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 – the result of 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, while 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 of mausoleums was begun upon her death in 1631 and took 20,000 workmen 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.
Hot Tip: The best time to visit is either at dawn or dusk when the atmosphere is brilliantly altered by the change in lighting (if possible, try to catch a view of the Taj Mahal’s reflection from the far bank of the Yamuna River).
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, opened in 1604 and still often referred to as the Golden Temple for its beautiful gold decoration. The holiest of India’s many Sikh shrines (it also attracts many Hindus and people of other faiths), the temple was built in a blend of Hindu and Islamic styles, its lower marble section featuring such flourishes as ornate inlaid floral and animal motifs, while 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.
Address: Golden Temple Road, Amritsar, Punjab 143006
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 sand 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 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 a number of 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 to also 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 chair of Mughal energy – a function it preserved before 1857 – the glorious crescent-shaped Red Fort at New Delhi, appointed after the magnificent red sandstone used in its structure, covers a huge area of over two square km, it all surrounded by a big moat. Highlights include both biggest gates: the remarkable Lahore Gate (that the fort’s most important entrance) and the elaborately decorated Delhi Gate, once employed by the emperor for ceremonial processions. An enjoyable component of a trip is researching Chatta Chowk, also a 17th-century coated bazaar selling everything from jewelry to lace clothing, in addition to food and memorabilia items. At the same time that you’re able to learn more about the fort, guided tours are available and offer a fascinating insight to the life and times of the Shah, such as a glimpse into the magnificent white marble Institute of Public Audiences (Diwan-i-Am) where he acquired his topics. Hot Tip: Attempt to stick around to the light and sound show held every evening featuring significant occasions in the fort of history.
6 The Gateway of India, Mumbai
Position an amazing 26 meters tall and overlooking the Arabian Sea, the most legendary Gateway of India is a must-see when in Mumbai. Built to commemorate the coming of King George V and his wife Queen Mary in 1911, this magnificent piece of structure has been started by much pomp and service in 1924 and has been, for a little while, the tallest construction in town. Constructed entirely of yellow basalt and real and noteworthy for its Indo-Saracenic layout, the Gateway of India was also the scene with a somewhat less jubilant procession of soldiers from 1948 when India gained its freedom. Nowadays, the massive archway gives a stunning background that’s as popular amongst locals as it’s tourists. Sexy Hint: When seeing the Gateway of India, pop into the adjoining Taj Mahal Palace and Tower to get a yummy High Tea, a convention because this beautiful luxury resort opened in 1903.
7. Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad
Structure of Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid, among the world’s biggest mosques (and among the earliest in India) started in 1614 throughout Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah’s reign and required nearly 80 years to finish. Big enough to accommodate 10,000 worshipers, this gorgeous mosque’s 15 huge arches and columns were every wrought by single slabs of granite hauled into the website by enormous cattle trains reputedly comprising around 1,400 bulls. Taking its title in the bricks over the principal gate which were brought from Mecca, this remarkable intricate features highlights like its principal gateway, enormous plaza, a massive artificial pond, and a space that houses the entire hair of Prophet Mohammed. Other noteworthy features include inscriptions in the Quran over lots of the arches and doorways, the beautiful roof of the principal hallway, the cornices across the whole mosque arrangement, along with the floral themes and friezes across the arches.
8 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 their own particular appeal. For those looking for peace and quiet, isolated Agonda Beach is a good choice, while Calangute Beach is by far 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.
9 Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur
Dominating the town of Jodhpur, the massive Mehrangarh Fort, among the largest fortifications in India, has been constructed from the 15th century to protect the folks of this famous”Blue City,” since Jodhpur is known (it is so known because of the indigo-colored homes, painted blue to divert the heat). Constructed on top of a towering outcrop, Mehrangarh is a wonderful feat of building, its walls but impenetrable. Access is through among seven fabulous gates, such as Jaya Pol along with Fateh Pol (the latter bears’ scars from cannon strikes ). Highlights of a trip include researching the fort’s intriguing community of courtyards and palaces, in addition to a museum home a fabulous group of artifacts linked to this Maharajas. Make sure you spend some time at the historic center of Jodhpur itself, renowned for its eight town gates, a beautiful old clock tower, also many bazaars selling everything from veggies to candy, spices, along with handicrafts.
10 Mysore Palace
The sprawling city of Mysore is a delight to explore thanks to its eclectic mix of fine old colonial architecture; regal Indian palaces; and lush, well-manicured gardens. While those inclined towards shopping will enjoy spending time in the city’s famous silk and sandalwood bazaars, the main attraction is magnificent Mysore Palace. Completely rebuilt in 1897 after a devastating fire, this beautiful three-storied palace features highlights such as its elegant square towers and domes; the many ornate ceilings and pillars in Durbar Hall; and the splendid Marriage Pavilion, with its glazed floor tiles, stunning stained glass, artworks, and displays of jewelry (it’s also where, on special occasions, the exquisite Golden Throne is exhibited). For a real treat, be sure to catch one of the splendid light displays held each Sunday and during holidays when the palace is illuminated by more than 90,000 lights. Hot Tip: A fun way to explore the palace’s massive grounds and gardens is as part of a cycle tour, available free once inside.