INDIA: TOP 25 EXPERIENCES
Travelling through India isn't just a holiday, it's an adventure that's jam-packed with bustling cities, peaceful landscapes, incredible food, holy sites and a diverse and unique culture like no other.
When researching travel in a country like India, sometimes it is hard to know where to begin. To give you a helping hand, I've compiled my Top 25 Experiences for you to add to your India bucket-list.
1. Get in touch with your spiritual side in holy Varanasi
In many ways, Varanasi is the quintessential Indian experience. This city contains everything that is frustrating and difficult about travel in India, but also everything that is beautiful and rewarding.
On the one hand there's the chaos of honking horns, there are cows absolutely everywhere, the traffic is impossible, the poverty can be confronting and the dirt and pollution is inescapable. But on the other hand, there's also quiet, winding alleys to get lost in, the enticing smells of street food fill the air, a vast history of religious significance and the tranquillity of The Ganges.
At times, Varanasi can be a bit of a love-hate relationship, but it is definitely worth it. This holy city is not to be missed and should be at the top of any India bucket list!
2. Witness the breath-taking beauty of the Taj Mahal
The only thing more beautiful than the Taj Mahal itself is the heartbreaking yet romantic story behind it.
Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as a memorial to his third wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died during the birth of their 14th child. Mumtaz Mahal was the love of Shah Jahan's life and he never recovered from losing her. Shortly after the Taj Mahal's construction, Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son and imprisoned in the Red Fort, where he spent the remainder of his days gazing out at his creation and his wife's final resting place. When he died, he was buried alongside her.
The Taj Mahal was described by poet Ravindranath Tagore as 'a teardrop on the cheek of eternity'. Don't go to India without witnessing the beauty of this magnificent ode to love for yourself.
Tip: the Taj Mahal is based in Agra, but it is possible to go as a day-trip from Delhi. Leave early to beat the crowds!
3. Eat yourself into a food coma with Indian street food
Indians love their food and place a great importance on getting the flavours and ingredients of a dish just right - and the chefs of the Indian streets are no exception! The street food options are limitless and vary greatly between regions - but thankfully it is all very budget-friendly, so you'll have no problem working your way through what's on offer.
Many people worry about food poisoning when in India and as a result avoid the street food. I think these people are missing out! I travelled through India for two months and ate street food the entire time and never got any bouts of food poisoning. There was probably an element of luck involved, but overall I believe that if you practice a bit of common sense and generally stick to places that are recommended then you'll be fine!
Tip: still worried about food poisoning? Sign up for an street food tour! They are on offer in most major cities and are also a great way to meet people.
4. Ride a camel through the Jaisalmer desert and camp under the stars
Need I say anything more? Jaisalmer completely challenged the idea I had in my head about what India would be like - it is not all bustling cities and crazy traffic! India is also full of incredible and diverse natural landscapes just waiting to be explored.
Riding a camel into the desert made me feel like I was a character in Aladdin and camping there overnight was such an incredible experience. The amount of stars that are visible in the sky when you're that far away from civilisation and pollution needs to be seen to be believed.
The quality of camel safari tours varies from company to company, so do your research before you book. Bookings can be made on the day.
Tip: into 4:20? Pay a visit to the Bhang Shop in Jaisalmer for some special cookies to pack for your journey.
5. Sit back and relax as you float through Kerala's backwaters on a traditional boat
An easy day-trip from Kochi, Kerala's backwaters is something you won't want to miss if you're in the area. India's southernmost state is quite often neglected by tourists, but if you skip it you're definitely missing out! There's a serenity here unlike anywhere else in India, and the glimpses you get of villagers going about their day-to-day lives is a truly unique experience.
Tip: trips to Kerala are best organised with a tour group and most include lunch at a local village. Bookings can often be made one or two days in advance, even during peak season.
6. Attempt to navigate the organised chaos of the Indian train network
Trains are rarely on time here, clear signage is virtually non-existent and sometimes a train will spontaneously arrive at a different platform to what it was meant to without any warning whatsoever. The result of this is that you're very, very likely to get on the wrong train at least once whilst in India, so just accept your fate and go with it!
