Yes, India really is as colourful, delicious and at times, overwhelming as you imagine
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Yes, India really can be as colourful, delicious and at times, overwhelming, as you imagine. And a little research goes a long way when you plan a trip to India. This is a vast country; I’ve done two 15-day tours, and some solo travel, yet feel I have just begun to explore this fascinating country.
If India intrigues you, but you are a little nervous, I can tell you that I felt the same way and would recommend it, without hesitation. So let’s talk specifics – how to plan a trip to India – because the choices are as bountiful as the delicious buffets you will enjoy.
(NOTE: As of the winter of 2021, India is not yet issuing tourist visas due to Covid-19. If you are planning a trip to India, make sure you have flexibility in your booking, in case you need to make a date change or cancellation.)
Google Map - India
My Favourite Places in India
Plan a Trip to India
When to travel to India
This is important because different seasons will bring dramatically different weather in India. I think the ideal months are January through mid-March and September and October. November and December have pleasant temperatures but it’s the height of the pollution and poor air quality in Delhi and nearby cities. April through June are very hot – often 40 degrees Celsius and higher (110 Fahrenheit). Monsoon season is July to September.
The other thing to consider is the timing of festivals. If you want to experience Holi, the Indian festival of colours, make sure you check the date as it varies by several weeks, year to year. (Holi is on my bucket list and I am hoping to go in 2022.) Diwali, the festival of light is also popular, and takes place in October.
If you do plan a trip to India and visit November or December, you will be there during wedding season. I have attended two weddings in India and there is nothing like it. If you get the chance to attend a wedding, it is an unforgettable experience.
Should I take an organized tour of India?
You don’t have to plan a trip to India on your own. I highly recommend to friends that they take an organized tour on their visit to India, unless you have Indian friends to guide you. Navigating India for the first time can be overwhelming, and having a guide is fun and adds to the experience. You are going to have a million questions and they will be able to answer them all.
I spent a few days on my own in Calcutta, before my group tour began. I hired a guide to show me around and highly recommend this, if you plan to travel on your own during your trip. A travel agent who specializes in India can connect you with an excellent guide.
Most tour companies offer India itineraries and some such as G Adventures, which I went with, offers more than a dozen. Be mindful that accommodation in India is not exactly equivalent to what we are used to in the west. Bathrooms are more basic for example, so a three-star hotel will not be exactly the same.
India is more affordable than many other destinations, so I would suggest most midlife women will want to choose a more upscale tour. If you are looking at G Adventures, choose from among their National Geographic line of tours. It is their most upscale offering.
How long should a trip to India be?
I suggest two weeks, especially if you are coming from North America and you will have significant jet lag the first few days. Three weeks would be even better, especially if you want to go to the south, to an area such as Kerala, as well as the north.
A longer trip to India offers more choice in tours and a variety of experiences. If you only have 7-10 days, that will be amazing too. You will just want to return.
Many first-time visitors do a Golden Triangle tour, which visits the three cities of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. This itinerary can typically be completed in 5-7 days. Delhi and Jaipur are packed with ancient monuments and fasinating markets, stunning colours and delicious food. I was pleasantly suprised how much I loved the sites in Old Delhi – in particular Humayun’s Tomb Complex and Qutub Complex.
And of course you will see the Taj Mahal in Agra, on most people’s bucket list and for good reason. It is stunning and many people who visit say it was even more beautiful than they imagined. I agree!
Ideally you will have time to explore beyond the Golden Triangle and visit some smaller cities and villages, the latter a lovely respite from the intensity of India’s big cities. Here are some places I’ve visited and loved – and a couple on my bucket list for next time.
The Land of Kings
Some tours of India are set almost entirely in the state of Rajasthan, “the Land of Kings” with its striking Mughal architecture and glittering palaces. I would absolutely recommend this region. It is a beautiful area of India and you can easily spend two weeks just here. My first tour was entirely in Rajasthan, other than the start and end of the tours in Delhi, India’s capital city. I loved it.
In Rajasthan, I particularly loved Jodhpur, the Blue City. The city’s Mehrangarh Fort is one of India’s largest, and was my favourite of the many forts and palaces I toured. Built in 1549, it is so massive that Rudyard Kipling called it “the work of giants”. There is an excellent audio guide available; I learned an enormous amount about the Mughal Empire.
Jodhpur also has an interesting old market and some wonderful hotels (I would love to stay at the RAAS Hotel if I had the chance) and there are rooftop restaurants which look out over the giant fort and city.
