Taj Mahal in Agra
If there was just one symbol to represent all of India, it would be the Taj Mahal. The monument inspires millions of tourists to make the trip to Agra every year, waking up before dawn to see magnificent structure radiate at sunrise. But Agra tops the list of the best places to visit in India for reasons that go beyond India's most famous attraction.
The city in Uttar Pradesh is chock-full of marvelous Mughal monuments, like Itimad-ud-Daulah's Tomb and Akbar's Mausoleum, decked out in hypnotic inlaid marble designs from top to bottom. Plus, tourists can also see another UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Agra Fort. With so many wonders in just one place, Agra is a must-visit city for tourists in India.
2. New Delhi
Despite its crowds and chaos, New Delhi offers tourists a lot to love. The colorful capital of India is the perfect marriage of heritage and modernity. Old Delhi contains some of the country's most treasured attractions, including the Jama Masjid, Red Fort, and Chandni Chowk shopping thoroughfare. But throughout the sprawling city, tourists can explore countless other sites of spiritual and cultural importance.
Top tourist attractions in New Delhi include the Lotus Temple; India Gate; Humayun's Tomb; and India's tallest minaret, Qutub Minar. Fill your days exploring these mesmerizing sites, and refueling at street-side chai stalls and high-end restaurants.
The Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai
Want to see a more cosmopolitan side of India? Head to the energetic, coastal city of Mumbai—home to ultra-wealthy entrepreneurs and the hottest Bollywood actors. Tourists are never far from five-star hotels or gourmet restaurants in this luxe city. And even if those activities are out of budget, a cruise down the beloved Marine Drive will make you feel like royalty as you catch a glimpse of the scenic coast and glamorous Art Deco buildings.
You can also see a more authentic, local side of Mumbai in the bustling "Thieves Market" or at the Churchgate railway station, where hundreds of thousands of homemade lunches are packed up for delivery to the city's office workers every day.
Make sure you devote a day to checking out Sanjay Gandhi National Park and exploring the 2,000-year-old Kanheri Cave carvings.
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Gadi Sagar Temple in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan
Translated to "Land of Kings," Rajasthan brims with remnants of the kings and queens of past centuries. Between its glittering palaces, stately forts, and lively festivals, this western state deserves a starring role in your trip to India.
Jaipur, part of the Golden Triangle Tourist Circuit, which also includes Agra and New Delhi, is one of the top places to visit in Rajasthan. Dubbed "The Paris of India," it's known for its characteristic pink buildings, lavish City Palace, and jewelry stores galore.
The "Blue City," Jodhpur, offers tourists an equally unforgettable experience in its hilltop Mehrangarh Fort.
Udaipur oozes romance with its flower-lined streets and fantastic City Palace Complex, where the royal family still lives today.
And Jaisalmer looks like an Arabian Nights fairy tale brought to life, with its yellow sandstone structures and historic havelis (mansions). No matter where you end up in this desert state, you'll be captivated by the magic of Rajasthan.
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Rishikesh has been on the radar for spiritually minded travelers since the late 1960s, when the Beatles spent time in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram—now an abandoned site that has become an off-the-beaten-path tourist attraction for fans.
The town is nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of the holy Ganges River, and serves as a center for yoga and pilgrimages. Take part in the action, or just enjoy the sounds of the temple bells and sightseeing from Rishikesh's two suspension bridges, often guarded by assertive families of monkeys. Keep your distance.
A holy person on the Ganges River in Varanasi
One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi is arguably the holiest place in India. The spiritual activities take place along the sacred Ganges River, where pilgrims bathe and mourners cremate recently deceased relatives in plain view of passersby.
Tourists, on the other hand, find their own flavor of spiritualism taking sunrise boat rides, releasing floral blessings that float on the river, and watching the fire-filled Hindu chanting ceremonies from the steep ghats.
Away from the water, the streets of the old town twist and turn like an endless maze. Legend has it that there's still no accurate map of Varanasi, and once you experience the labyrinthine city for yourself, you'll be inclined to believe it.
The Golden Temple in Amritsar
Amritsar, the "Jewel of Punjab," has made its claim to fame with its remarkable Golden Temple. One of the holiest places in the world for Sikhs, the gilded structure is a sight to behold, glistening in the sun and reflecting into the large pool that surrounds it.
The attraction also boasts the world's largest community kitchen, which serves 100,000 diners (including curious tourists!) lentils and curries every day.
While in Amritsar, plan to spend an afternoon at the border of Pakistan to see the Beating Retreat Ceremony. Goose-stepping guards from long-term rivals India and Pakistan open and close the border gates at dusk in an over-the-top ceremony you'll never forget. Get there early to dance to blaring Bollywood music with locals in the streets.