India in general doesn't stick to a clear regimented, schedule - so neither should you while travelling there. In my experience, tight itineraries and concrete plans only end in frustration and forced last-minute adaptations anyway. The best way to travel through India is the same way you should travel on their trains; with flexibility and an open mind. Go with the flow!
Despite all its setbacks, train travel is still my preferred method for getting around India. It gives you a chance to get to know the people, it is safer than travelling by road and you get to see some incredible sights along the way.
Tip: seats on popular routes often book up during peak season, but if you miss out don't despair - general class has no limit and it really isn't as bad as some people say! The picture above was taken by my friend while we travelled via general glass from Kochi to Goa (she was sleeping on the bag rack!)
7. Take an eye-opening tour through Dharavi, India's largest slum
Dharavi is the largest slum in India and the third in the world with an estimated 700,000 residents. Due to the sheer size and significance of Dharavi, no trip to Mumbai would be complete without a visit here.
You will not be permitted to enter Dharavi unaccompanied, so sign up for a tour with Reality Tour & Travel in order to gain access. This tour changed all of my misconceptions about life in the slums and just opened my eyes in general.
Before visiting Dharavi, I did not realise how organised life in the slums is - it is like a mini city within a city. Dharavi has its own elected officials, a 'welfare' system of sorts that helps to allocate people with work that suits them, multiple schools and sports teams, as well as plenty of shops too. All this might sound obvious to someone more educated on the subject, but for me personally it was a fantastic learning experience and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone visiting Mumbai.
As well as being educational for tourists, 80% of the profits from the tour go back into the community, so you will doing your bit to contribute to improving life in Dharavi as well.
8. Participate in the dinnertime ritual at Amritsar's Golden Temple
Even more beautiful than the Golden Temple itself is the inclusive and accepting culture of the Sikh people who inhabit and visit it. For a truly unique experience, visit the temple at dinnertime so you can dine there. The price? It's free! You just have to help out with preparing it and cleaning up afterwards in order to participate - how good is that?!
There are no chefs or cleaners employed at the Golden Temple - the whole operation is made up of and organised by volunteers. Some are like you, people just passing through. Others have dedicated large or whole portions of their lives to the place.
If you don't have anywhere to sleep, the temple even provides blankets and shelter to those who request it, regardless of whether you practice the Sikh religion or not. People from all walks of life are welcome - how beautiful is that? I think the entire world could learn a lesson or two from this place.
Tip: visit with a guide or tour. It is hard to know where all the different rooms are on your own and not everyone speaks English. A guide will also be able to explain the history of the temple and Sikh religion to you!
9. Sip on tea as you sit amongst the clouds in Darjeeling
What better place is there to enjoy a cup of tea than in its hometown, Darjeeling - and at over 2,000 meters elevation, Darjeeling is a city that truly does sit amongst the clouds. There are multiple tea plantations and cafes for you to choose from, but an honourable mention has to go to Glenary's Bakery and Cafe - not only does it have an incredible view, but it also serves amazing pastries to accompany your tea!
Tip: visit October to November or mid-March to Mid-May for the best chance of clear skies (and therefore better views!)
10. Soak up the sun on a Goan beach
After a fix of salt and sun? Goa's got you covered. There are many different beaches to choose from in terms of where you base yourself, but Anjuna remains the most popular amongst backpackers with its range of hostels, an array of healthy-eating cafes and an overall peaceful yet lively vibe.
Tip: re-fuel after a day on the beach at the German Bakery - so much more than a just a bakery! This restaurant/cafe serves the most incredible food and cocktails in the most enchanting setting. We ate here every day, sometimes even twice a day... it was that good!
11. Zipline around Mehrangarh Fort
India is filled with various forts and temples, but Jodhpur - otherwise known as the blue city - has found a way to set itself aside from the pack by adding a zipline feature to its Mehrangarh Fort. The views from the zipline of both the fort and the city below are breath-taking - not to mention the added thrill of seeing them as you whizz by overhead!
Some may say this attraction is tad gimmicky and maybe they're right - but it it still a lot of fun regardless!
Tip: go early and put your name down on the waitlist to avoid disappointment - only so many people can zipline at once so spots are limited!
12. Be a Shantaram groupie at Leopold's Cafe
First off, have you read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts yet? If your answer is yes - that's great. If your answer is no - go read it then come back to me!