From Jodhpur you can book a visit to a Bishnoi village in the nearby Thar desert. Jodhpur is not as modern as Jaipur, so your experience may feel like the India you imagine. There are also many festivals that take place here.
Set amongst four pretty lakes, Udaipur is known as the Venice of India and India’s most romantic city. No one does luxury like India and the famed Oberoi Udaivilas is found here, voted one of the world’s most stunning hotels, by Travel + Leisure and others.
There are several lovely hotels set on or around Lake Pichola. A boat cruise at sunset allows you to see the famed Taj palace hotel, on an island in the lake, and the City Palace which glows at the waters edge as the sun sets. Rooftop dining is ideal here, the views are unlike anywhere I saw in India.
Udaipur’s City Palace was my favourite of the palaces I visited in India. Overlooking Lake Pichola, it is a large complex which includes pretty courtyards and gardens, and beautiful mosaics. If you have time, the Monsoon Palace is apparently also worth a visit. I didn’t get there.
Beyond Rajasthan, one of my favourite places was the Khajuraho Group of Monuments which I visited on my second trip. These Hindu and Jain temples were built between 950 and 1050 and survived the Mughal Empire (when many temples were destroyed by the Muslim Mughals) because the temples were hidden by the growth of dense jungle. They remained a secret until the 1830’s when they were accidentally discovered by a British surveyor. Like many Hindu temples, they face the sunrise.
They are located in the state of Madhya Pradesh, and are included on some group tours. If you do visit here, you are well positioned to add on a Tiger Safari to nearby Panna National Park.
The sacred Ganges River flows through Varanasi, India’s oldest city; it is the heart of both the Varanasi and more broadly the heart of spirituality for Hindus. Each morning as the sun rises over the river, Brahmin priests sing offerings to the Hindu gods and raise aarti lamps, aglow with candles that shimmer as they are moved in slow circles, in time with the singing of the priests.
Similar ceremonies are repeated in the evening and watching these from a boat floating on the Ganges River is unforgettable. Afterward, you will light your own aarti, a small floating candle, and set it and your wishes, afloat in the holy river.
Indians travel considerable distances from surrounding villages to bring deceased loved ones to Varanasi’s famous cremation ghats, the steps at the river’s edge, where pyres burn all day and night. Hindus believe that being cremated in Varanasi releases a person from the ongoing cycle of reincarnation. Many visitors say their experience in Varanasi was the most meaningful of the trip. I highly recommend including Varanasi when you plan a trip to India. India’s oldest and most holy city is unlike anywhere I have ever been.
Pushkar is a small city in central Rajasthan, at the edge of the Thar desert and the pretty Aravalli Hills. It is also considered a holy city by Hindus who come to bathe at Pushkar Lake and its 52 ghats, the steps at the edge of the water. There are several notable temples here, including the Savitri Temple. And a visit to Pushkar allows you to experience the culture of the Marwari people, a nomadic tribe and the camel traders who attend the famed Pushkar Fair.
I haven’t been to Pushkar but hope to include it on my next visit. I would love to stay just outside the city at Camp Land’s End, a country hotel with charming cottages and the Aravalli Range as a backdrop. It is ideally placed for access to hiking, camel and jeep safaris.
Rishikesh: The Heart of Yoga Practice in India
If you are interested in studying yoga or meditation in India, you will want to visit Rishikesh, widely considered the yoga capital of the world. People come here to develop their practices in yoga and meditation, and to enjoy the beautiful setting. Rishikesh is in the northern India state of Uttarakhand where the Himalayas begin and the small city sits next to the River Ganges, the Holy River of India.
There are many Ashrams here as well, first made famous by a visit from The Beatles. Most organized tours do not include Rishikesh, so if you want to visit, you may have to organize it separately.
Village Experiences in India
Some of my favourite experiences in India were in villages. It is such a nice change from the intensity of the cities and offers a chance to interact with local people and learn about rural life. If you have a longer trip planned, I suggest looking for itineraries that incorporate at least one stay in a small town or village.
My Rajasthan itinerary included two nights at a village called Chandelao and the Chandelao Garh hotel, an ancestral estate dating to 1744. Next to it is a woman’s cooperative, set in a pretty bougainvillia-filled courtyard. We were able to purchase and pay a fare price for traditional handicrafts, enabling the village woman to support themselves and their children.