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Palolem Beach, South Goa
India's not just full of big cities and holy sites—it also has incredible beaches down south in Goa. Its stretches of golden sand along the Arabian Sea offer something for every type of tourist, whether you're interested in hanging out with the backpacker crowd in laid-back beach huts or having a ritzy tropical getaway at a five-star resort.
One unique part of Goa is its blend of Indian and Portuguese cultures. You'll experience the fusion throughout the destination, from its Baroque architecture and cathedrals to its spicy vindaloo curries and seafood dishes.
Houseboat in Kerala
Head south of Goa, and you'll trade beaches for tranquil backwaters in Kerala. Nothing beats the experience of hopping aboard a traditional thatched-top houseboat in Alleppey (also known as Alappuzha) and slowly floating through palm-fringed lagoons and rivers, either as a day trip or overnight adventure. You'll enjoy freshly cooked Indian cuisine on the water and breathtakingly beautiful natural sights and wildlife.
Easygoing Kerala is like a breath of fresh air from the intensity of cities like New Delhi and Jaipur up north. Schedule some time here when you're in need of a break from the chaos.
10. Ajanta and Ellora Caves
Kailasa Temple, Ellora Caves
Time travel isn't a reality for travelers quite yet, but you can get pretty close at the Ajanta and Ellora Caves in Maharashtra. Both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the caves feature intricate carvings from at least 1,500 years ago.
The Ajanta Caves are the oldest of the two attractions, featuring around 30 Buddhist cave monuments cut into the rock as far back as the 2nd century BC.
Around 100 kilometers southwest, the Ellora Caves contain nearly three dozen Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu carvings, the most famous of which is the Kailasa Temple (Cave 16), a massive structure devoted to Lord Shiva that features life-size elephant sculptures. The magnificent carvings at both sites will leave you filled with wonder.
Darjeeling with snow-capped Khangchendzonga Mountain in the distance
Sightseeing in India doesn't get much better than what you'll discover in Darjeeling. The hill station in West Bengal is beloved for its lush green tea plantations, awe-inspiring snow-capped peaks (including Khangchendzonga, the world's third-highest mountain), and serene Buddhist monasteries. This is the perfect place to arrange a mountain trek or mountain biking adventure.
One of the most popular things to do in Darjeeling is taking a ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Powered by an antique steam locomotive, the 140-year-old "Toy Train" takes tourists on two-hour fun rides from Darjeeling to Ghum—a journey that's regularly counted as one of the most scenic train rides in the world.
The Victoria Memorial in Kolkata
India's third-largest city, Kolkata, is a decaying masterpiece of former British India, brimming with colonial-era architecture. The top things to do in Kolkata include seeing the Victoria Memorial, a white marble monument that features a museum with dozens of galleries, and Park Street, a famous thoroughfare with shops and restaurants that bustle 24/7, especially during the holidays.
But Kolkata is as much about the sites as it is about the emotions. This is a city that will somehow induce every one of your emotions with the highs and lows of life taking place in plain view on every street. Brace yourself, and be open to the experience.
The elaborately carved Adalaj Stepwell on the outskirts of Ahmedabad
The largest city in Gujarat, Ahmedabad is a noisy, overwhelming metropolis that somehow wins over the tourists who make their way here. The historic city of Ahmedabad earned the coveted title of India's first UNESCO World Heritage City in 2017 for its rich architecture, walls and gates, and significant Hindu and Jain temples.
On the western bank of the Sabarmati River, tourists can wander around Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhi's headquarters from 1917 to 1930. Its museum talks about the life of the Indian hero, and displays his iconic spectacles and spinning wheel. While you're in the city, sample the street food—some say it's the best in all of India.
When the temperatures skyrocket in New Delhi and other cities in North India, tourists and locals alike make their way to cooler climates in the hill stations, the most popular of which is Shimla. The cloudy weather and forested hillsides make for a satisfying escape from the heat, as well as a placid place to spend a weekend or more. The atmosphere in the hilly central part of town, where traffic is banned, is just as pleasant as the scenic outskirts.
While you're in the area, make a reservation on the Kalka-Shimla Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 96.6-kilometer-long railroad, which has been running for over a century, is renowned for its stunning views and authentic vintage experience.
While culturally different, South India is as enchanting as the north—just visit Mysore to see for yourself. The third-largest city in Karnataka is considered to be the cultural capital of the state, celebrated for its high-quality silk, Mysore painting tradition, and hypnotic Hindu temples with deity carvings that nearly touch the clouds.
Most tourists visit Mysore to see its World Heritage-listed palace. This attraction takes Indian grandeur to the next level, with endless mirrored decor, stained-glass windows, carved wooden doors, and intricate mosaic floors that look like the inside of a kaleidoscope. The palace is considered to be one of the country's finest examples of Indo-Saracenic design. Be sure to swing by to see the palace at night, when it's lit up with thousands of twinkle lights.