Alright, now that we are all on the same page - while in Mumbai make sure you pay a visit to Leopold's Cafe, where so many of the great events and conversations in Shantaram took place.
Expect to queue on weekends and at peak times, however know that the wait will be well worth it - not only is the cafe exactly as described in the novel, but the food is also delicious!
13. Witness the bravado and join in the celebrations at the Wagah Border Ceremony between India and Pakistan
There has been an ongoing rivalry between India and Pakistan for centuries. Sometimes this tension manifests itself in outbreaks of war and violence. Other times - as is the case of the Wagah Border Ceremony - it expresses itself in the form of excessive marching and bellowing in what can only be described as a 'pissing contest' between the two countries' respective soldiers. Thankfully for us tourists, the sight is highly entertaining and not to be missed.
The border ceremony takes place each evening as the gate is closed. For some inexplicable yet wonderful reason, this event is also accompanied by a dance party on India's side of the border. An easy half-day trip from Amritsar, grab your passport and your dancing shoes and witness it for yourself!
14. Hit the 'refresh' button by cooling down with a delicious lassi
You'll find this popular yoghurt-based drink in various forms scattered all across India. Refreshing and delicious, there's no better way to cool off when you're hot and sweaty from exploring one of India's busy, bustling cities.
Some of my top picks for lassi spots across India are:
- Shri Michrilal Hotel's saffron lassi in Jodhpur
- Shreenath Lassiwala's classic but oh so delicious lassi in Jaipur
- Blue Lassi Shop's colourful array of lassi flavours in Varanasi, topped with fresh fruit (pictured)
15. Get in touch with your inner yogi
Never tried yoga before? Well, what better place to start than its birthplace - India! While the mountainous city of Rishikesh is yoga's official home, you can find many classes on offer all over India.
Pretty much every city that is popular with tourists will offer one if not a few different yoga classes for you to choose from. Some guest houses even host their own classes that are free of charge for guests. Regardless of whether you're a beginner or an expert, there'll be plenty of opportunities for you to get in touch with your inner yogi while in India!
16. Practice your bargaining skills at one of India's many colourful markets
Every town and city in India has one if not multiple markets. Enjoying an aimless wander through the stalls is a great way to get amongst the local culture. Take in the sights and smells, talk to the locals and maybe even practice your bargaining skills by purchasing a unique souvenir or two!
Tip: if you're trying to watch your spending, buying fruits and other food items from the market is a great way eat on the cheap.
17. Learn about the unique and resilient Tibetan culture in Darjeeling
The Tibetan plight throughout history is one that is filled with tragedy but also resilience. Given Tibet's current political situation, it is quite difficult to be granted entry into the country as a tourist. Don't despair though, because while in Darjeeling you will have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Tibetan culture at the Refugee Self Help Centre. Here you can speak to many Tibetans and you will have the chance to purchase their beautiful handmade crafts.
Make sure you pay a visit to the museum located here as well to learn about the recent history of Tibet and help put their current situation into context.
18. Visit Mata Lal Devi - the world's most bizarre temple
More a life-sized arcade game than temple - don't miss the opportunity to visit Mata Lal Devi, the most bizarre holy shrine I have ever seen. I don't want to ruin the surprise for you, but make sure you dress as though you are going to an obstacle course or playground - because exploring this temple is so interactive that you're pretty much doing exactly that!
Mata Lal Devi is pretty much on the way to the Wagah Border Ceremony, so combine the two into a day-trip from Amritsar that I guarantee you'll never forget!
19. Hire a boat and watch the sunrise as you float down The Ganges, India's holiest river
Varanasi is loud, smelly and chaotic, but it is also a place of incredible holy significance and there are many places of tranquility and peace to be found - if you know where to look.
Sitting on a boat, floating along the river Ganges as the sun rises and the city wakes is one such place. Regardless of your religion - or lack of - it is impossible to deny the magical energy of the Ganges, a river so historically and spiritually significant to so many.
Tip: the sunrise boat ride can be a bit of a tourist trap, so ask the staff at your accommodation about what price you should be paying in order to avoid being ripped off.
