamed the “Baby Taj” owing to its similar architecture.
There are plenty of markets in Agra, and places to buy souvenirs and handicrafts. You won’t have a problem finding them — I promise!
A Note on Handicrafts: While touring around Agra (and Jaipur), I had several tuk-tuk drivers keep stopping at various “handicraft” co-ops, where I was invited to watch people making various craft items and sell them. The drivers get commissions for taking tourists there, so my driver would sometimes make three or four unscheduled stops at various handicraft markets en route to every destination. Some people might’ve enjoyed this, but I didn’t want any crafts and it started really cutting into my sightseeing time — so I made “no stops” a firm precondition for any ride — and even offered to pay a bit extra or tip a bit more to ensure a direct route. It’s well worth it for the time saved!
Jaipur is the capital of India’s Rajasthan region, and truly one of the most culturally rich places imaginable. This site provides a great overview of key sites in the city. Jaipur is known as the pink city, resulting from its pink-stone buildings. One of the most famous sites is the Hawa Mahal (palace of winds) – built from red and pink sandstone, with several narrow windows meant to serve as a privacy screen for the royal ladies to watch street festivities. The name came from the building’s design, which allowed wind to pass through and provide a cooling effect.
Another outstanding site is the 18th Century City Palace, which is now a museum, along with an elaborate garden. Just south of the City Palace is Jantar Mantar — a park with massive 18th Century astronomical instruments. (I couldn’t figure out exactly how they worked, but I’m sure someone with a bit of astronomical background would get it : ) At the southern end of the city is the elaborate Patrika Gate.
Heading north of the city center, the first stop is the Nahargarh Fort, dating to the mid-1700s, on top of a hilltop, offering great views over the city. Further northeast is the Jal Mahal — a partially-submerged palace in the middle of a lake — it’s really quite a site!
Beyond that is the Amber Palace — a sprawling, ornate hilltop complex from the 16th Century, which is reportedly connected to the Nahargarh Fort. The adjacent Jaigarh Fort was built to protect Nahargarh Fort — and has a museum of its own. This is a cultural gem– and quite a photogenic location! There are plenty of elephant rides offered in this area, as well. Finally, don’t miss Panna Meena ka Kund, a unique labyrinth of staircases in an area designed to catch rainwater.
I stayed at the Hotel Arya Niwas — which had spacious, clean, and comfortable rooms for a very good price. Note — about halfway on the ride to my hotel, my taxi driver tried persuading me to go to another hotel (undoubtedly where he would’ve gotten a commission for brining me) — and he even suggested my hotel might have closed down! But I held firm in going to the one I booked– which I’m sure was for the best, since quality places don’t need to resort to such tactics to get customers. (I’m just passing along that tip in case that sort of thing happens to anyone else.)
Something for Next Time: Where to begin? First, I’d like to see more of the Rajasthan region — as I hear the other major cities (Jodhpur, Udaipur, and Bikaner) are as outstanding as Jaipur. (This region is also where many of the stunning palace hotels are located.) Another top priority is Amritsar in the Punjab region — and especially the famous Harimandir Sahib pilgrimage site. I’d also love to get to Goa and Kerala. (I don’t do yoga, but I’ve had plenty of friends go to those cities for yoga retreats and they all come back with rave reviews). I’d also like to get up to Kashmir and hike in the Vale of Kashmir, but it’s important to closely monitor the security situation in that region. Finally, I’ve heard great things about Mumbai — and hope to explore that city in depth one of these days.