I also enjoyed a short stay at a town called Jojawar. The chance to walk around and experience village life was fascinating, as was a train trip through the hills of the Aravalli Range, another chance to interact with local people.
Safaris & Birding on your Trip to India
India’s cities are a riot of colour and chaos, unlike anywhere else in the world. But India also has vast wilderness areas with incredible wildlife and birds. If you have time, I recommend you spend a few days at one of India’s many nature reserves enjoying the quiet contrast to city life.
An estimated two-thirds of the world’s wild tiger population of around 4000 is in India, and numbers are increasing thanks to conservation measures. Although not guaranteed, seeing a Bengal Tiger is thrilling. And tigers aside, you will enjoy a variety of interesting wildlife.
The birding in India is also excellent; I saw a variety of birds on two different safaris, one in Panna Tiger Reserve and the other in Ranthambore National Park. You can read about my safari experience in this article: On Safari in India.
Some useful information
How To Get a Visa for India
As of June 2020 India is not issuing visas, due to the coronavirus pandemic. When it does begin again, if the system is as before, travellers from many countries are eligible for electronic tourist visas for India which you can apply for online.
Tourist e-visa’s are valid for either one month or one year, depending which you choose. You will need a digital PDF copy of your passport page with your photo, and a passport-style photo in JPEG format, to complete the application. All other information and the applications can be found at this website: Indian Visa Online.
You will receive an email confirming your application and it should only take a few days to process. If you don’t get it within a week, you can email: email@example.com to inquire.
Your visa will be emailed to you. The website suggests you confirm your status has been “GRANTED” on their website, prior to leaving for India. Print a copy and bring it with you.
How to avoid getting sick in India?
I did not get sick at all in the five weeks I have spent in India. I avoided ice cubes and drank and brushed my teeth with bottled or filtered water. Hand sanitizer is a must because soap and water is not always available, to wash your hands.
You will want to avoid all uncooked vegetables, so enjoy the salad bar before you leave home. You won’t miss it because you will be eating all of that delicious Indian food. As a general rule you will only eat fruit you can peel.
This is where a guide will be hugely helpful. They will only take you to safe restaurants and food stalls, and they will be able to tell you if there is anything on the menu to avoid. I love the fresh lime juice sodas they serve all over India, just request it without ice. They are refreshing and use safe bottled carbonated water.
I did bring antibiotics with me, in case of a significant GI infection, but I never needed them. You can ask your doctor about this when you go for a consultation about the required vaccinations, which you should do as far in advance as possible.
Do I need to take malaria pills in India?
Consult your doctor. This will depend on what parts of India you are visiting and when you are going. Your doctor will help you determine your level of risk. I decided not to take malaria pills on my trips and used bug repellant, to avoid bites as much as possible. I would say about half of the travelers on my tours were taking malaria pills.
Should I bring gifts for Indian children ?
It is understandable to want to bring pencils and stickers to give out to the adorable children who will run up, excited to meet you. And they will ask. For some reason Indian children often ask for hand cream, which perplexed me until I realized it’s because that is what tourists often happen to have, so many will give it to them. This is not advised however, because it encourages a culture of begging.
If you want to support children in India, there are many NGO’s doing amazing work. One which I have supported and also visited is Seva Mandir in Udaipur, Rajasthan. They support children’s education in rural communities. This is especially important for girls; when rural families can’t afford to send all of their children to school, boys are often favoured over girls in this patriarchal culture. Seva Mandir supports girls’ education and the well-being of entire communities with funding for infrastructure, clean water and health services in villages.
Layovers in Delhi
The first time I went to India, I travelled first to Calcutta which required a connection in Delhi and a long layover. If this is the case with your trip, I recommend you stay at an airport hotel. There are several excellent ones and I stayed at the JW Marriott New Delhi Aerocity and thought the service and staff were excellent. The buffet breakfast was especially delicious.
A final note: it’s helpful to be aware of some of India’s less positive aspects. As mentioned, the air quality can be poor, depending on when you travel so do consider that in your planning, especially if you have any respiratory issues.
There is also a surprising amount of garbage strewn about in many cities. And of course, there is poverty and you will encounter people begging, often woman with small children.
It can also be incredibly noisy, with endless honking and early morning call to prayer. I found that I adjusted to many of these changes, after a few days. It’s another reason that a longer itinerary is beneficial.
Once home, you will long for a little of that beautiful chaos.
Enjoy Incredible India!