20. Warm up with a comforting cup of chai... or ten... or twenty
Chai tea is available on pretty much every train and street corner for a price that can be equated to less than pocket change - no one leaves India without becoming addicted to this delicious and comforting drink. Listen for the call of "chai chai chai" from sellers - you'll hear it everywhere throughout the whole country. This drink is the perfect antidote to the cool climate of Northern India.
Tip: pollution in India is a serious problem for which there is no immediate solution. Unfortunately, chai tea is usually served in a small, disposable plastic cup - which isn't helping the issue. Try keeping your plastic cup for as long as possible and asking vendors to refill it rather than throwing it out each time you order a chai.
21. Dance to psychedelic trance at a jungle rave in Goa's Monkey Valley
Fun fact: the music genre psychedelic trance was actually developed from Goa's own brand of trance - Goa Trance. So technically attending a jungle rave here is kind of like a cultural activity, right?
If you're going to go to a psychedelic trance rave party at least once in your life, then you might as well go all out and attend one of the events in Monkey Valley. A decent 20 minutes from Goa's Anjuna Beach, Monkey Valley is a little bit far but well worth the trip.
To descend into the Valley, you must first walk through the open mouth of a giant paper mache monkey head. From here you follow the stairs down, down, down - until you arrive in Monkey Valley! The music played is Goa Trance, a truly unique genre and there is a good mixture of locals and tourists in attendance. Little old Indian ladies sell delicious omelettes around the outside of the dance party if you get a bit peckish from all your raving.
Tip: like to party? Make sure you stay at the Prison Hostel in Anjuna, Goa. The knowledgable hosts here always have the latest information on where the good parties are at each night. Book rooms well in advance.
22. Take a break from India's hustle and bustle in peaceful Pushkar
If you need a break from big city life then look no further than Pushkar, the calm, quiet one in comparison to its louder, busier Rajasthani siblings like Jodhpur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Jaipur.
Spend your time here going for relaxing walks or contemplating life while overlooking the peaceful lake at the city's centre.
Pushkar is a holy place that is home to over 500 temples. Two that you absolutely won't want to miss are:
- Brahma Temple, one of the few Brahma temples in the world (click on the link to learn why)
- Savitri Temple, climb the 650 steps to reach this temple on the hill for spectacular views
23. Explore the ruins of Hampi by motorbike
Hampi's scenery resembles something you would expect to see in Jurassic Park, not real life. Temples blend into rock formations in a way that makes them look like natural occurrences rather than being man-made. Incredibly impressive and painfully photogenic, Hampi should be towards the top of any India bucket list!
The ruins of Hampi are much too vast to explore on foot, so hire a motorbike instead! This will give you a lot more freedom than signing up for a tour, which are more often than not restrictive and overpriced.
Tip: pack some lunch and refuel with a picnic amongst the ruins!
24. Wander aimlessly through India's winding, colourful streets
Don't get me wrong - I always expected India to be colourful, but I don't think I quite grasped just how colourful India would actually be until I got there!
Make time in each place you visit to have an aimless wander through the streets and soak up all the sights you stumble across. You never know what you might see or who you might meet, whether its a group of women chatting in their bright saris, some incredible street art or the sights and smells of a local market.
25. Get acquainted with the beautiful and varied Indian people
In the same way each region has its own flavours of cuisine, its own landscape and its own history, so too do the people of India have their own varied cultures and stories. The diversity of this country and its people is truly mind-boggling. Despite their differences, they are held together by what they share, and that is an unmistakable pride in their country and the ability to smile despite whatever life throws at them.
Some of my most cherished memories from my time in India are not of places or activities, but rather the conversations and encounters I had with the people I met along the way.
Whether it was the woman who told us we were on the wrong train and helped us find the right one, the countless people who wanted to get a photo with us or to practice their English, the kind elderly man who offered to share the food his wife made with us on a 36 hour train ride because he was worried the train food would make us sick, the young man walking past when this happened who sat down and offered to translate our conversation since the old man didn't speak English or even the young cafe owners who taught us their favourite card game and then sat down and played with us for hours...
These are my most precious memories from my trip to India - all the little moments when I fell in love with her people.
Have you been to India yet? Did I miss anything?
Let me know in the comments below what your favourite experiences were!