India henna tattoo © Meena Kadri
India Travel Guide
Kaleidoscopic India continues to amaze and infuriate, inspire and dismay her visitors. A country full enough of paradoxes and contrasts to madden anyone who tries to understand it, the best way to enjoy your holiday in India is simply to open your heart and soak up what is surely the greatest show on earth.
The world's most populous democracy, India is also an enormous landmass, so full of interesting towns and cities and incredible remote areas that one really would need a lifetime to explore it all. A thorough, though not rigid, pre-trip itinerary is recommended - decide what areas most appeal to you, and set yourself the modest goal of exploring them properly. Travelling even short distances in India can be slow and exhausting, so take your time, and remember that, perhaps more so in India than anywhere else, it's the journey, and not the destination, that is all-important.
Having said that, India boasts a startling array of world-famous attractions: from the historic Red Fort of Old Delhi, to the glimmering Golden Temple of Amritsar, the ghats of Varanasi, the desert palaces of Rajasthan, the tranquil backwaters of Kerala, the cool alpine air of Darjeeling and, of course, the immortal Taj Mahal, visitors can anticipate more than a few awe-inspiring sights. And, true to its billing as a land of contradictions, India is equally prepared to cater for party animals as spiritual-types - the hectic trance parties of Goa stand in stark contrast to the thousands of ashrams dotted around the country.
India is not only one of the best value-for-money tourist destinations in the world, but one which offers a totally unique, not-to-be-repeated-anywhere-else kind of travelling experience to visitors. A friendly land, well-trodden by years of heavy tourist traffic, there are few more intriguing places to travel than mad, majestic India.
Best time to visit India
The best time to visit India is during winter (November to March), when the monsoon season is over, and temperatures haven't yet reached the hellish heights of summer. Low tourist season is between April and September. Read more on India's Climate and Weather.
-Rising high above the smoky clamour of Delhi's streets, the Red Fort remains an austere and powerful reminder of the might of the Mogul Empire.
-The Ajanta Caves, 29 cave-shrines delicately carved out of the surrounding rock, represent the faiths of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Read more about India Attractions.
What to do in India
-Ride the Toy Train from Darjeeling to Ghum, and take in some truly breathtaking mountain scenery.
-Take a cruise on the backwaters of Kerala, where the lush tropical scenery is interrupted only by close-up glimpses of traditional village life.
-Find yourself a guide, saddle up your camel, and head out into Rajasthan's Thar Desert for a sun-soaked safari.
Getting to India
There are cheap direct flights to India available from many airports in the United Kingdom. Direct flights to India from the United States are less common, but are available (mainly operating between New York and Delhi or Mumbai). Get more information on Airports in India.
A Passage to India by EM Forster, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.
Ravi Shankar, Asha Bhosle, Indus Creed, 'Filmi' - music from Bollywood films.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Monsoon Wedding (2001), Gandhi (1982), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and Jodhaa Akbar (2008).
Masala chai, a delicious blend of tea and spices (cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger), boiled in a mixture of milk and water.
Curries of all kinds, and traditional mezze-like lunch-platters known as a thali.
What to buy
India is a shopper's paradise, with everything from textiles, clothing, furniture, toys, musical instruments, antiques, and perfumes available - usually at extremely reasonable prices, and of very high quality.
What to pack
Be sure to pack lightweight (but not overly-revealing) clothes; plenty of sunscreen; and a basic first-aid kit stocked with anti-diarrhoea pills and electrolyte salts to treat dehydration. Carrying a bottle of anti-sceptic, rub-on hand soap around with you is a simple yet effective way to avoid getting sick.
What's on in India
Holi, a religious festival occurring right across India every March, is famous for the pots of coloured dye that get thrown around everywhere. Diwali, the Festival of Lights held each November, sees the Indian night-sky lit up by millions of fireworks. New Year's Eve in Goa is a wild party with thousands of keen party-goers. More information on Events in India.
Did you know?
-The Indian film industry (known as Bollywood) is by far the largest in the world, and is also the most well-supported, with three billion movie tickets being sold every year.
-India has more post offices than any other country in the world.
-The Constitution of India officially recognises 22 languages spoken in the country.
A final word
A dizzying, disorientating, but ultimately delightful place to visit, India is in many ways the ultimate tourist destination - pack light, travel slow, and prepare your heart and your mind for the adventure of a lifetime.
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