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India is a stirring, endlessly stimulating place that encompasses sprawling supercities, cloud-piercing peaks and sun-parched deserts. With historic remnants of once-powerful empires, boundless opportunity for outdoor adventure, an inexhaustible culinary scene and countless sacred sites, including multi-domed mosques and Buddhist and Hindu temples, it is not a country travellers will quickly tire of.
India covers a massive area so if you want to pack in a lot into one journey, internal flights are the way to go. For shorter trips or for travellers in no rush, India’s extensive rail network is a good option, while buses offer a cheaper alternative as well as access to mountainous regions not served by rail. Most major cities have their own metro systems.
You could fill a whole book with India’s must-sees. Those new to the country usually opt for the so-called Golden Triangle route. It begins in Delhi where you can see the 17th-century Red Fort and the blooming ‘petals’ of the flower-shaped Lotus Temple before moving onto Agra to tick off the Taj Mahal. The last stop is Jaipur, home to the strikingly situated Amber Fort.
If you want to experience big-city India, Mumbai is hard to beat, with its colonial grandeur, manic markets and captivating museums. If the frenetic energy has you feeling burned out, escape to the beaches south of the city.
For a glimpse into the holy Hindu traditions of the country, head for Ganges waterfront of Varanasi in the north. In the south, Chennai makes a good jumping-off point for exploring the exuberant temples, golden coastlines and national parks as well as the unique Tamil culture of the region.
India’s second biggest city, Kolkata (Calcutta) is the go-to spot for Bengali cuisine and Raj-era heritage, while cosmopolitan Bengaluru (Bangalore) – an IT and student hub – offers a chance to witness modern Indian life. The south-central city of Hyderabad, meanwhile, is a fascinating blend of old and new, with a high-tech hub thriving alongside grand mansions, mosques and ancient palaces.
Mumbai is an absorbing destination, but it’s not one typically associated with nature. Yet, just an hour-long journey out of town, wild leopards prowl the woods of the protected Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
About 250 kilometres south-east of Bangalore is a lovely little hill town that the masses have yet to catch wind of: Koli Hills. Around it are little-explored trekking trails with viewpoints overlooking the valley and hills. Don’t miss the Agaya Gangai waterfalls; after a tiring trek up, you’ll be rewarded by views of the roaring cascade dropping down 90 metres into a pool below.
Eating in India is a treat. From creamy curries to spicy vegetarian dosas (pancake-like wraps), there is a wealth of choice and variety to be found here. Though there are myriad regional styles, Indian cuisine can be broadly divided into two categories. In the north, you’ll find rich, meaty curries and plenty of breads such as naan and roti. In the south, rice is omnipresent and often served with vegetable stews and lentil-based dishes. Rice is also put to use in dosas (lentil and rice pancakes) and idlis (rice cakes), while flavours come courtesy of dried chillies, tamarind and curry leaves. Vegetarians are well-served here, particularly in the south.